I was talking to a good believer the other day. “I had the worst allergies last week,” she said. “But then I got something at the health food store that really worked.”
Health food store?
“Yeah, it was these white pills. They really worked! I just put a few under my tongue every hour, and when I woke up the next morning, my nose was clear!”
“It wasn’t homeopathy, was it?” I asked.
“It might have been,” she said. “Yeah, I think it was.”
“I’m glad you’re feeling better,” I said. “I have to say, though, that homeopathy isn’t what it seems. Can I tell you my experience with it?”
“Sure.” She’s patient.
You may remember that in order for me to be deconverted from my particular brand of Christianity, three conditions had to be met:
- It became important to me that my beliefs be grounded in fact.
- It became clear to me that my beliefs were either not supported by fact, or contradicted the facts directly.
- I lost the fear of what might happen if the belief system were false.
My rejection of ‘alternative medicine’ and new age horsecrap ties into my emerging skepticism about religion, and falls under Point Number Two. Here’s the story.
In my undergrad days, I worked in the university library. I soon came down with terrible allergies — I think it must have been the dust. One older couple, seeing my distress, suggested I try some chalky white pills they used. I put two under my tongue and — amazingly — my symptoms stopped!
Magic! From then on I was a homeopathy believer. Harmless, natural, and not in the grip of Big Pharma. Ha! Take that, you money-grubbing traditional doctors! The fact that I never managed to replicate the amazing results of the first time didn’t faze me at all. I knew what I’d experienced.
From there, I got into other alternative therapists for my persistent acne. One was the Zinc Guy. He always prescribed the Zinc Drink to me and my friends, even though we all had different conditions. Hm.
Another was the Electric Acupuncturist. He liked to stick people with needles attached to big batteries. Not painful, but twitchy. He said that many of his patients only needed to see him once; they never came back, so he presumed he’d cured them.
Homeopathy, massage, and chiropractic all failed to clear up my very aggravating and embarrassing problem. The naturopaths were short on results, but had no shortage of explanations for the delay. For one thing, they claimed to heal the whole person from the inside out. Do you have any idea how long it takes to heal a whole person? Patience! And the practitioners were never wrong. If I showed any signs of improving, they took credit. If I got worse, it wasn’t that their methods were bogus. I was having a ‘healing crisis’. If I just kept at it, I’d be better in no time. This went on for years.
In desperation, I went to a real live dermatologist, who fixed everything with simple antibiotics in a matter of weeks. That was a pisser. I realised that I’d been had by an entire industry of quacks.
From there I read everything I could find debunking alternative medicine, homeopathy in particular. I found out that scientific studies (e.g. on PubMed) showed either negative results or weak positive results that weren’t replicable. I found that people (including me) are naturally clueless about issues of health and medicine because it’s so complex and multi-factorial, and our brains have problems reasoning under those conditions. We are especially susceptible to the placebo effect and anecdotal evidence.
Of course, just because I’d had a bad experience didn’t mean alt-med was a con job. That would just be trading one set of anecdotal evidence for another. What did matter was that naturopathy in general has not been able to establish its claims empirically.
“So,” I concluded to the believer, “when it came down to my own experience versus scientific evidence, I had to be a bit humble and accept that I’d been wrong. Which is hard to do, because we accept our experiences as fact. They’re what make up our lives! But our experiences don’t always mean what we think they mean.”
Now to the religious tie-in. My religion placed a heavy emphasis on having a personal spiritual experience with God, the Holy Ghost, what you may call it. And I have had many experiences I would describe as ‘spiritual’. Yet these fall under the heading of ‘feelings and experiences’. They may be enjoyable and personally meaningful, but they do not qualify as good evidence to establish the existence of a supreme entity or the truthfulness of a proposition.
People at church are hoping that if I pray, I’ll have some kind of spiritual experience and believe again. They miss the point. If that did happen, it would only prove that I could be swayed by bad evidence just like everyone else.
My run-in with alternative medicine helped me to realise that our feelings and experiences can be wrong. And if you use placebos, medicinal or religious, the consequence is that, unless you get better by pure chance, you just stay sick.