… confidence only when there are grounds for it


Mike Adams (the “Health Ranger”) recently posted a “bit of vitriol”:http://www.newstarget.com/019364.html about skeptics of alternative medicine. An over-the-top article has provoked some “over-the-top”:http://www.autismstreet.org/weblog/?p=39 “responses”:http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2006/05/scam_skeptics_and_chickens.php#commentsArea.

While Adam’s invective may have gone way too far in painting skeptics of alternative medicine as cowardly defenders of a failing system, I think a simple straw-man argument dismissal is short-sighted and isn’t going to make any progress. Adams highlights two huge problems with so-called Western Medicine: money is a major (not the only, but a major) driving force behind medical research, and this fact leads to a popular opinion that doctors and pharma researchers are in it only for the money.

Adam’s characterization of skeptics, of course, is one-dimensional and overly broad. Skeptics seem to have at least two broad flavors: ones who disbelieve end of story, and ones who suspend judgment. Of course, this is a simplification as well, as we form these opinions on different subjects. For example, some skeptics seem to view chiropractic as a valid treatment for back pain but don’t want to hear anything at all about it being used for anything else. I personally am undecided on medical systems such as ayurveda, homeopathy, and traditional Chinese medicine and am curious at exploring each of these medicine systems further but don’t really intend to explore any further such ones as the “QLink”:http://www.clarus.com/. And heck, if you dig around in my archives, maybe you’ll find my opinion of Kevin Trudeau.

So Adams concludes:

bq. By their own definition, then, extreme skeptics are mindless, soulless walking water bags that are no more “alive” than the DNA sequence of a virus. Unfortunately, they still manage to spout words from time to time, probably due to some sort of linguistic reflex action, and annoy the rest of us who actually do have consciousness.

So James’s (Dad of Cameron) response, truthfully, is to the tune of “IS NOT!” Let’s take a look at a couple of nitpicky facts before we look at the overall picture of what’s going on here:

bq. Beliefs in the “healing” modalities have zero bearing on their efficacy and are irrelevant.

“Nope”:http://www.randomjohn.info/wordpress/2004/11/10/news-flash-medicine-is-more-than-drugs/. After working in this field for a while I really have to disagree with DoC on this one.

bq. The generalization of “extreme skeptics” as thinking that all medical treatment shoul be should be limited to drugs, surgery, radiation and chemotherapy is baseless and oversimplified.

Oversimplified, yes. Baseless, no. Just like there are some “alties” who blindly adhere to the “Western medicine bad, alternative medicine good” creed, there are those who think that medicine is medical interventions and tend to de-emphasize preventions. Fortunately, they seem to be few and far between. Unfortunately, they tend to be vocal. Some examples: Stephen Barrett, who is not only losing his court cases but seems to piss off judges wherever he goes with baseless testimony and the guy from TeGenero who claimed to still have a vision of putting his drug in humans even after the Phase I trial disaster in England. (Most people I know simply shook their heads at this claim.) And reports are starting to bubble up into the press (such as the ??Atlantic Monthly?? report on drug reps and the disease invention series in ??PLoS??) about how even doctor with good intentions are being swayed to write unnecessary prescriptions. Given that healthcare and pharmaceuticals have a public image that could kindly be characterized as being in the dungeon, I think that that Adam’s characterizations are not baseless. (I.e. without reason or evidence.) In fact, I think an exploration of those reasons could lead to improved healthcare.

bq. You may have seen terms like “whacky” or “woo-woo”, but they essentially all boil down to the same thing – based on belief, and not proven.

I don’t know about DoC, but to me “whacky” and “woo-woo” ideas are a little more than unproven. They are unprovable, and not only that, any reasonable person would know that they are unprovable and probably false. Of course, this is subjective. Germ theory at one point was considered “wacky” and is now accepted, even for ulcers. That’s not to say that every “wacky” theory will make it to accepted truth, but does illustrate the subjectivity of “wacky.” (Before you start quoting the three stages of false theories on me.)

Skipping on …

bq. A true skeptic does not “believe” anything.

I’m quite skeptical of this statement. We have assumptions, which are statements that we accept as true. We believe in our own existence. We believe that results of studies can be translated to people not in those studies. Perhaps DoC meant that skeptics are willing to jettison their assumptions if evidence tilts in favor of a competing assumption, and I’ll buy that. I still argue that meanwhile we believe our assumptions, and that there are some assumptions we never challenge. As much as the “true skeptic” wishes to exclude belief and faith from the discovery of truth, whatever that may be, I don’t think it’s going to happen. A side effect of DoC’s statement is that a “true skeptic” must be agnostic until proof of evidence of God.

All that said, DoC’s response came out looking far more rational and clearheaded than the Adams article. (Unfortunately, a bit “Borgish”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Borg in places but maybe that’s because they said “irrelevant” a lot.)

So let me sum up the big picture here. Practitioners and advocates of Western medicine have a big problem, some of which can be found beneath the surface of Adam’s invective. Such advocates have an even bigger problem (right or wrong) when they align with a “skeptical” view of alternative medicine, especially when that “skeptical” view isn’t the “bring proof” variety but rather the “what bull” variety that often comes from skeptics. (Even “bring proof” is often viewed as a euphemism for “what bull.” )

A debunking doesn’t address the deeper issues here, because, like it or not, emotions play a greater role in science, especially in its application to human health, that we would like to admit. I really think that DoC’s biggest mistake is discounting or denying the role of emotion, faith, and other non-logical sources of coming to believe/know. You just miss way too much when you say

bq. Beliefs in the “healing” modalities have zero bearing on their efficacy and are irrelevant.

I’ll bring my proof with me, but I won’t be upset if you don’t accept it. Self-discovery is much more powerful.

All this reminds me of a quote attributed to the Buddha:

bq. One strong in faith but weak in wisdom has uncritical and groundless confidence. One strong in wisdom but weak in faith errors on the side of cunning and is as hard as one whose sickness is caused by a medicine. When the two are balanced, one has confidence only when there are grounds for it.

And another Buddhist quote:

bq. Accept my words only when you have examined them for yourselves; do not accept them simply because of the reverence you have for me. Those who only have faith in me and affection for me will not find the final freedom. But those who have faith in the truth and are determined on the path, they will find awakening.

p{padding-left:50%}. —Majjhima Nikaya

Advertisements

8 Responses

  1. And no sooner did I write this than I saw this “healthy debate”:http://www.patsullivan.com/blog/2006/05/my_reply_to_ske.html over at Pat Sullivan’s blog. Some of it gets rather philosophical, like the nature of belief. But the play of the dialog probably sheds far more light than my monologue above ever could. And Hurray to Dad of Cameron and Pat for being so open with their debate.

  2. LOL…and I didn’t see this post until about an hour ago. Btw, thanks for reminding me about the evidence that already exists for “belief” having an effect. (placebo effect! 🙂

  3. Greetings gentlemen,

    I just heard about this post from a couple of other bloggers. Interesting take Random John, I will get back for some additional comment (and a couple of factual corrections) but have a booked schedule through most of the weekend with my kids. I’ll try to squeeze it in somewhere.

    Pat Jr. good luck finding a “true skeptic” that won’t acknowledge placebo effect – quite different than “efficacy” unless you are defining efficacy as “placebo effect”. Ever hear of “the case for a double strength placebo”?

  4. Adams highlights two huge problems with so-called Western Medicine: money is a major (not the only, but a major) driving force behind medical research, and this fact leads to a popular opinion that doctors and pharma researchers are in it only for the money.

    I missed that in this particular piece – didn’t see any such discussion. If you think my article was intended to address anything else Mike Adams has written about, you’d be incorrect.

    I’m glad that you understood my basic “IS NOT” about Adam’s Strawskeptics, cause that was pretty much it, other than to point out the need to bring proof (to the skeptics) for other ways of knowing.

    “Just like there are some “alties” who blindly adhere to the “Western medicine bad, alternative medicine good” creed, there are those who think that medicine is medical interventions and tend to de-emphasize preventions.”

    You failed to mention my quote: “Many dyed-in-the-wool skeptics would welcome other proven treatment modalities that include, but are not limited to: nutrition, exercise, education, and allowing healing without intervention if such healing is proven to be likely.”

    I think nutrition, excercise, rest, emotional health (which would fall under ‘but are not limited to’) can be excellent examples of a “true skeptic” addressing “prevention” and there a likely many more.

    So let me sum up the big picture here. Practitioners and advocates of Western medicine have a big problem, some of which can be found beneath the surface of Adam’s invective.

    Did we read the same article?

    And yes, I’m a “bring scientific proof” skeptic.

    I really think that DoC’s biggest mistake is discounting or denying the role of emotion, faith, and other non-logical sources of coming to believe/know.

    You also appear to be asserting that logic is irrelevant to emotion (a possible appeal to ignorance), and are starting an appeal to “other ways of knowing”. Bring Proof that there is a way better than the scientific method with respect to reliability – predictive value and historical success (to quote another commenter on my blog).

  5. Adams highlights two huge problems with so-called Western Medicine: money is a major (not the only, but a major) driving force behind medical research, and this fact leads to a popular opinion that doctors and pharma researchers are in it only for the money.

    I missed that in this particular piece – didn’t see any such discussion. If you think my article was intended to address anything else Mike Adams has written about, you’d be incorrect.

    While I did bring in some other writings that Adams has done, I felt it was pertinent to the discussion. Actually, Adams pretty much states elsewhere that he believes Western medicine is money-driven. At any rate, this article needs to be understood in that context, at least if you want to understand why he has a pretty solid following.

    You failed to mention my quote: “Many dyed-in-the-wool skeptics would welcome other proven treatment modalities that include, but are not limited to: nutrition, exercise, education, and allowing healing without intervention if such healing is proven to be likely.”

    I agree (knowing a few “dyed-in-the-wool skeptics”), and that doesn’t contradict what I say. I’m talking about one subset of skeptics, and you’re talking about another.

    You also appear to be asserting that logic is irrelevant to emotion (a possible appeal to ignorance), and are starting an appeal to “other ways of knowing”. Bring Proof that there is a way better than the scientific method with respect to reliability – predictive value and historical success (to quote another commenter on my blog).

    I’m not sure how you get that idea. Logic and emotion are quite interrelated and are intertwined with belief, state of mind, physical comfort, etc.

    However, I’m going to challenge you and challenge you hard on the statement to bring proof that there is a “way better than the scientific method with respect to reliability – predictive value and historical success.”

    # What is your proof that the “scientific method” has “predictive value” and is “historically successful.” (I’m not saying that it isn’t, I just want to see what you expect as proof.)
    # Note that Skeptico stumbled over this in his “Other Ways of Knowing” entry, in that he expected _scientific_ proof that the scientific method is the best way, thereby tilting the playing field in favor of the scientific method.
    # Does the process of learning (either individual, societal, or both) have to be like “Highlander”:http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0091203/? (“There can be only one” way of learning.)

  6. “While I did bring in some other writings that Adams has done, I felt it was pertinent to the discussion.”

    You felt it was pertinent to your or Pat Jr.’s discussion. That’s fine.
    We’re not on the same page. I WAS simply addressing Adams’s broad generalizations with an “IS NOT”.
    Adams is good about qualifying “extreme skeptics” through most of his discussion, but then concludes with “a skeptic”. Exactly what believers are looking for and the final straw man. It’s also an illustration of how well Adams’s article was written, as it prompted the post from Pat Jr. that begins with “Dear self-appointed skeptics”. It’s interesting that he did not begin with “Dear extreme skeptics”.

    “Actually, Adams pretty much states elsewhere that he believes Western medicine is money-driven.”

    So what?

    At any rate, this article needs to be understood in that context, at least if you want to understand why he has a pretty solid following.

    I’m not interested in his popularity – it provides no scientific validity to any claims he may make about health and medicine.

    “I agree (knowing a few “dyed-in-the-wool skeptics”), and that doesn’t contradict what I say. I’m talking about one subset of skeptics, and you’re talking about another.”

    You’re right, we were definitely not on the same page. My post was prompted by Adams’s lack of that distinction in his conclusion – which was jumped on by Pat Jr. and others over at Left Brain / Right Brain. The “here and now” (as Pat and I were discussing) pragmatism of the scientific method was questioned by “believers” who did not understand or make that distinction between philosophical and pragmatic skepticism and they espoused Adams’s general conclusion.

    “However, I’m going to challenge you and challenge you hard on the statement to bring proof that there is a ‘way better than the scientific method with respect to reliability – predictive value and historical success.’ What is your proof that the ‘scientific method’ has ‘predictive value’ and is ‘historically successful.’ (I’m not saying that it isn’t, I just want to see what you expect as proof.) Note that Skeptico stumbled over this in his ‘Other Ways of Knowing’ entry, in that he expected scientific proof that the scientific method is the best way, thereby tilting the playing field in favor of the scientific method. Does the process of learning (either individual, societal, or both) have to be like Highlander? (“There can be only one” way of learning.)”

    Call it a stumble, cry unfair, or whatever. I am only interested in claims about a better way of knowing that are used to explain “effect” in the natural observable world – such as many in alternative medicine. So yeah, bring scientific proof. If there is a better way of knowing something that is observable in the natural world, the scientific method will also be able to evaluate the claim. “Thereby tilting the playing field in favor of the scientific method” is an assumption/assertion on your part, and it may not necessarily matter to a “better” way of knowing.

    Sorry to disappoint you John. I entered this discussion as a result of conversation with Pat Jr. directly to address the pragmatics of the scientific method of the “here and now” in the natural world. I’m not an Adams “extreme skeptic”, and I don’t think Adams’s broad portrayal: “So the next time a skeptic annoys you with blathering syllables that sound like arguments against alternative medicine” is characteristic of most skeptics of alternative medicine, or most skeptics in general. And no, I’m not going to bring you proof that most skeptics are the pragmatic type, you can prove Adams’s implication via his conclusion “skeptics” that most skeptics are the straw skeptics he describe based on the likely few that he has talked to, first.

  7. DoC,

    Not much time to respond substantively (between work, kids, and a debilitating migraine), but I would like to thank you for a challenging, well-reasoned, and civil debate here and over at Pat’s blog.

  8. John,

    Thank you as well, I appreciate the civil discourse for certain!
    🙂
    P.S. Same situation here with available time.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: