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Imagine going to a doctor, asking about the treatment they’re offering and getting in reply: “The treatment is implausible, it flies in the face of established science, there’s no sound evidence for it, there are some studies showing it probably does nothing, but a bunch of people who think they have special powers like me think it’s OK.”

It just wouldn’t be convincing, would it?

I am being satirical, of course, but I have a point to make, one that I’ll return to at the end of this article.

In an earlier post, I mentioned a “Natural Health Expo” being held this weekend in New Zealand. Fellow scibling Darcy Cowan followed this by pointing readers to an excellent article that reviews why in the absence of evidence-based tests patients and practitioners should be expect to draw erroneous ideas about how effective a treatment is.

Darcy goes on to make a good point about plausibility. A common cliché amongst sceptics reads “extra-ordinary claims demand extra-ordinary evidence”. If a claims follows directly from what is already well-established science, the claim is mostly seeking confirmation. If the claim does not follow from well-established knowledge, or flies in the face of it, it is seeking much more than mere confirmation.

Rather than tackle the remedies on offer head-on via science, I’d like to approach them considering the responsibility of a business to clients and what business should and should not do.

Central to my thinking is that I feel that caveat emptor (“let the buyer beware”) shouldn’t rule nearly as much as it does. Caveat venditor (“let the seller beware”) should more commonplace, especially when a member of the public is purchasing a product or service that involves large sums of money (e.g. from an investment advisor, mortgage brokers, etc), technical expertise that they couldn’t reasonably be asked to know much about, or their health.

I’m not referring to legal meanings and I’m not recommending any particular legal position here. Like most non-lawyers the subtleties of consumer protection laws, contract law or whatever else are beyond me.

What I’m arguing is that the seller should be responsible for knowing about the nature of the product, for the product (or service) being of a suitable standard for it’s purpose and for ensuring that the client is aware of any limitations of the product or service, certainly at least for products and services that can have major impacts on the client.

Responsibility for expertise should lie with the person professing to have it, the seller. The client shouldn’t have to gain specialist knowledge to test if the seller is sound. I operate as an independent scientist through my consultancy. I don’t expect my clients to have to sound out bioinformatics, it’s my responsibility to cover this expertise.

In particular, I can’t honestly claim that a technique I am experienced with–and hence is easier to offer–is the best for a particular analysis if studies show some other technique that I’m not experienced with is better. I cannot recommend a technique without knowing to what extent it works (or not). It’s up to me to know that and let the client be aware of it so that they can make an informed decision.

Likewise, “natural health” practitioners can’t honestly claim the particular technique they offer is best for the client (or even works at all) if studies show some other technique that they don’t use is better. They should not recommend a treatment without knowing to what extent it works (or not). It’s up to the practitioner to know that and let the client be aware of it so that they can make an informed decision.

Irrespective of whatever the law says, in my view it is quite irresponsible to promote “remedies” if they have no, or limited, supporting evidence, if (much) better treatments are available, or to not inform the client of their options accurately.

If I were attending this event, I’d ask the practitioners plenty questions. Ask for evidence-based studies proving their claim and note if their answers are evidence-based, or rely on anecdotes or testimonials (which are not a sound basis for a claim). Ask them to tell you what other treatments exist. Ask if other treatments might be better. If they seem reluctant to answer I’d be dubious, just as you would for any other business. It’s up to them to show what they have is worth your money and your health.

Back to my satirical opening. One of the expo exhibitors offers radiathesia, also known as radionics in the USA. It seems to be more correctly spelt radiesthesia: the word is derived from the French radiesthésie, a contraction of radio-, ‘connected with rays or radiation’, and aesthesis, ‘the perception of the external world by the senses’. [Source: The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, 1993.]

In any event, practitioners of radiesthesia claims to sense “energy fields” in people or things, usually via some dowsing device of one form or other, which when applied to people is claimed to be able to detect “imbalances” in the body, including disease. Radiesthesia originated with Dr. Albert Abrams and was widely discredited in his time and since. Interested readers can read these sources and make their own judgement.

Thing is, if it is true that this is bunk–as evidence concludes–and these practitioners were to take responsibility for their business as I argued, an honest enquiry into the nature of the treatment and the reply would run like my opening paragraph:

Imagine going to a radiesthesia practitioner, asking about the treatment they’re offering and getting in reply “Radiesthesia is implausible, it flies in the face of established science, there’s no sound evidence for it, there are some studies showing it probably does nothing, but a bunch of people who think they have special powers like me think it’s OK.”

It just wouldn’t be convincing, would it?