The most common pronouncement regarding alternative medicine that I have heard over the years from consumers, health care professionals or decision makers with a liking of alternative medicine goes as follows: “I don’t care how it works, as long as it helps.”
At first glance, this argument seems reasonable, logic and correct; it would be foolish, perhaps even unethical, to reject an effective treatment simply because we fail to understand how its effectiveness comes about – this would not be pragmatic and it is not what we do in medicine: aspirin, for instance, was used and helped many patients long before we understood how it worked. However, once we consider the way this notion is regularly used to defend the use of unproven therapies, we see that, in this context, it is fallacious – in fact, if we dissect it carefully, we find that it crams three large fallacies in one tiny sentence.
The first thing we notice is that the argument combines two fundamentally different issues which really should be separate 1) the mechanism of action of a therapy and 2) its clinical effectiveness. The matter gets clearer, if we discuss it not in the abstract, but in relation to a concrete example: BACH FLOWER REMEDIES (BFRs). I could have selected many other alternative therapies but BFRs seem fine, particularly as they have so far received no mention on this blog.
Similar to homeopathic preparations, BFRs are so dilute that they do not contain any active ingredients to speak of (they differ from homeopathic preparations, however, in that they do not follow the ‘like cures like’ principle). Several clinical trials of BFRs have been published; collectively, their results show very clearly that the clinical effects of BFRs do not differ from those of placebo. (This does not stop manufacturers selling and consumers buying them; in fact, BFRs are a thriving business.)
The principles backing up BFRs are scientifically implausible, and even BFR-practitioners would probably admit that they have no scientifically defensible idea how their remedies work. Scientists might add that a mechanism of action of such highly dilute remedies is not just unknown but unknowable; there is no way to explain how they work without re-writing several laws of nature.
The overall situation is thus quite clear: BFRs are not effective and there is no plausible mechanism of action.Yet it is hard to deny that many patients feel better after having consulted a BFR-practitioner (or after self-medicating BFRs), and those satisfied customers often insist: “I don’t care how BFRs work, as long as they help me.”
As previously discussed, symptoms can improve for a range of reasons which are related to any specific therapeutic effect: the natural history of the condition, regression towards the mean, placebo-effects etc. Only rigorously controlled trials can tell us whether the therapy or other factors caused the clinical outcome; our perception alone cannot identify cause and effect.
The fact that thousands of patients swear by BFRs, does therefore not constitute proof for their efficacy. The explanation of the apparently different impressions from experience and the results of clinical trials is therefore simple: the empathetic encounter with a therapist and/or a placebo-effect and/or the natural history of the condition are perceived as helpful, while the BFRs are pure placebos.
Back to the notion “I don’t care how this therapy works, as long as it helps” – it turns out to be based on at least three misunderstandings all tightly woven together.
Firstly, it was not the treatment itself that helped, but something else (see above). To imply that the treatment worked is therefore a fallacy.
Secondly, the reference to an unknown mechanism of action is aimed at misleading the opponent: it distracts from the first fallacy (“the treatment is effective”) by super-imposing a second fallacy (that there might be a mechanism of action). Crucially it attempts to wrong-foot the opponent by implying: “you reject something useful simply because you cannot explain it; this is poor logic and even worse ethics – shame on you!”.
BFR-enthusiasts are bound to see all this quite differently. They will probably claim that a placebo-effect is also a plausible mechanism. “Surely” they might say “this means that BFRs are useful and should be widely employed”.
In proclaiming this, they turn the double-fallacy into a triple fallacy. What they forget is that we do not need a placebo to generate placebo-effects. An effective treatment administered with time, compassion and empathy will, of course, also generate a placebo-effect – what is more, it would generate a specific therapeutic effect on top of it. Thus the BFR are quite useless in comparison. There is rarely a good justification for using placebos in clinical routine.
In conclusion, the often-used and seemingly reasonable sentence “I don’t care how it works, as long as it is helpful turns out to be a package of fallacies when used to support the use of unproven treatments.