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Atheism, Science and "Alternative" Therapy

chicago dyke's picture

I'm an odd bird (but you knew that, natch). I have a background, educationally speaking, in both science (biology, history of science) and religion (history of religion, comparative Semitic philology). So my mind tends to dart all over the place and I can "see both (any) sides" with relative ease, intellectually speaking, even as I may not agree with that I'm studying or considering at any given moment.

Claudia's comment on this thread pissed me off. As you can probably tell from my response to her critique of my comment. Sort of in the same vein, I'm depressed and ashamed I didn't make Jen's graphic about blogger-atheists on this thread, sob. and damn, she's so cute, isn't she? Anyway, here's my question: how do you balance your interest in "alternative" ideas about science, medicine, and the physical world, with your own skepticism about religion, politics, and the corruption of the practice of science?

Here's the thing for me, at least: science is far from perfect, even as the fundies critique it for all the wrong reasons. The problem isn't that "it's all just a theory, someone's opinion." The problem is money, politics, ignorance, racism and sexism. Anyone who has ever worked in science (as I have in a great deal of lab, clinical and medical environs) understands this in a brutal, depressing way. Nobody at Corrente (I hope) would deny that while American research science is fairly impressive, it at the same time is addled with corporate pressure that corrupts and changes the "scientific outcome" of far too many scientific studies. Drugs are the obvious example; I won't even bother to google the long, sad list of drugs rushed to market, despite significant questions and problems brought up in truly scientific research and analysis, because Big Pharma has the political muscle to cause government regulatory agencies to overlook those problems. I'm pretty sure one of my relatives is dead because of corruption at this level (long story). I'm not the only one who feels this way; many friends and family members who are/were science professionals got out or are trying to get out of the research/academic science business for just these sorts of reasons. Don't get me started on how research science is funded in this day and age, oy.

At the same time, I do resist and object to quackery. Hucksters who push garbage like "faith healing" and "drinking moose urine will make you have younger looking skin" and suchlike annoy me greatly. Because they hurt actually effective, sound "alternative" efforts, the good ones of which are trying to expand upon and 'grow' the corpus of knowledge that Western research science has established. But I really don't like the "toss the baby with the bathwater" approach too many people seem to take, as they instantly dismiss anything that starts with "homeopathy helped me with..." or "yoga is really good if you suffer from..." or "Chinese medical research (known as 'Traditional Chinese Medicine') is an established, analytically critical and scientific practice dating back thousands of years, applied to billions of people..." It's just too easy to fall into the notion that "only" the white guys wearing white coats working for an Ivy research lab know what 'really works.'

What have you found that others dismiss works for you, medically speaking? What is your attitude, when you see someone advertising "laser hair regrowth" technology, or acupuncture, or herbal remedies in place of OTC medication? My strongest support for the way I feel about "alternative" medicine comes from my lab research days, when I came to understand how political, social and economic forces that had nothing to do with science, were shaping the practice of science, and the results it produces. It's only gotten worse since my lab days. Lack of regulation has created an environment in which any Big Pharma corporation with the money and the muscle and get anything approved, teen suicide and endemic heart attack rates be damned. Science + Profit = bad results, every time. And if Westerners could get past their racism, they'd realize that those funny looking Indian people who stand on their heads and bend over and touch their toes a lot? Actually pretty healthy, a lot of the time, without paying the lifelong rent of Rx drugs.

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Submitted by PA_Lady on

I fall somewhere in the middle, I guess; I don't automatically assume that Big Pharma's offerings are perfect and wonderful and going to save mankind, nor do I believe the wild claims of a lot of alternative therapies that promise the same thing.

Most of the way-out stuff is easy to ignore. I've spent 20+ years fending off idiots who believe my Addison's can be fixed with this or that miracle cure. (Which, I suppose, would qualify as a genuine miracle since it would mean my adrenal glands had grown back.) Anything that claims to cure everyone of everything is bunk. No single drug, treatment, drink, etc is going to cure malaria, AIDS, cancer, ADD, asthma, and toenail fungus.

Some alternatives aren't as easy to dismiss, however. For example, my mother was diagnosed with gastroparesis, or paralysis of the stomach, in April last year. She couldn't eat anything other than liquids or pureed foods, and then only a couple spoonfuls at a time. A gastroenterologist put her on a couple drugs for the nausea, recommended Ensure for meeting her nutrition needs, and pretty much had nothing else to offer -- except that this could last as long as a year and if she lost too much weight, they'd have to put in a feeding tube.

After two months of pain, a nearly 40 lb weight loss, and much pestering by my brother, she finally went to see a local homeopath/chiropractor -- solely to shut him up. She also went because she was desperate; she was going on her dream trip to Italy that July and not being able to eat while there qualifies as torture to a foodie like my mom.

The first visit, the doc did something similar to a nerve conduction test and a treatment she calls acupuncture without needles. Mom expected nothing, other than to say she'd tried it. Well, within three days she was eating again, small amounts, but real food. After a second and final treatment a week later, she was back to her normal eating patterns and she's never had a recurrence. The gastroenterologist can't explain it, but he sometimes refers patients with moderate-to-severe gastroparesis to this homeopath. As he said, unlike the drugs, it can't hurt and it does seem to help some people, even if it's just relieving the symptoms enough to make life bearable.

ms_xeno's picture
Submitted by ms_xeno on

She's arguing that faith healing is bunk and I agree with her. But I don't consign homeopathy to the same category of quackery that I consign faith-healing to. Sure, there may some quacks dispensing "natural" cures, but I don't think they comprise the majority of homeopaths.

Submitted by windy on

diluting something until there are few or none of the original molecules left isn't bunk? (Some 'homeopathic' remedies contain herbal or other active ingredients in non-homeopathic concentrations, is that the kind you were thinking about?)

chicago dyke's picture
Submitted by chicago dyke on

and like i said at the link, the quackwatch site didn't impress me. too many dated articles, too many blanket statements about why various alternative therapies qualify as "quackery."

chicago dyke's picture
Submitted by chicago dyke on

is a little old and the label has fallen off, so i don't know what it is made out of.

i'm a "believe what i see with my own eyes" type of person. 99.999% of the world could be telling me "it's not true!" but if i see it with my own (admittedly needing glasses) eyes, i'm going to go with what my eyes tell me. or in this case, what my nose and throat tell me. and my girlfriend. it worked for us. it's really that simple. i don't know why aspirin, and not tylenol, works for my hangover headaches. i don't know why my uncle's happy pills keep him from suicidal depression. i don't know why this chantix stuff is helping me quit smoking. i'm not in research science anymore. but when it works, it works. what i really don't get is why some people are so ready, and indeed, happily excited to diss something (even if it didn't work for them) when there are lots of people for whom it did work. that's the short version of this post. OK, the acupuncturist you dated in college dumped you for a homeopathist. is that any reason to hate the whole of those sciences? 'cause that's what most of the dismissivness seems to me to be. "i don't like it! it's stupid!" ok, dood.

deniseb's picture
Submitted by deniseb on

because someone believes they worked for her, then you may as well believe anything and everything. Take anything you can imagine and there will be people who will tell you that they experienced it. As you know, this is sometimes entirely due to the fact that they believe in it, and sometimes it is coincidence that they felt better afterward.

When something can be demonstrated to work consistently and predictably, and the placebo factor is accounted for, then it is no longer "alternative" but scientific. To me, this is a very simple distinction. Surely if they wanted to, the homeopathists, the chiropractors and the rest of the alternative practitioners could raise the money and do credible double-blind research that would hold up to scientific review. When and if they do that, I will give it as much credence as the rest of modern medicine - which is limited, as there is of course much questionable research and corruption out there. I will even take homeopathy - which on its face is laughable - seriously if someone can show me some proof that it works. I'm not holding my breath on that one, though.

Submitted by windy on

(except it's easy to make the wrong conclusion when you only have one "research subject" to work with)

But here's one anecdotal reason why I have a problem with homeopathy:
I bought some lactobacillus capsules (which is also an unproven "home remedy" to some extent, but at least there's a plausible mechanism for action), but I didn't notice they were "homeopathic". The "active ingredient" was a homeopathic dilution of arsenic(!) and the bacteria themselves were listed as an "inactive ingredient"!

There are other products that resort to similar tricks - it looks like some makers of homeopathic remedies don't really trust homeopathy if they have to package the homeopathic remedy with a conventional remedy they call "inactive". It's like if I prayed over an aspirin and then concluded "prayer works!", when it actually was the aspirin.

quixote's picture
Submitted by quixote on

I come at this question from both sides: Ph. D. in biology, and a Naturopathic Doctor degree from the main German school for NDs (it's been around since the 1880s). It seems to me that some of the inability to "get" alternative therapies is that facts can be eclipsed by the inability to understand them.

Charles Darwin would write down facts that made no sense or contradicted his theories because, he said, otherwise they'd be the first ones forgotten.

Our homeopathy teacher (who was a classic bad tempered old coot of a European professor) started our first class by asking us what it would take to stop a semi on a collision course with a car barrelling along an intersecting street. We figured concrete barriers or high explosives. No, he said. A red light.

The current idea behind homeopathy is that it's somehow sending a signal that affects a whole constellation of symptoms. Homeopathy hasn't met scientific standards of proof (yet), but that could be because science is trying to measure moonbeams with yardsticks. Clinical medicine has absolutely no explanation for why some people are helped, and the homeopaths' own explanation is rather woowoo.

But that, by itself, is not a reason to insist it can't work. Reality doesn't have to read the textbooks. In the 1950s acupuncture was dismissed just as vigorously and for the same reasons. There was no known way it could work, so it didn't work. Now clinical medicine is gradually realizing that maybe we don't already know everything.

That's really the nub: we don't know everything. One can find woowoo distasteful. I do myself. But to reject facts because they don't fit your theories is the sign of a very limited mind.

There seemed to be rather a dense mass of limits in the comment thread of the blog you linked....