Alternative Therapy – Poor Arguments

One of the sites that now and then comments on alternative treatments (usually when somebody gets a letter published in the nation’s main subscription newspaper, The Straits Times), is Angry Doctor.

Somewhere along the way, J. started being ridiculously cynical and focused on practical things. And basically wants to know a few things: does it work? how do you know?

Unfortunately, these two questions are either answered unsatisfactorily or not at all.

When reading any arguments, especially scientific ones, one expects a few things.
Firstly, statement: e.g. “Touching red-hot coals with bare skin is bad for you.”
Secondly, explanation: “Red-hot coals have a lot of thermal energy which on contact damages skin and other tissues, causing severe pain and increasing chances of infection.”
Thirdly, proof: “99.9% of people in studies of people touching of red-hot coals with bare skin have ended up with burns. The last 0.1% of people are skilled yogis. Some of these studies can be found [here here and here]”

Yet, many of these arguments for alternative therapy go through steps 1 and 2 with ludicrous claims and explanations, preying on the susceptibility of folks who don’t know any better as long as it sounds vaguely logical. Using TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine), which is fairly popular in Singapore, China, Taiwan, Malaysia, etc. as an example.

Playing the history card. If TCM has thousands of years of history, that’s all fine and dandy for diseases that were being treated in that manner then. HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) wasn’t there then. Radio waves didn’t exist. Trans fats weren’t manufactured. Diseases of maladaptation weren’t as big a problem as now. To be fair to TCM, they have yielded gems that modern (note the term, as compared to Western) medicine have picked up, such as Qinghaosu for treating malaria.

Playing the numbers card. Many people believe in, use and support TCM. So? Many people believe that HIV can be transmitted by casual contact. Many think that the common cold should be staved off by an influenza shot.

Individualisation. Individualisation is not a valid excuse for not performing and publishing large scale studies. Modern medicine has individualisation of drug therapy for patients based on many things such as patient response, renal and hepatic function and adverse effects. That doesn’t stop studies from being done.

Alternative treatments may have a role to play in healthcare. Take acupuncture, for instance, it has been accepted as an adjunct in pain management, despite the difficulties in performing randomised control trials for it.

Just don’t keep using arguments that set off J.’s bullshit detector.

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