Pseudo-Science wins the day at debate

Sean Bent critiques the outcome of a recent Philosoph debate, as alternative medicine proved a contentious topic.

Monday 1st saw another excellent Philosoph debate. The motion was “That this house believes alternative medicine does more harm than good”.  Paul O’Donoghue of Irish Skeptics and Tom Cotter of the UCC Biochemistry Department argued for the proposition while the opposition saw Orla Broderick, a homoeopathist, and David Tredinnick, a British MP, head the opposition.

“Alternative” medicine is an umbrella term for unconventional medicine lacking in empirical evidence to support it’s effectiveness. It has been used both without and in conjunction with conventional medicine. It includes practices like chiropractics, acupuncture and homeopathy. Homeopathy works on the principle that water has memory. Homeopaths argue for the Law Of Similars which tells us that substances which cause similar symptoms to a disease when used in large amounts will actually cure that disease when used in extremely small amounts.

Supposedly, the symptoms caused by the “artificial” source expel the symptoms of the natural sickness by providing the body with the “vital force”, whatever that is. It is a mystical assertion and refuted constantly by science and skeptics. The homeopathic remedies are extremely diluted and may or may not have any of the original symptom-inducing substance left; which leaves just water!

In most cases, homeopathic remedies and other alternative medicines are completely harmless. No more harmless than drinking a glass of water. The opposition to the motion on Monday night seemed to be divided into three categories. Those who believed with full conviction that homeopathy and other forms of alternative medicine work, those who weren’t convinced but felt there may be something to it from the anecdotes given by Broderick, Tredinnick and other speakers from the crowd and those completely unconvinced; this category tended to argue that it’s practice was harmless by nature. They accepted the placebo effect as being the source of any patients’ feeling of well-being.

The proposition had little chance of convincing the die-hard homoeopathists in the crowd. A good effort was made to argue for the votes of those who were intrigued and unsure what to think of the anecdotal evidence on behalf of alternative medicine. Convincing the third category was another matter however. There are two angles I can see which the proposition could have countered with. Each of these was touched on by at least one speaker proposing the motion.  However, much of the proposition speakers chose to continually attack the pseudo-scientific basis of alternative medicine and tended not to aim their arguments at the category of people who believed that in its harmless, if ineffective nature.

The first is looking at scenarios where alternative medicine has been directly linked to endangering human life and health. For example, homoeopathists in the practice advising people against receiving immunization vaccines, claiming that vaccines actually cause more fatal sickness than that which they are meant to protect against. A study conducted in London in 2006 found an alternative medicine practice to be prescribing garlic and vitamins as a ward against malaria. A case in England in 2004 saw a homoeopathist advise a woman to stop taking medication for her heart condition and advised her instead to consume homeopathic remedies. The patient died within days of heart failure linked to treatment discontinuation.

While an everyday homeopathic remedy may be harmless, the capacity we give these self-professed mystics to prescribe what they like to patients and call it medicine is where the true danger lies. Something which far outweighs the good that comes from letting gullible people think that water or garlic has cured them of a common cold.

The other point to have argued is the erosion of trust in science which comes with, and spreads due to, such practices.  In my own view, ignorance only ever leads to more ignorance. When we allow our choices to be based on mystical principles and not on falsifiable, testable, repeatable and quantitative evidence, we damage not only our own rationality but the rationality of impressionable people we meet along the way. In the case of alternative medicine, not only are the lies and delusions of sellers of these products damaging to the individual’s trust in science, a self-correcting process unlike alternative medicine, these lies and delusions will only spread. Before you know it, more and more cases of serious illnesses will pop up due a lack of trust in modern medical science. A single drug of which may go through 15 years testing before it’s able to touch the market. To ensure its effectiveness.

Both these arguments were brought up but the problem was that little of it was tailored towards the more sceptical members of the opposition, in relation to harms versus benefits. If it had been so, perhaps the proposition could have pressed home the advantage and the result may have been different. However, the opposition had a clear majority and walked away victorious.

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