The Lower Quote, As If You Didn't Know, Is By Richard Dawkins, Son.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Alternative Medicine & Logical Fallacies

I frequent a massage therapy forum on Facebook that posts articles, most with a skeptical, science-based bent to them. Recently, there was a link to a book review on Amazon for the title, Snake Oil Science: The Truth about Complementary and Alternative Medicine, by R. Barker Bausell.

One member of the forum had the following all-too-common-to-skeptics comment:
Since we know only a fraction of a percent of how physics, chemistry and physiology work it seems pretty arrogant for someone to criticize effective therapies because the model the practitioner was taught is faulty. Every scientific model ever from Newton to Einstein has been proven wrong or adapted, that's how the process works. The implication that some branch of science or medicine is somehow 100% correct or informed is absurd.

Explain the placebo effect to me and we'll talk skeptic. Your life may be full of "facts" but it lacks the color and mystery mine has.

Cheers, good luck.
Firstly, I have to address what is known as an "argument from ignorance". This is a logical fallacy where someone says that because something is unknown or difficult to know, that it is impossible to know. In the above, the commenter's fallacy says, in essence, "we know only a fraction of a percent of how physics, chemistry and physiology work", therefore alt.med. is true. We (the royal "we", not including myself) know much more than "a fraction of a percent" of physics, chemistry and physiology and because of this, we can say with very near certainty that homeopathy, acupuncture, and other alt.med. modalities are ineffective.

The commenter also assumes efficacy with respect to alt.med. "therapies". All we say, as skeptics, is to show evidence under proper controlled circumstances. This is usually never met with compliance. A major difference (and many times an unspoken sticking point) between skeptics and believers, is their level of acceptance for "evidence". What a believer will take as rock-solid proof that their pet "therapy" is efficacious will make a skeptic shake his or her head in disbelief and annoyance.

The commenter then makes this (summarized) argument: science has been wrong in the past (lists prominent names like Newton/Einstein), so no one knows for sure what's going on, therefore trust alt.med. This is known as the "two-wrongs make a right" fallacy and what it is saying is that because alt.med. does not know how the world works, neither does science, therefore everything is equal and why not trust an alt.med. practitioner? Science will change in the future and the alt.med. will be validated - jump on the bandwagon early! Nevermind that "no evidence" thing....

Then we have a strawman; a caricature of the adversarial position that is easy to dismantle and/or ridicule. No scientist or branch of science claims to be, "100% correct or informed", so to claim this is silly and, honestly, it is a mirror of the alt.med. position. Where science-based medicine is forced to be honest in difficult situations and admit that there is nothing that can be safely done to help, alt.med. is always lurking with a made-up answer. It is alt.med. that claims to be 100% informed.

The commenter then asks: "Explain the placebo effect to me and we'll talk skeptic" - If the commenter read the link, perhaps this bit would have stood out as it deals with that particular question:
Indeed, as Bausell reveals, it is the placebo effect that accounts for most of the positive results. He explores this remarkable phenomenon--the biological and chemical evidence for the placebo effect, how it works in the body, and why research on any therapy that does not factor in the placebo effect will inevitably produce false results.
Finally, the commenter drops the, "science unweaves the rainbow" argument. Skeptics are dull, boring, lack "mystery and color". We do not get New Age therapies and are jealous of the chakra-feeling, aura-seeing, light-ball-making healers that are everywhere, everywhere, man!

Scientists love mystery. They love it more than the alt.med folks do and I can prove it: Show me any alt.med practice that has been left behind because new evidence arose that showed it to be ineffective. Science (any branch) looks to new areas, places where mystery and confusion lie, and tries to learn whatever it can glean. Alt.med just makes up answers based on dogma and never changes. Exploring new areas of interest is sexy and it attracts the best and brightest of every era - Columbus, the astronauts and cosmonauts of the space race and beyond, the thinkers who make predictions that are discovered true years after the death of the maker. Alt.med and its practitioners just look pale in comparison.

Saying that science takes away mystery and "color" is just plain wrong. It always reminds me of this beautiful passage from Richard Feynman:
I have a friend who’s an artist and he’s some times taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say, "look how beautiful it is," and I’ll agree, I think. And he says, "you see, I as an artist can see how beautiful this is, but you as a scientist, oh, take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing." And I think he’s kind of nutty.

First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me, too, I believe, although I might not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is. But I can appreciate the beauty of a flower.

At the same time, I see much more about the flower that he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside which also have a beauty. I mean, it’s not just beauty at this dimension of one centimeter: there is also beauty at a smaller dimension, the inner structure...also the processes.

The fact that the colors in the flower are evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting – it means that insects can see the color.

It adds a question – does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms that are...why is it aesthetic, all kinds of interesting questions which a science knowledge only adds to the excitement and mystery and the awe of a flower.

It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.
Exactly.

3 Barbaric Yawps:

At 9/7/09 9:03 am, Blogger Sean the Blogonaut F.C.D. said...

Brilliant post mate. My new boss is into TCM, our conversations are wealth of posts. Argument from tradition, appeal to nature. Doesn't believe in medicine.

 
At 9/7/09 10:21 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Congrats on 200K hits.

Snake Oil Science is on my wish list at Chapters-Indigo.

I haven't bought it yet just because I think it'll probably cover the same territory as Singh and Ernst's Trick Or Treatment, which I have read and enjoyed.

 
At 19/7/09 11:57 pm, Anonymous M. Brazeau said...

The 'unweaving the rainbow' argument always saddens me. Those people trapped in a new age mentality seem to suffer from a tremendous poverty of the imagination. There is simply nothing within their worldview that compares to the mystery and the majesty of the quantum theory, nor of evolution.

I feel sorry for them. They look at this bizarre and incredible universe in which we live, and claim that it is not enough.

It so saddens me that they are unable to grasp the wonder and beauty revealed by the natural sciences. So, so sad.

 

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