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More on Louise Hay & some general statements about Alternative Medicine

April 8, 2012

Another commenter on my earlier post about Louise Hay’s cancer quackery has raised some issues concerning alternative medicine. I responded  to her criticisms (or lack of them as the case may be) over on that thread, but I’ll also take the opportunity here to gather a few points about the way proponents of alternative medicine deal with criticism in general.

Responses usually seem to follow a formula: a mix of smokescreen, personal attack and insistence on an entire worldview or ideology — an ideology that is opposed to “western” medicine and must be swallowed whole to be understood. None of this involves the idea of small incremental gains in knowledge or rejection of failed hypotheses. It’s all or nothing, because, well it has to be. There are a whole lot of modalities and treatments for which there is little or no evidence, which must be bolstered by an ideological armoring in order to survive. Criticizing one aspect of it can bring down the whole modality. So any criticism meets an ideological counter-attack on multiple fronts, none of which address the original criticism.

For evidence of this, read the entire comment thread on that post.

This is an attempt to deal with some aspects of that kind of multiple front ideological attack.

… 

Western

This word does not belong in discourse about medicine.

Eastern

Nor does this.

Physiology (not geography) is the only sensible basis for medicine. Sure we don’t know everything about it, and certainly the effects of neurological functioning on the rest of the nervous system is an interesting field for research, even informed speculation, but it is no longer the blank slate it was in the dark ages. Anyone wishing to know the effect that releasing particular neuro-chemicals has on the body can now research it in extraordinary detail. Louise Hay’s claims, for example, can be researched, and if true would not need to hide behind the cloak of theological assertion.

People using words like Western and Eastern want to imply that there is a blindness in “Western” medicine to certain phenomena. Forget it, please. “Western” science is perfectly capable of being proven wrong, but you need to show some evidence. It’s not enough to simply assert that a treatment works. You need to back it up with carefully monitored results from carefully designed studies. (If you think your treatment “can’t be tested like that”, then how on earth do you know it works?)

“It works for me”

If you are personally satisfied that something works for you, I sincerely wish you luck with it and have no further argument. But if you want to speak publicly about it and claim that it will therefore also work for others, then you are morally obliged to be able to back it up.

In fact, what people are really saying with this is:

(a) I was sick,

(b) I did X,

(c) then I wasn’t sick anymore, so

(d) X cures that sickness.

A, b, and c, are fine, but d is where the trouble starts. You simply don’t have enough data to reach that conclusion. There are too many variables. Proper testing can attempt to control the variables and if it doesn’t come up with a completely clear answer, it will definitely come up with a much better one than yours, and will be able to assess the merits of the result.

If it will work for everyone else too, that will show up clearly through testing.

So why then do people insist so much on this? There is a homeopathy campaign in Europe called It Works For Me, which is trying to get homeopathy to be exempted from standard medical testing without losing its status in the medical profession. I encounter the term frequently with Alt Med fans, and it even earned Doggerel status on Bronze Dog’s blog. (“Doggerel” is a series about common cliches and logical fallacies).

Apart from the apparent strength of arguing “I’ve seen it with my own eyes” (which, as pointed out above, they haven’t), it has another rather devious possibility. It alters the tone of the discussion from one of an open exchange of views to “Are you going to call me a liar?”

“I had cancer and I healed it by using X. Are you saying that this didn’t happen?” Not necessarily, but I’m sorry, I don’t know you from a bar of soap and I would need something to back it up — like documentation of your initial diagnosis and the eventual clean bill of health. If you don’t want to provide that, then you’ll have to rely on information that’s publicly available. Like studies, for example. And if you can’t find any that support your view, then maybe you lack the credibility to make such claims in public.

“Western” Medicine is Profit Driven

Yup, and what about Louise Hay and co? They are profit driven and have absolutely no standards or controls whatsoever. They do no research, maintain no records, publish no results, use nothing but testimonials for verification of their work, and offer their customers absolutely no redress should their treatment fail. It’s the customer’s fault for not “listening to their hunches and gut feelings” and intuiting that this particular brand of quackery is “not right for them”.

A Conspiracy Prevents Recognition of Alt Med

If some form of Alt Med wants to be confirmed as science, the best thing it could do is start to act scientifically. Keep proper records, document failures, develop some standards. There could even be a massive conspiracy against Alt Med, but without decent documentation, don’t even bother knocking at the door.

It can’t be studied by “Western” science

Well okay, but that also means you have no way of knowing whether it works or not….Good…

…And now that you have stopped claiming it works, go and talk to other advocates who claim it has already been proven and tell them to stop it….Didn’t think you’d like that idea….You want to have it both ways. You want to claim that studies have proven it, and, when the studies turn out to show the opposite, you then revert to “it can’t be studied”.

Homeopaths pull this one all the time — claiming their work has already been verified by “150 studies” and then reverting to “it works for me” when it’s pointed out that the studies were either poorly designed or DO NOT in fact show that homeopathy works.

They often claim their treatments are so individualized that each case is a one-off that can’t be compared to others. Fine, then do a hundred individualized treatments, with fifty of them using a placebo (with all parties blinded of course), and then compare the results.

… 

When all these maneuvers fail, there’s always….

Freedom of Choice

Here in Germany the Homeopathic Society has stopped claiming that homeopathy is an effective alternative to immunization and instead advocates the right to freedom of choice. Okay, very courageous of them, but why would patients want to have the right to choose a treatment that doesn’t work?

The commenter mentioned at the start of this post also tried to pull this one, ignoring the fact that I didn’t even say anything opposing an individual’s right to free choice. What the heck – it’s a criticism isn’t it? Okay, fine, then I’ll respond to it even though it’s freaking obvious that patients should be allowed to choose their own treatments. But I’ll add one word:

How about “informed freedom of choice”? It’s not me whose trying to stifle the discussion.

All of these arguments are ways of trying to evade the simple question of whether a treatment really works or not. My post on Louise Hay has been repeatedly criticized along similar lines to the ones mentioned above, but none of those commenters have answered any of my criticisms, and all of them so far have tried to fault me simply for doubting her. For them, it is fully acceptable for Louise Hay to claim “I can do this”; but unacceptable for anyone to say “Really?”

… 

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7 comments

  1. Another great post, Yakaru! I received e-mail notification of the post you are referring to and eagerly awaited your reply. :)

    You wrote: “But if you want to speak publicly about it and claim that it will therefore also work for others, then you are morally obliged to be able to back it up.” Yes.

    I am reminded of the cliché “the plural of anecdote is not data”

    Good stuff, Yakaru.


  2. Thanks, Mariah!

    Yes, the plural of anecdote is not data, and a testimonial is not a case study…unless it’s My Truth, in which case I can claim whatever I want….


  3. Nice summary, and thanks for the plugging the old Doggerel.

    The “East versus West” thing really sticks in my craw, and there’s no sugar-coating it for me: It’s racist. It’s demanding a double-standard because of an idea’s racial/national/geographic origins. Science isn’t allowed to play favorites.

    It also reeks of a racist attitude that “Western” people are all dogmatic and uncreative, and/or that “Eastern” people are mentally incapable of doing rigorous scientific research and thus have to rely on “intuition” or whatever to find truth. Sometimes it’s done for the sake of “fake equality,” padding some group’s list of advantages to avoid disillusionment with a culture they obsess over. The cost is that they send a message against cultural improvement and an endorsement of entrenching ‘quaintness’ when they do so.


  4. There’s certainly plenty more to be said about all this “western” “eastern” BS, isn’t there. China is emerging as a great place for “western” quacks to open clinics, because of slacker laws and less regulations. I’ll be posting something about that soon.

    Always happy to link to a Doggerel! I’ll try and remember to update the link when it’s transfered from your old blog to the new.


  5. It’s not really a transferrence so much as a complete rewrite. Some of my later Doggerel entries tended to get ranty in my view, so I’m trying a matter-of-fact sort of tone. Normally I’m biased towards firebrand skepticism, but I think the Doggerel series is a case where a calmer tone might be more effective. They’re for the woos to read as a response to their canned cliches, after all: Tell them why the argument’s fallacious or misleading and then advise them on what they should do instead.


  6. Sounds great. It’s a very thorough list and I’ve long thought it deserves a prominent place in the skeptic community.


  7. It did have a period of prominence, but it kind of faded as I lost my blogging motivation. It might rebound if I get back into the habit of linking to it so others can see.



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