A light-hearted but sincere polemic as RationalVetMed lets off a little steam!

Why do people like me (and possibly you, since you’re reading this) bother to oppose the promotion of complementary and alternative medicine? Why put in the hours doing the research, writing and spreading the word in books and articles and on blogs and websites like this one? Why put up with the insults and threats and the same tiresome, threadbare old arguments over and over again from those who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo and keeping their customer-base in the dark as to the true nature of what they practice and in the process satisfy their own contrarianist ego-trip. What, in short, is the point in being a sceptic?

There are some fairly obvious and well argued reasons of course. For starters CAVM and CAM harm patients, either by causing direct injury with overtly toxic substances (for instance the cyanide-containing laetrile sold as a cancer cure or mega-doses of vitamins, known to cause cancer) and injurious practices (such as those neck-manipulations employed by over-enthusiastic chiropractors) or indirectly by delaying or preventing the use of effective treatments and preventives (there are a number of websites devoted to cataloguing deaths and injuries caused to humans by CAM, for some veterinary examples have a look here, here, here and here).

Then there is the question of expense. It is wrong that both human patients and animal owners should be hoodwinked into spending billions of dollars collectively on alternative therapies which are known by the mainstream to be ineffective. And state health schemes are on perpetually tight budgets, constantly juggling scarce resources – should they really be directing public funds into the pockets of those individuals who practice techniques which have no grounding in the real world?

But actually, the real problem goes deeper than that, there is a more fundamental issue. People are being sold a version of the world based on wishful thinking – medicines without side-effects which are nevertheless highly effective. People are being persuaded that everything and anything is possible – we can cure ourselves of any condition we choose, no matter how serious – if only we want it badly enough. All we need to do is believe – believe in the power of Nature, believe in the person selling us homeopathy when they tell us that their potions, which contain not a single molecule of active ingredient, will nevertheless cure cancer. And at the same time we are expected to ignore the vast body of science which has discovered such treatments are ineffective and instead trust the person who profits by selling it on the basis of on a few inadequate trial results and a whole heap of supposedly positive anecdotes.

This is magical thinking – taking the word of someone who says they know best, believing that if one event (a ‘cure’) follows another (a ‘treatment’), then the two events must be connected, and above all believing there are things – forces – which remain undetected and undetectable yet which have power over life and death. These are faith based ideas, superstitions which have more in common with mediaeval religious practice than medicine.

Over the centuries philosophers and scientists have fought to free humanity from the whims of religious dogma. They have promoted the idea there is nothing in the universe which cannot eventually be explained by rational means with no need to refer (or defer) to spirits, deities or invisible forces, and no need to rely on a privileged priestly caste for influence and mediation. And this has come at a cost, from the earliest days of recorded history we know that such free-thinkers were arrested, imprisoned, tortured and executed for speaking out against the prevailing orthodoxy. But recently, during the last century or so, we have started to make headway – faith has, in many areas, been obliged to give way to, or at least reach an accord with science. Even the pope now says he believes in evolution.

That is what is so wrong with those who promote and ‘believe in’ Complementary and Alternative Medicine. After all the struggles from ancient times, up to and including the Renaissance and the Enlightenment which have freed us from dogma and brought us reason and true understanding, we now seem to be sleep-walking back into the arms of the old gods, the gurus and priests who prefer to keep things vague, whose stock-in-trade is deception and smoke and mirrors and who will, above all, make sure they (and their customers) never question what they believe and have no truck with science, unless it tells them what they want to hear.

So it is absolutely the right thing to do to oppose the promotion of magical beliefs like CAM. Not just because people are being misled or it’s a waste of resources but because magical thinking makes people do stupid and dangerous things. Once we convince ourselves we can believe anything we like, regardless of the evidence or how plain ridiculous it sounds simply because a charismatic profiteer tells us then all bets are off.

That’s when people start shooting rhinos, even breaking into zoos to do so, to steal their horns, or keeping bears in miserable little cages all their lives and dissecting into them on a daily basis to obtain their bile to make Traditional Chinese Medicines. That’s when people start killing innocent women because they believe they are witches or killing and butchering albino people to use their body parts in magic potions.

Magical thinking makes people commit mass suicide because they believe a better life awaits them on ‘the other side’ and it makes parents withhold medicines from their children with lethal consequences because they believe they need only have faith in God, or homeopathy, or a vegan diet, or ancient North American Indian folk-medicine, or Andrew Wakefield.

Science offers us the best and only hope against this regression of the human condition, a movement some have described not as an Enlightenment, but as the opposite, an Endarkenment. Science isn’t perfect, as befits its fundamental nature it is constantly trying to improve and better itself, but it is still a powerful tool with which to explore the universe around us. Like any tool it can be misused, but that is not the fault of science, and at least there are checks and balances so we can be aware when things are going wrong. No such protections exist within CAM, not least because they require a high degree of intellectual honesty, self criticism and humility to operate effectively, attitudes which are sorely lacking in the world of CAM where the expectation is that claims will be accepted  at face value.

So, next time you are told by some new-age, alternative medicine-type that science doesn’t have all the answers, or there are some things it doesn’t understand, take heart in the knowledge that every scientist in the world would agree with them and would further say it isn’t a problem. This response provides an insight into what science actually is – a robust system for asking questions, this is more important than getting answers. Knowing there are gaps in our knowledge will prompt a scientist to ask more questions and for every answer they find another dozen new questions will arise. The idea that because we can’t explain certain things it therefore means we can never explain them, or that the gaps in our explanations can be filled with unproven speculation is wrong. That way lies the murky world of superstition, magic and the Endarkenment.