Alternative health and the conceit of the brilliant heretic


A pervasive theme in “alternative” health is the notion of the brilliant heretic. Believers argue that science is transformed by brilliant heretics whose fabulous theories are initially rejected, but ultimately accepted as the new orthodoxy.

Alternative health practitioners, with no embarrassment at their own presumption, routinely liken themselves to Galileo and Darwin. Today their brilliant theories of homeopathy, therapeutic touch and the like are rejected but ultimately they will be acknowledged as truth. As usual, their claim is based on a lack of knowledge about science, and ignorance of history.

As explained in The Holistic Heresy: Strategies of Ideological Challenge in the Medical Profession by Paul Wolpe, alternative health practitioners believe:

[Alternative health] is the inevitable (or desirable) next step in the history of medicine, and like other heroes of medical history who were initially rejected by the orthodoxy of the day … the [alternative health practitioner] is simply ahead of his time. Innovation is always initially resisted … Holistic heretics portray themselves as mavericks, leaders, with every expectation that soon all of medicine will, by necessity, follow in their footsteps.

It is a breathtaking conceit, and it betrays a profound lack of understanding of the history of science.

1. The conceit rests on the notion that revolutionary ideas are dreamed up by mavericks, but nothing could be further from the truth. Revolutionary scientific ideas are not dreamed up; they are the inevitable result of massive data collection. Galileo did not dream up the idea of a sun-centered solar system. He collected data with his new telescope, data never before available, and the sun-centered solar system was the only theory consistent with the data he had collected.

Similarly, Darwin did not dream up evolution. He collected data during his years of exploration on the Beagle, much of it previously unavailable. A theory of evolution was the only theory consistent with the data that he had collected.

In contrast, belief in alternative health has no basis in scientific fact. It has been dreamed up by its various adherents and practitioners. Far from depending on scientific evidence, it eschews the need for scientific evidence.

2. The notion of the heretical maverick betrays a lack of historical knowledge. Galileo and Darwin were considered heretics by religious leaders, not by other scientists. Their ideas swept across the scientific world precisely because of their explanatory power and the data that they had to back them up.

In the world of science, it was already well established that the orthodoxy could not explain what everyone had observed. Long before Galileo, scientists understood that the Biblical theory of the earth-centered universe did not accord with astronomical evidence. Long before Darwin, fossil discoveries had called into question the Biblical creation story.

Mainstream medical science has been astoundingly successful in both theory and practice. The power of the germ theory of disease or the molecular structure of DNA rests on their ability to explain what we observe, are confirmed by experimental data, and result in highly effective treatments and cure.

In contrast, alternative medicine exists independent of scientific observation. Its theories have poor explanatory power and are directly contradicted by copious scientific evidence. The treatments of alternative health are notoriously ineffective. Although anecdotes abound, scientific studies of “alternative” health treatments have yet to identify a single one that works.

3. New theories may be resisted by older scientists because they upset the orthodoxy, but they are not resisted by the scientific world. That’s the point of peer reviewed scientific journals. Scientists present their evidence, and other scientists decide whether that evidence supports a new theory.

For example, early in my medical career a scientist claimed that ulcers were caused not by acid, but by the H. pylori bacteria. The initial reaction of the medical world was disbelief. However, when doctors saw the data, and when the original studies were quickly reproduced by other scientists, doctors accepted the theory, created treatments based on the discovery and moved on.

In medicine, as in all science, the data comes first, the theory follows. In “alternative” health, the theory exists independent of the evidence, and no one even bothers to collect evidence. The idea that alternative health will ultimately be accepted as true is ludicrous.

The idea that heroic geniuses dream up new scientific theories that are initially rejected but ultimately embraced by other scientists is a fairy tale. It betrays a lack of understanding about how science works, and a lack of knowledge about what actually happened to people like Galileo and Darwin.