MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

Whenever I or anyone else conducts a debate about problems in alternative medicine with advocates of this type of health care, the following argument is bound to pop up in one form or another: NO NEED TO POINT OUT MINOR FLAWS WITH MY FAVOURITE THERAPY; LOOK AT THE ENORMOUS PROBLEMS IN CONVENTIONAL MEDICINE!

This type of ‘alternative logic’ has emerged after nearly every single post I published on this blog, and it comes up almost inevitably after lectures I give to general audiences. Recently I was even heckled in that way by one of my hosts in a German ‘Volkshochschule’. She interrupted me twice during my lecture after I had pointed out that homeopathy was both costly and not free of risks. Her arguments were so typical that I will repeat them here:

  1. Much more money is spent on conventional drugs than on homeopathics.
  2. Conventional medicines have much more serious side-effects than homeopathics.

As this sort of logic is so amazingly popular in alternative medicine, and as it seems so very convincing to most lay people, it is time, I think, that I address it in some detail.

IT IS FALLACIOUS

The seemingly logic argument is essentially nothing but a classical fallacy; it is often called the ‘tu quoque’ fallacy and can easily be shown to be illogical, for instance, by quoting examples pointing out that

  • the large number of death on the road cannot justify unsafe trains,
  • poor aeroplane design is no support for the concept of flying carpets,
  • you neighbour beating up his wife does not entitle you to be nasty to your spouse,
  • just because you claim that everyone is cheating, you are not allowed to be dishonest,
  • the high fatality rate of one hospital is not a justification for negligence in another, etc. etc.

In the context of alternative medicine: a poor track record of mainstream medicine is no reason to tolerate problems with alternative medicine.

IT IS DANGEROUSLY WRONG

The argument that, compared with conventional medicine, the problems of alternative medicine are unimportant, is not just fallacious, it is factually wrong. The comparison of the costs or the risks of homeopathy with those of conventional medicines, for instance, is an entirely false approach.

When it comes to risks of therapeutic interventions, we always need to consider the benefits; as homeopathics have none of the latter, a risk/benefit comparison between homeopathy and the best evidence-based conventional therapy will hardly ever favour homeopathy. And when it comes to costs, we equally need to consider the benefits; as homeopathics have no benefits beyond placebo, a cost/benefit analysis comparison cannot favour homeopathy.

Why is it dangerous to claim otherwise? The answer is fairly obvious, I think: the argument that the problems with alternative medicine are negligible because those of conventional medicine are far, far bigger is fallacious and thus leads to wrong decisions in health care. And who would deny that wrong decisions in this area are dangerous? In fact, they can cost lives!

SO, PLEASE DO ME A FAVOUR AND DO NOT USE SUCH UNREFLECTED PSEUDO-ARGUMENTS ON THIS BLOG ANY MORE!!!

6 Responses to Alternative logic in alternative medicine: popular, fallacious and dangerously wrong

  • The argument I use is usually that the killing of 77 people by Anders Breivik does not entitle anybody else to go out and shoot a few people.

  • I think it is their way of trying to counter cost benefit analysis when their favoured “treatment” that has cost and no benefit.

  • That argument reflects the partisan nature of these discussions. People feel that in criticizing alt-med, you are on the side of mainstream medicine and won’t acknowledge its problems.
    It’s very important to avoid actually being partisan.
    Also, the sellers of alt-med routinely trash mainstream medicine as a way of convincing people they’re the answer. It’s similar to how a cult tells its members how bad the outside world is.

    • Also, the sellers of alt-med routinely trash mainstream medicine as a way of convincing people they’re the answer. It’s similar to how a cult tells its members how bad the outside world is.

      Indeed. A fine tradition of exquisitely bad behaviour, and Samuel Hahnemann of homeopathy fame was a master of the genre. Everyone should read his Organon to understand how alternologists excel in trashing everyone except themselves, with no demonstrable facts to back them up.

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