There is an ongoing war, as well there should be, waged by the proponents of medical science against those who reject, demonize, deny or misuse it. The war takes place on many fronts and on many levels, and some successes include the continuing downfall of Andrew Wakefield and the pronouncement by the British Medical Association that homeopathy is “witchcraft.”
Skeptics generally don’t have much use for people who have rejected medical science, or “allopathy” as some of those people would have it. (A term, by the way, invented by the guy who made up homeopathy.) Such people are usually characterized as, variously or in combination, stupid, ignorant, denialist, uneducated, brainwashed, crazy, deluded, superstitious, and even dangerous, to themselves or others.
And some of them are. The homeopath who killed his daughter by refusing actual medical treatment for her eczema is dangerous and possibly crazy. Religious objectors to blood transfusions and chemotherapy are superstitious. The scared parents of autistic children who throw in their lot with the anti-vaccination movement are poorly educated on the topic of vaccines. And then there’s people like the Health Ranger and J.B. Handley and so on, people who I won’t dignify with a link, but to whom I am happy to apply some if not all of the above epithets — and worse.
But there’s a certain population that I believe deserves greater compassion and understanding. People with long-term, incurable chronic illnesses may often come to reject science-based medicine because they themselves have come to actual harm from it, and sometimes repeatedly. I’m not talking about hypochondria or persecution complexes. I’m talking about people who have undergone actual trauma, mental or physical, at the hands of medical doctors. For example, this link is not from the most reliable site, but the incidents related are far from unheard of in the ME/CFS community — misdiagnoses, harmful biases, lack of understanding about the illness, and worse.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not giving anyone a pass. I went through a hellish time when I was diagnosed with Graves’ and the incompetent idiot of an endocrinologist overdosed me so heavily on anti-thyroid medication, it took a year for me to recover from being seriously hypothyroid, during which time several other problems arose that have left me disabled. After that it took uninterested doctor after uninterested doctor before I found one who not only gave a crap that I was no longer able to function, but even cared enough to treat me! Oh yes, I was bitter. But rejecting science altogether because of your bad experiences is like never reading a book again because you thought Twilight was a piece of excrement. All of this taught me how to better evaluate doctors, and since then my experiences with physicians have improved greatly.
So this is not an apologia, but rather a plea for understanding. The people I’m talking about haven’t simply slipped into a life of hippy-dippy naturopathy due to the toxins in the air and the mercury in vaccines. They have been physically injured, had their illnesses worsened, been humiliated and brushed off and laughed at and completely invalidated by physicians, all the while struggling to cope with being sick or disabled. Not only has science “failed” these patients (as they see it) by not having provided a cure or even a treatment for some of those illnesses, but its individual representatives have personally failed them as well. These people don’t just imagine they’ve been done wrong by science, like the antivaxxers — they legitimately have been, just as my being overmedicated and spending months in “hypo hell” were not figments of my imagination.
If you put yourself into that position, I don’t think it’s too hard to see why someone might eventually give up on science, especially someone who has undergone years if not decades of these problems. Maybe they turn to homeopaths and naturopaths, who of course profess deep caring and understanding because they literally have nothing else to offer…but it’s attractive to patients who have been routinely dismissed by “allopaths.” Or maybe they glom on to what looks like science — such as a single, as yet unreplicated XMRV study — but refuse to let the actual scientific process take place before canonizing its researcher and creating a cult of personality, not of logic or evidence. Neither situation is positive and, again, I am not excusing people on the basis of what they’ve gone through. It is very hard to hang on to one’s critical thinking in these situations, but that doesn’t make it okay to give in to paranoia and superstition.
When it comes to winning back the minds of patients who have retreated from science as a reaction to their experiences, perhaps skeptics need to take a different tack. Some people go down the rabbit hole and never come back, of course. (And I always wonder about those anti-science converts and what’s going to happen on the day that science produces a cure or treatment for their illness, the one that homeopathy will never come up with. Will they reject it on principle? Unlikely.) I’m not talking about them, because why fight a battle you can’t win? But I truly believe skeptics need to stop lumping all these “denialists” into the same camp. Promoters of science-based medicine will occasionally throw a bone in the direction of “feeling sympathy for these people but…“, a statement unlikely to reach someone who has heard this line zillions of times. True compassion, however, just might.
We skeptics constantly exhort people to stay open-minded and thoughtful about these subjects, but the same onus is upon us. Assumptions about the reasons and motivations behind people’s rejection of medical science do nobody any good. Sick, exhausted, cognitively impaired patients do not deserve to be tarred with the same brush as those who actively seek the defamation and destruction of medical scientists. To people for whom there is no medicine other than Western scientific medicine, any rejection of that may seem intolerable, no matter what the reason. But the reason truly matters, because when you ignore that, you may be ignoring someone you could help, if only you hadn’t written them off like they’ve been written off so many times before.