Vitalism ideology in chiropractic advertising

By Grant Jacobs 25/07/2010

A dissection of an advertisement in which a local chiropractor tries to make vitalism sound credible

It’s been a very long time since I have taken the local chiropractor to task over one of his advertisements. I’m not able to give a full dose of Respectful Insolence in Orac’s inimitable style, but the chiropractor’s latest effort is begging to be deconstructed.

(Source: Wikimedia Commons.)
(Source: Wikimedia Commons.)

In his most recent advertisement (see lower right, page 5) he is selling that vitalism is not only credible (it’s not), but also implying it’s increasingly gaining acceptance (which it certainly isn’t and isn’t going to any time soon).

What’s strikes me isn’t the vitalism angle, it’s that the reasoning used reminds me very much of creationists trying to dismiss the theory of evolution.

Let’s back up a little and start at the beginning.

He starts by asserting – not demonstrating or questioning, asserting – that vitalism exists:

The first chiropractors called this special nature of the body its ’Innate Intelligence […]

Note how this slips in an assertion ’this special nature of the body’: vitalism is assumed to be true from the onset.

It resembles something I’ve often seen in creationist arguments: founding assumptions that assert or imply at the onset what they want to prove true, making their whole argument fallacious.

The chiropractor explains vitalism as,

The idea was that ordinary boring matter – the lumpy fleshy stuff you can touch and poke with your hand – was insufficient to run something as amazing as life without special unusual qualities.

The latter portion of this passage is remarkably similar to creationists arguing against evolution, isn’t it?

There has to be ’more’ to life, some higher magic.

No evidence or demonstration is given that this is the case. It is another unsubstantiated assertion, one that asserts it can’t possibly be otherwise.

If you’re not familiar with it, vitalism is a metaphysical ’life force’ that was once considered to be what discriminated living and non-living things. This idea was held in a time when little was understood about the chemistry of life. Today we realise that all the components of life can be explained using chemistry and physics without calling on a metaphysical life force.

He then tries to give vitalism credibility by making out that vitalism is the same as what scientists refer to as complexity:

In the chiropractic version of vitalism, things are far more than just the sum of their parts, a notion in academic today known as ’complexity’. In a complex system, basic ingredients interact to give unexpected, special behaviours (emergent properties) which cannot have been predicted by examining the bits individually.

Leaving aside that being ’more than the sum of their parts’ isn’t really what is meant by complexity, notice how he tries to make emergent properties ’unexpected, special’. These two words are completely redundant. They load meanings onto the statement. Try reading without them:

In a complex system, basic ingredients interact to give behaviours (emergent properties) which cannot have been predicted by examining the bits individually.

There’s no need to make emergent properties ’special.’ (Unless ’special pleading’ is what is needed for your argument, perhaps…)

Here’s the statement in the advertisement that really struck me,

Think of a pallet of Airbus A380 super-jumbo parts. None of the parts individually can fly. But put them all together in just the right way and voilà. Fly it does – a new emergent property of the complex system.

Straight out of the anti-evolution story-book!

This says nothing about if vitalism is real or not.

It deserves a great big ’so what?’

Creationists do exactly the same thing using the exact same example. They present this example, then assert by fiat that it’s complex, therefore it must require a designer (or vitalism, in the chiropractor’s case).

Continuing with his advertisement, he gives a brief statement that modern science displaced the notion of vitalism (and rightly, I might add),

As conventional scientific medicine gained dominance through the 20th century, the idea of a vitalistic intelligent self-healing organism was displaced, and a much narrower mechanistic chemical/illness-driven approach to healthcare adopted.

It wasn’t really about displacing vitalism, as if vitalism were martyred, but a lack of evidence supporting vitalism and too much against it so it fell away. He’s playing the underdog card.

Some things fall away because they were wrong. Vitalism is one of those things.

Note, too, the loaded word ‘narrow’, with it’s implied ’there must be more’. The chemical (and genetic) views we use today are hardly narrow, they encompass a huge variety of biological activities and explain them well.

Continuing the paragraph, he writes,

However, new concepts of looking at the human body are gaining ground again. In phrasing more acceptable to the scientifically trained mind, the human body can today be described as a ’complex biological system’ demonstrating ’self-organising goal-oriented behaviours’. As a chiropractor I simply say that it’s Innately Intelligent.

Like creationists he attempts to try to make something nonscientific sound as if it were by word games.

Renaming something doesn’t make it so.

Leaving aside the illogic of something ’new’ happening ’again’, he doesn’t say at all what these vague ’new concepts’ are.

This vagueness typical of this type of argument.

It leaves the thing implied and not stated.

What I find striking in all of this is the parallel with religious arguments. The use of jumbo jet analogy in particularly familiar, and just as silly in this context as in creationist’s usage of it to attempt to dismiss evolution.

It does reveal, though, that the vitalism aspect of chiropractic is ideological, just like religion.

It’s remarkable – pretty sad, really – that 200 years on we still have people that want to promote such long discredited notions as part of health care.

I should emphasise that vitalism is under attack from some sectors of the chiropractic community who consider that it discredits them.

I’d say they’re right.

PostScript An excellent short essay, The death and rebirth of vitalism, by Peter Lipson resonates with this advertisement and what I’ve written here; I’d encourage readers to pursue it.

Other articles on Code for life:

When ideas have sex

Honey’s anti-bacterial properties found?

Boney lumps, linkage analysis and whole genome sequencing

The End of Chiropractic?

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