26 November 2008

Sharing Skepticism in Chiropractic

I've been wary of chiropractors for almost as long as I've been a self-identified skeptic. I frequented one throughout high school, never bothering to question the principles behind it, nor even its efficacy. I just assumed it was doing me good. Now I know that the practice is founded upon pseudoscience, that at best chiropractors can be physical therapists with delusions of grandeur.

But it wasn't until last spring that I learned that, not only is chiropractic ineffective, it also carries potential for serious injury. Specifically, chiropractic neck adjustment is linked to a specific type of stroke. (For more reading, Science-Based Medicine published further articles on chiropractic and stroke throughout the summer.)

This news troubled me greatly. I had never been warned about the risk by my chiropractor. And even if the risk of stroke is small, the risk is being taken for zero demonstrated benefit. Members of my family still see a chiropractor; concerned for their safety, I shared this news with them. It wasn't particularly well-received; as I feared, I came across as something of a Chicken Little. There was some acknowledgment that it might be a risk for others, but supposedly our chiropractor was different.

Some time later, I got a chance to try again. A friend of mine was having tension in his back, and was persuaded by his boss to visit a chiropractor. He had a good experience, and expressed interest in making a habit out of chiropractic visits.

I simply pointed out to him that the majority of chiropractic is based on pseudoscience, and can put you at risk for anything from wasted money to serious injury. So if he wanted to pursue a chiropractor, I'd recommend consulting Chirobase (a project of Quackwatch) so he'd at least know how to find a good one.

The information on Chirobase was enough to turn him off neck adjustments for sure, and possibly off chiropractors entirely.

I used a different kind of message, yes. But more importantly, I had a different kind of audience. My friend was already interested in learning more about chiropractic. All I did was to point him toward an excellent resource on the subject. But how do we get people to question, who aren't already questioning? Is it even possible, or do we just have to wait them out?

Skeptics have the facts on their side. That's what it means to be a skeptic; we go where the data leads us. That's a major advantage, but it won't do us any good unless we have our audience's attention.

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