Anaximperator blog

Blogging against alternative cancer treatments

Alternative Medicine: Does Belief Exonerate? Philosophy of Science for Beginners

Right from the start of this blog, purveyors and proponents of alternative medicine have posted comments or sent us emails explaining why we are wrong in thinking alternative medicine is dangerous and that we have no right to say it is deceptive.

These are their main arguments:

  • Most alternative healers, if not all of them, genuinely believe in what they are saying. The sincerity of their belief means they cannot be called frauds, because fraud implies being deliberately disingenuous.
  • When someone passionately believes something, there has to be some truth in it. Likewise, the fact that a belief is shared by many people, also constitutes some kind of evidence and the challenge lies with the skeptics to prove the believers wrong.
  • Who is to say what is true and what is not? After all, many theories were dismissed as untrue at first, only to be accepted later (see: Galileo!), so the fact that there is no evidence for a theory does not mean it cannot be true.

Genuinely believing something, even when all evidence points against it, is not considered a fault. It seems that as long as someone seems to act in good faith, their belief as such is accepted as evidence – for why would anyone passionately believe something which is not true? And consequently, they should not be held accountable when something goes wrong because of their belief.

In the minds of many people, belief simply equals knowledge. Belief and knowledge are not seen as two separate concepts and belief, having the best cards in the minds of many people, is seen continuously transgressing the boundaries of knowledge.

I think this way of thinking presents some serious problems, which I will discuss in this post.

What is knowledge anyway?

According to the traditional definition, knowledge is: justified true belief.

Ah, our friends would say when reading this: We are right! Belief is knowledge! Well… not quite. Belief, justification and truth are considered necessary conditions for knowledge (1).


While it is true that knowledge entails belief, belief in itself is not enough or adequate for knowledge.

For example: If you don’t believe that your nanna has just moved into a care home, you don’t know that she has, and consequently you will not visit her. For why would anyone visit their nanna when they don’t believe she is there in the first place? Nobody would. Poor nanna!

In order for you to have genuine knowledge, your belief must be correct – it must be true – for you cannot know something which is false. You may believe that your nanna lives in a nursing home, but you can only know it when you have made sure that she actually is.


“What is truth?” is one of the favourite birthday party questions when everyone has had a few glasses of wine and really feels like saying intelligent things about deep philosophical conundrums, which you can ponder on for any length of time without ever finding an answer.

That’s not what I want, so I’ll make the matter a little bit more tangible by finding out what conditions a particular belief must satisfy to be true.

Does this mean that when you have established a belief to be true, you also by definition have knowledge? Alas, but no: the truth of a belief is in itself not sufficient for it to count as knowledge.


For a true belief to be able to qualify as knowledge, it must also have justification. This means that a belief must not only be true, but there must also be good reasons for it to be true: justification, or evidence.

An example: If you just spontaneously form the belief that your nanna, who is nowhere near you, is currently taking a stroll, and this belief happens to be true, you cannot merely because of this say that you knew that your nanna was taking a stroll: because your belief was formed purely by chance, it lacks supporting reasons and is therefore not knowledge, but remains what it was: belief.

However, justification in itself is also not enough, for even if knowledge requires justification, a justified belief can still be false.

A well-known justified false belief was the theory of geocentrism, in which it is claimed that the earth lies at the centre of the universe with the sun and the planets revolving around it. Although this belief was wrong, there seemed to be justifying supporting reasons for it, but because the evidence was misleading, it was not knowledge, but justified false belief. Onward from the late 16th century the geocentric model was superseded by the heliocentric model of Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler. The heliocentric model could explain certain changes in the appearance of the inferior planets (the planets between the Earth and the Sun) that the geocentric model could not. Furthermore, Galileo’s observations of Jupiter’s moons through his telescope made it clear that celestial bodies do move about centers other than the Earth. Therefore, at long last: exit the geocentric model.

Considering all this, one could think that any attempt at gaining knowledge is by definition futile, with false beliefs popping up all over the place. Is there no way then to protect ourselves from false beliefs?

Allowing for fallibility

“Allowing for fallibility” means that we must always seriously consider the possibility that we are wrong.

As we have seen, justification can cease to be justifying when you acquire new facts that refine or undermine your current justification. This is called fallibilism. Stephen Jay Gould said: theories are “structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts” and only by accepting that our theories are not infallible certainties can we ensure our knowledge to be refined, developed and expanded.

Popperians state that science is no more than hypotheses that have survived attempts to falsify them. This is an intellectual way of saying that genuine knowledge is “capable of being tested by experience”. It means that we must never stop asking difficult questions, especially those that have the power to undermine our theories, in order to test, double-test and re-test them.

Can we ever believe what science tells us?

Yes. We can design all kinds of things that work the way we want them to – planes, bridges, cars, space telescopes, gps-systems, medical treatments and so forth – because the specific predictions deduced from the theory have withstood continuous testing. Thus, they have enabled us to make correct predictions over a long period of time, countless of times, and therefore we may expect them to continue to do so.

Science provides explanations that enable us to make correct predictions and it’s precisely these powers of explanation and prediction that make the ultimate litmus test of all knowledge.

The ethics of belief, or: what’s the harm?

Can a person’s sincere belief exonerate him when something goes wrong due to the consequences of his belief? Is it excusable to do harmful things as long as you believe you are doing the right thing?

In order to be able to answer this question, we should never forget that belief is a motivator for action: people do things because they believe they should.

Tullio Simoncini believes cancer is a fungus which can only be cured with baking soda; proponents of the German New Medicine believe cancer patients can only be cured by solving their psychological traumas; homeopaths believe their pills and waters will cure all manner of ailment, even when there often is not a single molecule of the active ingredient left in them – and they all act upon their belief.

But seeing they are so sincere in their belief, is there anything they can be held accountable for?

William K Clifford

No matter how sincere they are, they can be held accountable for not having investigated thoroughly enough whether the justifications that support their belief are true. We can hold them accountable for not having asked the relevant questions, the most important one being: what would happen if my belief were false?

Because belief drives people into action, it is never non-committal: belief always has consequences.

This is explained beautifully in an essay by William Clifford, entitled: The Ethics of Belief. In his essay, Clifford argues that we have a duty to believe carefully, in the light of reason alone. Clifford writes about the “harm which is done by credulity:”

The credulous man is father to the liar and the cheat; he lives in the bosom of this his family, and it is no marvel if he should become even as they are. So closely are our duties knit together, that whoso shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all.

To sum up: it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.

If a man, holding a belief which he was taught in childhood or persuaded of afterwards, keeps down and pushes away any doubts which arise about it in his mind, purposely avoids the reading of books and the company of men that call into question or discuss it, and regards as impious those questions which cannot easily be asked without disturbing it – the life of that man is one long sin against mankind.

I think Clifford is right: there are standards, there are ethics of belief.

In regard, then, to the sacred tradition of humanity, we learn that it consists, not in propostions or statements which are to be accepted and believed on the authoritiy of the tradition, but in questions rightly asked, in conceptions which enable us to ask further questions, and in methods of answering questions. The value of all these things depends on their being tested day by day.

A few things in relation to knowledge should matter most to us: truth, reason, objectivity and confidence in the scientific method. I think these are virtues which are the mark of reason, and they should be held up if we want to understand anything about the world we live in.

1) Edmund Gettier showed that although these three conditions are necessary, they are not in all cases sufficient for knowledge. This is called the Gettier problem. Interesting and important though it is, discussing the Gettier problem would take matters a bit too far in this context.

See also:

The Skeptic’s Dictionary on Science
Alternative Medicine and the Deadly Dangers of Magical Thinking
Stephen Law: James and “The Will to Believe”

– The Ethics of Belief Debate, ed. Gerald D. McCarthy, Altlanta: Scholars Press, 1986
– Michael Williams, Problems of Knowledge, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001

7 responses to “Alternative Medicine: Does Belief Exonerate? Philosophy of Science for Beginners

  1. jli January 25, 2010 at 7:47 pm

    Why do I suddenly feel that I want a twitter account? :mrgreen:

  2. beatis January 25, 2010 at 9:07 pm

    O dear me, yes, I totally understand the need. I must go and throw another vote now before it’s too late! 😆

  3. Bram Hengeveld January 31, 2010 at 10:01 pm

    I’m going to print this out on A0 format and glue it to every wall in my school.

    Well, I’d like to do that. Very beautiful and informing post.

  4. beatis January 31, 2010 at 10:15 pm

    Thank you! *blushing*

  5. beatis February 20, 2010 at 9:30 am

    There was a court case this week in London, against a traditional Chinese herbalist who sold a herbal mix that was not only ineffective but also contained a very dangerous ingredient which ruined a client’s health:
    The herbalist got off practically scot-free, because the judge was convinced she really believed the herbal mix was effective and that she was unaware it contained the dangerous ingredient.
    Ben Goldacre wrote a blogpost about this case and the question whether alternative medicine should be regulated and how:

  6. Pingback: Is there hope after all? « Anaximperator blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: