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Passing through my third-life crisis peacefully in South London, finding out new stuff, and then getting cross and excited about it.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Alternative Medicine on Trial & Sharing a platform

Well, wasn't that fun?

I am of course talking about the 10:23 overdose.

I attended the London event and if you haven't yet, catch up with the whole thing on the Pod Delusion special It's virtually all James O's work, although I did get to speak to the hyper-enthusiastic Carmen (were they caffeine pills she took?) and the estimable Dr Evan Harris MP.



However, I wanted to write briefly about a very good friend of mine. I invited him along to watch the 'overdose' and then to Alternative Medicine on Trial, the CFI London event that most of the London ODers went on to. This consisted of three lectures by Simon Singh, Andy Lewis from Quackometer and Professor John Garrow from Health Watch.

You don't need to know who my friend was for the purposes of this post, so let's call him Hob Royle to keep it anonymous.

Unfortunately, Hob didn't want to come, but the reason he gave was interesting so I thought it worth recording.

Sure, Hob thought the topics under discussion were interesting and, sure, he'd heard of Simon Singh and wouldn't have minded hearing him speak.

But Hob didn't want to come because he thought the event was unbalanced. That is, it was unfair that no one from the Alt Med field was invited to speak. Hob felt he would have got more from an event that was unbiased and allowed both sides to put their sides of the debate across.

Hob is, of course, free to come to this conclusion, and I understand why he might do so. On one level, it does seem odd  that an event called Alt Med ON TRIAL would not feature anyone for the defence, as it were.

I found it really hard to make the convince him otherwise at the time. There are several counter arguments to make, but in trying to articulate them I ended up sounding like some anti-CAM obsessive with a massive chip on my shoulder. That balanced Carl Sagan tone, conciliatory but firm is really hard to achieve.

So, because its easier to do it this way, I thought I'd write them down here for him...

- On trial: First and foremost, this wasn't about a trial in the legal sense. It was about looking at the evidence for alternative and complementary therapies, and that evidence is most reliable when done in the form of random controlled trials. It was a good title for the day, but I understand why it might have put Hob off.

- What constitutes balance? 1: I think Hob has a common misconception about the skeptical point of view. 'Fairness' in the sense Hob outlines it would really consist of people who believed unquestionably in the efficacy of alternative medicine debating with those who believed it was completely useless.

From their talks, it was clear that the three speakers fall into neither of these categories. They focused on the evidence base for Alt Med and presented both sides where there are two sides to present. Simon Singh, for example, set out very clearly where cases where there is unequivocal positive evidence for complementary or alternative therapies (the use of St John's Wort for depression sticks in my mind, but there were others). That the evidence heavily favours one side or the other is irrelevant to the question of balance in this sense.

- What constitutes balance? 2: There is a related but distinct point which is familiar to those who read media coverage of science issues. Balance does not necessarily mean giving equal space or time to those who disagree with each other. This is best illustrated with extreme examples such as Flat Earthers, where it is recognised that one side of the 'debate' is propounded by a small minority who are well outside of the mainstream. In the coverage of Obama's cancellation of the moon mission, no one was giving equal column inches to those who believe the moon landings were a hoax. No one criticised them for a lack of balance, either.

It's important to note that I'm not (here) linking proponents of Alt Med to Flat Earthers or Richard Hoagland. Its enough to show that aiming for 'balance' doesn't necessarily mean there are two equal sides to a debate.

- Wrong forum 1: This was a series of lectures, not a debate. Simon Singh and Andy Lewis are well known for engaging Alt Med proponents head on, as are other well-known skeptics, and there are plenty of forums in which to get that kind of experience. This was a chance to hear them go into more depth on their areas of expertise, and there are plenty similar opportunities to hear proponents of alternative medicine.

- Wrong forum 2: Debates are often a very bad format in which to give both sides of an issue equal hearing. Experience from the creationism vs evolution argument in the US shows debates can be counter-productive.  The forum can make it a contest of  rhetorical skills rather than evidence and plausibility. It can also allow people to throw out masses of false statements that sound convincing but cannot all be corrected due to time pressures.


- Freedom to ask attend and ask questions: The series of lectures was open, and there were ample opportunities to ask questions at the end of the talks. The speakers were also open to one on one debate and generous with their time.

- Give us a chance Finally, I think this is the wrong time to feature Alt Med proponents at this kind of event. Skepticism is just finding its feet in the UK, and as one of the leading organisations in the field, CFI is quite entitled to host an event with speakers who identify with its own mission. I'm quite certain that there is more balance and nuance in the talks at skeptical events  than those run by Alt Med proponents. One good piece of evidence for this belief is the ease with which one can comment and engage in debate on skeptical blogs and sites. Compare that to any homeopathic blog or site you care to name...

So, Hob - that's it. That's why it wasn't unfair to only have skeptics on the bill.

For any passing skeptics, please add any other thoughts in the comments.

Hob's a bright guy - he is (whisper it) significantly brighter than I am, although he holds back more. His academic background in theology, and retains an intellectual curiosity for matters religious, scientific and political. On the negative side, and in order to provide some balance, he is prone to putting both feet in his mouth, is prematurely bald and he bears more than a passing resemblance to Montgomery Burns

In short, Hob's exactly the kind of person who would get a kick out Alt Med on Trial and that 10:23 is aimed at. I want to get him along to Skeptics in the Pub some time, and I'd welcome any help you can give me.

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