In a recent editorial for the New York Times, Aaron E. Carroll argues, “Labels Like ‘Alternative Medicine’ Don’t Matter. The Science Does.” I agree with this headline thesis, but the details of his argument ironically show the harm that the so-called CAM (complementary and alternative medicine) movement has done.
Carroll starts out well, essentially pointing out that the division between “conventional” and “alternative” medicine, and the division between “Western” and “Eastern” medicine are false dichotomies. Despite this strong start, he muddles his way through the rest of his editorial.
The primary error he commits is to swing from a false dichotomy to a false equivalency, essentially saying that there is no difference between conventional and alternative practice or practitioners. In order to support this contention, however, he has to distort the facts beyond recognition.
In other words, Carroll commits the less-well-known false continuum logical fallacy. Let me explain.
The real differences between SBM and CAM
Tree of Life – the first-known sketch by Charles Darwin of an evolutionary tree describing the relationships among groups of organisms (Cambridge University Library).
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines science as:
Knowledge about or study of the natural world based on facts learned through experiments and observation.
Knowledge as distinguished from ignorance or misunderstanding.
While this should distinguish science from pseudoscience, those who practice the latter often lay claim to the same definition. But one of the major differences between science and pseudoscience is that science advances through constant rejection and revision of prior models and hypotheses as new evidence is produced; it evolves. This is the antithesis of pseudoscience. At the heart of pseudoscience-based medicine (PBM) is dogma and belief. It clings to its preconceptions and never changes in order to improve. It thrives on the intransigence of its belief system, and rejects threats to its dogma. Despite the constant claims by peddlers of pseudoscience that SBM practitioners are closed-minded, we know that, in fact, PBM is the ultimate in closed-minded belief. Of course, those of us who claim to practice SBM aren’t always quick to adopt new evidence. We sometimes continue practices that may once have been the standard of care but are no longer supported by the best available evidence, or perhaps may even be contradicted by the latest evidence. Often this is a byproduct of habituated practice and a failure to keep current with the literature. While this is certainly a failure of modern medicine, it is not an inevitable outcome. It is not emblematic of the practice of medicine, as it is with PBM. When medicine is science-based, it strives for continual improvement based on modifications around emerging evidence. (more…)
I recently wrote about the claim that acupuncture can improve vision in patients with macular degeneration. In response, I received this e-mail:
At Discovery Eye Foundation we have an education and outreach program for people with age-related macular degeneration, the Macular Degeneration Partnership. We are constantly getting calls from people who have heard of a new “cure” or a way to stop their vision loss. It is always hard to interject reality into the conversation and hear the hope leave their voice, replaced by frustration or despair.
The e-mail suggested I write an article providing guidelines for consumers to help them evaluate the validity of treatment claims for themselves. On SBM we are constantly stressing the need to apply critical thinking to what you read, and the many pitfalls to be avoided. I’ll try to synthesize some of the principles into a handy list of questions. (more…)
Some people don’t like what we have to say on Science-Based Medicine. Some attack specific points while others attack our whole approach. Every mention of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) elicits protests in the Comments section from “true believer” users and practitioners of CAM. Every mention of a treatment that has been disproven or has not been properly tested elicits testimonials from people who claim to have experienced miraculous benefits from that treatment. In previous articles I have compiled the criticisms of what I wrote about Protandim and Isagenix. It’s instructive to read through them. We welcome rational and substantive criticism, but most of these comments are neither.
Our critics keep bringing up the same old memes, and it occurred to me that rather than try to answer them each time, it might be useful to list those criticisms and answer them here. In future, when the same points are raised, we could save time and effort by linking to this page and citing the reference number. I know this list is not comprehensive, and I hope our readers will point out anything I’ve omitted. Here are some of the criticisms we keep hearing:
1. Big Pharma is paying you to promote their products and discredit CAM.
No it isn’t. We are not Pharma shills. We are not paid anything for writing this blog. We do not get money from pharmaceutical companies. We do not accept gifts from drug companies. We do not get kickbacks for prescribing certain drugs. We have no incentive to favor drugs over other treatments. Incidentally, critics who prefer natural remedies to pharmaceuticals should note that many CAM diet supplements are sold by subsidiaries of Big Pharma. (more…)
Defenders of science-based medicine are often confronted with the question (challenged, really): what would it take to convince you that “my sacred cow treatment” works? The challenge contains a thinly veiled accusation — no amount of evidence would convince you because you are a nasty skeptic.
There is a threshold of evidence that would convince me of just about anything, however. In fact, I have been convinced that many scientific claims are likely to be true — sufficiently convinced to act upon the conclusion that they are true. In medicine this means that I am convinced enough to use them as a basis for medical practice.
There are many functional differences between practitioners of SBM and those who accept claims and practices that we would consider to be pseudoscience or fraud, but I was recently struck by one particular such difference — where we set the threshold of evidence before accepting a claim.
The Internet is a wonderful new medium for communicating ideas and information in a rapid and interactive way. Many articles are followed by a “comments” section. Like so many things in this imperfect world, comments are a mixed blessing. They can enhance the article by correcting errors, adding further information, and contributing useful thoughts to a productive discussion. But all too often they consist of emotional outbursts, unwarranted personal attacks on the author, logical fallacies, and misinformation. They provide irrational and ignorant people with a soapbox for promoting prejudices and false information.
To illustrate, let’s look at the responses to something I wrote about a weight loss product called Isagenix that is sold through a multilevel marketing scheme. To quote the website,
The Isagenix cleanse is unique because it not only removes impurities at the cellular level, it builds the body up with incredible nutrition. Besides detoxing the body, Isagenix teaches people a wonderful lesson that they don’t need to eat as much as they are accustom to and eating healthy choices are really important and also a lot of the food we are eating is nutritionally bankrupt. [errors are in the original]
I didn’t set out to write an article about this. It started when I received an e-mail inquiry about Isagenix. I posted my answer on a discussion list and it was picked up and published on the healthfraudoz website. Sandy Szwarc approved of it and kindly reposted it on her Junkfood Science blog.
As I write, the comments on the healthfraudoz website have reached a total of 176. A few commenters approved of what I wrote, but the majority of commenters tried to defend Isagenix. Their arguments were irrational, incompetent, and sometimes amusing. (more…)
When Dr. Novella recently wrote about plausibility in science-based medicine, one of our most assiduous commenters, Daedalus2u, added a very important point. The data are always right, but the explanations may be wrong. The idea of treating ulcers with antibiotics was not incompatible with any of the data about ulcers; it was only incompatible with the idea that ulcers were caused by too much acid. Even scientists tend to think on the level of the explanations rather than on the level of the data that led to those explanations.
A valuable new book elaborates on this concept: Diagnosis, Therapy and Evidence: Conundrums in Modern American Medicine, by medical historian Gerald N. Grob and sociologist Allan V. Horwitz. They point out that
many claims about the causes of disease, therapeutic practices, and even diagnoses are shaped by beliefs that are unscientific, unproven, or completely wrong. (more…)
The marketing of so-called CAM or integrative medicine continues. These terms are just that – marketing. They are otherwise vacuous, even deceptive, and meant only to conceal the naked fact that most medical interventions that hide under the CAM/integrative umbrella lack plausibility or credible evidence that they actually work.
Medicine that works is simply “medicine” – everything else needs marketing.
Last week in the British Medicine Journal (BMJ) Hugh MacPherson, David Peters, and Catherine Zollman wrote a very telling editorial entitled Closing the evidence gap in integrative medicine, which Edzard Ernst has rightly characterized “a masterpiece in obfuscation.”
The essence of the editorial can be boiled down to this – proponents of integrative medicine are disappointed that scientific research has not validated their failed modalities. Therefore they want to weaken the rules of evidence so that they can get the results they desire.