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Science and Morality

I have frequently said that science can only provide data to inform our decisions but can’t tell us what we “should” do; that it can determine facts but not values. I stand corrected. A persuasive new book by Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape,  has convinced me that science can and should determine what is moral. In fact, it is a more reliable guide than any other option.

The Moral Landscape

Several recent books have looked at morality from a scientific viewpoint. Animals have been shown to exercise altruism and to appreciate fairness. Human cooperation has been shown to offer a survival advantage to individuals and groups. Game theory has demonstrated the success of the tit-for-tat strategy. In The Science of Good and Evil,  Michael Shermer argues that evolution has produced in us a moral sense that is not a reflection of some “absolute” morality but that constitutes a worthy human project that transcends individuals. He posits a pyramid of morality that becomes more advanced as it is applied to larger in-groups, from self to family to community to all living creatures. He amends the Golden Rule to specify that we should treat others not as we want to be treated but as others want to be treated.  (more…)

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Mayo Clinic on Home Remedies

I write a lot of critical articles. It’s nice to be able to write a positive one for a change. I received a prepublication proof of The Mayo Clinic Book of Home Remedies: What to Do for the Most Common Health Problems. It is due to be released on October 26 and can be pre-ordered from Amazon.com. Since “quackademic” medicine is infiltrating our best institutions and organizations, I wasn’t sure I could trust even the prestigious Mayo Clinic. I was expecting some questionable recommendations for complementary & alternative medicine (CAM) treatments, but I found nothing in the book that I could seriously object to.

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PTSD Breakthrough?: It’s Not Science Just Because Someone Says So

It infuriates me when someone misappropriates the word “science” to promote treatments that are not actually based on science. I have just read a book entitled The PTSD Breakthrough: The Revolutionary Science-Based Compass Reset Program by Dr. Frank Lawlis, a psychologist who is the chief content advisor for Dr Phil and The Doctors. There is very little science in the book and references are not provided. It amounts to an indiscriminate catalog of everything Dr. Lawlis can imagine that might help post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) patients.  (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Neuroscience/Mental Health

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Life Extension: Science or Pipe Dream?

Wouldn’t it be great if we could find a way to prolong our lives and to keep us healthy right up to the end? Ponce de León never found that Fountain of Youth, but science is still looking. What are the chances science will succeed? How’s it doing so far?

In his new book The Youth Pill: Scientists at the Brink of an Anti-Aging Revolution, David Stipp tries to answer those questions. From the title of the book, I expected hype about resveratrol or some other miracle pill; but instead it is a nuanced, levelheaded, entertaining, informative account of the history and current state of longevity research. It makes that research come alive by telling stories about the people involved, the failures and setbacks, and the agonizingly slow process of teasing out the truth with a series of experiments that often seem to contradict each other.

Anti-aging can mean several things. Extending the average lifespan is not the same as extending the maximum life span. Extending lifespan is not the same as preventing the degenerative changes characteristic of aging. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Herbs & Supplements, Pharmaceuticals

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Andrew Wakefield Fights Back

Dr. Andrew Wakefield was almost single-handedly responsible for frightening the public about a possible association between autism and the MMR vaccine. His alarmist recommendations directly led to lower vaccination rates and a resurgence of measles to endemic levels in the UK. The MMR/autism interpretation of his 1998 article in The Lancet was retracted by 10 of his 12 co-authors. The article itself was “fully retracted from the public record” by The Lancet. And now Wakefield has lost his license to practice medicine after the General Medical Council’s exhaustive 2½-year review of his ethical conduct.

His career was in shreds and there was only one way left for him to fight back: to write a book. Callous Disregard: Autism and Vaccines — The Truth Behind a Tragedy has just been published. I tried hard to read it with an open mind and to understand his point of view. He did make some points that I will accept as valid unless they can be refuted by the others involved. Some of what he said and did was apparently misinterpreted and distorted by his critics. But the book did not convince me that he was an ethical, rigorous scientist or that MMR is linked to autism or to bowel disease. In my opinion the book does nothing to scientifically validate his beliefs or to excuse his behavior, but rather boils down to self-serving apologetics and misleading rhetoric. It also undermines his claim that he is a good scientist by showing that he values anecdotal evidence (“listening to the parents”) over experimental evidence. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Vaccines

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Medicine’s Beautiful Idea

For most of human history, doctors have killed their patients more often than they have saved them. An excellent new book, Taking the Medicine: A Short History of Medicine’s Beautiful Idea, and Our Difficulty Swallowing It, by Druin Burch, MD, describes medicine’s bleak past, how better ways of thinking led to modern successes, and how failure to adopt those better ways of thinking continues to impede medical progress.

The moral is not that doctors once did foolish things. The moral is that even the best of people let themselves down when they rely on untested theories and that these failures kill people and stain history. Bleeding and mercury have gone out of fashion, untested certainties and overconfidence have not.

Burch’s conversation with his rowing coach epitomizes the problem:

“I want you to keep your heart rate at 85% of max for the next hour and a half.”
“Why?”
“Because it’s the best way to improve your fitness.”
“How do you know?”
“Because I’ve done it before and it worked. Because that’s what the people who win the Olympics do. I know, I’ve trained some of them.”
“But has anyone actually done an experiment?”
“What on earth are you talking about?”

This book is Burch’s answer to his coach’s question. Medicine’s “beautiful idea” is that we should test all hypotheses and beliefs using the kind of tests that are reliable for determining the truth. Instead of going by tradition, authority, theory, common sense, or personal experience, we now have effective tools to find out for sure whether a treatment really works. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, History, Science and Medicine

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Nine Breakthroughs and a Breakdown

In his new book Breakthrough! How the 10 Greatest Discoveries in Medicine Saved Millions and Changed Our View of the World Jon Queijo describes what he believes are the 10 greatest discoveries. 9 of them are uncontroversial discoveries that have been on other top-10 lists, but his 10th choice is one that no other list of top discoveries has ever included. He realizes that, and even admits in his introduction that a former editor of The New England Journal of Medicine refused to review his book because there is no such thing as alternative medicine, only treatments that work and treatments that don’t. But he “respectfully disagrees.”

Hippocrates’ discovery that disease had natural causes, sanitation, germ theory, anesthesia, X-rays, vaccines, antibiotics, genetics, and treatments for mental disorders are all worthy candidates for the list. But Queijo ludicrously lists the “rediscovery of alternative medicine” as the tenth “great discovery.” He presents no evidence (because there is no evidence) that alternative medicine has “saved millions” or that it has saved anyone. He doesn’t realize that alternative medicine represents a betrayal of exactly the kind of rigorous scientific thinking and testing that led to all the other discoveries. His list of ten breakthroughs is actually a list of 9 breakthroughs and one breakdown. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, History, Science and Medicine

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Taking Control of Death

Science isn’t the only game in town. Literature can teach us things about the world that science can’t. It can give us vicarious experience and insight into other minds. Two recently published novels illuminate why perfectly rational people might reject the help of scientific medicine and prefer to die a little sooner but to die on their own terms. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Cancer, Medical Ethics

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Diagnosis, Therapy and Evidence

When Dr. Novella recently wrote about plausibility in science-based medicine, one of our most assiduous commenters, Daedalus2u, added a very important point. The data are always right, but the explanations may be wrong. The idea of treating ulcers with antibiotics was not incompatible with any of the data about ulcers; it was only incompatible with the idea that ulcers were caused by too much acid. Even scientists tend to think on the level of the explanations rather than on the level of the data that led to those explanations.

A valuable new book elaborates on this concept: Diagnosis, Therapy and Evidence: Conundrums in Modern American Medicine, by medical historian Gerald N. Grob and sociologist Allan V. Horwitz. They point out that 

many claims about the causes of disease, therapeutic practices, and even diagnoses are shaped by beliefs that are unscientific, unproven, or completely wrong. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Science and Medicine

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Halsted: The Father of Science-Based Surgery

One (dark and stormy?) night in 1882, a critically ill 70 year old woman was at the verge of death at her daughter’s home, suffering from fever, crippling pain, nausea, and an inflamed abdominal mass. At 2 AM, a courageous surgeon put her on the kitchen table and performed the first known operation to remove gallstones. The patient recovered uneventfully. The patient was the surgeon’s own mother.

This compelling story is the beginning of an excellent new biography of William Halsted, the father of modern surgery, Genius on the Edge: The Bizarre Double Life of Dr. William Stewart Halsted, by Gerald Imber, MD.

When Halsted went to medical school, surgeons still operated in street clothes, with bare hands, and major surgical procedures carried a mortality rate of nearly 50 percent. Suppuration of wounds was called laudable pus. Lister had recently introduced carbolic acid dips and sprays (that were irritating and toxic), but hand washing was discouraged because it was thought to force germs into skin crevices. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, History, Surgical Procedures

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