Advocates of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) often sound like a broken record to me. They bring up the same ‘arguments’ over and over again, no matter whether they happen to be defending acupuncture, energy healing, homeopathy, or any other form of SCAM. Here are some of the most popular of these generic ‘arguments’:
1. It helped me
The supporters of SCAM regularly cite their own good experiences with their particular form of treatment and think that this is proof enough. However, they forget that any symptomatic improvement they may have felt can be the result of several factors that are unrelated to the SCAM in question. To mention just a few:
- Regression towards the mean
- Natural history of the disease
2. My SCAM is without risk
Since homeopathic remedies, for instance, are highly diluted, it makes sense to assume that they cannot cause side effects. Several other forms of SCAM are equally unlikely to cause adverse effects. So, the notion is seemingly correct. However, this ‘argument’ ignores the fact that it is not the therapy itself that can pose a risk, but the SCAM practitioner. For example, it is well documented – and, on this blog, we have discussed it often – that many of them advise against vaccination, which can undoubtedly cause serious harm.
3. SCAM has stood the test of time
It is true that many SCAMs have survived for hundreds or even thousands of years. It is also true that millions still use it even today. This, according to enthusiasts, is sufficient proof of SCAM’s efficacy. But they forget that many therapies have survived for centuries, only to be proved useless in the end. Just think of bloodletting or mercury preparations from past times.
4 The evidence is not nearly as negative as skeptics pretend
Yes, there are plenty of positive studies on some SCAMs This is not surprising. Firstly, from a purely statistical point of view, if we have, for instance, 1 000 studies of a particular SCAM, it is to be expected that, at the 5% level of statistical significance, about 50 of them will produce a significantly positive result. Secondly, this number becomes considerably larger if we factor in the fact that most of the studies are methodologically poor and were conducted by SCAM enthusiasts with a corresponding bias (see my ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE HALL OF FAME on this blog). However, if we base our judgment on the totality of the most robust studies, the bottom line is almost invariably that there is no overall convincingly positive result.
5. The pharmaceutical industry is suppressing SCAM
SCAM is said to be so amazingly effective that the pharmaceutical industry would simply go bust if this fact became common knowledge. Therefore Big Pharma is using its considerable resources to destroy SCAM. This argument is fallacious because:
- there is no evidence to support it,
- far from opposing SCAM, the pharmaceutical industry is heavily involved in SCAM (for example, by manufacturing homeopathic remedies, dietary supplements, etc.)
6 SCAM could save a lot of money
It is true that SCAMs are on average much cheaper than conventional medicines. However, one must also bear in mind that price alone can never be the decisive factor. We also need to consider other issues such as the risk/benefit balance. And a reduction in healthcare costs can never be achieved by ineffective therapies. Without effectiveness, there can be no cost-effectiveness.
7 Many conventional medicines are also not evidence-based
Sure, there are some treatments in conventional medicine that are not solidly supported by evidence. So why do we insist on solid evidence for SCAM? The answer is simple: in all areas of healthcare, intensive work is going on aimed at filling the gaps and improving the situation. As soon as a significant deficit is identified, studies are initiated to establish a reliable basis. Depending on the results, appropriate measures are eventually taken. In the case of negative findings, the appropriate measure is to exclude treatments from routine healthcare, regardless of whether the treatment in question is conventional or alternative. In other words, this is work in progress. SCAM enthusiasts should ask themselves how many treatments they have discarded so far. The answer, I think, is zero.
8 SCAM cannot be forced into the straitjacket of a clinical trial
This ‘argument’ surprisingly popular. It supposes that SCAM is so individualized, holistic, subtle, etc., that it defies science. The ‘argument’ is false, and SCAM advocates know it, not least because they regularly and enthusiastically cite those scientific papers that seemingly support their pet therapy.
9 SCAM is holistic
This may or may not be true, but the claim of holism is not a monopoly of SCAM. All good medicine is holistic, and in order to care for our patients holistically, we certainly do not need SCAM.
1o SCAM complements conventional medicine
This argument might be true: SCAM is often used as an adjunct to conventional treatments. Yet, there is no good reason why a complementary treatment should not be shown to be worth the effort and expense to add it to another therapy. If, for instance, you pay for an upgrade on a flight, you also want to make sure that it is worth the extra expenditure.
11 In Switzerland it works, too
That’s right, in Switzerland, a small range of SCAMs was included in basic health care by referendum. However, it has been reported that the consequences of this decision are far from positive. It brought no discernible benefit and only caused very considerable costs.
I am sure there are many more such ‘arguments’. Feel free to post your favorites!
My point here is this:
the ‘arguments’ used in defense of SCAM are not truly arguments; they are fallacies, misunderstandings, and sometimes even outright lies.