CAM Conversion–From Skeptic to Believer

I frequently find that advocates of alternative medicine present themselves as converted skeptics. Of course, many came to veterinary medicine with a preconception that alternative methods were beneficial. But quite a few veterinarians or MDs who promote alternative methods tell stories about coming from a position of doubt or even outright antagonism towards unconventional practices to a position of strong belief.

These narratives have the effect of establishing the doctor’s credentials as a hard-nosed, critical thinker, which presumably makes the methods they are selling seem more legitimate. Such “spin” is necessary only because many people recognize that some alternative practices are highly implausible and require an element of faith without evidence to accept. So promoters of such methods wish to present themselves not as excessively credulous but as skeptics won over by the undeniable strength of the evidence.

I have no doubt that these folks tell these narratives honestly. I am fairly sure they are genuine, though I am less convinced they are accurate. It is clear from extensive research in psychology that such biographical narratives, and human memory in general, are seldom accurate factual reproductions of the past. Rather, they are stories continuously revised to fit into the current structure of our beliefs about the world and ourselves (for more detail, see Don’t Believe Everything You Think, On Being Certain, and Mistakes Were Made: But Not By Me). Neat parables about one’s conversion from skeptic to believer seem a perfect example of how such unconscious revisionism sevres to reinforce our beliefs and self-concept.

Such conversion stories are remarkably consistent thematically, though of course there is variation in the details. Often, the practitioner relates how they initially practiced conventional medicine but became frustrated by the limitations of scientific care. They also frequently describe miraculous individual cases, or even experiences involving their own health, that convinced them there was real validity to alternative methods.

Obviously, there are diseases we don’t understand and cannot treat very effectively, and it is natural for any caring doctor to be frustrated by suffering they cannot relieve or illness they cannot prevent. Unfortunately, this understandable emotion born out of compassion and empathy becomes harmful  when it leads us away from a sound, scientific pursuit of better understanding and interventions and towards a comforting but mistaken faith in unproven, ineffective, or even entirely magical treatments. And while individual experiences are very psychologically compelling, they are not reliable as proof that a therapy is safe or effective. So if they lead us to believe that ineffective practices work, they may be relieving our frustration while not actually doing a better job of treating our patients.

This example of such a conversion narrative illustrates both the frustration with the limitations of medicine and also the experience of having come to believe in alternative therapies through a perceived benefit for one’s own health. Since the conversion was to a belief in homeopathy, which is about as magical and unscientific a therapy as one can find, it is also a clear example of how one can be mislead by emotion and experience into rejecting useful practices for useless ones.

“Homeopathy is one of the rare medical approaches which carries no penalties – only benefits”
— Yehudi Menuhin, Violinist

Yehudi Menuhin’s statement reflects an important reason that I became interested in homeopathy. After practicing traditional Western medicine for roughly ten years, I became disenchanted with chemical drugs as being the only approach in dealing with disease. I was frustrated with the lack of effective treatments for chronic disease, behavior problems, and the epidemic of allergic conditions. During my search for alternatives, my personal health was greatly improved with homeopathic treatment, leading me to the study of homeopathy and the incorporation of this great system of medicine in my veterinary practice.

These stories often have an implicit, or even explicit, religious tone to them, illustrating an opening of the mind to realms of healing beyond the physical body, which is where medicine traditional directs its efforts. For example:

[I] practiced traditional veterinary medicine for 16 years. Gradually I became frustrated at the limitations of these methods and went abroad to Europe and South America to study healing methods practiced by holistic medical doctors. I incorporated these methods of natural healing in my own practice and found I could do so much more for my sick and painful patients… Why? It has to do with the philosophy, cause and effect of the two different methods of diagnosis and treatment of the patient…

Cure CANNOT be achieved in the physical body alone. Cure cannot be achieved by focusing on symptoms but on CAUSE, the true nature of symptoms exhibited. It is as if there is a dirty spot on a lens of a slide projector that is projecting an image on a screen. The traditional doctor works away on scrubbing the spot off the screen, while the holistic doctor cleans the lens, the cause of the spot on the screen…

Holistic medicine benefits Body, Mind (Emotional) and Spirit and recognizes these are also interdependent in maintaining health. Traditional medicine mainly concentrates on the body.

Some of these conversion stories do claim that the transition from skeptic to believer was brought about by thoughtful consideration of real scientific evidence. Here is one example. It manages to read like a pure religious conversion, with a series of miracle stories and even fainting brought on by the power of the revealed truth, and yet it claims to be an awakening based on a scientific approach to knowledge:

Before I knew about integrative medicine, it was easy to tell someone that nothing else could be done… There was truth in the statement and in knowing that “we had done everything we could,” but there was also sadness and loss in the failure that burned quietly at the core of my being.

In the 80s a series of crazy life changing events lead me to discover something wonderful.

… a mutual friend told me that her lovely Golden retriever had lymphoid cancer and she was being ripped off by a “quack alternative medicine doctor…” I decided that this “quack” should not be practicing and became determined to end his professional career.

I flew to New York to spend a week investigating the doctor, and found things that literally made me faint… I simply passed out rather than face the fact that the man I thought was a crook was actually a gifted healer…

One of the “snake oils” used to treat that dog for cancer was a mixture called Poly-MVA… After 30 years of testing over 20,000 products, Dr Garnett discovered Poly-MVA. His discovery created an entirely new field called electrogenetics, which is the study of electrical activity on the DNA. Poly-MVA appears to shuttle electrons in such a way that the susceptible cancer cells die while normal cells continue to survive.

… Gradually, scientific investigators began looking at Poly-MVA… The first major clinical veterinary study of its kind looked at 800 animals treated for various cancers and showed a clear improvement in quality of life.

…I began my quest into integrative medicine so many years ago to prove that this substance was quackery because I “knew” that there was no such solution. Through my scientific training and through common sense investigation, we found that it was useful and began treating patients with Poly-MVA over 15 years before further study demonstrated its usefulness. And now through proper scientific method, we are understanding that the dose needs to be further evaluated.

This narrative represents a skeptic as one who arrogantly rejects ideas they know nothing about. It illustrates how watching seemingly miraculous events should convince the open-minded skeptic that the things they believe are nonsense are actually true. And it claims that 15 years after seeing the truth, the revelation has been validated by science.

Unfortunately, skeptics are not those who judge things as false based on ignorance, but those who reserve judgment until reliable, scientific evidence is provided. Anecdotes, testimonials, and individual “miracles” do not constitute such evidence, because they are frequently misleading. And in this particular case, Poly-MVA is still an unproven nostrum based on questionable theory and without sound scientific validation.

Here’s what the American Cancer Society says about Poly-MVA:

Available scientific evidence does not support claims that Poly-MVA is effective in preventing or treating cancer….­reports of Poly-MVA’s effectiven­ess are anecdotal or small studies that have not been confirmed or published in scientific journals.

No studies of Poly-MVA in humans have been published in peer-revie­
wed medical journals..­.

The potential risks and side effects of Poly-MVA are not known, as no results from human studies have been reported. Palladium compounds have the potential to cause allergic reactions in some people. Because lipoic acid is a powerful antioxidan­t, Poly-MVA may make radiation therapy or chemothera­py less effective. While this concern is based largely on theories of how cancer treatments work, it is supported by some recent studies.

And here’s a comment from Dr. Andrew Weil, who certainly cannot be accused of not being open-minded and friendly to alternative medical therapies:

I have seen no scientific evidence demonstrating that Poly-MVA either prevents or effectively treats cancer. Indeed, I have found no reports of any well-controlled scientific studies. Most of the “success stories” cited by promoters are simple testimonials or come from studies that have not been published in scientific journals. Poly-MVA may not be dangerous in and of itself, but when you’re dealing with a life-threatening illness such as cancer, it is always ill advised to substitute an unproven treatment for one that has been scientifically demonstrated to help. At best, Poly-MVA would do no harm. At worst, by using it as an alternative cancer treatment you could lose valuable time that might be better spent fighting the disease with therapy that has some medical merit.

Poly-MVA may or may not have benefits in cancer patients. At this point, no one really knows since there are no controlled research studies on the question. If poly-mva played a role in converting this doctor from a skeptic to a believer in the promise of alternative medicine, it is not because the scientific evidence proved his skepticism unfounded.

Obviously, people do sometimes experience profound shifts in their world view. And there is nothing inherently wrong with sharing these experiences with others. However, these medical conversion stories are frequently held up as examples of the flaws of science and skepticism and as paradigms for how a skeptic should, if they are really open-minded, become a believer in some deeper and more effective approach to medicine simply because of a few seemingly miraculous cases. They make nonsense seem scientific and legitimate and rejection of nonsense seem dogmatic and closed-minded. And they are ultimately examples of circular logic since they only make sense if we accept that “truth” discovered by the storyteller is actually true, which it often is not.

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2 Responses to CAM Conversion–From Skeptic to Believer

  1. Bartimaeus says:

    Interesting how the claims for benefit are often vague, “improved quality of life” type of claims with nothing objective to back up such claims. It seems that there is an awful lot of wishful thinking going on, without any critical evaluation. Everyone is probably susceptible to this to some extent, but some of these folks really go off the rails with it.

  2. skeptvet says:

    Yes, it’s easy for all of us to see what we want to see. Skepticism is really about acknowledging that and looking to science for at least some mechanism to compensate.

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