I blogged about this a little while back, but I made the mistake of burying it in a carnival announcement, and it kind of got lost in the shuffle. So I’m re-posting it as its very own post.
Skeptico’s piece on the lack of testing in alternative medicine really hit it out of the park, I thought. And it reminded me of something I’ve been wanting to say for a while about conventional versus alternative medicine.
In her never-ending attempt to be fair, Ingrid has pointed out that alternative medicine is untested somewhat by definition. Once an alternative treatment gets some good, placebo-controlled, double-blind, peer-reviewed, replicable studies showing that it works, it’s no longer “alternative” — it’s conventional medicine by definition. (The use of meditation to reduce stress is a good example.)
But in fact, I think that’s the whole point. The dividing line between conventional and alternative medicine isn’t any particular opinion or theory about treatment. The dividing line is whether or not it’s been carefully tested, using the scientific method, to minimize the effects of human error and bias as much as is humanly possible.
What I don’t understand is why practitioners and promoters of alternative medicine think that’s a bad thing.
Alternative medicine boosters often accuse conventional Western doctors and medical researchers of being close-minded, biased against any theories and opinions other than their own. But the whole point of science (including medical science) and the scientific method is that it acts as a screen against bias and preconception: an imperfect screen, to be a sure, but a screen nonetheless. It’s an extremely humbling, often disappointing process.
Of course doctors will sometimes have initial skepticism about new ideas. Medical providers are human, with the universal human attachment to being right. And initial skepticism about new ideas — not close-mindedness, but skepticism — is appropriate in medicine, and indeed in any scientific field. But medicine does change and move forward, quite rapidly these days… and it couldn’t do that if medical researchers and providers were consistently mulish and intractable about considering new theories and treatments. Medical journals are loaded with new ideas — some of them radically new.
And of course doctors can be biased and even arrogant. But how is that not true of alternative practitioners? They’re every bit as biased to believe in their theories as conventional practitioners, every bit as likely to succumb to confirmation bias and cherrypick positive results while ignoring negative ones. And they don’t have the advantage of having placebo-controlled, double-blind, peer-reviewed, replicable studies to back up their arrogance and show that their results aren’t just confirmation bias at work.
Which, again, is kind of the whole point. If the only difference between conventional and alternative medicine is that conventional medicine has, by definition, been carefully tested using the scientific method… then how is alternative medicine the better choice? How is it anything other than the Galileo fallacy in action?
And as Ingrid has also pointed out: Doctors and medical researchers, probably even more than other scientists, could give a rat’s ass about being personally proven wrong if it means getting at the truth. Because the truth is what’s going to help them treat their sick, suffering, and dying patients. Ingrid is an HIV nurse, and if it could be conclusively shown that homeopathy, or Reiki, or acupuncture, or even for Pete’s sake prayer, could cure HIV or even alleviate it, she’d be all over it like white on rice. The reason she uses the treatments that she uses is that they’ve been through the trial by fire: they’ve been carefully tested and shown to be effective. If there were a set of placebo-controlled, double-blind, peer-reviewed, replicable studies showing that HIV could be cured or effectively treated by sprinkling holy water on goat entrails, she’d be right there on the Catholic goat farm with the sacrificial knife.
But again, if there were a set of placebo-controlled, double-blind, peer-reviewed, replicable studies showing that HIV could be cured by sprinkling holy water on goat entrails, then it wouldn’t be alternative medicine. It’d be conventional medicine, by definition.
Because conventional medicine, by definition, is medicine that’s been shown to work.