Alternative medicine is born from pseudoscience. It is an alternative to what is proven to work. Anecdata, placebos, epidemiological studies, cherry-picked data and the internet form the foundation of alternative medicine. These modalities generate the framework onto which the logical fallacies and cognitive biases supporting alternative medicine are presented.
Evidence-based medicine, on the other hand, emerges from unbiased robust data pointing to verifiable and reproducible results. Well designed double-blind randomized controlled trials are the cornerstone of evidence-based medicine; look at the Cochrane group: ‘Cochrane Reviews are systematic reviews of primary research in human health care and health policy, and are internationally recognized as the highest standard in evidence-based health care resources. They investigate the effects of interventions for prevention, treatment, and rehabilitation. Pseudoscience is enticing because it’s easy to understand and offers cures. Here is a short list of alternative medicine practices that haven’t been proven to work better than a placebo:
The National Science Foundation states: “Alternative medicine refers to all treatments that have not been proven effective using scientific methods.” Any alternative medicine with scientific evidence behind it is simply called, wait for it…….medicine.
Point Of Interest: Doctors are not scientists. They are practical users of science who apply scientific evidence to patient care. Medicine deals in probabilities and informed guesses, not certainties. Most doctors wrestle with the realities of uncertainty and make informed guesses based on the best currently available evidence. Whereas alternative medicine deals in (false) certainties and miracle cures.
Homeopathic practitioners and their brethren typically state some version of this argument: “Just because treatment x hasn’t been proven to work doesn’t mean it won’t in the future.” or “I have personally seen procedure x work wonders for lots of people.” The absence of evidence is not evidence. Moreover, anecdotal evidence is a place where science usually starts – not ends. When we are uncertain that something works, a hypothesis is created and tested. Good science is continually adjusting its views based on experiments, observations, and outcomes. An absence of evidence is evidence of absence.
Most would agree that we do not have an ideal healthcare system here in the U.S. The problems are multifactorial:
lack of face time with doctors
out of control healthcare costs
no central database
lack of communication between healthcare agents
symptom-based medicine as opposed to preventative medicine
lack of reproducibility of biomedical research
We desperately need alternatives to modern medicine. We need alternatives to a system that rewards the performance of wasteful tests and treatments, impersonal 10-minute office visits, inequality of resources and a society that promotes unhealthy lifestyles. What we don’t need are the false promises alternative medicine provides. Relying on these sham treatments can be harmful to one’s health and wallet. Moreover, the elevation of alternative medicine promotes the proliferation of pseudoscience. Imagine if we lived in a world where most understood the scientific method and statistics. We’d be able to cut through the BS and make educated decisions to help all of society. In this science literate world, we would not have to fight climate change skeptics, anti-GMO proponents, creationists, etc.
The late great Carl Sagan had a lot to say about alternative medicine. Here is one of my favorite quotes:
“Pseudoscience speaks to powerful emotional needs that science often leaves unfulfilled. It caters to fantasies about personal powers we lack and long for… In some of its manifestations, it offers satisfaction of spiritual hungers, cures for disease, promises that death is not the end. It reassures us of our cosmic centrality and importance. It vouchsafes that we are hooked up with, tied to, the Universe…At the heart of some pseudoscience … is the idea that wishing makes it so. How satisfying it would be, as in folklore and children’s stories, to fulfill our heart’s desire just by wishing. How seductive this notion is, especially when compared with the hard work and good luck usually required to achieve our hopes…”
If these unconventional therapies make people feel better, what is the harm? Here is a list of direct and indirect harm caused by supporting non-scientific based medicine:
It promotes anti-science beliefs.
Funding for randomized controlled trials and research, in general, is limited. Taking some of that money away and using it for therapies that defy the natural laws of science and physics is just wrong, potentially forestalling legitimate treatments.
Alternative medicine can be harmful when it is used to replace mainstream medicine. For example, many cancer patients would have lived longer (or even survived) if they do not try to treat their disease with alternative medicine, delaying the proven therapies.
Alternative medicine has been responsible for infections, allergic reactions, burns, strokes, death and more. Here is a huge list of real people hurt by these therapies.
The cruelty of false hope. It is very common for alternative healers to proclaim their methods can ‘cure’ many incurable diseases.
Increased mistrust of evidence-based science. Anti-vaxers are the prime example. This puts families and communities at risk.
The promotion of potentially harmful practices.
The near-extinction of Rhinos and other animals thanks to the false beliefs that their horns will help alleviate sickness and/or disease
Many of these therapies are not covered by insurance and therefore have a big out of the pocket expense. The enormous amount of money spent on sham therapies and supplements would be better spent on research and development of new medical breakthroughs.
Detoxing and cleansing therapies are socially acceptable ways of having a temporary eating disorder. Alternative medicine is the astrology of health. Learn the difference. If it sounds too good to be true, or someone offers a cure to an incurable ailment, don’t believe the hype. Save your money, time, and integrity for evidence-based medical care. Your life may depend on it.
Here is a short video of the professional skeptic and magician James Randi at TED: