Monday, February 27, 2006

The propagation of the absurd in mainstream medicine

Wallace Sampson and Kimball Atwood put aside political correctness and pull no punches in their criticism of mainstream medicine’s widespread uncritical acceptance of unproven and implausible alternative claims. Their uncompromising viewpoint on complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) appears in the December issue of the Medical Journal of Australia (MJA). I’ve been hammering away in the pages of this blog trying to issue a plea for scientific integrity in medical education and in our healthcare institutions for some months now. I haven’t succeeded nearly as well as these authors have. A few of their points will be mentioned here.

The authors blame postmodernism for much of the uncritical acceptance of CAM, noting that postmodernism tolerates multiple and contradictory ways of thinking, “without need for resolution through reason and experiment, resulting in a medical pluralism.” I made a similar point about postmodernism driving alternative medicine in a previous post.

Detractors are fond of saying “but medical students need to know about these things” or “they’re doing research”. Trouble is, much of this so called “education and research” amounts to little more than uncritical promotion of quackery. I’ve given examples before, and the authors of the MJA piece make the case effectively. They cite data, for example, that of the 175 medical school CAM courses in existence only 4 take a critical approach. This means that the vast majority of curricula promote unproven and implausible methods, implicitly if not directly. Moreover, Medline abstracts overwhelmingly promote, and few if any critique CAM. They also note that the NIH web pages link only to promotional CAM sites as opposed to objective critical sites like Quackwatch.

Finally the authors address the problems inherent in researching biologically implausible claims by urging a Bayesian approach in which research findings are interpreted in light of prior knowledge and plausibility.

Read the article in the original and bookmark it as a powerful expose of pseudoscience.

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