When Daniel David Palmer, the inventor of chiropractic, and his acolytes first took up the practice of chiropractic, around the turn of the last century, they were jailed for the unlicensed practice of medicine. If history had left them there, we might not be fighting a continuing battle with the pseudoscience that is “alternative” medicine today.
Unfortunately, the Kansas legislature intervened on the chiropractors’ behalf and passed the first chiropractic practice act in 1913. Over the years, state by state, the notions that subluxations interfere with nerve flow, causing ill health, and that only chiropractors could “correct” these subluxations, thereby restoring health, were incorporated into state law. As well, chiropractors were given a broad scope of practice and allowed to call themselves “doctor.” In 1974, Louisiana’s passage of a chiropractic practice act made chiropractic legal in all 50 states.
Acupuncturists and naturopaths copied this successful formula by convincing state legislatures to incorporate their pseudoscientific ideas directly into practice acts, thereby managing to become licensed health care providers. Legislative fiat triumphed over scientific facts time after time.
Laws allowing the practice of “alternative” medicine did not totally eliminate resistance to pseudoscientific practices from some quarters. Insurance companies, for example, refused to pay for treatments they considered experimental. Medicare did not cover chiropractic. Labs and x-ray facilities wouldn’t allow use of their services. But for each roadblock science tried to put in the way, state and federal legislators were there to remove it, paving the way toward “acceptance.”
I don’t want knowledge. I want certainty!
— David Bowie, from Law (Earthlings on Fire)
If there’s a trait among humans that seems universal, it appears to be an unquenchable thirst for certainty. It is likely to be a major force that drives people into the arms of religion, even radical religions that have clearly irrational views, such as the idea that flying planes into large buildings and killing thousands of people is a one-way ticket to heaven. However, this craving for certainty isn’t expressed only by religiosity. As anyone who accepts science as the basis of medical therapy knows, there’s a lot of the same psychology going on in medicine as well. This should come as no surprise to those committed to science-based medicine because there is a profound conflict between our human desire for certainty and the uncertainty that is always inherent in so much of our medical knowledge. The reason is that the conclusions of science are always provisional, and those of science-based medicine arguably even more so than many other branches of science.
In fact, one of the hardest things for many people to accept about science-based medicine is that the conclusions of science are always subject to change based on new evidence, sometimes so much so that even those of us “in the biz” can become a bit disconcerted at the rate at which knowledge we had thought to be secure changes. For example, think of how duodenal peptic ulcer disease was treated 25 years ago and then think about how it is treated now. Between 1984 and 1994, a revolution occurred on the basis of the discovery of H. pylori as the cause of most of the gastric and peptic ulcer disease we see. Where in 1985 we treated PUD with H2-blockers and other drugs designed to block gastric acid secretion, now antibiotics represent the mainstay of treatment and are curative at a much higher success rate than any treatment other than surgery and without the complications of surgery. I’m sure any other physician here could come up with multiple other examples. In my own field of breast cancer surgery, I look back at how we treated breast cancer 22 years ago, when I first started residency, and how we treat it now, and I marvel at the changes. If such changes can be disconcerting even to physicians dedicated to science-based medicine, imagine how much more disconcerting they are to lay people, particularly when they hear news reports of one study that produces one result, followed just months later by a report of a different study that gives a completely different result.