Alternative health, the placebo effect, and dirt

Blogger and alternative health advocate Catherine Morgan has attempted to address my claim that alternative health is pseudoscience. She writes:

Not surprisingly, Dr. Amy takes a hard line against alternative health practices, but is alternative medicine just pseudoscience? I don’t think so. Just because something can not be “scientifically” proven today, doesn’t mean it won’t be proven in the future. For example, most people believe that when they die they will go to heaven, but there is no “scientific” proof of heaven. Does that mean heaven doesn’t exist? And at one time, before there was proof that the world was round, everyone believed it was flat. Was it flat just because the science wasn’t available to prove it wasn’t? No. Science may not be able to prove that Reiki or Acupuncture (or any other alternative modality) actually works, but that isn’t proof that it doesn’t work either. Let’s face it, even when things are scientifically proven one day, they are often scientifically dis-proven the next. … Even Einstein was wrong sometimes. The only thing we know for sure, is that no one knows everything.

That paragraph is a “greatest hits” of faulty reasoning, including basic flaws in logic, invocations of religious faith, and, my personal favorite, grandiose comparions with Galileo or Einstein (for some reason it is always Galileo or Einstein), while failing to realize that Galileo and Einstein always supplied scientific proof for their claims while their persecutors and detractors were the ones who insisted that scientific proof wasn’t necessary.

Here’s the comment that I left:

“Just because something can not be “scientifically” proven today, doesn’t mean it won’t be proven in the future.”

1. That statement reflects a very serious misunderstanding about the state of knowledge of alternative remedies. It’s not simply that alternative remedies have not yet been scientifically proven to work; the reality is that alternative remedies have been scientifically proven NOT to work…

2. It is the MORAL obligation of advocates of alternative health to be SURE that an alternative treatment is safe and effective before they recommend it. It is morally wrong to advocate a treatment, and to accept money for the treatment if you don’t have proof that it works.

“And at one time, before there was proof that the world was round,
everyone believed it was flat. Was it flat just because the science
wasn’t available to prove it wasn’t? No.”

That statement offers more support for my view, not yours. Simply put, that statement means that what people “believe” about something is completely unrelated to reality. So the fact that alternative health advocates “believe” that alternative health works tells us absolutely nothing about whether it works.

“Let’s face it, even when things are scientifically proven one day, they are often scientifically dis-proven the next.”

That’s not true, either. What is reported (often erroneously) in the media changes from day to day, but what the scientific literature shows does not change in that way. That’s why it is absolutely critical to read scientific papers if you want to know about scientific phenomena.

Alternative health is the medical equivalent of astrology. Just like astrology, it is nothing more than pseudoscience.

Ms. Morgan replies:

…Even though I’m not a scientist, I don’t believe my post reflects a “serious misunderstanding” of alternative remedies.

I’m interested in how you reconcile your strong belief in scientific fact with the placebo effect? If science has proven that a mind/body connection exists in medicine…Is it really that far fetched that alternative medicine might have some benefits as well?

And my response:

I’d like to ask you some ethical questions, and I hope you will take the time to reply.

May I ask why you have not reviewed the scientific literature on alternative health remedies? Isn’t that like writing a book review recommending a new book without having read it?

Don’t you think you have a moral obligation to read all possible evidence on something that has the power to seriously harm people before suggesting that they should risk their health and wellbeing by believing in it?

Let me try to address the question you asked me.

“I’m interested in how you reconcile your strong belief in scientific fact with the placebo effect?”

Why should I have any difficulty reconciling scientific fact with the placebo effect? The placebo effect IS a scientific fact. It was discovered, described and measured by scientists.

Contrary to what alternative health advocates like to claim, scientists are very much aware of the mind-body connection. (Think psychosomatic illness, for example.) Scientists know that it is absolutely imperative to subtract the placebo effect from any evidence that a substance works.

The placebo effect is “psychosomatic.” You can evoke the placebo effect by feeding someone dirt and claiming it is medicine. So when alternative health advocates invoke the placebo effect to show that an alternative treatment “works” they are essentially saying that the alternative treatment is equally effective as feeding someone dirt.

How can alternative health practitioners ethically justify charging people money for a treatment that is no more effective than dirt?

I’ll let you know if there is a further response.

5 Responses to “Alternative health, the placebo effect, and dirt”

  1. Roze of the Valley
    May 20, 2013 at 5:13 am #

    At least dirt is free. 😉

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