In a strange piece entitled Scepticism and the natural medicine skeptics: not even distantly related, the ANH laid into critics of what they call ‘natural medicine’, even going so far as suggesting we are guilty of intellectual fraud.
It was a very odd, confusing post. I think there are two possible explanations for it:
- Perhaps the ANH have vested interests. It could be that the writer is well aware that the arguments don’t stand up to close scrutiny and this is just a clumsy attempt to smear critics of so-called ‘natural’ medicine.
- On the other hand, perhaps the writer really does have a very poor understanding of the scientific method and the history of medicine. Perhaps they genuinely don’t understand why so many scientists and medics are speaking out against ‘natural’ medicine.
Let’s assume the latter explanation is the correct one and address the article in a little more detail. It opens with a waffly bit discussing the meaning of ‘scepticism’.
As such, philosophical scepticism has much in common with, and indeed has greatly influenced, the ideal of the modern scientific method: to objectively question the world around us, while realising that there can be no absolute ‘truth’ – only a balance of probabilities.
Yes – science is all about objectively questioning the world around us. I’m not sure about the ‘absolute ‘truth” bit – I think it rather depends on what is under investigation.
But never mind that. Look at the next paragraph:
…the modern sceptical paradox is that a philosophy based on questioning all sides of a particular argument now finds itself harnessed to the ‘anti-natural’ cause. Such skeptics, typified by organisations such as Sense About Science, appear to find themselves firmly in a pro-GM, pro-mainstream medicine, anti-natural healthcare position. For a start, if scepticism leads us to question all sides of an argument – to reject the intrinsic ‘rightness’ of any position – how can the skeptics be so loudly pro-mainstream medicine and against all the alternatives?
Do I really have to spell this out? Is the writer really that stupid?
Firstly, I’ve never seen Sense About Science actually describe themselves as ‘skeptics’. Secondly, the answer to the question lies – of course – in the scientific method. If we ‘skeptics’ are loudly pro-mainstream medicine (and I don’t think we are, really) then it is because it works and has been proven to do so. We are against alternatives if they have not been proven to work or if they have been proven not to work, especially if they have also been shown to be harmful. That should be easy to understand.
It isn’t a failure to question all sides of an argument, nor does it amount to blindly sticking to dogma. For example, Edzard Ernst and his team at the Peninsula Medicine School at the University of Exeter carried out research into all kinds of complementary and alternative medicines and therapies. If something was shown to do more good than harm, they were not afraid to say so. The problem is that this happened so rarely.
The article continues:
What scientific data are they using to support the very dubious view that genetically modified (GM) crops will resolve world hunger?
That’s not quite what ‘they’ are actually saying. It seems the author of this piece has not actually read the Sense About Science Making Sense of GM guide. While they do address public concerns and common misconceptions about GM, they do not claim that GM will resolve world hunger.
Sense About Science say:
A lot of discussion about GM crops has been about whether or not they solve world hunger, which isn’t a useful discussion because GM is a plant breeding technique, not a social or economic system.
They then go on to explain how GM can be of importance in increasing crop yields without relying on pesticides and fertilisers – for example through plants tolerant to environmental stresses and pests and from land that couldn’t otherwise be used.
Now, if you think the ANH have been getting a bit muddled so far, that was just the beginning. The next bit is truly incredible:
Not only that, but while philosophical scepticism has had enormous influence on the modern scientific process, the modern skeptic turns his or her back on the scientific method by ignoring centuries of human experience – and the clinical experience being gathered every day by practitioners – as ‘anecdote’. Only randomised, controlled trials in human subjects will do to prove any treatment approach worthy of consideration. So, it seems that the ‘pro-science’ ‘skeptics’ are actually in some respects ‘anti-science’, and they’re certainly not sceptics. Their position is effectively a form of intellectual fraud — and that’s being kind.
Either the ANH are very confused here or they’re guilty of intellectual fraud themselves. They say ‘skeptics’ are anti-science because we understand the scientific method – that it’s objective, that it works, and that randomised controlled trials are a good example of it.
For the benefit of those who don’t understand what I mean, I’ll point out the blatantly obvious again. Apologies.
Firstly, anecdotal evidence isn’t dismissed outright – it could suggest that something is worthy of investigation using the scientific method. If someone came to me convinced that an unregulated herbal concoction had done wonders for their arthritis, I’d be sceptical. I might think that perhaps the condition had improved due to the placebo effect, regression to the mean, or a combination of the two. If a good randomised controlled trial showed the herbal concoction to be effective then I might be convinced.
The next paragraph, charmingly entitled Descent into thuggery is where the ANH link to my CANCERactive post (from ‘poisonous articles’):
Chris Woollams runs the charity cancerACTIVE, which provides information on non-mainstream cancer therapies – a red flag for many skeptics, including Prof David Colquhoun of University College London. Colquhoun wrote a piece on his blog accusing Woollams of illegally profiting from cancerACTIVE. When Woollams protested that this was entirely untrue, Colquhoun admitted as much on his blog – without removing the offending article! In the meantime, Colquhoun rallied skeptic friends via Twitter, to pen their own poisonous articles. Colquhoun only removed his defamatory post upon legal advice, presumably that he was guilty of libelling Woollams.
I have a few points to make here:
- This doesn’t address any of the points I had made (about misleading, inaccurate and dangerously irresponsible information on the CANCERactive site).
- If David Colquhoun ‘rallied skeptic friends’ then I personally didn’t notice.
- The fact that David Colquhoun’s post was taken down on legal advice doesn’t necessarily mean it was libellous.
- It’s interesting that the ANH linked to my post – which doesn’t really address CANCERactive’s charitable status or Woollams’ business affairs – rather than any of the (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) posts which do.
I would rather the Alliance for Natural Health addressed our well considered, evidence-based arguments themselves rather than lumping us all together and calling us thugs and intellectual fraudsters.
Let’s remember that an open and questioning mind is one of the greatest gifts a human being has.
Quite. I implore the ANH to take a dose of their own ‘natural’ medicine and open their questioning minds to the wonders of science.