An exercise in bad reasoning

Yes yes, one of our favorite subjects: magical healing and other fairy stories! From a Telegraph article by a Ms Anna Tyzack entitled: “Complementary medicine – does it work?“. Of course we already know the answer for a large number of modalities that fall under the umbrella term “Complementary”. This is a just dose of the same old really bad reasoning, which over the years has allowed all sorts of pseudoscience and crank degrees to creep into academia, national health systems, etc.

The author starts well with:

“Quackish” degree courses, such as aromatherapy, reflexology and acupuncture, are being scrapped at many universities. Homoeopathy has been dropped altogether, due to declining student applications and campaigns by scientists against non-evidence based forms of medicine

Prof. Colquhoun has been updating us very regularly for the last few years, as he was a prominent figure in the charge against pseudoscience being taught in UK universities -with the above mentioned very positive results.

Now to the point of this post (yes, there is a point in this post):

the Complementary & Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC) insists the course closures are “very disappointing”.

“A significant number of people find complementary health therapies to be very helpful; it would be a shame if there were no trained practitioners to treat them,” says Maggy Wallace, chair of the CNHC.

“It’s arrogant not to accept an individual’s opinion as evidence that a certain treatment has benefited them.”

I really don’t know where to start with the above statements. A shame that no trained practitioners would exist to treat with magic?? What about astrology? Many people believe it helps them, and yet for some reason no one complains that astrology is not being taught in Universities. This is all too resembling to the Creationism vs Evolution debate, and it boils down to this: we should not be teaching stuff that have neither a plausible scientific foundation nor good evidence base.

But the next one is even better: “It’s arrogant not to accept an individual’s opinion as evidence that a certain treatment has benefited them!!” A complete misunderstanding of how science works and evidence collected? Or a purposefully stupid comment to promote an agenda? Make your choice. It seems the CNHC want to put aside all sorts of cognitive biases, placebo effects, regression to means, and what not, and simply take one’s word to assess the efficacy of a treatment (on second thought, this is exactly how unproven treatments have been promoted for so long: “it worked for me, therefore it works -period“).

post hoc ergo propter hoc

[there seems to be an xkcd comic for every situation!]

The rest of the article is yet another anecdote, with a large number of red flags culminating in a shameless advertisement of a woo practitioner -with very reasonable prices too: sessions start from only £70.

I was as sceptical as the next person about complementary medicine.

The number one red flag that this is a biased article. Now back to Ms Wallace from CNHC:

According to Wallace, doctors and scientists are wrong to adopt an “if it isn’t proven, it doesn’t exist” approach to complementary healing techniques. “It’s ridiculous given how much of conventional medicine started off in this way,” she says.

A straw man argument. The correct statement is: “if it isn’t proven, well, then it isn’t proven!” Most “conventional” medicine (also known as, you know, simply “medicine”) started off building on at least some plausible hypothesis or verifiable observation, and then on positive trials or a good track record.

Magic medicine on the other hand, have started with someone usually coming up with stuff out of one’s arse, probably while high on some strange substance (Chinese life forces and meridians; Samuel’s homeopathic “principles” based on unverifiable instances of post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacies; Reiki’s magic remote energy healing, and the list goes on). Also, where does the “started off” apply? In homeopathy (200 years), acupuncture (around 100 in its modern form), energy healing (Jesus, anyone ;-))? They have had more than enough time to find mechanisms of action and clinical evidence for their spectacular claims. And they have failed miserably. So no comparison there Ms Wallace, sorry.

But she goes on undeterred:

There should be a pragmatic approach to ‘evidence’ with less emphasis on clinical trials that can’t be successfully applied to complementary health.

In other words: science cannot prove my pet modality, so instead of concluding that the modality does not work, let’s instead say that science does not work. A very common “defence” of clinical trials: they cannot properly evaluate magic medicine because it is very individualized (never mind that individualized trials can and have been made numerous times) or it is very “holistic”. Of course it is the same people that are touting any inconclusively positive clinical trial for their magic stuff (despite the fatal conclusions of the majority of systematic reviews for the same stuff). Moving the goalposts is typical of pseudoscience proponents. It is no different in this case.

Bottom line is: no, we do not need to be teaching magic medicine and fairy tales in universities. No, the majority of the alternative treatments simply do not work- otherwise they would not be called “alternative”. Get over it and find another career.

And most importantly: stop bothering us and getting our tax money for crying out loud!