Dr. Shawn Messonier, a highly visible alternative medicine veterinarian with a blog, radio program, and a couple of books, recently wrote an opinion piece for the online edition of USA Today claiming that changing vaccine recommendations were validation of his personal beliefs and clinical experiences about vaccines. Rather than recognizing that science is a process, not a fixed conclusion, and that such changes based on new evidence are exactly what good science and medicine are about, he prefers to interpret changes in vaccination practices as validation of his alternative medicine perspective, and he recommends we vaccinate even less (based, of course, on his clinical experience and intuition, not any specific evidence). I’ve investigated and written about veterinary vaccination in detail, and while there weren’t many specifics in his piece, I did feel he was too casual about implying that titer testing could be a wholesale replacement for vaccination and in citing his personal experiences as if they were a sound basis for a medical recommendation.
Rather than respond to my quite limited critique, Dr. Messonier chose to create and them attack a strawman with my name on it. He began by defending personal experience (though only of holistic doctors) as solid evidence and then referring vaguely to supposedly supportive studies:”I’m not surprised that “skeptvet” is skeptical of the recommendation for titer testing or other proven natural therapies. The “personal experience” of thousands of holistic doctors constitutes proof, as do controlled studies.”
He then raises some irrelevant uses of titers to test for infectious diseases and ends with the assertion that ” I’m all for scientific proof, but let’s not discount numerous cases of pets who improve with “natural” remedies simply because an admitted skeptic chooses not to “believe” in the facts.”
I responded trying to clarify his mischaracterization of my position and what my specific concerns were and left it at that. I then got an e-mail form Dr. Messonier asking me to appear on his radio program, chat a bit and take some calls from listeners. I got the impression that he was looking for a “sacrificial skeptic” rather than a substantive debate, so I declined. This concern has been confirmed by his recent blog post adding some features to his strawman version of me.
He starts by assuming my objections to CAM must be personal rather than principled and fact-based: “I’m not sure what his argument has to do with the fact that pets no longer need vaccines, but it’s obvious this anonymous person has some sort of grudge against alternative medicine and alternative doctors.” I’m not sure if he got carried away or really believes pets “no longer need vaccines,” but that is certainly a more radical position than he took in the USA Today article. As for having a “grudge” against alternative medicine providers, that is just an ad hominem to invalidate my points without actually addressing them.
He then tried to make hay out of suggesting there was something sinister in my not blogging under my real name: “I decided to check out skeptvet’s website. It was no surprise to find this person still does not identify himself on his website, which automatically raises a red flag for me. If you have a difference of opinion I respect that, but least don’t hide behind some anonymous moniker. In order to judge anyone’s credibility, it’s important we know who is making the statements. So from the outset skeptvet has one strike against him.”
What anonymity has to do with the substance of my positions I don’t know, but as I explained in my response to him, I blog under a nom de plume partly because the blog isn’t about me personally, it’s about the issues in veterinary medicine I am addressing. I don’t have any craving for the media spotlight, as he seems to. I also don’t wish to court unnecessarily the sort of pointless personal attacks he made in his post since adherents to alternative medicine seem to greatly resent criticism. If he is really interested in my identity, it would take about 5 seconds on Google to find it, so I don’t see that little bit of innuendo as meaningful.
He then went on to defend clinical experience as a form of evidence, with rather more passion than clarity of thought. Finally, he wrote me off as a closed-minded skeptic, thus dispensing with my arguments without so much as a glance in the direction of their substance or evidence:”Ultimately like many other skeptics, skeptvet will never be convinced that various therapies with which he does not agree may be helpful for people and pets. For those with an open mind, and the willingness to accept the time-honored tradition of clinical experience, a new world of healing awaits where true health can be obtained. An open mind is needed for change, and with change comes endless possibilities!”
Very convenient, and very consistent with the general world view that places personal faith above objective research in the hierarchy of evidence. Believe hard enough, click your heals together three times, and anything is possible! I’ve written about what real open-mindedness is before, but I doubt he took the time to read or consider that.
Though it was probably pointless, I responded on his blog, chiding him for personalizing his comments and attacking his imaginary image of me rather than dealing with what I actually say. Here’s part of what I said:
“I am quite open-minded to any therapy that is demonstrated to work in a reliable scientific way. I submit I am more open-minded than you are since I acknowledge that my personal intuition and experiences may be mistaken, while you stick by your own beliefs regardless of what the research evidence says. Pick something specific I have said doesn’t work, show me real evidence it works, and I will be happy to admit my error for all the world to see… If I am opposed to alternative medicine it is only because I am opposed to gambling and experimenting on our patients. The problem is not with my closed-mindedness or prejudice, it is with your standards of what constitutes reliable proof… Clinical experience is evidence, yes, but it is weak evidence and progress in medicine will not come from adhering blindly to tradition or simply trusting your gut, it will come from vigorously investigating new ideas to see if they are worthy of applying to our patients.”
This exchange is paradigmatic for the conflict between science-based medicine and faith-based medicine. Challenging a belief based on intuition, experience, faith in folk tradition, and so on automatically creates personal animosity and resentment. Since the basis for the belief is personal, any challenge to it must be taken personally as well. If my clinical practices are challenged and the evidence shows I am wrong, I may be embarrassed, but I will be grateful for the guidance, not resentful of it because the truth is more important than my feelings or my ego.
Sure, clinical experience and intuition form part of the basis for my beliefs just like anybody else. I am human, and I share in all the genius and all the stupidity of human nature. However, I accept that science is a set of tools that compensates for human cognitive flaws, and when the choice is between good science and intuition, I’d bloody well better abandon my intuition or I am valuing my ego above the truth and following in the venerable tradition that brought us therapeutic bloodletting, faith healing, homeopathy, and all manner of ineffectual or dangerous nonsense.
I’m happy to cordially discuss and disagree with Dr. Messonier about veterinary medical practices, and I’m open to the possibility that he knows things I don’t know and that he might be able to show me things I’m wrong about. But he seems more interested in demolishing strawmen, so it’s unlikely I’ll get the chance to learn anything he might have to teach me, and it’s certainly unlikely he’ll be able to learn anything from me.