Sep 27 2007

The Argument from Antiquity

I have come to expect that when I post an entry on certain topics, such as creationism or alternative medicine, I am likely to get a comment that is suitable fodder for a follow up entry (although this can happen with any entry focussed on criticism of pseudoscience). These pseudosciences are highly developed, backed by a subculture of believers and an evolved and sophisticated (if completely misguided) doctrine. Since the ultimate conclusions promoted by believers in such pseudosciences are wrong, it is no surprise that the edifices of their claims and arguments are strewn with logical fallacies and misrepresentations of facts. Therefore I can always find something fallacious worthy of further discussion.

In response to my recent post on the latest unconvincing acupuncture study, John Wood, a self-described medical acupuncturist from London, wrote:

The fact that acupuncture has been used successfully in China for 2000 years with very few side effects is something that most surgeons, doctors and pharmacologists could only wish for.

This is a common claim of the pro-CAM crowd and is nothing but a giant logical fallacy – the argument from antiquity. This is a special case of the more general logical fallacy, the argument from authority. Such arguments follow the basic form of claiming that something is true, or that a particular claim has value, because the person or group promoting it has some virtue or positive attribute. In this case the implied claim is that the thing itself, acupuncture, works because it is blessed with the virtue of being ancient. This fallacy is further coupled with the implication that scientific medicine, surgery, and pharmacology suffer from the vice of modernity or youth.

These coupled arguments are not valid because it does not necessarily follow that what is old is better than what is new. It is common to revere the notion of a golden prior age, but such reverence usually turns out to be unfounded. Typically, those using this fallacious argument will try to rescue it by further arguing that it is valid because antiquity implies that the method has stood the test of time. This argument, however, is not valid because it contains a major unstated premise that is not true – namely that time will test such modalities as a matter of course. History has shown this to be a false assumption.

Let us take the example of the humoral theory of illness. This method also was used for two thousand years as the dominant philosophy of medicine in Western civilization. Two thousand years of anecdotal experience was not enough for Western society to realize that bloodletting, purging, and cathartics were not only worthless treatments but were actually harmful. Yet the humoral philosophy was the occidental equivalent of the traditional Chinese medicine philosophy of chi on which acupuncture is based.

What bloodletting and acupuncture have in common is that they are philosophies of illness, they are not scientific theories of disease. They were developed in a prescientific era steeped in superstition. They existed in a time of philosophy-based medicine, prior to the advent of science-based medicine. The only reason why acupuncture still exists today and bloodletting does not is the historical happenstance that scientific medicine developed first in the West and not the East.

Philosophy-based modalities are not tested by time, because they are not tested. Systematic testing of claims is part of scientific medicine. Anecdotal evidence may weed out only the most obvious and immediate toxins, or allow the discovery of only the most unambiguous physiological responses. It cannot, however, perceive the difference between a placebo response and a physiological response to a symptomatic treatment. It cannot detect a statistical improvement or worsening in the long term outcome of a variable and unpredictable disease.

Within the paradigm of philosophy-based medicine, there is no test of time, there is only tradition and authority. This enabled bloodletting to survive for two thousand years, and acupuncture is no different.

There are now countless examples of fraudulent treatment modalities that attracted millions of users who swore by their efficacy – right up until they were shown to be worthless. Dr. Abrams dynamizer convinced millions that it was the cure for everything, until it was ultimately exposed as a black box with inactive machine parts inside. Thousands swore by radioactive tonics, while they were slowly killing themselves. And today homeopathy survives with millions of believers, despite the fact that it violates basic laws of chemistry.

So I harbor no jealousy for the antiquity of acupuncture, or any other ancient method. I will choose modern scientific medicine any day. Dr. Wood and others would have us step back in time to the age of philosophy-based medicine. He would have us revere the wisdom of people who did not understand anything about the most basic functions of the human body, and did not have the benefit of the tools of modern science. The promoters of medical acupuncture and similar CAM methods would have us abandon the hard-won knowledge of scientific medicine and science in general for the false comforts of ancient fairy tales.

I will have none of it.

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