Confessions of a Quackbuster

This blog deals with healthcare consumer protection, and is therefore about quackery, healthfraud, chiropractic, and other forms of so-Called "Alternative" Medicine (sCAM).

Friday, November 05, 2004

Why do smart people fall for dumb ideas? - by Harriet Hall, MD

Why do smart people fall for dumb ideas? There is no idea so crazy that you can't find an MD or a PhD to support it. I see two major problems here:

1. Some doctors perceive that patients WANT alternative medicine and are willing to go along to keep them happy. They are bowing to consumer pressure instead of doing what is ultimately best for the patient. This should be considered unethical, but there is a very human temptation to use altmed as a placebo for conditions that science has no cure for, as well as to pacify demanding patients and hypochondriacs. "Difficult" patients are frustrating and time-consuming, and sometimes condoning altmed will get them off the doctor's back, at least temporarily.

2. A semi-religious belief in vitalism underlies most alternative medicine thinking. These people are not willing to stick to our shared external material reality that can be accessed by science. They insist there is a supernatural or other-dimensional realm of "energy," "quantum connectedness," "the Innate," or some other imaginary force that can't be detected with any instruments but that their intuitive mind can somehow access. Vitalism is like Santa Claus - you can't PROVE those forces DON'T exist. This kind of irrational thinking is impervious to logic.

I think the ultimate solution is to teach critical thinking to children from an early age, and to make them aware of how human psychology can lead us into error. Science education "about" science doesn't do much good by itself. We need to challenge students to "think" scientifically by figuring out how they could test a hypothesis and by figuring out what could go wrong and how to rule out alternative explanations for results. We should be teaching them about how experiments have gone awry (N-rays, cold fusion, etc.) and how to distinguish good science from pseudoscience.

Harriet Hall, MD

Used by permission