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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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This post is probably only good and original in the sense (allegedly) framed by Samuel Johnson. Nevertheless, it came out of a discussion I had the other night and I found it interesting. I myself am extremely sceptical of the value provided by alternative/complementary medicine except where they have undergone scientific testing (see, for instance, Arthritis Research UK's page). My friend is not so sceptical and she put it to me that, as science is a process by which we reach consensus based upon repetition and observation, it is ignoring vital evidence when it explains the consensus of a different group (who en-masse proclaim, anecdotally, that something works) in terms of the placebo effect.

Having re-hashed all the traditional arguments around placebo effect, falsifiability, objectivity, self-modification, the damage done when people seek alternative treatment for serious conditions instead of conventional, proven therapies, the monetary aspect and so forth, it suddenly dawned on me that my friend was also an atheist. I, therefore, asked how it was possible to disregard the mass anecdotal evidence of the millions of people who claim to have felt the force of Jesus Christ in their lives. She replied that, perhaps, they were experiencing a generic spirituality over which was imposed a nominalised human power structure (generic spirituality [the real deal] -> Jesus [the Church/organised religion]). It then struck me: how is this any different to a scientific paradigm claiming the placebo effect lies behind a phenomenon? You can't have it one way and say that when science explains away your model it's outrageous, yet when you explain away someone else's, it's ok. There is a fundamental incompatibility between atheism and therapies that accept mass anecdotal evidence while rejecting a scientific model. Alternative therapies that take this line are theological in structure; they wish to resist explanation which would diminish their autonomy.

Eventually concluding our evening on an amicable note, we concurred that -- in the majority of cases -- both sides wanted to make people feel better. A lot of effort is wasted on a science vs. alternative debate that could be spent working together (alternative practitioners often have a lot more time to listen to a patient, which in itself is extremely valuable) to achieve this goal; even if science sees it as an effort to understand psychology and alternative practitioners view it as attempting to explain something that they "know" already works. Furthermore, people are free to believe what they want; as Voltaire (again, allegedly) said: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it". That said, I still hope, every time I go into hospital, to not encounter another person who tells me they wish they'd started taking drugs for Rheumatoid Arthritis earlier, but didn't because they were told that the drugs don't work while alternative therapies do. Most often they are incredible pain and have very few joints left functional.