A False Dichotomy

There’s one important point I feel like emphasizing on the topic of medicine: There is no such entity as “alternative medicine.” The same goes for “complementary” or “integrative” medicine. Part of the problem is that people acknowledge these nebulous labels as if they were concrete, objective, and useful labels. It’s my position as a skeptic that they are not meaningful, and worse, that they are used as dog whistles for propaganda purposes. It’s made to set up a false dichotomy that appeals to black-and-white thinkers.

On one side, the “us” of woos, are the “brave maverick doctors” who use “natural” treatments and are thus persecuted by The Other, established pharmaceutical companies who use “unnatural” drugs, watchdog organizations like the FDA, the government, and skeptics who, as the gurus say, are all obese sedentary shills for the pharma companies who don’t believe in the value of diet and exercise, because diet and exercise are “alternative.”

Does that sound cartoonish? It should. But, with all the conversations I’ve had with alties, that appears to be how they see the world. “Us versus Them.” There are only two sides. Good versus evil, nature versus artifice, East versus West, herbs versus drugs, Red versus Blue. “The Other” is a monolithic evil composed of robotic caricatures of humanity that blindly obey their pharma masters because obedience to authority is the only reason anyone ever believes anything.

Worse, this expands to what I call “Red Team-Blue Team Morality.” If you’re on Red Team, anything a Red Team member does to improve their score is automatically, and by definition, good. If someone on Blue Team does anything, it is automatically evil. If a Red Team experimenter is suspected of fraud, it’s obvious that he didn’t do it, but if he did, he was doing it for honorable intentions. If a Blue Team experimenter is suspected of fraud, it’s just another sign that Blue Team is corrupt through and through, and any Blue Team members who seek to punish that fraud are figments of your imagination. If Red Leader says something, it must be true. If Blue Leader says something, you are required to assume that all Blue Team members believe it and that any protestations are just them hiding their real beliefs when exposed to accusation.

It never seems to occur to them that the world is complex and uncertain. It never seems to occur to them that “The Other” is composed of autonomous individuals with varying opinions and motivations. It never seems to occur to them that we might choose a non-authoritarian model of epistemology instead of mirroring theirs. It never occurs to them that we don’t believe in judging something by its alleged Redness or Blueness.

The real situation for your average skeptic: It’s us versus all medical treatment claims from all sides. Every medical treatment claim should be extensively tested before the treatment is put on the market, and it should be monitored closely, just in case some risks weren’t detected in the original tests. If we aren’t interested in devoting our time to researching it, we’ll trust the scientific consensus arrived at by the expert watchdog groups from around the world. If you want to dispute that consensus, you cite high quality research to the contrary for us to make an exception.

“Big Pharma” is a group of people making medical treatment claims that alties arbitrarily lumped together. In general, this group have been in the medical business for a long time and they jump through the scientific hoops the majority of the time. When they make a mistake, they recall the product, put out appropriate warnings, or some other appropriate action. The mistakes are caught because everything is monitored and generally transparent. The vast majority of skeptics do NOT consider “Big Pharma” to be a part of our identity. That label has been rhetorically forced on us by people who want to demonize us and attempt to make us appear guilty by vague association.

“Big Altie” is another arbitrarily lumped-together group of people who make medical treatment claims. They generally do not jump through the scientific hoops we demand of them. They were grouped together precisely because skeptics don’t trust them for that reason. Instead of working to improve their research, they form a culture that rejects the need for scientific testing. They spend much of their time devising propaganda tactics and fallacious arguments for followers to repeat should a skeptic dare to ask the important questions. Members are encouraged to see the world and their own identity in terms of this culture and the falsely group every opposing voice as a sinister alliance. They generally won’t consider the possibility that someone can think for themselves and arrive at a different conclusion. They won’t argue about the evidence used to reach that conclusion, but instead will make accusations of conspiracy.

Advice for my opponents: Show me the scientific evidence. I don’t care about who’s on what fictional side. “Big Pharma” is irrelevant to whether or not your medical hypothesis is true.

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