Anyone who has followed this blog for a while will know that advocates of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) are either in complete denial about the risks of SCAM or they do anything to trivialize them. Here is a dialogue between a SCAM proponent (P) and a scientist (S) that is aimed at depicting this situation. The conversation is fictitious, of course, but it is nevertheless based on years of experience in discussing these issues with practitioners of various types of SCAM. As we shall see, the arguments turn out to be perfectly circular.
P: My therapy is virtually free of risks.
S: How can you be so sure?
P: I am practicing it for decades and have never seen a single problem.
S: That could have several reasons; perhaps the patients who experience problems did simply not come back.
P: I find this unlikely.
S: I don’t, and I know of reports where patients had serious complications after the type of SCAM you practice.
P: These are isolated case reports. They do not amount to evidence.
S: How do you know they are isolated?
P: They must be isolated because, in the many clinical trials of my therapy available to date, you will not find any evidence of serious adverse effects.
S: That is true, but it has been repeatedly shown that these trials regularly fail to mention side effects altogether.
P: That’s because there aren’t any.
S: Not quite, clinical trials should always mention adverse effects, and if there were none, they should mention this too.
P: So, you admit that you have no evidence that my therapy causes adverse effects.
S: The thing is, I don’t need such evidence. It is you, the practitioners of this therapy, who should provide evidence that your treatments are safe.
P: We did! The complete absence of reports of side effects constitutes that evidence.
S: Except, there is some evidence. I already told you that there are several case reports of serious problems.
P: But case reports are anecdotes; they are no evidence.
S: Look, here is a systematic review of all the case reports. You cannot possibly deny that this is a concern.
P: It’s still merely a bunch of anecdotes, nothing more.
S: Only because your profession does nothing about it.
P: What do you think we need to do about it?
S: Like other professions, you need to systematically record adverse effects.
P: How would that help?
S: It would give us a rough indication of the size and severity of the problem.
P: This sounds expensive and complicated to organize.
S: Perhaps, but it is necessary if you want to be sure that your therapy is safe.
P: But we are sure already!
S: No, you believe it, but you don’t know it.
P: You are getting on my nerves with your obsession. Don’t you know that the true danger in healthcare is the adverse effects of pharmaceutical drugs?
S: But these drugs are also effective.
P: Are you saying my therapy isn’t?
S: What I am saying is that the drugs you claim to be dangerous do more good than harm, while this is not at all clear with your SCAM.
P: To me, that is very clear. My therapy helps many and harms nobody!
S: How do you know that it harms nobody?
… At this point, we have gone full circle and we can re-start this conversation from its beginning.