Posted by: Stephen Rigby at 11:16, June 4 2015.
I have a scientific background and for a short period worked as a research Biochemist. My period working in research was a long time ago but it explains why I frequently get frustrated by claims made by many alternative and complementary therapists as to the efficacy of their work, particularly when it is based upon a single or chance observation. This blog entry is an attempt to explain the reason for that frustration.
Why Would You Think I Owned a Dog?
Firstly, as I write this article, I do not own a dog and never have. This is a fact. It is true that we had dogs when I was growing up but I have never personally owned one. For at least the last 37 years I have not lived in a house or property where somebody else owned a dog. Nor, to my knowledge, has any previous occupant of my current home owned a dog.
Considering the above paragraph, if you had seen me walking a dog would you conclude that I own or owned a dog? If you got sworn statements from 1000 people saying they had also seen me walking a dog would you be able to say with any more certainty that I owned a dog? Strictly speaking there is no evidence or proof of dog ownership, only maybe evidence that I have walked dogs.
When Can One Say That a Therapy Works?
I get a regular newsletter from the Advertising Standards Agency. The adjudications sometimes make interesting reading. In one adjudication, an alternative therapy was challenged for making claims for the treatment of a particular ailment. In their defence they produced 1000 signed statements saying that the therapy had cured the signee of the ailment in question. If you had not read my comments on dog ownership, you may have been confused by the actions of the ASA in respect to those signed statements – they rejected them as being virtually meaningless (the word is anecdotal)! All the alternative therapy produced was 1000 opinions. To make things even clearer, consider the possibility that there were 1,000,000 people who had treatment but did not experience any change and therefore did not make a statement saying it did.
To prove efficacy of a particular treatment, one must design experiments that take into consideration things like “self selection” (greater apparent efficacy due to the only people choosing the therapy being the type of person most influenced by it), “placebo” (beneficial effects just because the person expected to see benefit), “spontaneous remission” (a certain percentage of people will experience improvement in their condition irrespective of whether they have treatment or not) or “secondary effects” (for example, a patient might “feel better” because the therapist takes an interest in them rather than because of the therapy administered).
The process involved in proving that a particular treatment or therapy works can be quite complex but contrary to many peoples belief, without proper scientific method there is no evidence and no proof.
A Not So Complimentary Comment on an Aternative Therapy
When viewed more from the perspective of scientific proof, many of the claims made by alternative or complementary therapists, although possibly firmly believed, cannot be justified. A friend of mine showed his contempt for the unscientific approach to efficacy after I told him of a conversation I was party to at a holistic fair. One lady was extolling the virtues of lavender oil. She explained that her belief in its value for treating burns was based upon a single instance of someone burning themselves when all they had to treat it was lavender oil. On hearing this, my friend commented “it’s a good job then that the only thing she had was not a bucket of horse manure!” (NB He actually used a slightly more unsavoury word to manure)