May 03 2012

CAM Logical Fallacies

There are times when an article packs in logical fallacies so densely that I just can’t help deconstructing it. Another feature that often lures me in is a blatant self-contradiction that the author seems to be oblivious to. HuffPo Canada has recently published an article by “investigative journalist” Isla Traquair that does both. The articles emerges from her health consumer series that she is filming. The result is a confused, conflicting, and profoundly naive article that makes me wonder how much investigation she could have done.

Let’s go through and count the logical fallacies and contradictions. She wonders:

What exactly makes a medical treatment accepted and trusted by mainstream society? Does it make a difference if a practitioner wears a white coat and gets employed through the health service? Do they need a certificate and letters after their name? Or do we trust someone who has learnt ancient teachings using the laws and patterns of nature?

She begins by begging the question about what creates medical authority, and in so doing creates a straw man (a nice double). She cites some of the superficial trappings of legitimacy (formal recognition, degrees, and the standard uniform of the trade), as if this is what people trust about mainstream medicine. She could have asked – is it the years of training and education, the culture of science and self-criticism, the mountain of hard-won evidence, or perhaps the layers of regulation?

She then follows with another double: a false assumption that again begs the question, leading to the naturalistic fallacy – do ancient teachings reflect legitimate laws and patterns of nature? Pre scientific cultures generally did not understand much about how nature works (the laws and patterns). Even ancient cultures had certainly accumulated a great deal of practical knowledge about their environment, but they had no clue about underlying laws. So they invented fanciful philosophies to explain the mysteries of nature. They invented mysterious energies, spirits, astrological connections and cycles, and bizarre notions about how our bodies work. To venerate these hopelessly superstitious ideas from the perspective of 21st century science is curious.

By the way – she managed to squeeze in an argument from antiquity as well. I hope you’re keeping count.

The logical fallacies keep coming:

In East Asia however, it is regarded as being commonplace with it accounting for an estimated 40 per cent of all health care delivered. When you take that percentage and consider the population of China (roughly 1.3 billion) compared to the world population (roughly 7 billion), that’s a lot of people who trust TCM.

This is a clear argument from popularity – people in China trust TCM, so maybe we should also. In addition to being a logical fallacy, this argument betrays a superficial understanding of the history of medicine in China. Large cities in China and those with resources seek and rely upon modern scientific medicine. TCM was mostly a traditional practice of rural and poor China. This practice was significantly increased by Mao’s “barefoot doctor” program. Unable to provide modern medicine to the masses, he instituted a program of giving some medical training to traditional practitioners as an inexpensive way to provide some care to the masses.

Acupuncture is widely used, but mainly as an adjunct for pain relief, not it’s own medical system. This reflects the fact that acupuncture is deeply culturally embedded, as is the underlying belief in chi – or life energy. Traquair is essentially arguing that we should take acupuncture seriously because it is a popular superstition in a densely populated country.

It gets worse:

So let’s take a step back and consider why we seem to trust “new” medicine more than Mother Nature and treatment of symptoms rather than an analysis of their cause. There was a time when our scientific medicine was viewed as a type of witchcraft.

Let’s see – argument from antiquity (framed as a distrust in things “new”, with scare quotes), then naturalistic fallacy, followed by a straw man and then capped off by a non sequitur. Wow. Let me address the new fallacy here, the claim that modern medicine treats symptoms and that “natural” medicine analyzes their cause. First let’s list all the underlying causes of disease and illness discovered by TCM or other ancient medical traditions: there’s the blockage of chi, imbalance of the four humors, miasmas, evil spirits… Oh wait, those things are all fake.

Meanwhile, one major premise of science-based medicine is to always look for underlying causes, as much as possible. Of course, when modern medicine does this it is often criticized by advocates of CAM (complementary and alternative medicine) as being “reductionist.” Modern medicine has discovered germs, nutrition, genetic disorders, anatomical and physiological causes of disease, toxins, abnormal electrical signals in the brain, and much more. Modern medicine is built upon a large body of knowledge concerning biology, physiology, biochemistry, genetics, developmental biology, anatomy, and psychology. Understanding the pathophysiology of disease is nothing less than an obsession of modern medicine and the focus of thousands of research papers every year. It boggles the mind that someone (an investigative journalist, no less) can wave their hand dismissively and discount this all as “treating symptoms.”

Now here comes the major self-contradiction of the article. She writes:

For nearly 2000 years, bloodletting was the most common medical practice performed by doctors. It was used to treat almost every disease and involved bleeding a patient by puncturing an artery in the forearm or the neck. Barbers rather than physicians used to perform this procedure, which is why we still see red and white poles outside barber shops today. Thankfully it petered out in the late 19th century.

That’s right – and what can we learn from this? That 2000 years of use (the argument from antiquity) is no guarantee of being legitimate, or even not being rank pseudoscience. That being the popular belief of a major portion of the world (popularity) says nothing about legitimacy. Traquair fails to make the obvious analogy here – acupuncture is bloodletting. Bloodletting did not just “peter out” – it was replaced by scientific medicine, by the embrace of western physicians of the burgeoning scientific tradition. This was formalized in the Flexner report, which significantly transformed modern medicine and solidified its science-based culture. This did not happen in China. Instead they got Mao’s barefoot doctors, solidifying their equivalent of bloodletting as traditional medicine.

In fact, acupuncture has more in common with bloodletting than Traquair probably supposes. I have already written about this Рthe historical connections between the eastern ideas of chi and acupuncture and the western ideas of the humors and bloodletting.  Throughout most of its history, acupuncture was just a form of bloodletting. It was transformed in the early 20th century into something closer to its modern concept, of altering energy. In traditional Asian thinking, however, chi and blood were the same. The chi flowed through the blood, and you freed it by releasing the blood. Acupuncture is bloodletting.

It gets worse:

It’s easy for us in the 21st century to snigger at our ancestors’ attempts at curing illness. Are our ancestors sniggering in their graves as we tackle modern diseases caused by our convenient, man-made and chemically enhanced lives? Who is to say we won’t get sniggered at by future generations? Will they laugh at our attempts to cut out, burn and poison cancer?

This passage is so confused and nonsensical it barely even rises to being a logical fallacy (which requires at least some logic, even if fallacious). Essentially she is making an appeal to future authority. This is a common and non-falsifiable ploy – in the future, those wise and knowledgeable people will know that I am right and you are wrong.

Let us also try to imagine our ancestors from a time before modern medicine. Their life expectancy was about 40 years, at which time they probably did not have teeth, had lost many family members to now-treatable diseases, and likely suffered from many ailments from which there was little relief available. If they did live long enough to get cancer, they had no hope of any treatment. It would slowly ravage their bodies until they died a horrible death. Perhaps they were lucky enough to live in a time of surgery without modern anaesthesia – at least then the tumor might be removed and they would probably pass out from the pain before the procedure was done. Yes, I am sure they are sniggering at our 80 year life expectancy and our treatments for every minor ailment.

She does give us a flicker of understanding, but then quickly snatches it away:

I’m not for one second criticising the amazing advances we’ve made in medicine. It is, quite frankly, miraculous what modern medicine does and we must continue to fund research so more cures can be found and causes identified.

What I am doing is questioning why we discard ancient treatments as alternative. Note: I mean treatments that DON’T involve draining your body of blood.

Yes, yes – we have to give grudging acknowledgment of the amazing advances of modern medicine – even though she is contradicting what she just said about treating symptoms. So which is it? But then she gives us another naive straw man. Ancient treatments are not discarded because they are “alternative.” That term was invented by proponents, not science-based critics. Ancient treatment are discarded because they do not work and are based on ideas we now know to be wrong. It is ironic that she draws our attention to her fallacy by bringing up bloodletting again. It’s as if she is almost making the connection but is drowning in too much CAM propaganda to see straight. It is OK, apparently, to discard some ancient treatments, like bloodletting, if they come from your own culture and are not currently in vogue. But why dismiss treatments from other cultures that are just as superstitious and unscientific?

She finishes with an endorsement of cupping, because the irony of her self-contradiction was not thick enough:

It looks bizarre and feels even weirder as small glass cups heated by s flame get stuck to your body. It’s like a reverse massage because your skin and muscles get sucked away from the body. This treatment I found just plain old relaxing.

I have a news flash for our intrepid investigative journalist – cupping is bloodletting. The whole point of the cups is to draw blood to the surface so that it can be lanced. Notice the blood in this video. Like acupuncture, cupping has been rebranded by some to give it a more modern appeal, so now practitioners are not sucking out blood, they are sucking out “toxins.” Don’t worry about which toxins and how they are drawn out or any of those sciencey “reductionist” details – you know our modern society is swimming in toxins, and that superficial notion should be enough.


This article by Traquair is a product of decades of marketing propaganda by those selling and promoting quackery. She regurgitates the standard fallacious arguments that have been endlessly promoted by CAM advocates for years, without even realizing when she is contradicting herself. They are isolated memes and ideas, like commercial jingles and slogans, and not a substitute for actual analysis and thought. Ancient and natural is good, modern is bad. They treat symptoms, Mother Nature cures, etc.

The only investigation apparent in her article is a couple of anecdotes about her own experience. It is obvious she has not spoken to anyone who holds the position she is attempting to criticize. She has not looked into the background of the topics she discusses. This also is not an isolated example of pro-CAM logical fallacies. This is the standard within the CAM community. She may be a little more clumsy than some of the leading lights of the CAM movement, but her fallacies are their fallacies. CAM apologetics is an intellectually hollow endeavor, but apparently is effective with the naive and incurious.

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