From homeopathy to anti-vaccination: why people believe ‘quack science’

Trevor Treharne

British doctor, academic and author Dr. Ben Goldacre is heading to Australia and New Zealand in September for a series of talks, where he will take on 'quack doctors', pseudoscience, and medical mis-information.

The author of Bad Science and Bad Pharma told Yahoo7 that believing ‘quack science’, such as homeopathy and anti-vaccination, can be battled to some extent by people better understanding what constitutes good evidence.

“If somebody wants to write an article saying homeopathy cures cancer then let’s sit down and look at the evidence. Let’s go through the methodological shortcomings,” Dr. Goldacre says.

“Let’s look at the design flaws in the studies and see whether it adds up at the end of it.

“You can go out and access the scientific articles yourself and you could go out and learn the basics of evidence-based medicine and in detail teach yourself how to critically equate every piece of evidence you come across.”

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However, Dr. Goldacre says that while the evidence will point to homeopaths and anti-vaccination conspiracy theorists being wrong, why people believe them is more complicated.

“The question of why do people go for quack remedies is a really interesting one and the explanations are principally functional, cultural and political, rather than scientific,” he says.

“I don’t think people take homeopathy for their cancer. In most cases it’s because they have been misled as the victims of both fraud and dishonesty.

“They get there after going down a very long journey with themselves often firmly in the driving seat – a long road that has been created for them by society,” he says.

Dr. Goldacre says there is appeal in simply choosing an ‘alternative’ to traditional medicine.

“It is sometimes perhaps a reaction against a perception that medicine is authoritarian or identifies with the Government or your parents – it is childish rebelliousness,” he says.

“Sometimes it’s because people have had a really terrible experience with mainstream medicine so it’s an emotional reaction against that.”

Dr. Goldacre says this bad experience can even be with an administrator or the health system at large.

“You know the type of story, ‘Gran had to wait 12 weeks before she got into residential care and they were all hopeless and none of them cared about us, so we’ve found this quack therapist who we pay $60 an hour and they’re happy to let us talk for two hours’.

“All of that stuff is probably a bigger reason why people buy into alternative therapies than simply them being misled on the evidence,” he says.

On the distortion of facts around vaccinations, Dr. Goldacre says there has always been anti-vaccination conspiracy theorists.

“We’ve had two centuries of people like Andrew Wakefield, the anti-MMR conspiracy theorist, running around the planet telling people not to have vaccines,” he says.

“It’s driven by a lot of factors. Firstly, the fact that you are giving something to healthy people which may have some small risk but where the net benefit is greater than the net harm.

“The whole notion of preventative medicine in general is actually quite difficult to get your head around because you’re not ill, so why would you be having any kind of medical interaction?

“The greatest harm is that when we should be talking about the really big problems in science and medicine, instead we’re having the same conversation about vaccines over and over again for 200 f***ing years.

“That’s a really long, really boring dinner party conversation,” Dr. Goldacre adds.

Dr. Goldacre’s tour dates are: 22 September at BCEC, Brisbane; 23 September at MCEC, Melbourne; 24 September at Mercury Theatre, Auckland; 25 September at Enmore Theatre, Sydney. You can purchase tickets through Think Inc. here