Science isn't "Western" or alternative; it's just science

In her recent column criticizing the NDP government’s decision to pull $3 million in funding for a clinic offering high-dose vitamin D supplements, Licia Corbella offered up a reason often expressed but which is inadequate for deciding a scientific claim: her own experience.

Corbella, a friend, is nothing if not brave, having recently survived breast cancer. Also, Corbella is always willing to attack status quo assumptions and to ruffle “feathers.” That latter orientation is what makes her an excellent journalist.

I have a different view than Corbella on the NDP government’s decision. I note her column only as an example. Many people offer similar arguments, i.e., reasoning from personal histories. 

The problem is personal stories are not valid grounds for scientific claims, nor government policy-making and funding decisions. That’s because each experience varies widely and until a scientific investigation occurs, we have no idea why. 

For instance, plenty of people tout “alternative” medicine as helpful in some manner but that’s the first telltale sign of a non-scientific approach: science and medicine are not “alternative,” “conventional” or “Western,” any more than gravity can be described as European or Chinese. The scientific method doesn’t change because what’s investigated is an experimental drug or an herb.

Without that method, and by relying on stories, a correlation-causation assumption can be made which is in error. The clearest example has always been the “rooster” fallacy: Just because a rooster crows and the sun rises does not allow us to conclude the crowing rooster caused the sunrise.

Similarly, to claim a particular treatment works because it appears to have had some beneficial effect is not yet a scientifically valid claim. After all, I may swallow something and feel better because of the placebo effect.

In worst-case scenarios, personal experiences can mislead one into thinking a cause-and-effect relationship exists where none does. Someone might go untreated with actual, helpful interventions as a result.

Recall one high-profile court case from last December. Tamara Lovett told a courtroom of how she distrusted “Western” medicine. Lovett instead thought she could treat her child with remedies derived from an Internet search.

Tragically in 2013, when her seven-year old boy, Ryan, developed multiple ailments, his mother treated him at home with dandelion tea, potato poultice and oil of oregano. Ryan died in March 2013 of “overwhelming sepsis”— a preventable death had his mother taken him to a doctor. Lovett was found guilty of criminal negligence causing death.

Personal beliefs might have some scientific basis. The only way to know for sure is to use the scientific method: the collection of data through observation and experiment, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses. That’s the method that can falsify a claim, or open the possibility for a correct cause-and effect link to be established. This is what helps us get beyond personal experiences, bias and causation-correlation errors.

Back to the province’s decision to end $3 million in funding for clinics that offer high doses of vitamin D supplements. Proponents are making a scientific claim as to the treatment’s efficacy.

Cast a glance to University of Alberta professor and research chair in health law and policy, Timothy Caulfield, and four other colleagues. They reviewed both media coverage but also the science on supplements. They found that despite popular and media beliefs in supplements as beneficial, “little evidence exists to suggest that supplementation in addition to a healthy diet provides these benefits …”

As the authors note, the link between taking supplements and improved health outcome is at best, “unsettled;” at worst, taking supplements may be harmful.

Given the evidence thus far, Alberta’s Health Minister Sarah Hoffman was right to end funding for clinics that dispense vitamin D supplements. Beliefs and personal stories are not a substitute for scientific evidence, nor by extension, government health policy.

Calgary Herald, July 22, 2017, A15

Mark Milke is an author, columnist and keynote speaker.

Mark Milke