Alternative MedicineSkepticism

Alternative Scmhalternative: Red Herring Fallacy

This is a series of short posts about some of the common (and annoying) arguments connected to the use of alternative medicine. And more importantly, why they’re wrong.

Most people who support different forms of alternative medicine have a hard time explaining or defending the science behind their claims. Instead, they might resort to arguments that appeal to feelings, or the right to a personal choice, and so on. As we will see, even these arguments tend to be flawed.

Alternative medicine doesn’t hurt anyone. This argument often comes up when the proponent of alternative medicine exclaims “But it doesn’t hurt anyone!”, after not being able to explain the effect or mechanism of treatment X. When used this way, the argument is a red herring fallacy. In other words, it is presented as an argument, when it in reality has nothing to with the topic in hand. If you are discussing the actual science around a zombie outbreak, then whether or not it would hurt anyone is irrelevant. But let’s deal with this claim regardless. 

This argument in favor of alternative medicine is really common, and also blatantly false. Sure, some forms do little or no bodily harm, like (most) homeopathic “cures”. On the other hand, a lot of common alternative remedies can have unknown and/or dangerous side effects. There’s no doubt about how harmful these remedies can be to people, especially when they are also presented as real alternatives to conventional medicine.

Many types of alternative medicine will therefore actually hurt people, who in many cases are already sick. For example, the homeopathic remedy for a burn wound is more heat. Yeah. If you burn your finger, you should supposedly hold it next to something warm, like a candle. This is actually completely in line with homeopathy in general, as their hypothesis is “like cures like”. This special cure will indeed do nothing to help the patient, and might even turn a mild burn into a severe one.

There’s also the fact that most people have very limited resources. If you consider someone who’s seeing a naturopath and taking their cancer medicine at the same time, they will most likely have the same survival rate as any other cancer patient. In reality, many people can’t afford to pay for both, especially in countries with a bad health care system. For those who choose the alternative treatment over conventional medicine, the outcome can be tragic. Even those who use it just as a side treatment lend credence to the proponents of alternative treatment.

In the end, while many people are harmed on an individual level, there are a lot of forms of alternative medicine that seemingly do very little direct harm. Instead, the level of indirect harm might be even greater. While the benign forms are growing in size and monetary capacity, more and more people are distrusting doctors and conventional medicine. This is a great cause of harm brought on by the use of alternative medicine, even as an indirect consequence.


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Ine is a second-year university student who spends most of her time far north and in really, really bad weather. She has been interested in science for most of her life, and the enthusiasm for critical thinking has tagged along almost inevitably, which means that she often grumbles about creationism and other kinds of woo. When she has some spare time, Ine does taekwondo, draws and reads.

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