Author: Peter Taylor

The sceptical scientist

Updated Monday, 17th March 2008
OU chemist Peter Taylor takes a scientific approach to alternative therapies

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As a scientist I am trained to critically analyse any claims that are made about our physical world. I examine the claim and carefully design experiments that allow me to unambiguously test the hypothesis through precise observation and measurement. At all times I need to be mindful of the chances of particular observations and ensure I'm not measuring some random artefact.

The same rigour needs to be applied to all forms of healthcare and so when it comes to alternative therapies I need to see the scientific evidence, which is very different to anecdote.

Nevertheless, I need to keep an open mind. The modern Pharmaceutical Industry was based upon herbal remedies. These potions evolved over time and clearly the ones that work were passed on from generation to generation. However, it was the application of sound science that identified the active components and verified their potency. A good example is the development of aspirin from willow bark.

But not all herbal remedies worked and it was the appearance of charlatans who took advantage of the vulnerable sick that led to early regulation of apothecaries. This regulation has developed over the years such that the Pharmaceutical Industry is one of the most regulated industries. The strict series of trials, including double blind trials, that drugs have to undergo should ensure the efficacy and safety of the medicine.

That is not to say that the regulation is perfect, there have been cases where organisations have "managed the data" but this is getting more difficult to do. I have greater confidence in an industry with this level of regulation and scientific testing than on an alternative therapy where regulation is voluntary and/or self regulatory and the evidence is only hearsay.

Society has a responsibility for protecting the vunerable and as scientists we need to look for scientific evidence of any claim made by a practitioner. That is not because we think they are charlatans - we are more interested in the claim which can only be verified through rigorous testing. If the claim is upheld then it should be made widely available, if not regulation is needed to ensure people don't make money from false claims.

I have heard some argue that even if a treatment does no good, providing it does no harm, then why shouldn't the public dispose of its money how it like. Well that is OK - providing the public understand what they are paying for; and that with serious conditions, it doesn't lead to the patient presenting themselves to the GP when it's too late for conventional medicine do provide any help.

I am also sceptical when NHS funds are used to provide alternative therapies when they could be used to provide more scientifically justified treatments.

One aspect of some alternative therapies that I find extremely frustrating, and perhaps rather worrying, is the way some practioners use scientific or pseudoscientific language to try to justify what they believe is happening.

It is one thing to say that a therapy has some potential health benefits - which scientists can then put to the test - it is another to put forward justifications of why a therapy might work using scientific language based on little evidence. A nice foot massage might be pleasant, and I know there are some that argue this can help reduce stress which can have some health benefits - but when reflexologists (for example) start talking about 'the theory of zone therapy' or 'stimulating the lymphatic system to eliminate calcium and uric acid deposits' then I worry there is a real danger that this can mislead people into thinking there is real science backing up their claims. Personally, I have serious doubts about any therapy that feels it needs to use pseudoscientific terms to give it some justification.

I do acknowledge that belief has a powerful effect on helping patients recover - the placebo effect is a well-documented scientific observation. There are good reasons why clinic trials use the placebo effect as a baseline against which potential treatments or medication must be judged.

The placebo effect can be stimulated through the "drama" of the consultation and this often leads to a positive effect. Sadly one of the drawbacks of modern medicine is that the patient is too often seen as just a malfunctioning organism and the GPs rarely have the time to meet the full personal needs of the patient as well as their illness.


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