This is the beginning of what I expect will be a lengthy series of posts about the number of arguments in public discourse that involve or sometimes depend entirely on a false application of logic, better known as logical fallacies, in order to appear valid.
This first post comes from a discussion that I started in an online teacher’s forum. I had recently discovered that the Teacher’s Federation Health service, a restricted membership health fund developed for members of the NSW Teacher’s Federation and their families, not only supported but actually recommended practices like Homeopathy, Acupuncture and other Alternative Therapies as a way of dealing with morning sickness in pregnant women.
In response to my posts, I received a lengthy private message form another teacher who said that they were ‘highly offended’ by my post and gave a lengthy explanation of the role AT’s had played in their life. I will respect that person’s privacy and not post anythign more about them here.
Their message, however, was full of such a string of logical fallacies, that it could barely hold itself together and still be called a coherent argument. It prompted me to write this post about logical fallacies and the role they play in the ongoing debate about ATs and their funding.
So, as I mentioned earlier, I received a message describing my post about alternative therapies as ‘highly offensive’ by someone who shall remain nameless and undescribed in any way.
What I want to address, because I think it’s important and certainly imperative within of a community of educators, are the many logical fallacies that were used in that post as supportive arguments in favour of Alternative Therapies. I will not quote the message directly for fear of identifying the person who made the post, but the points raised are symptomatic of a tendency toward false belief that I think is worthy of debate.
First, I want to outline the issue that prompted this thread.
The issue IS NOT that Alternative Therapies exist. In a free market people have the right to spend their money however and on whatever they want, and in a free and democratic society people should have the right to pursue their own well-being and happiness in whatever method they feel best suits them.
The issue IS NOT that the majority of Alternative Therapies have been scientifically proven, in repeated double-blind studies, to have no effect greater than the placebo effect, meaning that they effectively do nothing but make a person feel better about themselves. Emotional support and wellbeing are important factors in life, and if you find those things in having a lit candle stuck in your ear then you are free to pursue that.
THE ISSUE IS the efforts to claim that these therapies have an actual medical effect, which are often supported by false logical conclusion, or in some cases deliberately false or misleading statements (powerbalance bands, anyone? Or ‘shape up’ shoes?) and in the most heinous of cases, these claims are backed up by deliberately manipulated or falsified ‘science’ (such as claims that vaccinations cause autism).
THE ISSUE IS that while people have the right to do whatever they please with their time and money, they do not automatically have the right to some form of government or fund-based subsidy to facilitate their involvement in that activity. The only reason our health care funding system currently recognises so may alternative therapies is that the burden of scientific proof was never applied to treatments before listing them for subsidy.
Ultimately, however, most Alternative Therapies have no measureable medical benefit. Utilising them only becomes an issue when people try to claim they have a medical benefit, or worse, when they forgo conventional medical treatment in favour of alternative therapies. There is a good chance that Steve Jobs would still be alive today if he had not avoided surgery for a decade in favour of ‘natural’ remedies.
The support for Alternative Therapies is argued in many different forums, however in every case, there are key logical fallacies that are used to support those arguments, and it is my intention to highlight a few of those in the hope that maybe only a few people will consider the evidence before making an emotionally charged decision.
Logical Fallacy no: 1. The Argument From Authority. I pointed this one out in response to a post earlier, and it is a big one. The argument from authority is one in which we supplement a persons authority for the need for factual accuracy or evidence. Religion, Education, Law Enforcement and a lot of other parts of our society depend on an element of submission to authority, but this means that authority can be easily abused to convince people to believe a person’s word on a subject rather than seek objective proof.
Consider my original post. If I succumbed to the argument from authority, I would have more likely said “The teacher’s Federation Health recommends Homeopathy, therefore it must be a valid medical practise.” In much the way that others have identified that the WHO support acupuncture. We may place our trust in a person or organisation, but we do so at risk. The primary risk is that organisations are just a collection of people and people are flawed, also organisations lead to bureaucracy which slows things down a lot. This means that an organisation like the WHO might be slow to react to new science, but they might also want to apply their own critical process to new discoveries – as well they should. This does not mean that what any person of authority says is inherently right.
This is especially important when an alternative therapists tries to tell you that they are an authority on a subject or that they know more or know something secret that doctors and conventional medicine don’t know. There is a tragic case in court in (South Australia? I think) at the moment, in which the family of a woman are suing the Homeopath who, together with a psychic, convinced a woman to abandon conventional medical treatment for her rectal cancer because they knew the true way to cure her. Her subsequent painful and prolonged death, and the pain it caused her family, is the subject of the lawsuit.
It is also one of the primary reasons given by people for justifying alternative therapies. “Person X (usually a doctor) recommended it.” First of all, just because they recommended it does not mean that it is an effective medical therapy. Sure, your doctor may have recommended aromatherapy or massage or herbal tea or acupuncture. That recommendation does not automatically imbue the treatment with medical validity. It could be that the person recommending it believes that it is a relaxing treatment and that above all else you just need to chill out for a bit. Maybe that person is relying on out of date or incorrect information.
It is a false assumption to assume that just because someone recommended a treatment that the treatment has some valid medical impact.
There are other variations of the Argument form Authority that crop up in this debate as well, they are:
The Argument from Antiquity – the idea that just because something is old that it must be true or valid. Acupuncture is often sold on the fact that it is an ancient Chinese practise, as if the ancient Chinese somehow knew more than we do now. Ruthless dictatorial rule and Savagery toward one’s own people were also ancient Chinese practices, so by this logic, they must also be good and valid practices.
This next variation doesn’t have quite as trite a name as many others, but the false belief that something is valid because a large number of people believe in it (the Authority becomes the collective). When people asserted that the world was round and that it revolved around the sun, the majority disagreed (violently). The majority were wrong. Just because they held a collective belief did not make that belief inherently true. It made their belief the law of the land, but that does not make it true. Likewise, if a group of people (usually on the net through forums and facebook pages) all hold a common belief, such as the belief that Homeopathy is better than Vaccination, that belief is no more credible or true than it was when only one person thought it.
Logical Fallacy no. 2: Argument from Ignorance. The idea that ‘Because there is not a known answer, then this alternative answer must be or might be true’. This is another big one. Let me begin by saying that medical science does not have an answer for everything. That does not automatically mean that someone else’s answer is valid. This logical fallacy is also strongly connected to the growing sense of entitlement in progressive generations (I’m on the X-Y cusp and I have a good dose of it, but I really hate it!). People seem reluctant to accept that sometimes life is hard, and that there must be an easy answer out there somewhere (and to the person who wrote me the message, please re-read your own post and see how many of your arguments against conventional medicine were based on the fact that they are not cheap/convenient/hassle free).
But, just because medical science does not have an answer does not immediately invalidate medical science! Maybe your problem is unique, or in such a minority that it hasn’t received significant attention in the world of limited research funding. If doctors and scientists can’t find a targeted solution to your particular problem, then that does not mean that an Alternative Therapies ‘one size fits all’ treatment is somehow going to work for you.
This is the same logical fallacy behind UFO conspiracies, Psychic powers and Intelligent Design. Just because science doesn’t know everything there is to know about the universe, the brain or evolution DOES NOT automatically validate someone else’s theory.
Logical Fallacy no. 3: False Dichotomy
This is another big and horrible one. Humans have a tendency to reduce things to simple terms, and usually into A vs B. In this case it is usually Medical Science vs. Alternative Therapies, as if you have to make a choice and stick to one.
Medical Science and Alternative Therapies are not two separate and opposing entities. If an Alternative Therapy is proven to have a dependable medical benefit, medical Science will adopt that practise as part of its repertoire. This dichotomy is often fuelled by purveyors of practices that are known to be ineffective, who then take up a combative stance against medical science.
The issue I raised in my initial post was an objection to funding support for therapies that have been repeatedly, consistently proven not to have any effect. There are a number of therapies still to be investigated as thoroughly as, say, Homeopathy, but once a practise can be clearly pointed to and identified as not working, then it should disappear from funding schedules. If people choose to keep using the practise once it is no longer longer subsidised, then that is their choice.
Logical Fallacy no. 4: Inconsistency. Why do people expect greater evidence of proof from medical science than from alternative therapies? People will expect evidence and examples and historical proof before submitting to a chemical therapy, but will happily take someone’s word for it that a lit candle in the ear has therapeutic benefits.
I can’t say more about this one without breaking my intention of neutrality.
Logical Fallacy no. 5: The Straw Man. This one is used aggressively by people who are being knowingly disingenuous. If you’re new to the concept of logical fallacies, learn this one and learn it well. It will change your life. The Straw Man is similar to the Ad Hominen (attacking the person rather than the issue) and the ‘No True Scotsman’ argument (disregarding someone or their argument because os a single arbitrary characteristic). The Straw Man argument is when a person responds to a claim or question by attacking a third point or claim that is not directly relevant but may seem to reduce the credibility of the claim that they are trying to avoid.
In Medical Science vs Alternatvie Therapies (a false dichotomy in itself) it goes something like this.
Medical Science: Alternative therapies don’t work. They are proven to have no medical effect.
Alt. Therapists: But Medical Services are so expensive! Most people can’t afford extended treatment.
Mr/Mrs. Gen Public: That Therapist is right, medical practices ARE expensive. Therefore the alternative therapy must be better for me.
There are many examples of this one in arguments about the validity of Alternative Therapies. It also appears a lot in politics. Like I said, learn it well.
The final one I will mention here is the Confusing of Association with Causation. If the Argument from Ignorance teaches us one thing, it is that medical science doesn’t know everything. As such, things can happen that have no known explanation. There is a human tendency to associate something known with the cause of the effect. Just because you were seeing a Homeopath at the time your migraines got better DOES NOT automatically mean that the homeopathy cured your migraines. It only means that the two things happened coincidentally, and proper research is needed to determine if any concrete and reproducible link exists.
This logical fallacy also manifests in the tendency to confuse anecdote with evidence. This is particularly prevalent in those online chat groups I mentioned above, where one or two people’s personal experiences are treated as incontrovertible evidence or proof of an alternate point of view. Annecdote does not equal evidence. Especially not when those annecdotes are in a significant minority. They may be in the majority on a particular forum, but then if that forum exists to support a particular group of people, of course it’s going to have a concentrated number of people with common experiences. That doesn’t make their experiences universal, or their opinions on those experiences any more factual.
I’m going to leave it here because I’ve addressed the main points I’ve encountered so far. I will reinforce my initial point that Alternative Therapies themselves are not the issue. It is the attempt to argue that they have any medical benefit or that they are deserving of public funding as medical treatments that is the issue.
To finish, I just want to point out that a common response from supporters of alternate therapies once all other arguments have been knocked down is “What’s the harm?”, well unfortunately there is a lot of harm being done.
First of all, there is the harm caused when money that could support necessary medical procedures is being done to support Alternative Therapies that are proven not to work, and then there is the harm done when a person is so bowled over by the logical fallacies above that they agree to give up conventional medical treatment in favour of alternative therapies, and potentially suffer and/or die. The government and health care subsidy for many alternative therapies gives them a chance to invoke the argument for authority that often convinces people of the validity of these practices, so there is direct harm being done by government and health care support for these practices.
If you’ve read this far you deserve a medal.
And upon the reasliation that I’m ever closer to becoming a cranky old man who write angry letters in his darkened basement, I’m going for a walk with my dog.