Audio & Alternative Medicine Audio & Alternative Medicine part 3

The growing acceptance of the NCCAM, however, suggests that there's a difference between the skeptics in audio and those in medicine. Could hard-nosed skeptics in medicine be just a tad more open-minded than their audio counterparts? If so, there's a reason. Despite its modern, scientific credentials, medicine's codes and techniques have evolved over centuries, and have always taken into account the fact that different people react differently to diseases and treatments. Case studies teach students to expect common patterns in patients, but also to expect surprises. Some people will beat a disease that others succumb to. Some of us can get a cold just by looking at someone sniffling, while others haven't had one for years.

This doesn't mean that supporters of the NCCAM are betting that herbal extracts or ancient massage techniques will soon eradicate cancer or arthritis. They're simply open to the possibility that some patients may benefit from nonstandard treatments.

Audio skeptics tend to have less respect for individual differences. The laws of physics are the same in all listening rooms, they'll say, and no one will create an alternate sonic reality by strategically placing bricks or stones or using a different power cord. But this ignores the possibility that individuals may hear differently—in different ways, or with higher acuity—and that some might actually be able to detect differences among components or tweaks that others cannot. If medical science accepts that some people have golden immune systems or different physiological sensitivities, why can't there be golden ears among audiophiles? Hearing is as physiological as healing.

Maybe that's so, skeptics will say. But they won't accept subjective reports as proof. If an audiophile reports that changing amplifiers or cables made spectacular differences in his system, the skeptics will chalk it up to wishful thinking, or perhaps cognitive dissonance ("If I paid five grand for it, it must sound better"). The only proof they'll accept for the existence of golden ears is in the form of blind listening tests.

When you look at the situation from the medical point of view, however, the blind-testing debate seems to go down a blind alley. Suppose 20% of subjects subjectively report feeling better from an alternative treatment for depression or chronic pain. Doctors would take that as evidence that the therapy has promise. It may turn out, after all the studies and analyses are in, that it has positive effects for some people. But if those who didn't respond to the therapy complained that the treatment is a sham, how would they look?

Critics of high-end audio sometimes look just that silly when they insist that reviewers or consumers can't really hear the differences they claim to hear among components. The possibilities that individuals vary in their listening skills, that controlled test situations (for all the familiar reasons) obscure these variations, and that their own ears aren't all that golden...they don't go there. They might take a simple tip from the world of medicine: If it works, it works...though maybe not for everyone.