Antivaccine nonsense Complementary and alternative medicine Medicine Quackery

Scientific medicine denialism: A brief (by Orac standards) proposal

Between sessions here at the AACR meeting, I started thinking. (I realize that’s often a dangerous thing to do, but sometimes I can’t help myself.) What I was thinking about was my annual bit of “fluff with a bite,” the 2008 edition of “What is an altie?” Why, I don’t know, but I was. Then, this morning while quickly perusing a few blogs and reading my e-mail before heading off to the meeting’s morning session, I noticed something in yesterday’s post about the commonality between creationists (evolution denialists), Holocaust deniers, and other forms of denialists. It was a term, a throwaway term that I had punched out on the keyboard without a second thought and then moved on to the rest of the post. Yet, as I re-read my post, suddenly it jumped out at me:

Scientific medicine denialists.

I don’t claim any sort of originality, but I can’t recall having seen that term before, and Googling “scientific medicine denialist” or “scientific medicine denialism” didn’t produce any real hits. Then it occurred to me. Whereas “altie” is a humorous term for a certain type of “alternative medicine” maven who is immune to reason and denies much in the way of anything good ever coming from the dreaded “allopathic” medicine, “scientific medicine denialist” appears to be a far better term to use to describe such people. Moreover, it has the advantages both of being a more general term that is not restricted to alties and filling a void in that there presently isn’t a nice, pithy term to describe this phenomenon.

The reason I’ve come to think this to be a good term, of course, is that scientific medicine denialists are denialists. They meet all the criteria as far as tactics and logical fallacies go. They deny the science behind medicine, as well as the usefulness and effectiveness of modern medicine. Now, I don’t necessarily agree with Mark Hoofnagle on all the nitty-gritty details of his definition of denialism, but I agree largely with him. He’s correct enough that my minor quibbles don’t prevent me from linking to his definition approvingly and pointing out just how many characteristics Hoofnagle lists that apply to scientific medicine denialists:

  • Conspiracy. Scientific medicine denialists love this one to death. After all, the reason you–yes, you!–aren’t as healthy as you could be is because of a massive conspiracy involving (pick one or more) big pharma, the FDA, the CDC, the NIH, with or without the Illuminati and Masons, are keeping you from finding out The Truth about how worthless and harmful “allopathic” medicine is and how wonderful whatever form of “alternative” medicine favored by the particular altie doing the arguing. All of this is, of course, in order to protect profits (which, it is said, are threatened by The Truth of alternative medicine” or to keep control–or any of a number of nefarious purposes, such as ideology, fear of losing grant money, etc.
  • Selectivity. Another favorite. Whenever I read tracts written by scientific medicine denialists, they will always zero in like a laser beam on one or two studies that refute some aspect of scientific medicine and ignore the vast majority of literature that supports that aspect. Alternatively, they will fail to put such studies into context (a favorite technique when referring to articles that estimate how many iatrogenic deaths occur every year). Another common technique is to cite old research papers (sometimes decades or even more than a century old) as authoritative when the science has long since moved on. One example: Citing Beauchamps as “evidence” that Louis Pasteur was wrong. Another example: Those who think that HIV does not cause AIDS like to cite research articles from the 1980s, when the science of how HIV causes AIDS had not yet been worked out in the exquisite detail that it has now.
  • False Experts. Hulda Clark. Joseph Mercola. Mike Adams. Mark and David Geier. Need I say more? I could go on.
  • Impossible Expectations/Moving Goalposts. Another favorite technique, easily recognized when, no matter how much evidence and how many scientific studies are marshalled in favor of a particular scientific medical treatment, the altie will always declare it as “unconvincing” or demand more evidence. This is the very same technique that creationists and Holocaust deniers, in particular, excel at. Another example is antivaccinationists demanding absolute, 100% safety from vaccines when nothing in medicine is without at least a tiny degree of risk.
  • Argument from Metaphor/violations of informal logic. Another favorite, particularly the argument from (almost always bad) analogy or metaphor.

Some will accuse me of “smearing” or “labeling.” I reject the former charge. The latter charge is a bit more complex, but I would answer that there is nothing wrong with labeling if the labeling is accurate and not used to describe something that does not fit the term. (I’m sure there will be commentary in the discussion thread here that will take me to task for that; try to make your case, and I will consider alternate viewpoints.) Creationists howl about being called “creationists” or “evolution deniers.” Holocaust deniers, in particular, hate the term “denier” or “denialist” when it is applied to them. So do HIV/AIDS denialists. But can anyone argue that the term doesn’t fit for all of them? But the term fits for them and it fits for alties who, just as evolution denialists (a.k.a. creationists) concede that “microevolution happens” while denying macroevolution, concede that scientific medicine is good for things like trauma or appendicitis deny that it is much good for anything else. Can anyone argue that the term doesn’t apply to, for example, Mike Adams or Joseph Mercola? What I am really trying to do here is to come up with a brief, descriptive, and accurate term to use to describe this mindset.

Consequently, henceforth I am going to experiment with using the term “scientific medicine denialist” when referring to altie-like behavior. The beauty of the term is that it doesn’t just encompass alties. It also easily encompasses other deniers of scientific medicine, such as antivaccinationists, HIV/AIDS denialists, and germ theory denialists (I still can’t believe that germ theory denialists still exist, but they do), among others, whom I now view as subclassifications under the more general term of scientific medicine denialist. It could even be used to describe corporate scientific medicine denialists, such as tobacco company campaigns to deny the dangers of secondhand smoke or epidemiology linking various chemicals to adverse effects on human health. They all fit in that they share an unrelenting hostility, distrust, or dislike towards scientific medicine when it disagrees with their beliefs, and they make their pseudoscientific arguments in the same way that other denialists, be they creationists or whatever, do. I also urge other bloggers dedicated to scientific medicine to consider using the term as well.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

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