P.Mean: Ethics of research into unscientific therapies (created 2008-11-15).

What is a responsible ethical position on research on complementary or alternative medicine that is not based on "generally accepted" principles of science? For example, redirecting energy fields in the body; or demonstrating the positive effects of intercessory prayer (prayer on behalf of another person). It is one thing for a scientist member to say "I don't think the proposed statistical methodology is adequate to the task." It's quite another thing to say "I don't believe that there is any scientific basis for the proposed research." What then?

There's a lot of "woo woo" out there, and while it is tempting to be dismissive of this research, we do need to show some respect for the people who support a medical intervention that defies the rules of basic science. The research has value in that a negative finding helps discourage the use of an unscientific medical intervention among the less scientifically sophisticated advocates of that intervention.

The one exception is when there is already convincing medical evidence already published that would discredit an approach. If people persist in a belief that is contradicted by solid research, then conducting more solid research is unlikely to sway them.

The level of risk is vitally important here, as well. There is no reason to get too fussy about a study of aromatherapy, for example, as this is a non-invasive procedure with almost no side effects. Chelation therapy as a treatment for autism, however, is another story. Chelation therapy carries a very high risk and has been associated with at least one patient death.

Finally, keep in mind that absence of a plausible scientific mechanism does not, in itself, automatically make a research study unscientific. There are lots of established therapies that now have a plausible mechanism, but didn't when they were first tested. Absence of a mechanism is still a very important factor. You should think long and hard about therapies with no known mechanism of action, and if there are other issues, then this might be the last nail in the coffin. But if there are other factors in favor of the new therapy (strong effects in previous research, for example), then don't let the lack of a mechanism stop you.

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License. This page was written by Steve Simon and was last modified on 2010-04-01. Need more information? I have a page with general help resources. You can also browse for pages similar to this one at Category: Ethics in research.