Posted by: thediygeochemist | March 12, 2011

non-scientific belief

Bill said about homeopathy post:

Excellent article unlikelygrad!… until the very end. You are right to be skeptical of Homeopathic remedies, for all the reasons you cite, and more. Other reasons are that these remedies do NOT fall under the same scrutiny and control as presciption medications do from the FDA. In fact, the FDA has no purview over Homeopathic or herbal ‘remedies’ because they are classified as ‘supplements’, not medication. Only the FTC can intervene when the claims are over the top with claims of ‘cures’, etc. Why? Ask your politicians. Homeopathic and Herbal remedies furthermore do not go through rigorous clinical trials and double-blind studies, so there is absolutely no data to support claims of efficacy.

So, why did I think your article was great until the end? Because you stated that there are ‘some forms of alternative medicine’ you believe in. I think if you turn your criical eye to those forms, whether they be acupuncture, chiropractors, faith healing, or what have you, you will come to the same conclusion as you did regarding homeopathy… They are all non-scientific, have no credible studies behind them, and have similarly dubious claims about their efficacy.

Of course, I disagree with Bill. (Would I be posting otherwise?)

Bill seems to think that the only things worth believing are those which have been proven through a double-blind study, though maybe publication in a peer-reviewed journal would do it for him. I would argue that if you only believe the results of such studies, you would not only be unable to function in everyday life, you would not be of much use as a scientist.

First, let’s address the issue of everyday life. I believe that almost all of our interactions depend, in part, on the ability to believe things for which there is no proof.

We cannot be fully-functioning human beings without the ability to trust other people, at least to a limited extent. This does not mean that we would willingly hand over our children or life’s savings to a total stranger; but it does mean that when someone says, “I plan to do X,” our natural instinct is to trust that they will, in fact, do X. We believe this despite the fact that we know that liars exist; but we generally don’t consider someone a liar unless we actually catch them lying (or someone we trust does).

Now, you could take a skeptical approach to life; you could believe that every word out of a person’s mouth is a lie until proven otherwise. I’ve known people like this, and generally speaking they were not very successful in either their personal or business lives. So I would argue that the willingness to believe things for which there is no scientific proof has societal value.

But, as I mentioned earlier, this sort of strategy also renders you less useful as a scientist. Why? Because if you are into scientific research at all, you have to have a certain amount of faith in unproven beliefs–at the very least, those you are researching. Let me illustrate with an example:

I have been something of an astronomy/space exploration nut since I was 5 years old. Since that age I have always believed that there were planets orbiting other stars. However, until I hit my late 20’s, there was no scientific proof for this belief. Was it wrong of me to believe that? I think not, for two reasons.

First of all, I was not alone in my belief. When using this test to assess a belief, I look not at the number of people believing, but rather what sort of people believe. In my case, I was in a group that included serious professional astronomers. They were firm enough in their belief to (a) write grants about it, and (b) spend years and lots of money trying to prove it.

Second, why did we believe? On the basis of circumstantial evidence. There are clearly planets orbiting this star, so there must be some sort of natural process which allows for the creation of planets. The laws governing this process very likely apply throughout the galaxy and universe as well as here.

I think this example illustrates what we should be looking for when we examine a non-scientific belief: who else believes this, and why (i.e., do experts accept as true any circumstantial evidence which may substantiate this claim?) So now let’s look at two types of alternative medicine which I think have some merit:

(1) Acupressure/acupuncture. The best way I can describe this is that applying pressure to, or poking needles into, one part of the body can help relieve pain/cure disease in another part of the body. I believe acupressure/acupuncture is useful for pain relief but am dubious about its disease-curing abilities.

Why do I believe it can be useful for pain relief? Because I’m familiar with the principle of referred pain, which is accepted by the medical community. In short: if there’s an injury somewhere along a nerve, you may feel the pain anywhere along that nerve, not necessarily at the site of the pain. For example, I once went to the doctor because of an excruciating earache, but my ears looked perfectly clear to him. He checked to make sure that my jaw was not dislocated, since that can also cause earaches–the jaw and the ear lie along the same nerve. (Not long thereafter, my dentist discovered a severely abscessed tooth. After I had a root canal, all of my earaches disappeared.)

(2) I have far more faith in the principle of herbal medicine. Note that I said “the principle”–I am skeptical of herbal claims in general, but I accept that some of them work.

The basis of herbal medicine is that plants contain some chemicals which affect body chemistry/function and therefore can be used as medicines. I think you would have to be a fool not to believe this, because there are any number of plants for which this is obviously true: willow bark as fever reducer (contains salicylic acid, the precursor to aspirin); poppies as pain killers (the basis for opium), and, of course, coca leaves, which are the source of cocaine. There are people in both industry and academia studying natural product chemistry for this very reason.

Because of the lack of scientific studies, I evaluate specific herbal claims with a rather critical eye. What claims are being made? I’m a big believer in extraordinary proof for extraordinary claims, so, for example, I would never trust in an herbal concoction that claimed to cure cancer without an actual scientific study. For a less extraordinary claim, however, I might be willing to give it a try. (I believe, however, that not all herbs work for all people–just like not all FDA-approved medications work for all people. I have yet to find an allergy medication that’s efficacious for me.)

My personal herbal success story: I am prone to being slightly anemic, and very anemic during pregnancy. For my first three pregnancies, the doctors pushed iron sulfate pills; I think I got up to 3/day, with no results. For my fourth pregnancy, my midwife told me to try alfalfa pills. It was absolutely disgusting–I felt like a cow every time I burped–but my hemoglobin count rose from 9.6 to almost 14 in 10 weeks.

I frequently caution people who are into herbal medicines that (1) just because it’s natural doesn’t mean it’s safe–hemlock anyone?–and (2) they should be on the lookout for side effects. All medications, FDA approved or not, are going to have them.



  1. You sound pretty sensible about these things, and I think I mostly agree with you. The bit about alfalfa is interesting–maybe it’s more bioavailable in that form?

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