As the daughter of two scientists, it never occurred to me growing up that science as a profession or a method of inquiry could be controversial. How else were we to discover life-saving treatments, develop better technologies, or advance our understanding of the natural world? I took for granted the fact that science is the foundation of modern civilization and makes improved standards of living for more people possible.
My recent forays into blogging, however, have shown me that nearly everything is debated, even things that should not even seem debatable. Evolution is one of them, and, apparently, so is vaccination. My open letter to Oprah sparked an unexpected flurry of responses from many scientists, parents, and concerned citizens, giving me a taste of the kind of “discussions” people have on issues near and dear to them. I realized that people on both sides genuinely care about improving health, but also that productive conversation is elusive when the assumptions and objects of trust are different.
Needless to say, I trust those who use the scientific method to probe and learn about the world. Science is an iterative cycle in which we observe phenomena, make testable hypotheses concerning the phenomena, devise experiments to test these hypotheses, evaluate and draw conclusions from the results using rigorous statistical analysis, and form new hypotheses based on our improved understanding. The experiments, including controls, should be devised to help ensure that 1) the procedures we’re using to gather data are doing what they’re supposed to be doing, and 2) other hypotheses or explanations aren’t responsible for the outcome we observe.
There is inherent uncertainty built into this process – for one thing, we can’t definitively rule out all other possibilities because there are, in theory, infinitely many possibilities (but only a few that are reasonable). Then there is the fact that science can never disprove anything, it can only collect evidence supporting a hypothesis or not. If twenty independent and methodologically sound studies all produce the same finding and no other studies show the opposite, we are confident that the finding is accurate. But all it would take is a few studies (again, independent and sound) showing the opposite to make us modify our confidence. As more studies accumulate, the weight of the evidence usually tilts definitively towards one side or the other, and this – the accumulation of evidence – is what should form the basis for technology development, policy, and future science.
THE parents of a nine-month-old girl who died from septicemia were responsible for their baby’s death because they shunned conventional medical treatment for her eczema in favour of homeopathic remedies, a court heard yesterday.
A homeopath, Thomas Sam, 42, and his wife, Manju Sam, 36, are standing trial in the NSW Supreme Court charged with manslaughter by gross criminal negligence after they allegedly resisted the advice of nurses and a doctor to send her to a skin specialist.
Instead Gloria Thomas, who was born in perfect health in July 2001, allegedly died with malnutrition and eczema so severe that her skin broke every time her parents removed her clothes and nappy.
The Crown prosecutor, Mark Tedeschi, QC, told the court they sat on this advice for two months and then saw a general practitioner who was so concerned by her condition that he told them to see a skin specialist immediately. But again, they demurred.
On the few occasions that they did follow conventional medical advice, Gloria would improve, but they would soon revert to homeopathic remedies and she would continue to deteriorate.
Thomas Sam’s sister allegedly “pleaded” with him to send Gloria to a conventional medical practitioner. He allegedly replied: “I’m not able to do that.”
Skepdude says – for an overview of the disease and it’s treatments check out WebMd.com
I don’t like to repost, but Steve Novella has some great pieces up right now, and this is directly related. –PalMD
s I’ve clearly demonstrated in earlier posts, I’m no philosopher. But I am a doctor, and, I believe, a good one at that, and I find some of this talk about “non-materialist” perspectives in science to be frankly disturbing, and not a little dangerous.
To catch you up on things, consider reading one of Steve Novella’s best posts ever over at Neurologica. While you are there, you can also follow his debate with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor, the latest guru of mind-body dualism.
To sum up (remember, IANAP), most of us science-y types hold to a materialist view of reality, that is, reality is all there is. This reality is susceptible to the investigations of science. Non-materialists and mind-body dualists hold that there is also a “non-material” reality. What exactly this might be, and how one might observe or measure it is never specified. Instead, they usually use a god-of-the-gaps argument, whereby any gaps in scientific understanding are automatically ascribed to the supernatural. The proof of the supernatural is stated is a lack of disproof of the supernatural.
Personally, I have no problem with people believing in God, Satan, fairies, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster (may we all be touched by His Noodley Appendages). What I have a problem with is people applying these beliefs to science and medicine.
Non-scientific medical practices, such as homeopathy, faith-healing, and reiki state various claims of efficacy and of mechanism of action. They can never prove these, but ask us to take their word, and the word of their clients. Once again, if someone takes communion and feels closer to their God, it’s none of my business. But if someone is claiming to affect the health of an individual by invoking supernatural powers, this is immoral and harmful
The point is simple: if reiki manipulates unseen, unmeasurable forces by unseen and unmeasurable means, creating solely subjective individual results, then reiki (and practices like it) is completely irrelevant to health. What matters in medicine is results, and results that cannot be observed and measured do not, for all practical purposes, exist.
We can measure the effect of beta blockers on a population of heart attack survivors. We can compare the number of subsequent heart attacks in those who do and do not receive the drug. We can come up with a scientifically valid explanation for the results, and we can replicate them.
None of the cult medicine practices that are so popular can do this. Their effects are either unmeasurable by definition (show me a qi), or when we try to measure the results of their application, results in aggregate are no better than by chance alone.
In all this discussion about naturopathy over the last week or so, what has been left out is that it doesn’t matter if naturopaths consider what they do to be “medicine-plus”—the plus is irrelevant because it cannot be measured or observed reliably. Unless and until it can, forget the “plus”. It’s only a dream.
There are many words I could attach to the dangerous freakshow that is Jenny McCarthy – self-made advocate for the pseudoscientific notion that there is a link between vaccines and autism: deluded, self-righteous, irrational, the Mayor of Wooville, etc. But I am always interested in the process that gets people to their profound confusion. I believe at the core of Jenny McCarthy’s tragic crusade is an utter lack of humility.
Her lack of humility also seems consistent with someone who has never risen to a level of competence, let alone mastery, in any intellectual discipline. Those who have understand on some level the value of excellence and expertise, and the gulf that separates superficial public knowledge (or what has been called in the internet age, the University of Google knowledge) from a functional depth of understanding.
This brings to mind yet another word that could apply to McCarthy – sophomoric. She has garnered just enough knowledge to think she knows what she is talking about, but not enough to appreciate the depths of her own ignorance.
After the announcement that the University of Central Lancashire (Uclan) was suspending its homeopathy “BSc” course, it seems that their vice chancellor has listened to the pressure, both internal and external, to stop bringing his university into disrepute.
An internal review of all their courses in alternative medicine was announced shortly after the course closure. Congratulations to Malcolm McVicar for grasping the nettle at last. Let’s hope other universities follow his example soon.
I have acquired, indirectly, a copy of the announcement of the welcome news.
The first major victory in the battle for the integrity of universities seems to have been won. This email was sent by Kate Chatfield who is module leader for the “BSc” in homeopathic medicine at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN).
from Kate Chatfield…
It’s a sad day for us here at UCLan because we have taken the decision not to run a first year this year due to low recruitment. The course will be put ‘on hold’ for this year and next until we see what happens with the general climate. Fortunately our masters course is thriving and we have been asked to focus upon this
area and homeopathy research for the time being.
This is getting to be nauseatingly frequent.
As my blog bud Mark Hoofnagle pointed out, the hard-core “alternative medicine” mavens, in particular that despicable promoter of quackery and distrust of scientific medicine who runs one of the two or three largest repositories of antiscience and quackery in existence, Mike Adams, seem to have decided that a lovely new tactic would be to descend upon every celebrity death or battle with serious disease, ghoul-like, and blame their deaths or suffering on conventional medicine rather than disease. Both PalMD and I noted this particularly vile tactic applied to the recent death of former White House Press Secretary Tony Snow, and Adams has done the same thing in response to the deaths of Tim Russert (whose death he blamed on the heart medications Russert was taking), Heath Ledger, and Bernie Mac as well. Oddly enough, the ghoul appears not to have descended upon the corpse of Isaac Hayes yet, even though every indication is that Hayes, having suffered a stroke a while back, died of another stroke. Maybe it’s because Hayes was a prominent Scientologist, and even Adams is afraid of messing with the Church of Scientology. Maybe it’s because, before his turning to Scientology, Hayes was so über-cool that even Adams fears messing with his memory. Who knows?
Last week, it turned out that Mike Adams, at least, doesn’t even need to have a dead celebrity as an excuse to torture science. All he needs is a celebrity with cancer who decided to pursue science-based therapy. This time around, in response to Christina Applegate’s battle with breast cancer and decision to undergo bilateral mastectomies, Adams has published yet another of his spittle-flecked screeds, this time charmingly entitled Christina Applegate Maimed by Surgeons with Double Mastectomy Following Breast Cancer Diagnosis. This article is yet more indication that Mike Adams is about as low as they come. The word “scum” is too good for him. Just check out how his article starts out:
Thank you! Thankyouthankyou thank YOU!
You see, my medical education had a few gaps. I was unfortunate enough to do my training during the last couple of decades, which means I never saw measles, pertussis, polio, and many other vaccine-preventable diseases.
Well, last year, I saw three cases of pertussis! Sweet! And it looks like, if I play my cards right, I may get to see some measles.
It’s not that I don’t know anything about measles. I mean, I’ve read Hippocrates, Rhazes, Osler, and all the other ancients. But to see the real thing, to experience the real fear, well, you just can’t buy that kind of education. I’ve never been able to experience the fear that my little girl–who loves to swim— might bring polio home from the lake. How am I supposed to relate to my older patients if I don’t know that fear?
If I were in charge of awards for medical education, I’d give you one. But, alas, I’m not. I guess we’ll have to find some other way to honor all your hard work, education, and expertise. I mean, my four years of undergrad, 4 years of medical school, and 3 years of residency can’t hold a candle to your experience as a Mommy Warrior. I wish we could just bottle that. Or perhaps isolate it in northern Idaho.
Anyway, if you’re on google doing research for your next cult, I have a few suggestions. First, try to find one with UFOs. UFOs are kinda cool. Second, find one that makes you cut off all your ties to the outside world. As much as I’d miss the educational opportunities of your public appearances, I’ll find a way to make up for it.
So thanks, and good luck! Keep up the personal growth! Move on to the next issue!
The CDC yesterday updated their report on recent cases of measles. In 2000, thanks to the aggressive vaccination program, measles was declared eradicated from the US. There continued to be on average 63 cases per year from 2001-2007 due to imported cases from outside the US. To ironically quote Jim Carrey from the aptly titled, A Series of Unfortunate Events – “Then the unthinkable happened.”
The anti-vaccination movement was given a boost by actress Jenny McCarthy, who was convinced that vaccines were responsible for her son’s apparent autism. She was later joined in her crusade by her boyfriend, Jim Carrey. The movement had already been gaining some traction over false fears that thimerosal in vaccines (although mostly removed by 2002) was linked to autism. Such fears had already caused a drop in vaccination rates in the UK with subsequent measles outbreaks. Now these irrational fears were coming to the US, helped along by scientifically-illiterate pretty-people.