Saturday, August 01, 2009

Continuing the Assault on the Enemies of Reason

In part one of Richard Dawkins' documentary mini-series Enemies of Reason, Dawkins uses things such as astrology and water dousing to show how such superstitions lead people into irrational beliefs -- something that he seems to hope will cast a shadow over theistic religion.

In part two, Dawkins takes aim at alternative medicine and attempts to demonstrate that the medical field has become a "battleground between reason and superstition".

Dawkins notes that up to one third of British citizens subscribe to some sort of alternative medicine -- ranging from faith healers to homeopathic medicines. Apparently, the threat to reason posed by its enemies are very grave, indeed.

Dawkins equates rising rates of people using alternative medicine as a challenge to scientific medicine.

In some cases, the alleged attacks on science are coming from within the scientific community by way of poorly-conducted studies. Dawkins notes a 1998 study that incorrectly linked MMR vaccine with autism. After this study was released, 100s of thousands of parents refused to inoculate their children leading to new outbreaks of childhood diseases such as measles and the mumps.

Dawkins insists that this episode demonstrates that evidence has been devalued. But he is wrong.

What this evidence shows is that "facts" forwarded under the guise of science are all too often accepted without any vestige of critical thinking. The conclusions of bad science are all too often accepted right alongside the conclusions offered by good science.

It isn't that evidence has been de-valued. It's that poor evidence is being granted greater credence than it's due.

Dawkins complains that media coverage of alternative medicines aren't subjected to the same scrutiny that other news topics, such as politics, are subjected to. And he may well be right about this.

But one would wonder if the MMR autism study would have had the effect it did if the news media had asked those who conducted that particular study -- a survey of only 12 children -- hard questions about its methodology, or had corroborated the results of that study against the findings of other scientists.

Basically, the study was accepted by the news media according to a faith-based credulity granted to those who conducted the study. They are, after all, scientists.

What Dawkins eventually concludes is that the Placebo Effect must explain the seeming successes of homeopathic medicines.

The Skeptic's Dictionary defines the Placebo Effect as "the measurable, observable, or felt improvement in health or behavior not attributable to a medication or invasive treatment that has been administered".

Certainly, the scientific evidence, as recorded through scientific study, that alternative medicines can accomplish what they purport to accomplish is rather meager. Homeopathy is almost certainly clear example of this.

For its own part, the Utah Behavioral Healthcare Network would object to this statement. "To claim that homeopathic remedies are simply a creation brought on by the placebo effect is closed minded at best," it writes on its website.

Even the UBHN cannot define what it is they believe makes homeopathic medicines work:
"Homeopathic remedies work. It has been seen in many people all over the world that homeopathic remedies work. The placebo effect is the brain taking control of the body and helping it to heal itself. Isn't that what homeopathic remedies try to do? So, it would be obvious that the results would look similar to the placebo effect.

The AMA and allopathic doctors have been trying to prove homeopathic remedies to be the placebo effect for 200 years. However, people still use and swear by homeopathic remedies. Some homeopathic remedies work simply. They replace what the body needs. They take the symptoms that are meant to heal the body and enhance their effects. The placebo effect may be real in some cases but it isn't true for the entirety of homeopathic remedies.
Certainly people "swearing by" homeopathic medicines doesn't amount to evidence that they work. People who swear by homeopathic medicines clearly believe resolutely that they will work -- it's this resolute belief that is necessary for the Placebo Effect to take place.

In a double-blind scientific study, as Richard Dawkins calls for, many participants would likely not have that belief. This is what makes the placebo effect so hard to scientifically test for, and what makes it so difficult to prove that homeopathic medicines work.

Considering that many homeopaths admit that all they sell is pure, undiluted water -- or at least as close to pure, undiluted water as one can find -- there are few explanations for homeopathic medicine's successes (as they are) but the placebo effect.

Michael Baum, a professor of surgery at London's University College, offers a different explanation: the successes of homeopathic medicines may simply be due to the effect of human care. Baum and Dawkins both note that homeopathic practitioners -- as well as practicioners of other alternative medicines -- spend much more time with their patients than conventional general practicioners.

Baum suggests that homeopaths would make fantastic GPs -- although he wonders who would then help -- via the placebo effect -- those who believe in homeopathy.

To grant alternative medicines such as homeopathy more credence than they are due would certainly be irrational. But to overlook the potential for homeopathic medicine to use the placebo effect to complement conventional medicine is no more rational.

In the end, Dawkins may show more of himself than he shows of homeopathic medicine. In the end, Dawkins tells a homeopath that if he wanted to exploit the placebo effect he would dress it up in the appearance of respectability, just as homeopaths do.

According to the principle of charity, one attributes what their own intentions would be in any given situation to their subject.

If Dawkins would happily exploit homeopathy by dressing it up in the appearance of respectability, one may wonder if perhaps Dawkins isn't exploiting atheism by stirring up notions of being an oppressed minority.

It's far from a reasonable thing to believe. But, then again, Dawkins has so often proven to be less than entirely reasonable that it certainly isn't outside the realm of feasibility.

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