WEALTH, HEALTH, AND WOO

Very often when skeptics discuss alternative medicine, they look at the problem only from their own perspective.  We know the facts, why won’t people listen, etc, etc.  But that ignores the real reasons why people choose alternative medicine.  The evidence is enough for us, but it isn’t for some people.  And those people tend to be at the more affluent end of the scale.  I don’t know whether anyone has studied or theorised on this previously, but there’s a few reasons that I think are behind this:

Wealth is the best single indicator of healthcare outcomes

There are many factors that contribute to this whole, most of them related to the opportunities made available to those with more money.  Richer people can afford to partake in more physical and enriching activities, can afford to eat better food, are generally better educated, and are more likely to have access to private health treatments.  The rich are already at an advantage, health-wise.  Because of this, they’re more likely to pay attention to their health and avoid unhealthy environments, and therefore are already going to be healthier overall.  If they don’t experience any medical catastrophes (life threatening illnesses, accidents) then they might suffer the odd minor thing here and there that can be treated at home, and these are the kind of things that clear up by themselves in a few days anyway.  These are also the types of ailments for which there is a booming market in alternative remedies.  It’s not difficult to see how one might think that taking one of these remedies has “cured” the illness – because it would get better by itself anyway.

Alt med is a luxury product

Homeopathy, herbal treatments, and spiritual healing aren’t offered by the NHS.  There’s a damn good reason for this – they don’t work.  But manufacturers and vendors of these products and services market them as a life-enhancing extra.  The NHS is there for emergencies, they say.  But this is the good stuff.  And given how expensive it is, it gives the illusion of quality.

High-profile celebs endorse it

The Royal family are mega-homeopathy fans, and the Queen’s 90, so it must be good right? (bear in mind what I said about affluence above)  Not to mention the polished and glowing celebrity wellness gurus hawking their latest juice cleanse or fanny rocks.  As well as being a luxury product, alternative medicine is a fashion accessory.  Fashions tend to spread within peer groups, and alt med crap is marketed almost exclusively to middle-class women with traditional responsibilities and high disposable income (yep, the marketing is sexist as well as elitist).  Which explains the tendency for lovers (and pushers) of alt med to be female.

Alt med gives you the warm feels

Science and medicine deal in evidence and cold, hard facts.  Our health service is underfunded and overstretched, and there just isn’t the time to give every patient a cuddle.  There are strong arguments for improving communication, bedside manner, and making care more compassionate, but the present political climate doesn’t allow it.  As a former private patient, I know that private healthcare offers more in terms of personalisation, time for the patient, and looking after one’s feelings.  This offers benefits in terms of how patients view their recovery and illness; it’s certainly more pleasant to feel like you are “looked after”.  Most private hospitals are completely legit, offering speedy, effective, and dignified care.  But the one thing they share with the woo-woo clinics is the compassion.  Paying for alternative medicine satisfies the yearning that people have to fell like they are “treating the whole person”.  Trouble is, that’s all the alt-med will give you.  If you want a genuine treatment, you have to defer to the science, sorry.

It’s deceptively alluring

All of the above reasons are driven by emotion, and emotion is an extremely difficult thing to bypass.  People cling to delusions and snake oil because it satisfies their need for empathy, and because to shun it would mean leaving behind a part of their identity.  Alt med is a lifestyle choice.  Based on this, our current tactic of blinding adherents with science is obviously not working.  Now that knowledge of the Backfire Effect is spreading, we know that we could be making their views even more entrenched.  So what do we do?  Whatever technique we use, we have got to remain true to the evidence.  Lose our integrity and we’ve had it.  Promoters of alt-med are well-versed in persuasive argument techniques and will pounce on the slightest slip-up.  I feel that bearing the emotional factor in mind, acknowledging it and discussing that with alt-med users could work.  It addresses the issue honestly and would give them something to consider about why they really use alternative remedies.  Another tactic is effective science communication, done in a conversational way, involving scientists from a similar societal group to the audience.  They need to be relatable, and they need to demonstrate an ability to understand.  Simply throwing facts at people and not engaging with those who “disagree” achieves nothing.  We need to at least start those conversations, because the most effective way of changing someone’s mind is to get them to reach the conclusion on their own terms.  You can sow the seeds and nurture them, but you cant force a change in mindset.