The Big Issue : Edition 458
THEBIGISSUE9–22MAY2014 17 from acupuncture to zang-fu – to strict scientific rigour. When the money for trials ran out, he starting analysing the methodology of other trials. Despite his initial enthusiasm, the evidence was overwhelming. When tested, most CAM remedies – with cannot drown out the simple statement, “It works for me”. Which takes us back to our busy, overworked doctors, who have allotted you a 15-minute slot. In that time, they must diagnose you, prescribe you a treatment, and let you know what not to mix it with so you don’t die. There’s no time to explain how or why it works. A CAM practitioner, on the other hand, will sit you down for an hour and listen to your every ailment. Even if they don’t prescribe you anything, as a treatment, it actually works. You have been heard. In fact, clinical trials have shown that not only is the placebo effect a valid form of therapy, it works even better when dispensed by an empathetic healthcare practitioner. Then there’s Big Pharma. If anyone doubts that evidence-based medical research is hopelessly compromised, that doctors are routinely hoodwinked, and that patients often die as a result of both, get your hands on Bad Pharma, the book by British physician, academic and science writer Ben Goldacre. The pharmaceutical industry has so much blood on its hands it could start a blood bank. SO WHY FIGHT for a better understanding of science? If CAM doesn’t really do much at all, and often seems to help, why campaign against it? If people don’t want to vaccinate their kids, why should we convince them otherwise? If climate change is just a matter of belief, why bother trying to fix it? Well, for a start, CAM can be harmful if it replaces a drug that really does work. A Western Australian coroner found Penelope Dingle had effectively died of homeopathy – because she used it to treat her colon cancer instead of receiving conventional treatment. Helen Garner’s not-really-a-novel The Spare Room described in devastating detail how alternative cancer treatment centres can ruin and shorten the final months of someone who is going to die. If people don’t vaccinate their kids, we lose our collective immunity and children start dying. If climate change is real and we do nothing about it, we’re all going to die anyway. As for science – real, fact-driven, double-blind-trialled science – it needs to be accessible. Research is often hidden behind paywalls, and although it’s publicly funded, it can be prohibitively expensive to access. Research needs to be independent – if drug companies some rare exceptions like the effect of St John’s Wort on mood – were no more effective than a placebo. After all, researchers and drug companies are constantly on the lookout for new drug candidates. Rumours that Big Pharma ignores some treatments because they actually work (thus putting themselves out of a job) or they can’t patent it just don’t cut it. These guys have lawyers so powerful they could patent you if they wanted to. And the first drug company to cure cancer will not lose money. It will make money. It will make spectacular money. The science is never settled. We know that. But at some point, when the same studies conclude the same thing over and over again, you have to admit that this particular trial is over. So why do people still go in for CAM? For one, the numerous double-blind clinical trials disproving many CAM cures are locked away behind those paywalls, while alternative health magazines are often free on the internet. For another, as I discovered when I started talking to people about their experiences with CAM, all the medical trials in the world are irrelevant when a painful or irritating symptom is alleviated. And all the researchers are the ones who can afford to fund it (given the parlous state of universities), then they must have strict standards of accountability and transparency. As for climate-change-doubting politicians, if 97% of climate scientists agree climate change is occurring, then why aren’t parliamentarians 100% committed to stopping it? If the choice is between science and skulduggery, why not fight for science? RICHARD DAWKINS ELISE ANDREW » Ginger Briggs is a Melbourne writer. Her first book, Staunch, is available through Affirm Press.