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Health, Sports & Psychology
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Alternative Therapies: The scientific debate

Updated Monday 17th March 2008

Some scientists are distinctly cool on alternative therapies. Kathy Sykes explores some of the reasons why.

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Copyright The Open University

Audio

Copyright The Open University

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While we've been filming I've had to think quite hard about what I'm finding out as a scientist, trying to look at the evidence, and what I'm experiencing as a human being.

Now the thing is you've got to do that as a scientist, you've got to have your experiences, acknowledge that they do affect you and, you know, that does change your feelings, but still then be able to look at the evidence. And I think saying that scientists are objective is a bit of a nonsense, I think human beings - we are subjective, and it's better for a scientist to admit: ooh, well, I've had this experience, so that might change the way I feel a bit, and I'm still going to try to be objective but have to acknowledge that I've had that experience and it makes a difference.

This whole terrain is oh, just really contentious, more contentious than many, many areas. And there are the extremes, there are some scientists who just think alternative stuff is all nonsense and really just don't even want you to be looking at it, and may admit that some complementary things may be valuable, but really have a negative stance towards alternatives.

And there are some alternative therapists who don't care about science, and are kind of offended that science should be using its tools to look at it when it feels it's quite a different thing. And then of course, there's everything in the middle, so there's lots of scientists and medics who are open-minded, need to be persuaded, want their evidence, but consider alternatives and complementaries where there is evidence, and some doctors and medics who are extremely open-minded and, likewise, with the CAM practitioners, some that are more open to science.

But it makes it quite a tricky terrain to be in, because you can profoundly offend one group with just quite a casual comment, if you seem to be too sympathetic to one of the sides. And you know when you're making a series like this that you are going to really annoy a load of people, whatever you say, you're going to really annoy a load of people because the extremes are so kind of against each other.

I think alternative and complementary medicines can have a really bad reputation with a lot of scientists for all sorts of different reasons. It's partly that it's just such a different terrain. But it's sometimes because alternative therapists can use scientific language and claim scientific theories for stuff that is just totally not proven. And I find that offensive as a scientist.

It's like, no, use your own language, don't nick ours and make it sound like this is science when there just is not evidence. You know, saying that something is a theory and everything is a theory, that's not good enough. You put up a theory, you try to knock it down. You test your hypothesis. If you're not doing that, don't use the words of science. So I think that's one reason.

I think also, scientists and medics can feel like oh, you know, alternative therapists don't have to jump the same kind of hurdles of proof, don't have to go through the same kind of robustness of trials that conventional medicine has.

And so it's annoying if they claim things work when, actually, you know, there may not be evidence that they work. So you know, they may not even be using any scientific language, but if they say something works and, actually, we don't know, it's pretty irritating for a scientist.

 

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