Tuesday, August 2, 2011

This is not progress.

Originally posted on my Facebook page May 19, 2011:

There is a curious thing happening to the American view of health.  We have stopped looking at health as merely the absence or modulation of disease, and have started paying attention to lifestyle habits that promote wellness.  This is a wonderful change, with the potential to save billions in health care costs, not to mention untold amounts of suffering from disease.

There is a drawback, though.  This acknowledgement that we play an important role in the wellness and maintenance of our own bodies has opened our minds to all sorts of new ideas.  Some of them are great - for example, we now have a much better understanding of the chemical makeup of our foods, and how that affects our bodies.  However, many of the ideas being hyped to American consumers to promote health are utter bunk, complete ridiculousness.  The negative extension of our desire to do something positive for our bodies is that people are suddenly much more receptive to snake oil salesmen.  The number of unproven supplements, products, and treatments claiming to be the magical key to health and longevity is staggering - Americans spent $33.9 billion on them in 2009.

Compounding the problem are people like Dr. Mehmet Oz, the strapping young TV physician of Oprah's making, who has now completed his slow drift into the ether and planted his flag firmly in the camp of woo.  Proponents of alternative medicine have done an extraordinary job of reclaiming ideas that Western medicine has been pushing for decades - healthy diet, exercise, avoidance of destructive behaviors - and rebranding them as components of unscientific concepts.  Not only does this lend some idea of effectiveness to whatever supplement or plan they're selling, but it allows them to throw stones at the medical community for not thinking of it first. 

Here's a great example: "I lost 20 pounds in a month on the hCG diet!"  Well, of course you did.  They made you cut back to 500 calories per day before they would inject you with hCG, a hormone that has been proven in well-controlled clinical trials to have no effect at all on weight loss.  You lost weight because you barely ate anything, not because they injected you with magic.  And yet, proponants of this plan will harpoon the medical community and Big Pharma (a favorite scary-word for the alties) for refusing to back it.

The relationship between science and alternative medicine is fascinating.  Many purveyors of these therapies disregard science (the "your science can't test my woo" notion), instead preferring anecdotal "evidence".  On the other hand, they simlutaneously crave the legitimacy that science can lend, as evidenced by the trumped-up and discredited studies performed by professional kooks like Andrew Wakefield, the notorious enemy of childhood vaccines.

The fact that we are taking ownership of our health is fantastic progress.  But the inclination to buy into ideas that are prescientific, pseudoscientific, discarded, or just plain delusional is just plain scary.  The dangers of these kinds of therapies are far worse than just draining your wallet.  Ten years ago, most parents would have scoffed at the notion of treating their child's infection with homeopathy (read: expensive water) instead of antibiotics.  Now, though, there are voices ringing in parents' ears: Antibiotics are evil!  Superbugsuperbugsuperbug!  Most parents are not scientists; they're just trying to do the best they can for their kids.  That can be difficult with this much mud in the water.

The beauty of science is that it is always learning.  It adjusts its views based on what is observed.  To disregard the scientific system in hopes that an unproven treatment will do the job is beyond silly.  It's dangerous.  How have we forgotten all the good that Western medicine, with its drugs and its sterile surgeries, has done for us?  Has it escaped our notice that we will get to live twice as long as our great-great-great-great grandparents because of those advancements?

I like the idea of magic as much as the next person, but let's leave it at Hogwarts.

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