Why do otherwise rational, sensible people choose to reject good science in some cases and believe unfounded claims in others?
With apparently eroding trust in government and authority, people are looking to less reliable sources of information – which is particularly dangerous when it comes to health. On the one hand, they believe stories such as ‘Facebook causes cancer‘, or in the unproven alt-meds of homeopathy and vitamin supplements, yet they reject solid scientific evidence with regard to vaccine safety, anti-retroviral drugs or GM crops.
As Michael Specter says in this TED 2010 talk, “We hate BigPharma… and we run from it into the arms of Big Placebo*.”
“The idea that we should not allow science to do its job because we are afraid is really very deadening, and it’s preventing millions of people from prospering.”
From a TOK perspective, how does this talk highlight the clash between emotion and reason in the ways of knowing? (Or as Specter says, “You have the right to your own beliefs- but not your own facts.”)
*The industry in non-proven remedies and vitamin supplements runs to billions of dollars a year.
“Can you tell the difference between science and pseudoscience”
“What separates effective medicine from alternative medicine?”
This is an activity from the ToK and Biology section.
As you grow through Biology and ToK, you should develop your critical thinking skills and become more of a skeptic. Being able to answer these two questions is a skill that you can carry through life, helping you to make sensible decisions when faced with a range of seemingly convincing alternatives.
Medicine is a system of rigourous testing, evidence collection, statistical analysis and controls to ensure that a treatment is effective when recommended to patients. If it works and it is strongly corroborated, we call it medicine – it is available to professionally-trained medical doctors to use or prescribe for their patients.
Alternative medicine is simply that – alternative to medicine. It is not rigorously tested, double-blind controlled or statistically analysed. It is built on belief without true empirical evidence. One might believe it’s efficacy based only on anecdotal or circumstantial evidence, but this is not enough.
This activity links with unit 3.1 – Chemical Elements and Water.
Richard Dawkins’ recent series Enemies of Reason tackles these issues brilliantly, as does Dr Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science blog. Start with this short clip of Dawkins explaining the idea behind homeopathy, a bastion of alternative medicine:
- So why is it that people buy into homeopathy and alt med?
- Have you heard of the placebo effect or the powers of suggestion and how they affect feeling?
- Watch the whole episode (below) and think of reasons why a patient might feel better after visiting a homeopath than after a consultation with the doctor.
- What is the difference between complementary and alternative medicine? Which might a doctor recommend as part of a treatment? Why?
To find out more about homeopathy and it central ideas:
Homeopathy from the Skeptics Dictionary
The End of Homeopathy? From BadScience
Watch the full series of Enemies of Reason on GoogleVideo:
Part 1: Slaves to Superstition
Part 2: The Irrational Health Service (includes the homeopaths)
And it’s not only homeopathy that abuses our sacred water. The oxygen-water companies are it too.
Unless you have gills, it’s an expensive burp! from Chem1.com
So, when you read the magazines, watch TV or wonder about a miracle cure, anti-ageing cream, magical treatment or anything else related to unusual claims and you health, think: “Where’s the evidence?”
Now here’s a funny sketch from Webb and Mitchell: