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First, this is an ideological debate. Nobody is going to be convinced by anything written here, but I'll make an effort.
You are conflating and confusing Science and Medicine. One is about Theory and Knowledge, the other is a an Applied Performance Discipline.
"it is strange that Western medicine is so on the nose with so many people."
No, the Science may be good, but the Practice and Delivery are often appalling, if not deadly. Check the Medical Error Action Group site. If Aviation were run like Medicine, we'd have 20+ 747's crashing every year in Australia.
"Why do people believe in ..."
Because they get compassion, care and concern from the practitioners. Ever waited 12 hours in an ER? It's not about the patient or good care.
"So how do we strive for truth?"
A Question based on a false assumption: people are looking for care, not data.
"How can the state deal with such popular therapies when there are
questions over efficacy?"
Because it's not about the Absolute Theoretical Potential of treatment, but the reality of Delivered Service, like "Dr Death" and others named by the QLD Commission of Inquiry, there is often a huge gulf.
"What is the role of freedom and hope in this equation?"
People already vote with their feet and wallets, use these market forces. Establishment Medicine is hugely subsidised ($50+B/yr), yet a large fraction of people choose to pay more and go elsewhere.
That would seem to be a comprehensive market failure of a whole Industry/Profession.
As taxpayers and voters, why do we accept this woeful state of affairs?
Potions, pills and promises
March 19, 2012
OPINION: Dick Gross
Beliefs in the promises of untested cures are as resilient as any faith. Trust in "alternative medicines" is sufficiently widespread that it is now a significant industry.
At the same time, a group of eminent scientists "Friends of Science in Medicine" have received worldwide attention for their attempt to remove alternative medicine from university courses.
This debate touches upon the nature of belief. I am not a medical practitioner but merely an observer of faith. Epistemology or the study of knowledge looks at the role of faith when we can't be sure of things. Because we cannot know about creation or death we inevitably turn to faith. As members of the laity, most people cannot know about the cause or cures of our woes. We take cures, orthodox or alternative, believing as we must, in the advice of our practitioners.
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Where science is silent on an alternative medical practice, practitioner and patient alike must embark on a journey of faith. Some practices such as Vitamin D pills are put under scientific scrutiny and survive. Vitamin D, therefore, is no longer an alternative treatment for it has been given the green light by medical science. Other treatments are either untested or fail scientific scrutiny and yet are resiliently popular. Newspaper front pages were full last week with an attack on the efficacy and indeed the legitimacy of homeopathy. I have never been persuaded by homeopathy, the use of highly diluted medications, and it was no surprise to me it was being attacked as nothing but a placebo.
Even the great Steve Jobs was initially a believer in the untested. There is evidence that his life could have been extended if he did not waste months trying unproven cures when his cancer was first spotted. Valuable months were eaten up while he played around with severe diets and non-mainstream treatments. This is the ultimate paradox – one of science's greatest promoters may have died prematurely because he turned his back on science.
How is it that a rational scientist can harbour in the same mind the two conflicting schools of science and alternative non science? It happened with Isaac Newton (who dropped his maths, moved from Cambridge and repaired to London to pursue all sorts of weird beliefs) and it may have brought down Steve Jobs.
So how can we of the less lofty minds hope to resist the blandishments of untested cures especially when not only do alternative medicines hold out vaulting hope but don't give us the unvarnished truth? The Therapeutic Goods Administration in December 2010 found that 90 per cent of alternative medicines breached advertising rules.
It must be conceded that science has its problems. Over selling by Big Pharma, unexpected side effects, burst breast augmentations, medical negligence and over servicing are real issues. Yet it is strange that Western medicine is so on the nose with so many people. Why is it that we are still so prone to belief in therapies that have not been subject to the implacable scrutiny of science?
Science struggles to win hearts and minds. It has struggled in the carbon debate and still struggles to win the creation debate in many parts of the world. For me, a fan of science and a devotee, this is a mystery.
Epistemologists would argue that the adherence to untested therapies is not just faith but is augmented by the human weakness for hope. Hope is a bedrock human quality. The phrase "faith, hope and charity" exemplifies the importance of hope in the traditional perception of human emotions and demonstrates why faith, built on hope, will be a human weakness until the end of time.
The sceptic within me rails against, not just faith, but false hope. I despair when those with hearing impairment worship and offer plastic ears at the Portuguese shrine of Santo Ovido (the patron saint of hearing problems) when cochlear implants exist. I boil with anger when parents refuse to have their kids inoculated on the basis of unscientific claims. They are undermining public health. I despair to see the billion-dollar alternative pill and potion industry flower in the absence of scientific testing.
In a great article, psychiatrist Tanveer Ahmed on the National Times site argued that alternative medicine is the superstition of this age. His argument is that in a society where religions and their pastoral care are in decline, alternative therapies seem to hit the mark.
As an articled clerk in 1980, my firm acted for a group of alternative therapists dealing with some negligence cases. We also helped negotiate with the government on the registration system for the practitioners. Clearly the state grappled with the issue of efficacy at the time and came up with the idea of vocational licensing. It looked, however, to me more like an anti-competitive device rather than a genuine consumer protection measure.
As last year was ending, a story broke about one of Australia's most eminent alternative therapists. Ian Gawler contracted cancer at the age of 24. After the amputation of his leg he seemingly contracted a secondary cancer, which it was claimed was cured by a "self help program with key principles: good food, positive attitudes, meditation and loving support".
From that moment a virtual industry has grown around Ian Gawler including four bestselling books among them You Can Conquer Cancer using techniques such as meditation. Relaxation is great but whether we can relax our way to a cancer cure is another thing.
Two oncologists, Professors Lowenthal and Haines have written a scathing attack on the Gawler claims. In it they allege that the secondary cancer that was supposedly cured by the Gawler method was in fact tuberculosis or some other lung infection. No biopsy was taken (as was the practice in those far off days) so no one can know for sure. These are credible men who confront the science of life and death daily and have seen cancer victims financially exploited by hope merchants and their orthodox treatment delayed. Their attack has come and gone and been the subject of insufficient discussion and debate.
So how do we strive for truth?
What do we invest our medical faith in?
How can the state deal with such popular therapies when there are questions over efficacy?
What is the role of freedom and hope in this equation?
Over to you . . .