My friends know that I’m an outspoken skeptic in general, and that I’m pretty cynical about claims for the value of alternative medicine (you can find some of my writings on the subject here and here). A few of them like to joke that I’m an unyielding zealot who has no tolerance for complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). That’s not the case. My stance is that, as long as people are genuinely informed about the science (or lack thereof) backing their treatment of chance, I don’t care what personal choices people make. Want to waste your money on homeopathic pills or reiki? Fine by me. The placebo effect is real, and very well documented. The problem for me comes when people are exploited by scam artists or even well meaning CAM practitioners to the detriment of the patient’s help.
Tragically, it appears another person has died as a result of CAM treatment being used over modern medicine. In this case, it wasn’t a misled patient but a helpless 4 year old boy, whose father (a CAM doctor) fed him fennel tea for three weeks instead of properly treating his cold. It’s a case of stunning negligence, and the parents are being investigated for manslaughter, although I’m sure losing their son is punishment enough.
This article is poignant for me because it brings up important questions regarding the danger of CAM. No, I’m not going to claim that all CAM patients will die unnecessarily, because that’s clearly not true. I won’t claim that science-based medicine will cure every patient. I’m not closed to the possibility that a CAM treatment may prove itself effective, and I would welcome such a treatment into the realm of mainstream medicine. My problem with CAM is not that I’m biased against those darn hippies, but because CAM represents something more fundamental: an attack on empiricism.
Doctors today have the benefit of a wealth of scientific studies of medical treatments. They choose what drugs or treatments to prescribe based on hard data. Now, you may argue that this or that aspect of medical research is flawed, and I will probably agree with you. I feel the same way about science that I do about democracy and market-based economies: it’s our least bad option, for, in science’s case, collecting observations about the world that approach objectivity. So when a CAM promoter says she favors homeopathy (in the face of all evidence and even basic questions of plausibility), that raises a red flag for me. If we don’t base our medical decisions on data, things quickly become very arbitrary. There are an infinite number of “treatments” that will mimic the placebo effect, each of them as effective as homeopathy. So why not, instead of homeopathy, choose eating flowers or hopping on one foot or reciting the alphabet backwards or wearing expensive “ionized” bracelets or painting caricatures of Rosie O’Donnell on your chest? The homeopath sincerely has no answer as to why her treatment is more valid than any of the others. The wonderful power of the scientific approach is the ability to discard all of these rubbish ideas and elevate the effective approaches to the forefront.
My point is, if you start chiseling away at the barrier for what counts as a valid medical treatment, you open the door to completely arbitrary treatments. CAM proponents threaten to reverse the incredible gains of not only modern medicine and science, but also the rise of empirical thought.