Why do people turn to alternative medicine? After posing this question last year, Steven Novella said it’s not because western medicine is failing. Rather, he explained,
many people have personal experiences with illness and health care, and personal experience can have a powerful influence on our beliefs (even if we are generally science and evidence-based in our thinking). We are apparently hard-wired to find anecdotes compelling, and nothing is more compelling than our own personal anecdotes.
There was a time when Gary Null, a popular alternative health speaker and author, was the Deepak Chopra of nutrition. He’s written best-selling books (one of them about reversing the aging process) and like Chopra, has been featured by PBS during fundraising drives. Nearing 70, Null was in the news several years ago when he sued the manufacturer of his own dietary supplement, claiming it nearly killed him.
The self-help guru has had a long and interesting career. One reporter notes:
His first tome, “The Complete Guide to Health and Nutrition,” [published in 1986] led to a decades long column in Penthouse magazine, where Null railed on topics like the ineffectiveness of mainstream cancer treatment and the deadly health risks of vaccinations.
In addition to his promotion of alternative cancer treatments, Null has argued that HIV is harmless and does not cause AIDS. In his  book AIDS: A Second Opinion, Null questioned the role of antiretroviral medication and instead advocated a range of dietary supplements for HIV-positive individuals.
Null, as you might expect, is fiercely opposed to genetically modified foods. Indeed, “natural health” proponents are among the most fanatical opponents of GMOs. As David Gorski at the Science-based Medicine blog has observed:
There’s a lot in common between anti-GMO activists and antivaccine activists. Perhaps the most prominent similarity is philosophical. Both groups fetishize the naturalistic fallacy, otherwise known as the belief that if it’s “natural” it must be good (or at least better than anything man-made or “artificial”).
If you want a taste of this fetish, I suggest you tune in at noon on weekdays, to WBAI, where Null is the long-time host of a radio show on the virtues of alternative health practices and the dangers of conventional medicine. (Here is an archive of his hour-long shows.) Naturally, he uses this forum to explain why vaccines and GMOs are unsafe. His soothing voice belies the misleading pseudoscience of his claims. He may talk like Mr. Rogers but what he says could kill you, if you are someone who has cancer or AIDS and you take his advice.
If you know anyone who swears by acupuncture, homeopathy, or any other unproven treatments that fall under the alternative medicine rubric, then you know there is no dissuading them with a science-based argument. What matters most to alternative health devotees is their own personal experiences and the people they trust–like Dr. Oz, Oprah, Prince Charles, etc.
The healing power of music, however, is for real. As George Clinton and Parliament said:
If you got faults, defects or shortcomings,
You know, like arthritis, rheumatism or migraines,
Whatever part of your body it is,
I want you to lay it on your radio, let the vibes flow through.
No, I’m not suggesting that any serious, debilitating ailments will be cured through music. But anything that makes you feel good has something to offer. So play that funky music till you die.
One of the big reasons why evidence-based arguments so often fail to persuade is that people turn to their own trusted sources for information. For example, I know that Vandana Shiva is peddling a load of horseshit about Indian farmers committing suicide en masse supposedly because of Monsanto and GMOs. (There’s a part of me that thinks she even knows this.) But many in media and environmental advocacy circles like her and trust her, so they don’t question her agenda-driven distortion of the actual facts. This drives me insane, but that’s a different story.
Another illustration of our biased information-gleaning process is on vivid display at the blog of Tom Chivers, a journalist with the Telegraph, a British newspaper. In a post today, Chivers describes how, on the matter of homeopathy, the expert judgement of the UK’s Chief Medical Officer (who calls it “rubbish”) is ignored by the government’s National Health Service, which endorses homeopathic treatments.
Now, there’s a comment in the Chivers post that shows why that consensus scientific opinion is dismissed by people who believe in homeopathy (and other unproven alternative medicines).
Mmm – whose view to trust about homeopathy? Someone who has used homeopathy for years e.g. Myself, my animals, the Queen Mother, the Queen, Mahatma Gandhi, Yehudi Menuhin – the list goes on and on – or the Chief Medical Officer of England or Tom Chivers (both of whom I had not heard of until today). Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it I say…..
Amazingly, you’re going with “not the Chief Medical Officer of England”, which strikes me as a bold stance to take.
But is it really that amazing and bold? Let’s turn to Steven Novella at his Science-based Medicine blog:
While attending a lecture by a naturopath at my institution I had the opportunity to ask the following question: given the extreme scientific implausibility of homeopathy, and the overall negative clinical evidence, why do you continue to prescribe homeopathic remedies? The answer, as much as my question, exposed a core difference between scientific and sectarian health care providers. She said, “Because I have seen it work in my practice.”
There it is. She and many other practitioners of dubious modalities are compelled by anecdotal experience while I am not.
An anecdote is a story – in the context of medicine it often relates to an individual’s experience with their disease or symptoms and their efforts to treat it. People generally find anecdotes highly compelling, while scientists are deeply suspicious of anecdotes. We are fond of saying that the plural of anecdote is anecdotes, not data. Why is this?
Humans are social storytelling animals – we instinctively learn by the experience of others. My friend ate that plant with the bright red berries and then became very ill – lesson: don’t eat from that plant. This is a type of heuristic, a mental shortcut that humans evolved in order to make quick and mostly accurate judgments about their environment. From an evolutionary point of view it is probably statistically advantageous just to avoid the plant with the red berries rather than conduct blinded experiments to see if it really was the plant that made your friend sick.
Further, the most compelling stories are our own. When we believe we have experienced something directly, it is difficult to impossible to convince us otherwise. It’s just the way humans are hardwired.
I encourage you to read the whole post, which is very informative. This suggestion comes near the end:
Understanding the nature and role of anecdotes is vital to bridging the gap between the proponents of science-based medicine and believers in dubious or sectarian health practices (as well as the public at large).
UPDATE: On a somewhat related note, read this fascinating article in Harvard magazine, titled “The Placebo Phenomenon.”
[A homeopathic pharmacy in Britain. Source/Guardian.]
He gave up Christianity at age 13 when he saw starving children on the cover of Life magazine. (AP)
* He was returning from an apple farm on one of his fruitarian diets when he chose the name of his company (AP)
* He told John Sculley (the former Pepsi exec who ousted Jobs) that if he hadn’t started Apple (AAPL) he might have been a poet in Paris (Huffington Post)
*He told Barack Obama he was headed for a one-term presidency (Huffington Post)
*He offered to create Obama’s ad campaign but became annoyed because Obama’s strategist David Axelrod wasn’t sufficiently deferential (HuffPo)
*Gates was fascinated with Jobs but found him “fundamentally odd” and “weirdly flawed as a human being” (HuffPo)
Oddly, Mooney didn’t include this nugget:
He [Jobs] came to regret having delayed surgery when his cancer was first diagnosed — turning instead to fruit juices, acupuncture and herbal cures, some of which he found on the Internet.
Anyway, Mooney goes on to write:
I’ve been thinking a lot about Apple’s success, and the Jobs phenomenon, from the perspective of the study of human personality. And I’m willing to bet that Jobs was a person who would have scored very high on the trait Openness to Experience““fractious, rebellious, innovative, intellectual, unconventional, determined to change the world and be noticed.