I could have said it better
So do I.
However, I believe in giving props to commenters who manage to one-up Orac, so much so that I even preempted my intended post for today (a rare straight medblog-style post about a rather disquieting patient encounter I had a while back--so stay tuned for it) with this post instead. So, regarding my post about "ethnoscience" and how I viewed it as nothing more than a a bunch of alties trying to change the definition of science to include their particular brand of woo-woo, much as "intelligent design" creationists did in Kansas recently, John Stone added this comment:
Ethnoscience is just good old whacked-out postmodernism with a few twists. (When is the last time you made an appointment with your witch-doctor?) Dr. Robert Imrie did a incredibly good job of disecting one "EthnoVeterinarian" case at this location. This is one of my favorite pieces of writing on the net. http://www.vet-task-force.com/SW41Imr.htm
As we’ll see, in the context of ERD&E, the term “research” refers not to the critical scientific investigation of traditional or folk medical practices, but to their “judgment-free” investigation and “validation” in accordance with the tenets of cultural anthropology.
In any case, I’m certain that advocates of scientific biomedicine share my conviction that various “traditional medical systems” merit rigorous but open-minded scientific evaluation. Who can say what treasures these resources might yield? I suspect that conventional “Western” and even “Third World” veterinarians share Dr. McCorkle’s and my eagerness to “integrate what works in folk medicine” with “what works in scientific biomedicine.” Where we differ seems to be in how we propose to determine “what works and what doesn’t.”
So what's wrong with anecdotes, personal experience, and folk wisdom in determining what treatments "work." It's not that anything is "wrong" with it per se; it's more that we now know that it is not the best way to determine whether a treatment works or is widely applicable. We medical researchers know from the history of science and through long and bitter experience just how easy it is for limited sample size, confirmation bias, regression to the mean, selection bias, and other confounding factors can lead us into thinking a treatment works when it does no. We also know how easy it is for doctors to allow inherent biases and their desire to help people lead them to become too attached to a therapy's supposed efficacy. What seems to be poorly understood among the lay public is that randomized clinical trials exist not because we as physicians and investigators trust ourselves or other scientists but rather because we know that human nature is such that we can't trust ourselves or other scientists to be totally objective. In addition, as hard as it might be for us to accept, we can't trust our own personal experiences to be generalizable to all patients. That's why we need objective measurements, double-blinding where possible, and randomization.
What also infuriates me about much of alternative medicine is that the attitude seems to be that we should have to test everything, even if there is no plausible scientific basis for the proposed therapy. So, while I'm giving other bloggers props for explaining and reinforcing what I'm trying to say, I might as well point out that Dr. RW put it nicely when he decried this attitude:
Other notions proffered for “research” are, in my considered opinion, exercises in pseudoscience---attempts to validate claims that have been debunked and have no biologic plausibility. What’s the point of looking for clinical effects of energy fields undetectable by instruments of physicists and Star Wars forces left behind in water after active ingredients are diluted out?
A strict empiricist might object to my requirement of biologic plausibility, but I maintain a line must be drawn. Otherwise we might as well burn the chemistry and physics books and study every claim that comes along. Why stop with Therapeutic Touch, Homeopathy and Reiki? Let’s go on down the slippery slope and fund studies of astrology, telekinesis and shamanism. And while we’re on the subject of energy medicine why not resurrect Franz Mesmer’s theory of animal magnetism? If only we do enough research his claims will surely be validated. (Discredited in the 18th century, Mesmer would likely be on faculty at a medical school today).
Contrast this desire for acceptance without meeting the standard of science by "ethnoscience" advocates with a recent example from the world of conventional medicine, namely the discovery of H. pylori as the cause for most duodenal ulcers by Robin Warren and Barry Marshall. Yes, Marshall and Warren's ideas were met with extreme skepticism and even ridicule when they first presented their hypothesis that the cause of most duodenal ulcers was bacterial. One of the criticisms was that the proposed mechanism wasn't biologically plausible, that it didn't fit in with existing science. If Warren and Marshall had been alties, they likely would have whined that they weren't being taken seriously by the "conventional medical establishment" or perhaps tried to pull the Galileo gambit prematurely. Fortunately for ulcer patients everywhere, they were and are scientists. So they did what scientists do. They did experiments. They gathered more data. The data was convincing, so much so that other investigators started to wonder if maybe Marshall and Warren might be on to something about H. pylori after all. More investigators started looking into the possible connection and found the same thing. Over a decade, momentum gathered, until there was a paradigm shift in the late 1980's and early 1990's, and a new scientific consensus developed. Warren and Marshall earned the right to be taken seriously, and, in fact, their efforts led them to be taken so seriously that they were awarded the most prestigious prize in medicine last year.
As I've said time and time again, I'm all for scientifically testing various alternative medicines for efficacy and examining mechanisms by which those with efficacy exert their effect. However, we don't have the unlimited resources that it would take to do clinical trials on every claim made by alternative medicine advocates, which is why we need a "triage" system to decide which are worth looking at in more detail. We need reasonable criteria for determining which ones are worth evaluating scientifically. To me, one very basic first screen should be that the therapy being proposed should have a biologically plausible mechanism by which it might work, even if somewhat tenuous. By that standard, many herbal remedies would likely be worth checking out, given that many substances herbs and plants have pharmacological activity. Energy healing would not, because this energy or "qi" cannot be measured, detected, or even objectively described in a way that science can study it. Acupuncture would fall somewhere between as possibly worth checking out. Even though we have to do a bit of handwaving to come up with a semiplausible physiologic and biologic mechanism by which it might work, such mechanisms can be proposed. Not so for homeopathy, pyramid healing, various forms of shamanistic "spirit" healing, or distance healing. The likelihood that any new or efficacious therapy would come from studying these latter alternative medicine therapies is so low that they should be at the bottom of the list in terms of dedication of resources to study them.
It is indeed important to test alternative medical therapies, as there may indeed be hidden gems that we in medicine could appropriate and integrate into our therapies, to the benefit of our patients. However, it is equally important that we do not dilute this effort by evaluating therapies whose basis is without biological, chemical, or even scientific plausibility, unless very clear evidence of efficacy is demonstrated by their advocates.