Chiropractic and the Failures of Critical Thinking & Justice

This news story in the Sydney Morning Herald has got my blood boiling. It’s about a 4 month old baby in Melbourne whose back was broken by a Chiropractor.

And while you let that sink in, the story also states that the incident was reported to the Chiropractic Board of Australia who did not report it publicly, and allowed the Chiropractor to continue practicing.

As the title suggest, there are two failures here that need to be addressed.

1. Failure of Critical Thinking.

There is no solid evidence to support the claim that Chiropractic is a reliable, effective treatment. If you do a search for “does Chiropractic work?” you will come across a mix of sites both critical and supportive of chiropractic treatment. What neither of them will have is a solid list of research demonstrating the efficacy of the treatment.

Those supportive of Chiropractic treatments will give long, qualified answers about the fact that the term covers a range of treatments, and doesn’t denote a single practice. What is worse, official Chiropractic associations engage in a number of logical fallacies to justify the practice. For example on this page of the Chiropractor’s Association of Australia they refer to the fact that Chiropractors have a university education and are government regulated. This is the logical fallacy of the Argument from Authority, in which the authority of universities and governments are invoked in the absence of any real evidence. Government’s regulate a lot of things that are not effective medical treatments, but such regulation does not confer any additional validity to the practice. The double folly of government regulation is that the Chiropractic Board of Australia is mostly made up of Chiropractors! I believe the appropriate idiom is that the lunatics have taken over the asylum. Likewise, being taught at a university does not validate the practice, especially when those courses are run by Chiropractors. It’s a self-approving spiral of Chiropractors that have never been subject to any serious measure of accountability for their practices.

Those critical of Chiropractic point regularly at the lack of evidence or scientific research demonstrating the efficacy of the practice, and some sites offer lists of the injuries or deaths cause by the neck-benders. Here’s one example from whatstheharm.net.

Because of it’s lack of scientific viability, Chiropractic is still treated and regulated under the category of “Complementary and Alternative Medicine”, and to invoke Tim Minchin, ‘alternative medicines are those things that have not been proven to work, or have been proven not to work. You know what we call alternative medicines that have been proven to work? Medicine.’

Believing that Chiropractic treatments actually offer a significant, reliable medical benefit is a massive failure of critical thinking.

But it’s not the worst part of this particular incident.

2. Failure of Justice.

If people choose, despite knowing that Chiropractic is not a viable medical therapy, to still seek it out, then that is their (ill-informed) choice. However Chiropractors are not content to sit back and wait for people to seek them out. They are, after all, running a business that depends on repeat customers, or a growth in their customer base (I refuse to use the word ‘patient’ but won’t stoop to calling them ‘victims’). Chiropractors actively advertise their services as healing therapies, and there is such a thing as a pediatric chiropractor. As this news story relates to an incident in Melbourne, try Googling “Melbourne pediatric chiropractic’ and see how many hits you get.

To the average person, such advertisements suggest that these Chiropractors are offering a valid treatment or service, right? After all, the government has laws against false advertising that protect everyday Australians from fraud, right? Not so! Because if you look carefully at many of the websites for pediatric chiropractors, they don’t actually make definitive claims about the health-benefits of their service.

Here’s an excerpt from one website:

Our south melbourne chiropractor, trained in pediatric chiropractic can provide gentle and safe natural solutions to babies suffering birth trauma or colic, asthmatic kids, bedwetting children, ear infection in babies and kids, adhd as well as scoliotic children.

Notice how it doesn’t actually say that the treatment does anything? Also, look at the list of problems it helps to fix. Betwetting, ear infection & ADHD?!? How can one treatment do all that? I’d like to see some evidendce, please…

On another site it says :

Our chiropractors care for and treat many baby/toddler/childhood issues, including:

Colic

Silent reflux/Reflux

Irritability

Sleeping difficulties

Asymmetrical crawls

Delayed gross motor development

Other developmental delays

Pain syndromes

Breastfeeding problems

Our chiropractors are trained to refer to paediatricians and general practitioners if further medical evaluation is required. We pride ourselves on our network and communication, to maximise the smooth transitions between mainstream and complementary medical practitioners.

Another laundry list of ailments that they treat without any actual claims of benefit for the practice.

This means that they are not technically in breach of false advertising laws because they are not making definitive claims, but their statements certainly have strong implications of of benefits of the treatment, so that the average person might be fooled into assuming that ‘treatment’ means an actual benefit, rather than simply describing the act of treating the customer.

Why I describe this as a failure of justice is because the ambiguity and misdirection of these statements is so apparent that any government regulator with a genuine interest in public well-being (whether a regulator of advertising or alternative medical therapies) would take a stronger interest in the way such treatments are advertised to the public.

But the real failure of justice here is in the actions of the Chiropractic Board of Australia who did not suspend the license of the practitioner in question, did not make the information public, and conducted no further investigation. As stated earlier, the Chiropractor’s Board of Australia is made up mostly of Chiropractors, who have a vested interest in keeping the profession free of bad publicity.

Imagine if the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was being lead primarily by Catholic Priests and questionable scout masters and you’d have a situation similar to a bunch of chiropractors being responsible for overseeing investigations into incidents involving chiropractic therapies.

Specifically, the failure of justice is that a practitioner can be allowed to use vague wording to imply the efficacy of an unproven treatment, break the neck of a 4 month old baby, and have the incident investigated and ultimately dismissed by a group of people made up of similar practitioners.

In any other industry, this behavior would be (and is) called corruption, and may even warrant a Royal Commission.

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