My current surgical dentist recommended some things fairly far outside the mainstream. I went to my old dentist for a second opinion, and she very solemnly informed me that his recommendations were outside the mainstream. I explained that mainstream medicine had had nine years with this problem and only made it worse, whereas his one operation had made things better.* She repeated that conventional treatment for my symptoms was to do something else. I explained his specific hypothesis about the root cause of my symptoms, which had a coherent narrative and made specific testable predictions. We had tested it once and the predictions were upheld. She repeated that conventional treatment for my symptoms was to do something else. I asked her what her explanation was for the problem, accounting for the symptoms, imaging, failed treatments and the one successful one. I asked her if she would have recommended the surgery I already had, which had been conclusively proven necessary. I would have eventually died without it. She repeated that conventional treatment for my symptoms was to do something else.
This woman wasn’t evil, or trying to profit. She didn’t even charge me for the visit. She followed up with other practitioners and with some additional data I sent her afterwords. When her words failed to convince me, she was was genuinely sad and worried that I was going to hurt myself. But she was simultaneously completely unable to wrap her head around the actual evidence in front of her. And while her concern for me is touching, the fact that it centered on a treatment that was helping and not any of the treatments that made it worse is pretty damning.
This is one of many examples of why it pisses me off when people deride medicine outside the mainstream (including but not limited to eastern and “natural” medicine) and mock those stupid enough to believe or even try it. Conventional medicine does some things very well. If I get in a car crash, take me to the hospital. But if something is consistently failing, the smartest, most scientific, most rational thing to do is look at other options. And if those other options succeed based on the scientific method (ideally with large studies, but scaled down to n =1 if necessary), that is evidence in their favor.
I used to express this as “Yeah, and you said Mesmer was a danger because his patients stopped blood letting” or “You don’t get an opinion until you start washing your hands“, but now I have an even better example. The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry’s position on soda used to be “Are you kidding me? Of course kids shouldn’t have soda.”** But when Coca-Cola gave them a million dollars, the president defended it by saying “Scientific evidence is certainly not clear on the exact role that soft drinks play in terms of children’s oral disease.”*** I’m not saying alternative practitioners are all brilliant bastions of moral purity. Some are idiots, some hurt people for money. I’m just saying that “hypothesis that passed many tests” is a better proxy for correctness than “recommended by large medical association” is.
This is highly related to Scott Alexander’s cowpox of doubt. If you spend too much time on easy problems you start to believe all solutions are obvious, and anything new must be not only wrong, but dumb. It breeds a contempt for uncertainty that is inimical to discovery. And this is why I’m considering a broad anti-contempt stance, even though contempt is really fun and a fantastic group bonding exercise.
*Of course it’s too soon to know if this will last forever, but none of the conventional treatments had worked even briefly.
**Exact words: “…frequent consumption of sugars in any beverage can be a significant factor in the child and adolescent diet that contributes to the initiation and progression of dental caries.”
***Original source: Health at Every Size, which I am side eyeing for implying that this was an official change in policy. The position paper on the AAPD’s website still condemns soda, juice, and even formula.