Sunday, February 10, 2008

Alternative medicine and fallacious arguments

Some impressions from reading recent CAM defender statements

Debating with alternative medicine apologists can sometimes be a tedious affair. Reading through posts on some of the threads going at the Science Based Medicine site (lots of activity there recently), it becomes evident that -knowingly or not- many of these folks tend to fall back on recurring themes.

It appears that some of these apologists do not appear to be interested in a frank and honest discussion of the issue at hand, but rather many insist on focusing on an almost reflexive and hermetic defense of their “pet” position. These CAM supporters appear to be oblivious to the sometimes enormous gaps between the solid weight of evidence against their topic “du jour” and the naked precariousness of their defense. This is a classic example of the cognitive dissonance often observed throughout CAM in general.

The following list just touches on some recent problems with the arguments of many CAM supporters I’ve noted that muffles effective communication and blunts open discussion (a more thorough examination of these arguments would likely uncover a host of even more fallacious reasoning):

1) A priori assumptions. This is taking the whole scientific process of observing phenomena to then eventually formulating a hypothesis about it and turning it on its head. Placing a conclusion first, then attempting to gather data that supports this view brushes away objectivity and completely disconnects the observer from reality. This is a recipe for creating a belief system and allows for abstractions far removed from what actually occurs. This approach reveals a deeper level of inflexible conviction that permeates their argument, crystallizes these beliefs, and makes them impervious to self doubt and critical analysis.

2) Mioptic views. Many CAM apologists tend to focus almost exclusively on one small area of the topic at hand. They discuss the fine details and deep intricacies of one drug or concept and completely miss a broader and more significant point. By obsessing on one tree many CAM supporters completely miss the entire forest of trees around them. One reason for this is because; the deeper they go on their merry journey the more they tend to lose connection with the broader base of scientific knowledge- this becomes a rabbit hole to no-where. This reasoning is a form of causal reductionism where so much attention is given to one variable that a whole host of other fatcors are not taken into account. This is where many obesity and cholesterol folks can sometimes get lost.

3) Vomiting data. This approach seems to be a favorite among many of the nutritional supplement apologists. You will suddenly be confronted with what appear to be reams of cold hard data supporting one pet theory, belief, or whatever. On closer scrutiny one finds that these studies or other data sources are cherry picked from a much larger body of evidence that –on its whole- is either inconclusive or actually argue against the CAM topic at hand. They are often obscure in detail or discuss a tangentially related topic and do not support the argument at hand. At times these sources are very old documents and disconnected from present day scientific activity (it is not uncommon to find no mention of them on PUBMED or any other scientific data bases).

4) Because of this/therefore that (confusing correlation and causation). Many CAM supporters like to inappropriately blend and confound their theories with others from an unrelated field. In quantum theory nonlocality and superposition are often correlated to the claimed health effects of many CAM modalities. Supporters seem to completely and blatantly ignore the real science in a spectacular misrepresentation of the facts literally making up a story that “fits’ their paradigm.

5) Repeating the same claim. This is an argument of repetition, where a CAM defender will seem to ignore a clear counterpoint, not address it, and continue to ramble on in a defense of their claim. A related version is when a supporter claims his/her counter claim was not addressed when in fact it was.

6) Lack of knowledge in the scientific method and critical thinking. This is a common thread throughout many CAM arguments. There seems to be a lack of understanding that science is a messy, complex, and often slow endeavor. Many want to bypass the rigors of this work and jump to a favored conclusion. On a similar vein, other CAM supporters will use the complex nature of scientific observation to “move the goalpost” and continually refine their defense beyond what is known. Many others take the tact of asking more and more questions eventually hitting on something an opponent may not be expert on (a demand to impossible perfection). They thereby claim a victory- hollow as it is.

7) Testimonials and emotional reasoning. This is a big one. It relates to not having a solid grasp on how probability and statistics "behaves". This reflects a lack of knowledge with respect to how real nature works. Appealing to these personal stories is the bread and butter of innumerable CAM modalities and is intimately related to aspects of delusion and, in many cases, outright deception.

8) Conspiracy theories. Claims of “the man”, big pharma, or some other ominous entity overseeing and buying off whole sectors of society are a favorite staple of many CAM defenders. These attitudes are reminiscent of mind sets that made Molder of the X- files so famous. This is a weak attempt to defend failed hypothesis without considering much simpler reasons for that failure. For example, that they actually do not work!

9) Ad hominem. When in doubt attempt to destroy the messenger. Though tired and repetitive, this is another reflexive reaction against those critically probing a CAM modality and seems to be as common as ever.


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