Recognizing Pseudoscience

(Steve Schaffner) #41

I like a saying I picked up from Ed Yong’s book on the microbiome: “There’s no such thing as alternative medicine. If it works, it’s just medicine.”

(Mitchell W McKain) #42

The problem here is that working and being of benefit to a statistically significant number of a test population compared to a control group isn’t quite the same as working and of benefit to me in particular. When something works for me I have little reason to care whether it satisfies the scientific tests or not. BUT just because it works for me may not be sufficient justification for selling it as medicine, and that is the reason why we draw lines between scientific and alternative medicine, so that people can understand a little better what they paying for.

(Steve Schaffner) #43

But you have no way of knowing whether it worked for you or not. You know that you did something and you got better, but you cannot know whether the something you did was the cause of your improvement.

(Phil) #44

That is the problem. Even with good research studies, it is difficult to maintain ethical practices and design a study that will separate the wheat from the chaff. We are wired to look for cause and effect in our environment and actions, and often we see causation when it is really not there. Even when it is easy to show something like lowering of cholesterol with statins, it is more difficult to show that lowering the cholesterol actually is beneficial. And even when you can show benefit, you then have to make a judgement as to whether the ultimate cost ( in side effects, economic costs, etc) outweighs the benefit. With many alternative medicine potions, you also have the added problem of lack of standardization of product, and fakes where you do not know if the product is what it says on the label. Plus, the lack of safety information on the product.

(Steve Schaffner) #45

Yup. I’m prone to calcium oxalate kidney stones, and there are a couple of commercially available probiotic products that offer bacteria that eat oxalate; taking them might well shift one’s microbiome and prevent stones. When someone tried to do a rigorous study of them, however, it turned out that neither actually had any of the bacteria in question.

(Randy) #46

it’s said that in the early 1900’s we physicians used to give nux vomica (strychnine extract from an Indian tree) for heart stimulation. People felt “whoa, that worked!” --but it was pretty bad for us. I found a late 1800’s home medical advice text that I like to read from time to time–it says that turpentine stimulates the hair follicles to grow again. I haven’t tried it yet.

There was even a large study on multivitamins that implied increased death rate from megavitamins a few years ago. It didn’t clarify though, whether the vitamins were consumed because people were already sick, and thus didn’t help; or whether they mopped up too many free radicals, thus increasing the rate of cancer and natural T cell etc function of endogenous, helpful free radicals.


You can be poisoned from too high a dose of non-water-soluble vitamins (like vitamin A). But you can get nice, expensive urine from high doses of water-soluble vitamins. Decisions, decisions…

I do love unconventional medicines, especially the ones that our physicians won’t tell us about. (What are they hiding, anyway?) See this for example:
Woman left brain-dead after chugging a gallon of soy sauce for a ‘detox’

(Mitchell W McKain) #48

Yeah right!!! I can do it a thousand times and it worked every time BUT… I don’t know whether what I did was the cause if my improvement. LOL The age old problem with inductive logic… wait… isn’t that the logical foundation of the sciences themselves? Frankly I don’t CARE! All I care about and this goes for my alternative medicine AND science as well… is THAT IT WORKS! And the philosopher nay-sayers can go plunge their heads in a toilet, thank you very much!

There is a HUGE difference between people and elementary particles. Every electron, proton, etc is exactly the same following the same exact mathematical equations. But there are no equations for individual people only for large populations. And THAT is the difference between scientific medicine and alternative medicine!!! You can be an elementary particle if you want but I am NOT AN ELECTRON!

I am simply drawing the EXACT same line and balance in this issue as I do in the whole science versus religion issue.

  1. Acknowledge the difference.
  2. Stuff the arrogance!

(Randy) #49

Can you give an example? There are medications (eg thyroid replacement) that it’s been thought should not have a randomized controlled trial to follow. Thanks.

(Mitchell W McKain) #50

No. I refuse! Your presumption remains that people are or should be all the same when they are not!

Medications should always have trials. And when they do not they should not be called medicine. In that case we have different terms for it… folk remedies, and alternative medicine.

Hey maybe my alternative medicine is to talk to the fairies in the back yard and borrow a little of their invisible fairy dust. It doesn’t matter what the remedy is. If it works for me, why should I care about any scientific tests? But selling it as a medicine is another matter.

(Steve Schaffner) #51

Since you refuse to give any examples, it’s a little difficult to evaluate your claim here. But if a single patient literally saw the same effect a thousand times, then that would be statistically significant effect.

That’s why they invented statistical tests and measures of probability and the like – so we have some principled ways of thinking and talking about these questions. “I know it works and I won’t tell you how I know!” is not one of those ways.

No, that really isn’t the difference between scientific medicine and alternative medicine. Scientific medicine is quite capable of handling people who react differently to medications – in fact, individualized medicine is all the rage these days. What scientific medicine demands is not uniform populations but evidence , evidence that the medicine in question actually works for some set of people.

(Mitchell W McKain) #52

Fairies in the backyard was my example.

Proof and evidence is only of significance if I want anyone else believe it works. But why should I care?

And problem 3 (i.e. cost) expands to titanic proportions. No thank you.

Of course, setting aside such insipid realities we can look forward to a future of medicine tailored to the individual. Perhaps they will even find out the truth behind some alternative medicines. Though I doubt they will bother any time soon without some way of making more money off of people somehow. But all of my posts in this thread was speaking to the reality of the way medicine has been done in the past and continues to be done, of necessity, for the vast majority of people.

(Phil) #53

“That it works” is indeed the question. When dealing with something like a cold that gets better no matter what you do, whether something works is tough to know. If something works for you and does no harm to others, I think you have the freedom to go for it, but don’t expect to convince others without evidence.
The real issue to me is when pseudoscience is used in support of a particular theological position, and I feel that that comes close to what Paul told Timothy in 1 Timothy 6:
These are the things you are to teach and insist on. 3 If anyone teaches otherwise and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching, 4 they are conceited and understand nothing. They have an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions 5 and constant friction between people of corrupt mind, who have been robbed of the truth and who think that godliness is a means to financial gain.

That perhaps is not fully appropriate to apply in the science faith debate, but feel it has application, and something we should guard against in ourselves as well as be aware of being sucked into with others.

(Mitchell W McKain) #54

Coincidence is the universal flaw in the methods of inference which is also used by science. But there is a point in the repetition of the same results that this simply beggars belief. This is why we accept the findings of science. It is also very much a part of the way people learn to live their lives – finding what works for them. The problem is when they try insisting that the way they have learned to live their life must be the way everyone should live their life. That is when their inferences fall a little flat.

The difference in science is the objectivity of providing written procedures which anyone can follow to get the same result no matter what you believe. When dealing with the highly variable quantities of life then this usually requires a statistical approach.

It is not pseudoscience unless it pretends to BE science. It is not science if you are proving your claims – that is rhetoric. It is only science if you are testing your hypotheses. It is a subtle difference but an important one. But rhetoric is not pseudoscience, as long as you are clear about what you are doing.

Prayer and fairies in the backyard are not pseudoscience. Neither are folk remedies and alternative medicine. That is why we call it by such names. By these names, we are making clear that the scientific methods have not been able to confirm that these things are effective. Like I have explained above there are a number of reasons why you might turn from traditional medicine to these alternatives (even if they are the fairies in the back yard):

  1. The traditional treatments are not working for you despite the fact that the science determines them to be statistically effective.
  2. The harmful side effects can worse than the disease and even deadly.
  3. The price can be outside your reach or beyond what you think a cure is even worth.
  4. You may simply not trust cures which haven’t stood the test of time.


Ask your doctor if fairies are right for you.


From Real Clear Science:

The Biggest Junk Science of 2018

(Dominik Kowalski) #57

Nice read, though I don´t agree with the general bashing of traditional chinese medicine.

(Christy Hemphill) #58

I heard a commercial that listed a potential side effect as “may cause a mortality incident.” Ha! I guess that is what death is now referred to in advertising.

(Mitchell W McKain) #59

My wife is Japanese and thus I have at least one reason to defend the folk medicine of the Asian world – though I see no reason to limit this to their culture alone. Furthermore, I have friends/family in the pagan community who believe in all kinds of stuff like Reiki, crystals, and homeopathic. It is not that I am credulous. For me personally, they might all be equated with fairies in the back yard. But my skepticism doesn’t end there. I feel modern scientific medicine is deserving of a great deal of skepticism also. If it is broken and bleeding modern medicine is unbeatable, but in some other cases, claims of superiority are more dubious. Personally, I have had a mix of experiences, from a double hernia operation I am happy about to cases where the doctor seemed pretty useless, and another where the doctor nearly killed me. Furthermore, I am smart enough not to hold these doctors in much awe. Which is not to say that I am dismissive of their opinions without good reasons.

(Phil) #60

Healthy skepticism is good, and there are a lot of treatments that are really unnecessary. I just hope that skepticism is applied to the scammers and fakes throughout. By the way, Japan does a great job with traditional medicine. They certainly are technological leaders and have some very prominent pharma companies.