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.
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…)
The Internet is a wonderful new medium for communicating ideas and information in a rapid and interactive way. Many articles are followed by a “comments” section. Like so many things in this imperfect world, comments are a mixed blessing. They can enhance the article by correcting errors, adding further information, and contributing useful thoughts to a productive discussion. But all too often they consist of emotional outbursts, unwarranted personal attacks on the author, logical fallacies, and misinformation. They provide irrational and ignorant people with a soapbox for promoting prejudices and false information.
To illustrate, let’s look at the responses to something I wrote about a weight loss product called Isagenix that is sold through a multilevel marketing scheme. To quote the website,
The Isagenix cleanse is unique because it not only removes impurities at the cellular level, it builds the body up with incredible nutrition. Besides detoxing the body, Isagenix teaches people a wonderful lesson that they don’t need to eat as much as they are accustom to and eating healthy choices are really important and also a lot of the food we are eating is nutritionally bankrupt. [errors are in the original]
I didn’t set out to write an article about this. It started when I received an e-mail inquiry about Isagenix. I posted my answer on a discussion list and it was picked up and published on the healthfraudoz website. Sandy Szwarc approved of it and kindly reposted it on her Junkfood Science blog.
As I write, the comments on the healthfraudoz website have reached a total of 176. A few commenters approved of what I wrote, but the majority of commenters tried to defend Isagenix. Their arguments were irrational, incompetent, and sometimes amusing. (more…)
Spring is here. I don’t say that because of the warmer weather, the blooming tulips in my back yard, or the current effect of the earth’s axial tilt on the Northern hemisphere. No, in my somewhat warped world of the pediatric ICU seasons are marked by illnesses and injuries with an annual rhythm. Fall begins with a spike in cases of bronchiolitis, Summer with a near-drowning in a swimming pool. Winter has arrived when seasonal influenza reappears. And Spring, well, Spring has several harbingers, including auto vs bicycle accidents, falls from windows, and snakebites.
Sure enough, this week we admitted our first child of the year bitten by a venomous snake who, like most people unfortunate enough to be envenomated by a North American pit viper, has done very well. This child fell prey not only to our local limbless fauna, but also to one of several common myths or misunderstandings about snakebites that place the victim, rescuer, or both at higher risk for injury and complications. This post will explore some of the more common mistakes people make during North American snakebite encounters (being limited to snakes native to North America, the following does not necessarily apply to snakes from other areas).
File this post under Science-Based-You’re-Not-Helping-Please-Don’t-Do-That.
Myth #1: You Need to Know the Species / Kill the Snake
North America has around 120 species of snake, over 20 of which are venomous. With so many species, it may seem important to ID the snake so the docs in the ED can give the appropriate anti-venin. Fortunately, that isn’t the case. (more…)
As 2009 comes to an end, it seems that everyone is creating year-in-review lists. I thought I’d jump on the list band wagon and offer my purely subjective top 5 threats to rational thought in healthcare and medicine.
Of course, it strikes me as rather ironic that we’re having this discussion – who knew that medicine could be divorced from science in the first place? I thought the two went hand-in-hand, like a nice antigen and its receptor… and yet, here we are, on the verge of tremendous technological breakthroughs (thanks to advances in our understanding of molecular genetics, immunology, and biochemistry, etc.), faced with a growing number of people who prefer to resort to placebo-based remedies (such as heavy-metal laced herbs or vigorously shaken water) and Christian Science Prayer.
And so, without further ado, here’s my list of the top 5 threats to science in medicine for 2009 and beyond:
Laurie Edwards has a rare chronic disease called primary ciliary dyskinesia. Her symptoms are quite similar to those associated with cystic fibrosis, and her young life has been punctuated by numerous hospitalizations, physical limitations and the occasional near-death experience. She is a remarkably upbeat woman, and attributes her self confidence and optimistic outlook to her loving friends and family.
Laurie is part of the patient blogging community online. She reads physician blogs with interest, and wants to protect others like her from snake oil and misinformation. She recently interviewed me about my pro-science views for a new book that she’s writing. People like Laurie play a critical role in accurate health communication, and I welcome the chance to discuss science-based medicine with them. Here are some excerpts from our chat: (more…)
I have often mused about the difference between being right and being influential – especially in light of the relative success of the anti-vaccine movement. Despite the fact that there is no evidence for a link between vaccines and autism, celebrities like Jenny McCarthy have manufactured public mistrust in one of the safest, most cost effective means of combating disease known to humankind.
So if scientists are not persuading the public with appeals to carefully designed trials and factual data, how should they make their point? I’m not sure I have the full answer, but I think I might have struck a nerve with the public lately. I decided to try a novel approach to communicating my concerns about pseudoscience on the Internet – and presented 20 slides at 20 second intervals to a conference of ePatients in Philadelphia. I did it with powerful and humorous images, tied together with a long Limerick. Sound kooky? Maybe so… but it resonated, and was received with cheers and applause. Now that’s how we like science to be recognized! (more…)
As many of you have probably noticed, the science-based medicine site has been having connection problems for the last week, and was in fact down for most of Friday. We are actively working on the problem and hopefully will have it fixed soon. The site is functioning now, but remains very slow.
Thanks for your patience, and sorry for any inconvenience.
As I mentioned in a not-so-recent blog post, I’ve often marveled at the marketing successes of “integrative” medicine – a practice which generally refers to the act of blending effective treatments with ineffective or untested/equivocal ones. Only the marketing elite know how integrative medicine became associated with enlightenment. Perhaps they’re the very same people who came up with the idea that women should be excessively concerned about cellulite? Thanks a lot, guys.
But I do find a lot of integrative medicine vexing because it often starts with a grain of truth, and then usually proceeds to make wildly exaggerated claims about its efficacy.
So far I have explained why most research (if not carefully designed) will lead to a false positive result. This inherent bias is responsible for many of the illusionary treatment benefits that we hear about so commonly through the media (whether they’re reporting about CAM or Western medicine), because it is their job to relay information in an entertaining way more so than an accurate manner (i.e. good science makes bad television).Then I explained a three step process for determining the trustworthiness of health news and research. We can remember these steps with a simple mnemonic: C-P-R.
The C stands for credibility- in other words, “consider the source” – is the research published in a top tier medical journal with a scientifically rigorous review process?
The P stands for plausibility- is the proposed finding consistent with known principles of physics, chemistry, and physiology or would accepting the result require us to suspend belief in everything we’ve learned about science to date?
And finally we arrive at R – reproducibility. If the research study were repeated, would similar results be obtained? (more…)