Tuesday, July 24, 2012

But It's Not Hurting Anyone!

What we have here in the title is perhaps the most common objection skeptics receive when we criticize an scientifically unproven "alternative" treatment. Those who utter this treacherous phrase usually do so with the best of intentions. The only problem is, they're almost always wrong.

The harm caused by snake oil treatments isn't necessarily obvious in every case. Disasters happen now and again, but usually the effects are very subtle. Here are some reasons, in general, why buying treatments of unproven efficacy would be a bad thing.
  1. Ineffective treatments fail to prevent suffering. While patients may still benefit from the placebo effect, that effect is also present for treatments that really work. Snake oil wastes precious time that could have been spent actually treating the patient's ailments.
  2. The chance of harmful side effects on the user. Acupuncture, for example, can expose people to serious infections, while detoxing can cause severe malnutrition. Naturally, scientific treatments can have side effects as well, but those that are approved for public use are well documented, and their benefits have been conclusively shown to outweigh their risks.
  3. The chance of harmful side effects on the environment. For example, many remedies in Traditional Chinese Medicine are made from the body parts of rare animals like rhinoceros horns, tiger penises and bear bile. This can cause these animals to suffer unnecessarily, or to be hunted to endangerment and even extinction. This has far-reaching consequences not just for an individual species, but potentially for an entire ecosystem. 
  4. Money is being wasted on companies who contribute nothing to society. Not only does this discourage the researchers and manufacturers from pursuing other more productive careers, but they will also use that money to market new brands of snake oil, perpetuating a cycle of medical ignorance.
  5. Conversely, that money isn't going to more rigorous companies. This is money that could have been used for new and even more effective treatments, advancing medical science to new heights. And when science-based researchers and manufacturers are deprived of much-needed funding, they're that slight amount more likely to go out of business altogether.
Again, the damage caused by the purchase of a single alternative supplement is usually very small. But just as the seemingly insignificant votes of individuals can decide the fate of entire nations, those purchases add up to create entire industries of harmful "alternative" treatments. Even something as seemingly innocuous as a Power Balance bracelet contributes to a culture of scientific illiteracy that we should be trying our utmost to break away from.

1 comment:

  1. I know someone who got very very sick from an alternative supplement that was tainted. She was diagnosed and treated at the NIH, and afterward she said "My psychic was right! I did have a parasite!"

    *sigh* Isn't that a fairly safe thing for a psychic to say? Our skin and GI tract are full of "parasites." And why didn't the psychic diagnose the specific one that was causing the symptoms?