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Wednesday, 25 February 2009


Stealth promotion of alternative medicine

There are a few techniques by which alternative medicine is indirectly promoted, and I would urge people to be very watchful for these.

Those I have noticed are:

1. Whilst the poster claims personally not to have any brief for alternative medicine, they post a link to a site which does. Some of these sites might be blatant, like the "" site which believes in everything except conventional medicine. More subtly, the sites might be like canceractive, which covers itself in disclaimers, but presents anecdotes supporting harmful alternative techniques as equal with scientific research.

If you do not how this constitutes promotion of alternative medicine, look at my previous blog on weighing evidence. It is essentially like those cable TV programmes on alien abduction and so on which say "you decide", but present biased information with the majority pointing towards the irrational conclusion.

2. Book recommendations-whilst not themselves endorsing alternative medicine, the poster recommends a book by an author who does, who gives false data to support the claims.

3. Casting a discussion of the lack of evidence for alternative techniques as a clash of individual opinions. Where this is done, note that the person recommending rationally based treatment always back what they are saying with a link to expert medical opinion. Note that the person supporting alternative medicine never does, but instead makes vague unsupported claims like "science does not have all of the answers", or "things are less certain than you claim".

4. Quoting the "lies, damn lies and statistics" line so often attributed to Disraeli, and not realising that it refers to the tendency of people in politics to twist statistics to support weak arguments no more than to reject statistics which do not support their arguments. Statistics are not frequently misrepresented in science and medicine as they are in the inexpert world of politics. Scientists and medical researchers know what statistics mean.

For example, in today's news, yesterday's report in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute on alcohol and cancer risk says that there is no safe dose of alcohol for women with respect to breast cancer. Because the study was over 1.3m million women, they are very certain of this. This is something I would describe on here as a fact, for an audience with no knowledge of statistics. The paper tells us how certain the researchers were, if you look at the previous link. The degree of certainty is indicated by the figures they give. The figures show that the chance of them being wrong varies from around 100:1 to 1000:1, or they are 99 to 99.9% likely to be right. As someone asked me recently, are you willing to bet your life on these odds?

5. Bringing in ideas from literary criticism and so on, that scientific evidence is just one of many forms of knowledge, and that the beliefs of native people or internet quacks are just as much knowledge as the results of painstaking scientific enquiry. They may also claim that their personal feelings and experiences count as equal or better evidence. Note that I have no objection to this in areas where a person is not claiming that personal experience trumps the science. Sharing experience is very valuable, but:

6. Confusing sharing personal experience with making claims of medical effectiveness. We can share how things made us feel, but once we start sharing our opinions of what might make people better, we are making medical claims. We should expect to be corrected if these claims are untrue. We cannot borrow language from therapy, and claim that our experience is being invalidated. Our direct experience is that we do x and y happens. When we say that x caused y, that is not our personal experience, but advancing a theory as to causation. It is our opinion, not our experience.

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