Why do most alternative practitioners show such dogged determination not to change their view of the efficacy of their therapy, even if good evidence shows that it is a placebo? This is the question that I have been pondering for some time. I have seen many doctors change their mind about this or that treatment in the light of new evidence. In fact, I have not seen one who has not done so at some stage. Yet I have never seen an alternative therapist change his/her mind about his/her alternative therapy. Why is that?
You might say that the answers are obvious:
- because they have heavily invested in their therapy, both emotionally and financially;
- because their therapy has ‘stood the test of time’;
- because they believe what they were taught;
- because they are deluded, not very bright, etc.;
- because they need to earn a living.
All of these reasons may apply. But do they really tell the whole story? While contemplating about this question, I thought of something that had previously not been entirely clear to me: they simply KNOW that the evidence MUST be wrong.
Let me try to explain.
Consider an acupuncturist (I could have chosen almost any other type of alternative practitioner) who has many years of experience. He has grown to be a well-respected expert in the world of acupuncture. He sits on various committees and has advised important institutions. He knows the literature and has treated thousands of patients.
This experience has taught him one thing for sure: his patients do benefit from his treatment. He has seen it happening too many times; it cannot be a coincidence. Acupuncture works, no question about it.
And this is also what the studies tell him. Even the most sceptical scientist cannot deny the fact that patients do get better after acupuncture. So, what is the problem?
The problem is that sceptics say that this is due to a placebo effect, and many studies seem to confirm this to be true. Yet, our acupuncturist completely dismisses the placebo explanation.
- Because he has heavily invested in their therapy? Perhaps.
- Because acupuncture has ‘stood the test of time’? Perhaps.
- Because he believes what he has been taught? Perhaps.
- Because he is deluded, not very bright, etc.? Perhaps.
- Because he needs to earn a living? Perhaps.
But there is something else.
He has only ever treated his patients with acupuncture. He has therefore no experience of real medicine, or other therapeutic options. He has no perspective. Therefore, he does not know that patients often get better, even if they receive an ineffective treatment, even if they receive no treatment, and even if they receive a harmful treatment. Every improvement he notes in his patients, he relates to his acupuncture. Our acupuncturist never had the opportunity to learn to doubt cause and effect in his clinical routine. He never had to question the benefits of acupuncture. He never had to select from a pool of therapies the optimal one, because he only ever used acupuncture.
It is this lack of experience that never led him to think critically about acupuncture. He is in a similar situation as physicians were 200 years ago; they only (mainly) had blood-letting, and because some patients improved with it, they had no reason to doubt it. He only ever saw his successes (not that all his patients improved, but those who did not, did not return). He simply KNOWS that acupuncture works, because his own, very limited experience never forced him to consider anything else. And because he KNOWS, the evidence that does not agree with his knowledge MUST be wrong.
I am of course exaggerating and simplifying in order to make a point. And please don’t get me wrong.
I am not saying that doctors cannot be stubborn. And I am not saying that all alternative practitioners have such limited experience and are unable to change their mind in the light of new evidence. However, I am trying to say that many alternative practitioners have a limited perspective and therefore find it impossible to be critical about their own practice.
If I am right, there would be an easy (and entirely alternative) cure to remedy this situation. We should sent our acupuncturist to a homeopath (or any other alternative practitioner whose practice he assumes to be entirely bogus) and ask him to watch what kind of therapeutic success the homeopath is generating. The acupuncturist would soon see that it is very similar to his own. He would then have the choice to agree that highly diluted homeopathic remedies are effective in curing illness, or that the homeopath relies on the same phenomenon as his own practice: placebo.
Sadly, this is not going to happen, is it?