Tell Me Sweet, Sweet Lies
One of the things that I spend some spare time doing is debating Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) advocates on the intertubes. The wide, wonderful, and wacky world of CAM is full of all manner of cure-alls for whatever ails you. From reflexology to homeopathy to magnet therapy, if you’ve got an illness then surely there’s someone on google claiming that they can heal you.
Something that I have noticed during these enlightened meeting of the minds (or flamewars, if you prefer) is a certain rhetorical strategy that CAM advocates use that seems to trip a good number of people up. Namely, it’s somewhat reminiscent of a bait-and-switch tactic.
CAM advocates are fond of pointing out the flaws of “mainstream” medicine. Obscene profits resulting from direct-to-consumer advertising? Check. Collusion between pharmaceutical companies, teaching / treating physicians, and researchers? Check. Recent attempts to turn the CDC and FDA into political, not scientific, entities? Check. Manufacturers allowed to bury data and hide potential adverse outcomes from regulators? Check. It goes on, but the problem is that they are right on many points. Not all points, mind you – as they tend to have a propensity to resort to tin-foil conspiracies – but on many points.
Our system of health care and, by extension, the support structure of that system (which includes R&D) has many flaws. It’s top-heavy and ultimately concerned with what pays. That’s the bait, and here’s the switch: the argument then morphs to say that CAM has none of these problems and, consequently, is a better choice for consumers and patients alike.
Not so fast, sparky. First off, CAM has some dirt on its hands as well, what with being a multi-million dollar industry, but that’s another post. On point, however, is that the conclusion that CAM is a better choice doesn’t follow from the premise that “mainstream” medicine has flaws. To examine the veracity of that, just have a look at the data. There’s no science to support the vast majority of CAM treatment modalities, and where science does support certain CAM modalities it does not support it to the extent that CAM advocates claim (case in point: acupuncture). In other words, staying at home, drinking water, and eating sugar pills doesn’t have the flaws of “mainstream” medicine…but it won’t cure your cancer, either.
In my view (not that it is worth much) what is a “better” choice for patients amounts to what represents the most efficacious treatment. Sure, you can pay $10 for the homeopathic remedy versus the $50 for the antibiotics – but at the end of the day, only one of those is going to be genuinely helpful for fighting illness or disease.
I forget who said that the best way to pass your lies is to sprinkle them with a dash of the truth, but they could’ve been a CAM advocate.