I’ve written quite a bit about the problematic relationship between advocates of alternative medicine and scientific research. While I’m all for appropriate, high-quality research into any therapy with reasonable plausibility, which would include many alternative treatments, I object to the misuse of research as a propaganda tool. Many proponents of alternative medicine have a fundamentally religious faith in their practices. They don’t believe scientific research is necessary to prove what they “already know,” and no research evidence could ever convince them their practices don’t’ work. With this type of mindset, it is very hard to generate fair, high-quality research evidence that actually gets us closer to the truth.
The American Holistic Veterinary Medical Foundation (AHVMF) is particularly guilty of this type of misuse of science. A recent interview by Dr. Karen Becker (at the Mercola web site) with a recipient of AHVMF funding, Dr. Danielle Conway (whom I’ve written about in this context before), illustrates the serious misconceptions about science that undermine the legitimacy of the research these folks support and conduct.
The interview is titled, “Finally! A Study That Proves Processed Foods Can Cause Disease.” This clearly illustrates that the author is viewing the research as confirmation of a pre-existing belief that did not require scientific validation. She confirms this in the interview itself, where she says, “I know for a fact that processed pet food causes inflammation in dogs’ bodies because I see it in my practice. Dr. Conway is going to be able to prove scientifically that it is happening, and hers will be the first study I’m aware of in pets.” Knowing something “for a fact” for which there are no studies is not consistent with a science-based approach.
It turns out that the research she is referring doesn’t even remotely “prove” what she is claiming anyway. She is apparently referring to an unpublished pre-clinical study by Dr. Conway looking at the effect of heat on the production of compounds suspected to be a risk factor for some diseases in humans.
…the preliminary pilot study, in which she looked at the presence of AGE in different types of pet foods, is complete. What she found across-the-board is that the less processing that occurs, the less heat applied, the more moisture maintained, the lower the AGE.
This is certainly worth following up on, but it is totally inconsistent with the claim of the interview title. The bias here is clear and strong. This is incredibly ironic since Dr. Becker dismisses any research funded by pet food companies as meaningless because of presumed bias, and yet she considers research funded by Mercola and AHVMF as “independent” and trustworthy.
Dr. Conway also shows some serious flaws in her view of science and scientific research in this interview. When asked what sort of research she would like to see funded and why, she responds:
She would also like to see more research into herbs. She has found that when she can cite a study on a particular herb that she wants to try, everyone immediately gets on board. They don’t even need to read the study. Just the fact that a study exists is enough for them. It’s a good demonstration of the benefit of published research on medical treatments.
A clearer example of how not to use scientific research would be hard to find. I doubt Dr. Conway or Dr. Becker would feel as positive about students or vets automatically accepting any treatment for which a proponent can cite any study if the studies cited were funded by the pharmaceutical or pet food industry. Yet they are happy to see uncritical, blind enthusiasm for their therapies based on research their audience hasn’t even read, much less critically evaluated.
Once again, for many CAVM advocates, certainly the AHVMF and Mercola, scientific research is not a means of finding out what is true. They already feel their knowledge based on personal experience and theory is already sufficient and requires not empirical validation. The only use for research, and for the money they spend on funding it and training alternative practitioners in academia, is to promote what they already believe. This is simply a cynical use of science as a marketing tool for spreading the faith, not as a tool for better understanding health and disease in our patients.