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I wrote this piece as a facebook response to a posting by my friend Sam, who sometimes gets carried away in his determination to stamp out Woo Woo.

On Woo Woos

In many sceptic’s attacks on “alternative” medicine I think there is an area that’s often overlooked and that is the area of preventative and nutritional medicine or holistic medicine, an area that is moving ahead at a tremendous pace at the moment, and is both well researched and peer reviewed.

This area is largely overlooked by the mainstream medical profession unless it is promoted by such organisations as The Heart Foundation who, in my opinion,  often promote simplistic and out of date ideas, viz. the margarine versus butter campaign.

Many GPs are not only overwhelmed with work, but are hemmed in by government regulation and an inflated fear of litigation. This, combined with the fact that lots of people just want to get a magic pill from the doctor, rather than to take responsibility for their own health through diet and other lifestyle changes, means we have a health system in crisis.

Dismissing alternatives such as holistic medicine does not improve things, simply makes it less likely that people are going to investigate alternatives. Alternatives that might empower them to wean themselves off the nipple of the health care system.

The problem with a lot of so-called sceptics is that they are not equally sceptical about everything, sometimes aligning themselves unthinkingly with the status quo and calling everything else ‘Woo Woo’. Probably a result of uncritically taking up what is put forward in the media as ‘the truth’, which is a difficult thing to avoid in this thoroughly mediated world.

When I challenged my sceptical friend about practices that moved from Woo Woo to authodox. He replied, as I knew he would: “Then it’s no longer alternative medicine it is now medicine. Which smelt to me very like appropriation.

We need to consider the fact that such things as folk remedies have existed for centuries and that many are, and have been, investigated and found to be effective in clinical trials. To say that these remedies were Woo Woo and suddenly became scientifically valid because someone did tests on them is patently ridiculous. There is another form of knowledge that has been passed on through means other than medical journals and peer reviewed papers for centuries. This form of knowledge is often dismissed as ‘mere anecdotal evidence’ and its positive results dismissed as the ‘placebo effect’.

Interestingly, much of the research into ‘alternative’ medicine has come about because orthodox medicine is having to face up to the limitations of its non-holistic approach to health. An example of this is the creation of antibiotic resistant superbugs triggering research into the use of colloidal silver.

I am not dismissing the scientific method, I am well grounded in it. I studied science at University level. And I am not dismissing scepticism either. Both need to be used intelligently, not simply as weapons against ideas one is uncomfortable with or which do not fit with the current orthodoxy.
Even worse is the use of selective skepticism as a way of self-definition over and against some enormous class of Eejit Woo Woos, existing largely in ones own imagination.

In his occasional speech on receiving his honorary Doctor of Letters from the University of WA Tim Minchin, the pin-up boy of the sceptics movement, said:

Most of society’s arguments are kept alive by a failure to acknowledge nuance. We tend to generate false dichotomies, then try to argue one point using two entirely different sets of assumptions, like two tennis players trying to win a match by hitting beautifully executed shots from either end of separate tennis courts.

I have never heard this better put. I wish I had said it myself.