I recently wrote a SkepDoc column on fantasy physics in Skeptic magazine in which I mentioned a study that had allegedly measured 2 milligauss emanations from a healer’s hands. A reader inquired about it and went on to ask “what criteria is [sic] necessary for gaining acceptance in the scientific community in regards to purported healing processes using energy fields generated in the human hand, specifically the palm area.”
What would it take to prove this implausible claim to the satisfaction of the scientific community? That is an excellent question with a complicated answer. It’s worth looking at because there is only one science and the same standards apply to how science evaluates any claim. I’ll take a stab at it, and perhaps our commenters can add words of wisdom.
For most of human history, doctors have killed their patients more often than they have saved them. An excellent new book, Taking the Medicine: A Short History of Medicine’s Beautiful Idea, and Our Difficulty Swallowing It, by Druin Burch, MD, describes medicine’s bleak past, how better ways of thinking led to modern successes, and how failure to adopt those better ways of thinking continues to impede medical progress.
The moral is not that doctors once did foolish things. The moral is that even the best of people let themselves down when they rely on untested theories and that these failures kill people and stain history. Bleeding and mercury have gone out of fashion, untested certainties and overconfidence have not.
Burch’s conversation with his rowing coach epitomizes the problem:
“I want you to keep your heart rate at 85% of max for the next hour and a half.”
“Because it’s the best way to improve your fitness.”
“How do you know?”
“Because I’ve done it before and it worked. Because that’s what the people who win the Olympics do. I know, I’ve trained some of them.”
“But has anyone actually done an experiment?”
“What on earth are you talking about?”
This book is Burch’s answer to his coach’s question. Medicine’s “beautiful idea” is that we should test all hypotheses and beliefs using the kind of tests that are reliable for determining the truth. Instead of going by tradition, authority, theory, common sense, or personal experience, we now have effective tools to find out for sure whether a treatment really works. (more…)
Have you ever been surprised and confused by what seem to be conflicting results from scientific research? Have you ever secretly wondered if the medical profession is comprised of neurotic individuals who change their mind more frequently than you change your clothes? Well, I can understand why you’d feel that way because the public is constantly barraged with mixed health messages. But why is this happening?
The answer is complex, and I’d like to take a closer look at a few of the reasons in a series of blog posts. First, the human body is so incredibly complicated that we are constantly learning new things about it – how medicines, foods, and the environment impact it from the chemical to cellular to organ system level. There will always be new information, some of which may contradict previous thinking, and some that furthers it or ads a new facet to what we have already learned. Because human behavior is also so intricate, it’s far more difficult to prove a clear cause and effect relationship with certain treatments and interventions, due to the power of the human mind to perceive benefit when there is none (placebo effect).
Second, the media, by its very nature, seeks to present data with less ambiguity than is warranted. R. Barker Bausell, PhD, explains this tendency:
I have a confession to make – it’s not easy keeping up with the other “Joneses” on this blog. My colleagues do a terrific job with thoroughly referenced analyses of key issues in medicine – and I sometimes struggle to think of topics that they haven’t already covered in more depth than I can. So today I asked my friends on Twitter if they had any suggestions for this week’s post.
One Twitter respondent asked me for my “perspective on the biggest barriers to better funding and adoption of science- based medicine.” As I contemplated that question, an experience leapt immediately to mind…
I attended a recent press conference held at a major Washington, DC think tank. An all-star cast was assembled, including Senator Baucus and Peter Orszag, to discuss the subject of comparative effectiveness research (CER). The most memorable part of the conference, however, was when one of the CER policy “experts” took the podium and actually said this (I’m going to paraphrase slightly):
The problem with science is that it’s too narrow. We’d have a lot more information to go on if we got rid of the narrow inclusion criteria in clinical trials. The exclusivity is not an irreversible flaw in the method – we just need to open up trials to larger groups of people of all kinds of different backgrounds so we can get better information.
This space has often hosted musings on the nature of scientific knowledge, on how medical science is based in methodological naturalism (MN), rather than supernaturalism. MN requires that our acquisition of knowledge about the natural world be based on natural phenomena. The reason for this should be quite obvious: the natural world is the only one that exists, for all intents and purposes, and explanations must be based on natural processes. Can you name any supernatural processes? Can you measure them? Of course not.
This bothers adherents of alternative medical practices. Since science doesn’t support their ideas, they would like to carve out exceptions to natural laws. Remember, we know quite a bit about the universe. We don’t understand exactly what matter is yet, but we can measure it and experience it without ambiguity. We know the universe has matter/energy; we understand pretty well the primary forces of electromagentism, gravity, small and weak nuclear; and there are probably a few other things whose effects we can measure even if they aren’t completely understood (dark energy, dark matter).
All of modern medicine works in ways consistent with our understanding of the universe. Even when we don’t completely understand something, it does not behave contrary to these laws. A beta blocker has never caused someone to levitate. No one has been revivified by electricity, a la Dr. Frankenstein (“That’s Frahnkensteen!“). Human bodies follow natural laws, and natural explanations are the ones that have explanatory power.
Since these natural laws explain what we see in the clinic and lab, what are the altmed gurus to do?
They have three main strategies, each of which is conveniently described by a logical fallacy. (more…)