I am not categorically opposed to "alternative medicine," provided that each accepted treatment is properly tested in an ethical and scientifically sound manner (but I just call using acidic Vitamin A to treat acute promyelocytic leukemia plain old "medicine"). However, friends will sometimes advocate for a particular alternative therapy, be it a tincture, muscle manipulation technique, or adjunct cancer treatment, with the the promotion "My relative tried it and she had great results." To which I usually just respond with, "Cool, Thanks."
I respect the intelligence of my friends, and thus usually speak up and engage them in conversation, when I find something they say to be questionable. However, I keep mum when facing a statement about a close one's personal recovery. There is simply no polite way to say "The experience of your relative does not matter."
I am certainly happy if a friend's loved one recovered successfully from his or her illness. But the fact of his recovery has a less than minuscule effect on my views concerning the value of the treatment. I have no idea if the recovery was because of the treatment, despite the treatment, or for some completely unrelated reason. I say a "less than minuscule", rather than a non-existent effect on my confidence in the medication, because the anecdote does teach me "At least one person was able to recover from his illness while (but not necessarily as a consequence of) using this treatment (Treatment A)." The practical effect of this knowledge would be that, were I placed in a hypothetical situation, in which I had to quickly save someone by choosing between said Treatment A or Unknown Treatment B, I would probably preferentially grab Treatment A. I don't anticipate facing such a "deserted island"-like scenario in my lifetime, so I can safely say that I would be no more or less likely to use Treatment A in practice.
I wonder if the harshness of the objection is what makes some people resistant to evidence-based-medicine. What we are basically saying that no matter how much someone suffered, and no matter the magnitude of her eventual breakthrough, her case is scientifically irrelevant, so long as it was not added to long list of comparable patients of a similar demographic. People want to feel like their experiences matter. Nobody wants to simply be a statistic.
The problem is that treating people as individuals, and caring deeply about the welfare of one patient, both requisite components of empathy-based-patient care, are not pertinent components of evidence-based medicine. It is when we take the good intentions of the former, and impose them upon the cold calculations of the latter (or vice-versa), is when we start to provide medical care that is less efficacious, and less empathic, respectively. Empathy requires a dogged commitment to the patient and his relatives, science involves an exacting focus on anonymous people whose names will never be disclosed. Perhaps it is this intense desire to celebrate the personal, rather than the abstract, that drives us to make crucial cognitive mistakes.
While I am angry that Jenny McCarthy's "advocacy" work may harm many children, her biases seem to stem from natural human feelings that arise to deal with uncertainty, to maintain control over our environment, and, most of all, to find personal meaning in our experiences.
I am currently reading Paul Offit's wonderful book, "Autism's False Prophet's," which transcribes Jenny McCarthy's statements on Oprah, including this response to a question:
"My science is Evan, and he's at home. That's my science." [Loud, thunderous applause].
I honestly am not mocking Ms. McCarthy when I say that I wish I could point to the difficult experiences of loved one's illnesses and call them "my science." But no matter my sympathy of the motivations, it is irrational, nonetheless. And it could potentially cause enormous harm.
Paul Offit also presents the transcription of a doctor name Dr. Geier, who testified against vaccinations in court, and who had been peddling his own untested autism medication called "Lupron." Dr. Geier said,
"We presented a new idea on how to treat autism and how to treat mercury poisoning, because these kids aren't autistic, they're mercury poisoned. Although I'm not happy with trying it on children without further research, these people are desperate and there have been some remarkable responses."
"Remarkable responses," "Try it: He had good results," "My family is my science": All of these are erroneous statements that are damaging to health care. One must develop the humility necessary to accept the limited applicability of one's experiences and observations. This is a difficult bias to overcome. But to do so is necessary, because, as Roger Brinner brilliantly quipped, "The plural of anecdote is not data."