Belief in medicine with no evidence

The term ‘blind faith’ is usually attributed to someone who holds strong beliefs even when there is a significant body of evidence suggesting that they are wrong.  It is something I have struggled against when trying to engage alternative medicine supporters in the reliability of medical treatments that lack an evidence base.  Blind faith can make conversations extremely frustrating, when no matter how much evidence you present, you can’t even for a second bring that person to question their belief.  For a while I would stay engaged in conversation, mistaken that the other party would comment rationally on what I showed them, but it never happened.  However, I don’t consider these exchanges futile, because it has made me ponder on blind faith and why it’s rampant amongst the alt-med community.

I am not a psychologist and would not profess to know anything about the subject (therefore any comments on statements I make below would be appreciated for my own learning).  Luckily, the internet is vast and I found that The Tao of Reason blog provides a great introduction to the psychology of blind faith.  Essentially, any evidence that conflicts with your own beliefs, leads to discomfort (referred to as cognitive dissonance).  When these beliefs are strong, as with blind faith, the subject will dismiss this evidence by any means in order to justify their views.  This refusal to accept evidence or even rationalise in the face of it could explain the dismissive nature of the alt-med community.  The Tao of Reason goes on to suggest that when faced with compelling evidence, blind faith can cause people to not only discredit the evidence, but also strengthen their beliefs.  So perhaps these engagements are actually fuelling the belief that a certain alt-med is effective.  In a scenario where no matter how much evidence is presented will change someone’s way of thinking, is it worth debating?

This notion of defending ones belief by dismissing even the most compelling evidence is something I have seen a lot.  Someone may defend their view by making a sweeping positive statement.  You can show them that this statement is flawed and provide direct evidence to support it and in return you will usually get a second defending statement with no bearing on the first or any clear response to your rebuttal.  This is what can be frustrating and denies the conversation from ever reaching a rational debate.  In the case of homeopathy, there is compelling evidence that it is not biologically, physically or chemically plausible (Avogadro’s constant and beyond).  Yet the homeopathy industry continues to thrive on a culture of blind faith amongst supporters.  This is because elaborate dismissals of the evidence against homeopathy are constructed to defend the belief that it is plausible.  This is also not helped by the fact that misleading and bogus pseudo-evidence is allowed to accumulate in the academic press.

The fact that the belief system is so rigorously sustained in that person’s mind means that removing it would leave an incomprehensible void.  Perhaps it is this dissonant void that religious converts or people that lose faith in their religion experience.  If so, then at least we know that there is a possibility to alter a person’s belief about alt-med, no matter how steadfast they are.  What is important is that in the process of challenging medicine with no evidence we don’t lose sight of the rational and critical thinking that leads us to do so.  New evidence is presented all the time, and we must be willing to change our own views, if there is any hope of changing someone else’s.

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