The last couple of weeks, I feel as though I may have been slumming a bit. After all, comparatively speaking it’s not that difficult to take on claims that homeopathy benefits fibromyalgia or Oprah Winfrey promoting faith healing quackery. Don’t get me wrong. Taking on such topics is important (otherwise I wouldn’t do it). For one thing, some quackery is so harmful and egregiously anti-science that it needs to be discussed. For another thing, they serve as examples of how even the most obvious quackery can seem plausible. All it takes are the cognitive quirks to which all humans are prone plus a bit of ignorance about what constitutes good scientific evidence to support the efficacy of a given therapy for a given condition.
So let’s move on to something a little more challenging.
Of all the attacks on science-based medicine (SBM), one of the favorite attacks made by its opponents is the claim that SBM is dangerous, that it kills or harms far more people than it helps. An excellent example of this occurred when quackery promoter Joseph Mercola teamed up with fellow quackery promoter Gary Null to write a widely cited article entitled Death by Medicine. Using the famous Institute of Medicine article that estimated deaths from medical errors to be on the order of 50,000 to 100,000 per year, Mercola and Null wove a scary story meant to imply that conventional medicine does far more harm than good. Of course, as our very own Harriet Hall pointed out, they concentrated solely on the harm, which makes it difficult to determine whether the harms truly outweigh the benefits. As Peter Lipson puts it, such arguments are intentionally designed to take our fears and exaggerate them out of all perspective. The idea behind the fallacious arguments used by the likes of Mercola and Null is that, because “conventional” medicine has problems and needs to improve its safety record, the quackery they promote must be a viable alternative to SBM. Yes, that is basically what their arguments boil down to.
The fallacious manner in which advocates for quackery such as Joe Mercola, Mike Adams, and Gary Null use and abuse any shortcoming of SBM that they can find (and, when they can’t find any, make some up) notwithstanding, there is a problem in SBM. Indeed, over the last 10 years or so since the IOM report, reducing the toll due to medical errors has — finally — become an incredibly important issue in medicine. Indeed, I myself have become involved in a state-wide quality improvement initiative in breast cancer as our site’s project director. As a result, I’m being forced to learn more about the nitty-gritty of quality improvement than I had ever thought I would. Combine this with a study published just before the Thanksgiving holiday in the New England Journal of Medicine, and I’m learning that improving care is incredibly difficult. The issues involved are many and tend to involve systems rather than individuals, which is why the solutions often bump up against the individualistic culture to which physicians belong. Moreover, such efforts, like comparative effectiveness research (CER), tend to earn less prestige than scientific research because, like CER, quality improvement initiatives do not in general look for new information and scientific understanding but rather at how we apply what we already know.