Friday, April 20, 2007

The resilience of ignorance

In my social circle are a number of folks who use "alternative" medicine. A woman my wife went to college with puts homeopathic belladonna in her son's orange juice when he gets a cold, and is convinced that this cures him (belladonna is also known as "deadly nightshade" and was used as a poison in the Middle Ages). As she said, "Fight fire with fire." What does that mean?! The first time she told me this I was mortified, until I realized that she couldn't possibly be treating him with real belladonna, but was treating him with what is, essentially, water (homeopathic "medicines" are diluted so completely that they don't contain any of the original ingredients).

How is it that I can take the time to explain to her that it is just water, that I can explain about how her son would likely have gotten better at the same speed regardless of treatment, and that after spending 20 minutes at it, she is still convinced I am dead wrong?

"Nobody will ever listen to an explanation of why intuitions can be flawed - presumably because their intuitions have told them not to."
I've suspected for a long time that man is not a rational animal. But now, I have data. If anyone has ever wondered why irrational beliefs are so widespread, and so resilient, you should read this post at Ben Goldacre's badscience. Really, go read it. Now. Link to it. Send it to your friends. They really should know that:
"Our intuitions about the most basic observation of all, from which all others follow – our abilities to distinguish an actual pattern, from mere random background noise – are deeply, deeply flawed."
After reading his post, I'm not sure if I'm depressed or relieved...

Digg!

3 comments:

Laci the Chinese Crested said...

I really don't have any medical knowledge, but both my parents work, or worked in Michael's case, for Pharmaceutical firms. Not to mention both of Michael's parents were Medical doctors.

Anyway, I was under the impression that medical science was that of comforting the ill and letting time heal.

If this stuff isn't actually killing the person, what harm is there in their taking it.

Homeopathic medicines are actually very minute doses of any "poison". I really can't say too much about the actual medicines (or "medicines" depending on your point of view).

Michael has begun taking the stuff after he was ill in Paris and took Oscillococcinum which made him feel better.

Maybe this is the placebo effect working here.

On the other hand, most medicines began as plants and the healing chemicals were isolated and synthesized.

So, there you go!

Cranky McAltiebasher said...

Hi,
Nice blog. I'm going to book mark you and stop back.

First: I've suspected for a long time that man is not a rational animal. But now, I have data. : An anecdote isn't data. ;) [/snark]

Laci: From my understanding, the "active ingredients" in homeopathic medicines are, actually, virtually impossible to detect. Look up the origins of Homeopathic treatments. I did and I was horrified that this is still such a common practice. Every credible (double blind, with peer review for flawed methodology) study of this topic ever done has shown absolutely positively that no effect above placebo is demonstrated. The problem isn't that she is giving her son drops of water, it's the magical thinking. And that she is spending good money for a small bottle of distilled water. She's showing her son that even though there is no evidence to support it, and much to discount it, it is o.k.

And I don't know what kind of doctors you use, but comforting a patient and waiting till time heals the problem is effectively murder in the case of any serious injury/ailment.

To paraphrase Orac, there isn't Traditional Medicine and Alternative Medicine, there is Medicine that has been clinically proven to be effective, and "medicine" that rigorous clinical trials have debunked or have never been tested. And cost a lot of money. And could keep people from seeking out real treatments. If homeopathic remedies, or any other altie treatment worked, can you think of a reason why doctors wouldn't use it? It would save them money, and they could still charge you. Unless you think that there is a huge world-wide conspiracy of doctors to hide this for some reason (like the conspiracy among evil scientists to suppress all evidence of divine creation), there is absolutely no reason to trust the hippy at your local health food store over an entire industry of trained professionals. I have friends who are alties, nice people. But they still try to tell me about chackras, body vibrations, and chi energy, all of which cannot be measured in any way. And they eat organic food which is no better for you and more expensive, get colon cleansing and other treatments to "detoxify" even though they can't tell me which toxins, or point me to anyone who can, and take herbal supplements that have been debunked or never tested. And all this is not regulated by the FDA, which means you have no idea what is in it. PLUS, they spend substantial amounts of money on all this stuff. People are getting wealthy off this hokum. If I was just a little less honest, I'd sell "carb-free" water.

Peace.

Carlos said...
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