MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

If one spends a lot of time, as I presently do, sorting out old files, books, journals etc., one is bound to come across plenty of weird and unusual things. I for one, am slow at making progress with this task, mainly because I often start reading the material that is in front of me. It was one of those occasions that I had begun studying a book written by one of the more fanatic proponent of alternative medicine and stumbled over the term THE PROOF OF EXPERIENCE. It made me think, and I began to realise that the notion behind these four words is quite characteristic of the field of alternative health care.

When I studied medicine, in the 1970s, we were told by our peers what to do, which treatments worked for which conditions and why. They had all the experience and we, by definition, had none. Experience seemed synonymous with proof. Nobody dared to doubt the word of ‘the boss’. We were educated, I now realise, in the age of EMINENCE-BASED MEDICINE.

All of this gradually changed when the concepts of EVIDENCE-BASED MEDICINE became appreciated and generally adopted by responsible health care professionals. If now the woman or man on top of the medical ‘pecking order’ claims something that is doubtful in view of the published evidence, it is possible (sometimes even desirable) to say so – no matter how junior the doubter happened to be. As a result, medicine has thus changed for ever: progress is no longer made funeral by funeral [of the bosses] but new evidence is much more swiftly translated into clinical practice.

Don’t get me wrong, EVIDENCE-BASED MEDICINE does not does not imply disrespect EXPERIENCE; it merely takes it for what it is. And when EVIDENCE and EXPERIENCE fail to agree with each other, we have to take a deep breath, think hard and try to do something about it. Depending on the specific situation, this might involve further study or at least an acknowledgement of a degree of uncertainty. The tension between EXPERIENCE and EVIDENCE often is the impetus for making progress. The winner in this often complex story is the patient: she will receive a therapy which, according to the best available EVIDENCE and careful consideration of the EXPERIENCE, is best for her.

NOT SO IN ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE!!! Here EXPERIENCE still trumps EVIDENCE any time, and there is no need for acknowledging uncertainty: EXPERIENCE = proof!!!

In case you think I am exaggerating, I recommend thumbing through a few books on the subject. As I already stated, I have done this quite a bit in recent months, and I can assure you that there is very little evidence in these volumes to suggest that data, research, science, etc.. matter a hoot. No critical thinking is required, as long as we have EXPERIENCE on our side!

‘THE PROOF OF EXPERIENCE’ is still a motto that seems to be everywhere in alternative medicine. In many ways, it seems to me, this motto symbolises much of what is wrong with alternative medicine and the mind-set of its proponents. Often, the EXPERIENCE is in sharp contrast to the EVIDENCE. But this little detail does not seem to irritate anyone. Apologists of alternative medicine stubbornly ignore such contradictions. In the rare case where they do comment at all, the gist of their response normally is that EXPERIENCE is much more relevant than EVIDENCE. After all, EXPERIENCE is based on hundreds of years and thousands of ‘real-life’ cases, while EVIDENCE is artificial and based on just a few patients.

As far as I can see, nobody in alternative medicine pays more than a lip service to the fact that EXPERIENCE can be [and often is] grossly misleading. Little or no acknowledgement exists of the fact that, in clinical routine, there are simply far too many factors that interfere with our memories, impressions, observations and conclusions. If a patient gets better after receiving a therapy, she might have improved for a dozen reasons which are unrelated to the treatment per se. And if a patient does not get better, she might not come back at all, and the practitioner’s memory will therefore fail register such events as therapeutic failures. Whatever EXPERIENCE is, in health care, it rarely constitutes proof!

The notion of THE PROOF OF EXPERIENCE, it thus turns out, is little more than self-serving, wishful thinking which characterises the backward attitude that seems to be so remarkably prevalent in alternative medicine. No tension between EXPERIENCE and EVIDENCE is noticeable because the EVIDENCE is being ignored; as a result, there is no progress. The looser is, of course, the patient: she will receive a treatment based on criteria which are less than reliable.

Isn’t it time to burry the fallacy of THE PROOF OF EXPERIENCE once and for all?

5 Responses to The proof of experience?

  • The only source of knowledge is experience.

    • The only source of knowledge is experience.

      Deliberate vagueness much? Define ‘knowledge’ and ‘experience’ as you mean these terms. Otherwise, pulling a quote completely out of context from a famous scientist while using that scientist’s name as your nym is a cheap parlor trick, naught more.

  • In Traditional Chinese Medicine, there is more reliance on Tradition and Theory than experience. Proponents will say that it is the ‘clinical experience of thousands of years,’ but the truth is that most TCM practitioners have been taught to do what they are told, and if they don’t get the effects they expected, it is because they didn’t listen closely enough. For example, with colds and flus, heat symptoms get cooling herbs and cold symptoms get warming herbs. Heat symptoms include red throat, yellow tongue, fever. Cold symptoms include chills, runny nose with clear mucus, white tongue coat. Warm herbs include ginger and cinnamon twigs, cooling herbs include mint and chrysanthemum flowers.
    When looking for research on these sorts of things, I found out that drinking hot beverages (including just water) eases cold and flu symptoms. Add on plenty of placebo and tradition, and you have centuries of ‘experience’ confirming the theory that hot mint tea eases heat symptoms and hot ginger tea eases cold symptoms. Was there any effort to do this in a good study, such as a 3 arm trial with hot water, hot mint, and hot ginger given to a big group of people with colds and flus? No! It was just generations of tradition, passing down a theory as fact, with as many generations of confirmation bias showing that when you do the right treatment, a cold goes away in 7 days, but if you do the wrong treatment, it can take a really long week to get better.

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