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Christiane Northrup, MD: Science Tainted with Strange Beliefs

After her daughter left for college, Christiane Northrup, MD, went for a morning walk one day. About halfway through her walk she developed an ache in her throat radiating up into her jaw. It felt like a fist was squeezing her esophagus. It persisted even after she returned home. What would you have done?

I think even the average layperson knows that this sounds like a possible heart attack and would call 911 or head for the nearest ER. Instead, Northrup called a medical intuitive who came over and “took out the Motherpeace tarot cards to try to get some clarity.” Together, they interpreted her “heartache” as resulting from her recent disappointment and grief over her family situation. She had unmet needs and it was “no wonder my heart was forced to speak up.”

This behavior from a scientifically trained MD boggles the mind. Christiane Northrup, MD, is a board certified OB/Gyn who has become something of a guru for American women’s health through a series of books, a newsletter, a website, appearances on Oprah, etc. Her third book, The Wisdom of Menopause, has been updated and revised; a friend told me all her menopausal friends are talking about this book. I read it and was appalled.

The first thing I noticed when I paged through her book was a diagram showing the “seven emotional centers” numbered from 1 at the feet to 7 on the top of the head, corresponding roughly to the seven chakras. The more I read, the more I shuddered.

My divorce culminated during what is astrologically known as my Chiron return….simultaneously I had been under the influence of an astrological configuration know as a yod…the purpose of this was to move me out of my old life…”

Yes, she believes in astrology. Also in angels, mysticism, feng shui, and Tarot cards. She believes her fibroids were trying to tell her something when they enlarged. She “turned her life over to Source energy.”

Her friend Mona Lisa has an MD as well as a PhD in neuroscience and is a practicing medical intuitive. She is

…able to ascertain the emotional and mental patterns associated with a person’s illness, knowing only their name and age, and without ever having seen them.

Sure, and pigs can fly!

Northrup provides a lot of good information about menopause, hormones, and health in general. Unfortunately it is mixed with information that scientific medicine does not accept as valid, that is not supported by any credible evidence. When she does quote evidence, she often quotes it selectively to reach conclusions different from the scientific consensus.

She promotes bioidentical hormones, all kinds of diet supplements, non-standard laboratory testing from Genova Diagnostics (formerly Great Smokies, a lab that is listed on Quackwatch as one to avoid). She recommends a number of Chinese herbs, for instance if you’re going to have cosmetic surgery, you should stock up on Yannan Pei Yan and take it 4 times a day to speed healing and reduce post-op bruising.

She recommends vitamin A to prevent heart disease: 25.000 IU of beta-carotene a day. According to The Medical Letter (Vol. 47, Issue 1213, 2005), this dose of vitamin A has been linked to an increase in the incidence of lung cancer, cardiovascular mortality and total mortality. High doses of vitamin A increase the risk of hip fracture in postmenopausal women and the risk of birth defects when taken in early pregnancy. The Medical Letter article concluded, “Women should not take vitamin A supplements during pregnancy or after menopause. No one should take high dose beta carotene supplements.”

She demonizes the artificial sweetener aspartame, calling it an excitotoxin that can kill brain cells and cause a multiple-sclerosis-like syndrome in some women.

Northrup gives some excellent conventional suggestions for treating insomnia, like avoiding caffeine, getting regular exercise, establishing a routine, etc. But then she throws in the recommendation to cover your bedroom mirrors at night, because the reflections in them can make you feel jumpy and unsafe. According to feng shui, mirrors enliven a room and increase the energy flow, which would keep you awake.

She tells us,

In many women, thyroid dysfunction develops because of an energy blockage in the throat region, the result of a lifetime of “swallowing” words she is aching to say.

She devotes 6 pages to “The Emotional Anatomy of Breast Cancer.” She thinks scientific studies have confirmed that our “emotional style” influences our risk of breast cancer and our ability to recover from it. “All illness is a hologram” and to understand it you have to listen to the message your body is sending you. If you were honest about your feelings, you might not have developed cancer.

I can see the appeal of her philosophy for the average woman. She stresses empowerment, taking control of one’s life, doing proactive things to prevent illness, and finding ways to make the menopausal years more satisfying than ever. As she puts it,

When we re-frame our symptoms and see them as our inner guidance knocking on the door of each emotional center, asking us to allow more light and wisdom into that particular area, then we don’t feel victimized by our bodies and we have the opportunity to feel empowered by the life energy that is coursing through us at midlife..

I’m all for the power of positive thinking, but I’d rather keep that thinking grounded in the real world. Northrop keeps escaping into fantasy.

It could be worse. She doesn’t recommend detoxification, reflexology, or homeopathy. But she sure does accept a lot of silly things. How can scientifically educated MDs fall for nonsense like astrology? It really disturbs me to hear such gullibility from someone who had every opportunity to learn critical thinking skills. It’s like having a PhD in paleontology tell us the world is only 6000 years old.

MDs who recommend quackery along with legitimate medical advice are arguably more dangerous than outright quacks, because people are more likely to take them seriously. Andrew Weil is another prime example: his “integrative medicine” integrates good evidence-based medicine with all kinds of alternative, unproven, belief-based treatments. He claims that his intuition is as valid a source of knowledge as scientific studies.

Northrup’s writings are a disconcerting mixture of good science, misinterpreted science, unproven and irrational treatments, recommendations that are actually dangerous, pop psychology, mysticism, and superstition. If she’d left out the nonsense, she could have written a very helpful book. But then I don’t suppose Oprah would have wanted her on the show. Science-based medicine doesn’t make for good television.

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Science and Medicine

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89 thoughts on “Christiane Northrup, MD: Science Tainted with Strange Beliefs

  1. Esteleth says:

    She tells us,

    In many women, thyroid dysfunction develops because of an energy blockage in the throat region, the result of a lifetime of “swallowing” words she is aching to say.

    Until I got to that point, I was laughing uproariously at the sheer absurdity of the book. But this is not funny.
    Maybe because I’m a humorless scientist.
    Or maybe because I am a woman in my mid-20s and a survivor of thyroid cancer.
    In any case, not funny.
    If my gyno told me that crap, I’d find a new gyno.

  2. Michelle B says:

    Ah, the myth of infallible intuition surfaces yet again. A large part of intuition is recognizing patterns. It is not a key to absolute truth. Once a pattern is recognized, we can make as many errors as possible as to the interpretation of the pattern, including correlations and causes, especially if we throw the evidence-based approach out of the window while indulging subjectively in a personalized and unproven ‘truth.’ I adore personalization and tailor fitting/customizing medical approaches to individuals, but only if the approach is rooted in evidence-based medicine.

    Intuition is revered as ‘nature’ is, and for all the wrong reasons, I am afraid. Neither is the route to unbiased truth or even to an effective way of treating/curing illness.

  3. overshoot says:

    I can see the appeal of her philosophy for the average woman. She stresses empowerment, taking control of one’s life, doing proactive things to prevent illness, and finding ways to make the menopausal years more satisfying than ever.

    Woo is all about “empowerment.” The ultimate attraction of woo is that it takes the uncertainty out of life. Woo, of any kind, promises that if you follow all of the rituals, eat the right foods, think the right thoughts, wear your lucky socks, etc. then Bad Things won’t Happen To Good People like you.

    It’s very comforting, because no matter that your sister’s son is autistic (her fault for having him immunized) or your brother has cancer (his fault for not eating only organic food) or your mother has cancer (she should have had her colon cleansed) you don’t have to worry.

    Well, the alternative is that things happen to women whether they swallow words or not. That may not be sufficiently Empowering, so where is an advocate for Women’s Empowerment to go but to the Woo side?

  4. Nick Barrowman says:

    Northrup’s writings are a disconcerting mixture of good science, misinterpreted science, unproven and irrational treatments, recommendations that are actually dangerous, pop psychology, mysticism, and superstition.

    It’s useful to divide treatments into those that are proven, unproven, and disproven. To disprove a treatment is to show that any efficacy it may have must be so small that it is of no practical value. Unfortunately, this may open the door to controversy about how small is small enough.

    More generally, we can use confidence intervals to help assess the evidence for or against the efficacy of a treatment.

    I do wonder about the notion of irrational treatments. Does it matter how “rational” a treatment is if it works (or doesn’t)?

  5. Calli Arcale says:

    Lovely. So women will be enamored of the idea of “self-empowerment”, try it, and then when it fails, conclude that this was because they screwed up. No pressure! This is a stress *reduction* thing, and if you feel stressed, it is of course entirely your fault for failing to improve your life.

    Covering mirrors might be helpful for some insomniacs. When I was little, I was creeped out by lights reflecting into my bedroom, and by reflections in my mirror, and it kept me up at night. But then I grew up and learned that the lights reflecting onto my walls were not actually ghosts trying to devour me, and I slept fine…..

  6. Harriet Hall says:

    “Does it matter how “rational” a treatment is if it works ”

    No, of course not.
    Before germ theory, a false theory of miasms (bad air) led to improvements in sanitation. Methods that worked were developed on the basis of a false theory. But they did work. Later we figured out why they worked.

    In the case of many of the treatments Northrup recommends, they have not been shown to work. Many have never even been tested. If all you have to go by is guesswork, a rational treatment would get my vote over an irrational one. Wouldn’t it get yours?

  7. Harriet Hall says:

    “Covering mirrors might be helpful for some insomniacs”

    When I am trying to go to sleep, I close my eyes, so I wouldn’t be able to see the mirrors anyway. Do other people try to go to sleep with their eyes open?

  8. Nick Barrowman says:

    Before germ theory, a false theory of miasms (bad air) led to improvements in sanitation. Methods that worked were developed on the basis of a false theory. But they did work. Later we figured out why they worked.

    That’s a good example; thanks.

    If all you have to go by is guesswork, a rational treatment would get my vote over an irrational one. Wouldn’t it get yours?

    Sure. The trouble is, a treatment can only be called “rational” or “irrational” relative to an underlying theory. Improvements in sanitation are rational if one adheres to the miasm theory (or to the germ theory). They are irrational if one believes that diseases are caused by evil spirits.

  9. daedalus2u says:

    I like to keep all my mirrors uncovered so that if any vampires are around I can identify them by their lack of a reflection. My hypothesis is that vampires recognize this, and avoid places that have mirrors. So far I have not been bitten by any vampires so my practice has been 100% successful. Some have suggested that my practices are not quite rational, but since they have been 100% effective, I feel justified in continuing to use them. I feel so empowered by the success of my practice that (like Dr Hall) I feel confident enough to close my eyes when I try to go to sleep ;)

  10. pec says:

    Each of us is an individual and each of us has our own personal collection of experiences, knowledge and beliefs. You are appalled that Dr. Northrup has some beliefs that you don’t share, that differ with standard materialist conventional medicine. Well I am appalled that you are appalled.

    Conventional medical research has never investigated things like chakras, for example. You have absolutely no scientific basis for denying their possible existence, or for being appalled when an educated person believes in them. People have experienced chakras for thousands of years, but their experiences do not count because there is no drug company-funded research behind it.

    The experiences of non-MDs counts for nothing, even if millions of people experienced the same thing over thousands of years. But the experiences and beliefs of MDs also count for nothing, if those experiences and beliefs are not in accord with your drug company-funded materialist research.

    You are appalled because you can’t explain why some obviously intelligent educated people have beliefs you do not share. Maybe they’re crazy, or maybe you are narrow-minded.

  11. weing says:

    pec,
    I am not appalled at all. I think this just shows that we are all prone to weird beliefs through subjective “experience” and narrative and confirmation bias. It stresses the need to always be on guard for this tendency in ourselves.
    There is no scientific basis for the existence of chakras. And, what the hell is wrong with drug company-funded research? You make it sound as if it was a bad thing.

  12. BrianTani says:

    @weing

    It’s a bad thing when there’s conflict of interest and it’s not advertised. The funding per se is not a problem is the potential baggage that may come with it that’s the problem.

    And I think it has been discussed here that if you disclose where your funding comes from and what are your affiliations upfront, then that’s no problem. Your article would be reviewed and analyzed based on the possible conflict of interest and if you did a good job of following a good methodology you have nothing to worry.

    Even if those kinds of studies suffer from the file drawer effect.

    But I agree with you about being extra vigilant of our experiences even if you are a licensed MD. Actually, specially if you are a licensed MD, because people tend to believe you more.

  13. weing says:

    Brian,
    Right. Just because research is funded by a drug company does not automatically invalidate it. It has to be evaluated on its own merits. I do think, however, that a study should not be published unless it was first registered and the goals and methodology of the study outlined. All those so registered should then be published to avoid the file drawer effect.

  14. qetzal says:

    Conventional medical research has never investigated things like chakras, for example. You have absolutely no scientific basis for denying their possible existence, or for being appalled when an educated person believes in them.

    By the same token, then, we have no scientific basis for believing they do exist. Therefore, we can confidently expect that a self-avowed skeptic would not believe in them. Right?

    People have experienced chakras for thousands of years, but their experiences do not count because there is no drug company-funded research behind it.

    Guess not.

    Still think you’re a skeptic, pec?

  15. Harriet Hall says:

    Answering pec,

    “Each of us is an individual and each of us has our own personal collection of experiences, knowledge and beliefs.”

    Some of us know enough to separate our knowledge based on evidence from our experiences and beliefs. Northrup doesn’t. You don’t. A doctor who is supposedly practicing evidence-based medicine ought to. She would not have passed her licensing exams by giving answers based on chakras, diagnosis by medical intuitives, and feng shui. It would have been OK if she had clearly said in her book “X is based on science; Y is just my personal belief.” But she makes no distinction between science and fantasy.

    “You are appalled that Dr. Northrup has some beliefs that you don’t share, that differ with standard materialist conventional medicine. Well I am appalled that you are appalled. “

    I’m appalled that you are appalled that I am appalled. She’s welcome to beliefs I don’t share, but she’s not welcome to advise patients on the basis of those beliefs without making it clear that she has no evidence to support them. Perhaps you missed the part where I showed that she is offering advice that is clearly dangerous (i.e. giving high dose vitamin A to post-menopausal women).

    “Conventional medical research has never investigated things like chakras, for example.”

    Conventional scientific research has never investigated the Tooth Fairy, either.

    “You have absolutely no scientific basis for denying their possible existence, or for being appalled when an educated person believes in them.”

    Didn’t say I did. I have no scientific basis for denying the possible existence of the Tooth Fairy, either. I can’t complain if someone says there is a possibility that the Tooth Fairy might exist (although I think that’s highly improbable). I would be appalled if an educated person “believed” the Tooth Fairy existed without asking for evidence or expressing any doubt.

    “People have experienced chakras for thousands of years,”

    No. This is a point I’ve stressed before with you. People have experienced what they “thought” were chakras. Their experiences were real, but they may have been due to other causes entirely.

    “ but their experiences do not count because there is no drug company-funded research behind it. The experiences of non-MDs counts for nothing, even if millions of people experienced the same thing over thousands of years”

    Experiences do count. They count as a basis for designing experiments. They just don’t count as credible evidence until they are tested. Lack of drug company funding is not a valid excuse. If there were any way to do research on chakras, the NCCAM would fund it. I suspect the reason there has been no research is that the whole thing is too nebulous to test. Different philosophies even disagree on how many chakras there are and whether they have any real physical existence or are just a metaphorical concept.

    .”But the experiences and beliefs of MDs also count for nothing, if those experiences and beliefs are not in accord with your drug company-funded materialist research.”

    The experiences and beliefs of MDs count for nothing until they are subjected to testing. Drug company funding is not the only source of research money. Scientific research is necessarily materialist. How could there be any non-materialist research???

    “You are appalled because you can’t explain why some obviously intelligent educated people have beliefs you do not share. Maybe they’re crazy, or maybe you are narrow-minded.”

    Actually, I think I can explain why people believe weird things. Michael Shermer wrote a whole book on just that subject. They are not crazy, and I am not narrow-minded. I’m just more skeptical than they are; I ask for evidence and I try not to “believe” anything – I try to hold provisional conclusions based on the best available evidence.

    Now let me ask you: would you take high-dose vitamin A on Northrup’s recommendation and against the recommendations of The Medical Letter? Would you go to a medical intuitive and use Tarot cards if you had symptoms suggestive of a heart attack?

  16. wertys says:

    Pec, you need to chill out, stop fighting it, and get in touch with your inner MD. I intuitively feel the conflict in you….

  17. HCN says:

    I believe that pec thinks she is a “scientist” because she earned a college degree declaring her as a “computer scientist”. I checked on a local university’s natural science requirement for computer science:
    http://www.cs.washington.edu/education/ugrad/current/New_CS_reqs.pdf

    There it is, a total of 10 credits, out of about 180 to graduate.

    To get a degree of engineering from the same university I needed several times more than that (for the record I did 15 credits of chemistry, 10 in physics and 5 in oceanography, present requirements for my degree program are 15 quarter credits of physics and 10 in chemistry… labs required, about twice that of computer “science”). I know my limitations when it comes to stuff I have not studied (biology, I hope to remedy that deficit next fall).

    Since I know a lawyer who graduated with a PolySci degree whose science requirement was met with one 5 credit logic class, I think the computer science requirement borders on ludicrous.

    She has learned enough to understand some concepts, but not enough to filter out the nonsense. Take that into consideration anytime she comments.

  18. wertys says:

    Re HCN’s comments,

    I think what is more relevant about pec’s contributions is that regardless of her educational attainments, in her comments on this blog it is evident that she is determined not to learn from the many comprehensive and patient comments that have been posted in reply to some of more deliberately inflammatory comments. To paraphrase the famous wit Rev Sydney Smith’s comment “Euclid would have had a poor time of it if pec decided that the square of the hypotenuse is not equal to the sum of squares of the other sides.”

  19. BrianTani says:

    @weing

    Interesting idea… and the added bonus of registering first is that you have to disclosure the methodology upfront, and therefore need to be extra careful because your study might get sacked after registering due to being badly formulated.

    Despite the added bureaucracy, the selective force for quality methodology would trigger evolution in quality publication. :)

  20. pec says:

    Harriet must know that it’s illogical and dishonest to pretend all non-materialist beliefs are equivalent to believing in the tooth fairy.

  21. overshoot says:

    pec:

    Harriet must know that it’s illogical and dishonest to pretend all non-materialist beliefs are equivalent to believing in the tooth fairy.

    Equivalent how? Philosophically, of course they’re different.

    At the pragmatic level of “what do I do to cause a desired material outcome” they are, by definition, all equivalent in that none of them make a difference. If they did, they wouldn’t be “non-material.”

  22. daedalus2u says:

    pec, We know you assert that your non-material beliefs are somehow different than a belief in the tooth fairy, what evidence to you have other than your assertions?

  23. apteryx says:

    Harriet, you have now twice dinged Northrup for not treating her throat pain as a suspected heart attack and, as you put it above, “calling 911 or heading for the nearest ER.” She may not have given you every relevant background detail in that anecdote. Since she is a doctor, she may have taken her own pulse, noted that it was normal and that she was not having any difficulty exercising or shortness of breath, and concluded that she was probably not having a massive coronary. There’s no reason to assume she is less capable of making that judgement than some overworked ER resident. She also may have noticed previously that she experiences physical symptoms in response to stresses.

    The fact is that human beings very frequently do respond physically to stress, whether by having headaches, stomach pain, an ache in the chest, or a lump in the throat. Such symptoms, we are constantly warned, may be indicators of some dread disease (as they indeed may be), so we should rush, rush, rush to the ER! Well, a patient – especially, I suspect, a female patient – can do that once or twice, but not more, without being labeled as “somatizing,” or more offensively yet, as “a somatizer.” Once some MD writes in your medical records that you hysterically think you’re having a heart attack whenever you get upset, your future health is at serious risk, both because you may be ignored should you ever suffer a real heart attack, and because if you have to seek private insurance that label may be used against you.

    Obviously, someone who has severe pain of a type they don’t usually experience had better get it checked out ASAP. But the medical industry is not kind to people who think they need to get every single incidence of pain four-plussed, even though messages from the industry have often created that behavior pattern. Self-care as a starting point for most discomforts is a rational consumer response, although I have no sympathy for the Motherpeace Tarot modality (if you are really in touch with your feeling reality, why do you need a tarot reader to figure out what’s bugging you?).

  24. weing says:

    Just a trite saying but here goes. “The doctor who treats himself has a fool for a patient.”

  25. apteryx says:

    You can’t do surgery on yourself. But if you have a rash on your arm, you could look at it just as well as you could look at anyone else’s rash, couldn’t you? Anyway, there is no evidence-based medical treatment for discomfort caused by emotion or stress, so a more conventional doctor would not have been able to “treat” Northrup at all.

  26. weing says:

    I’m sure our psychiatry colleagues would disagree about that.

  27. Fifi says:

    Yikes! Her kid leaves home and she feels a lump in her throat? I have to wonder just how in touch she is with her own emotions and being a woman if she doesn’t recognize that that’s what it feels like when one is holding back tears or repressing a need to cry (and perhaps some conflicting anger to go with the sadness that’s causing the repression). It’s hardly a mystical clue or “intuitive” wisdom!
    It sounds like perhaps the Dr was suffering from typical empty nest syndrome and realizing that her relationship with her daughter was reaching another stage where she’s less involved. It’s quite normal for mom’s to feel as if a certain very meaningful and nurturing role has wrapped up and the loss of that role – whether they’re professional women or not. I guess the irony here is that Dr Northstrup is so out of touch with her own emotions that she needs a mystical explanation for a simple emotional experience such as a lump in the throat!

  28. apteryx says:

    If you are suggesting that someone who, like much of humanity, experiences physical discomfort in response to a major life stress ought to be socked onto mind-altering pharmaceuticals, then suddenly the Motherpeace Tarot doesn’t look so bad. Anyway, since such drugs take weeks to numb affect, they presumably will not reduce a person’s immediate physical discomfort, except by the placebo effect. And one would have to balance that benefit against the side effects of the drug, plus the possible emotional and financial repercussions of psychiatric disease labeling.

    You are unwittingly providing an example of why CAM consumers often feel demeaned and disrespected by MDs. Having a life crisis? Quit whining about it, we have a mental-illness label that should take care of you.

  29. weing says:

    Who said anything about having a beer?

  30. pec says:

    “someone who, like much of humanity, experiences physical discomfort in response to a major life stress ought to be socked onto mind-altering pharmaceuticals,”

    Another outrageous and damaging trend. Prescription drugs are still drugs. Why do MDs acknowledge the dangers of recreational drugs, and at the same time try to get every twinge of emotional pain eradicated with prescription drugs?

    I really don’t get this crazy trend at all. We can’t even admit feeling sad or anxious these days without someone scolding us to hurry up and get on drugs. Even if our emotions are entirely appropriate for the situation.

    I want to feel my emotions, even when they hurt. I want to know what is going on inside me.

    This dull-all-pain craze is one of the many things that are going to destroy this insane society.

    And you MDs are not helping things at all. I know people who are helplessly hooked on these drugs, and are nevertheless forcing them on their teenage kids. And their MDs happily write the prescriptions.

    Please help stop the madness.

  31. weing says:

    Someone with symptoms suggestive of angina needs to have that ruled out. We are not all knowing. We can be wrong and the consequence is inconvenience and the patient lives. If we do not rule it out, treat them with mumbo-jumbo or reassurance, and we are wrong, the consequences can be fatal for the patient and a lost malpractice suit for us. If we are CAM practitioners, we can point the finger at the MD and say he/she should have diagnosed the angina, we are not to be held to the same standard.

  32. weing says:

    pec,

    I agree there are doctors that over-prescribe meds for anxiety. Personally, I do not. I tell them that what they are feeling is normal and they would be crazy if they weren’t having those feelings. I tell them to suck it up. Just kidding. A tincture of time is sufficient.

  33. qetzal says:

    weing wrote:

    I do think, however, that a study should not be published unless it was first registered and the goals and methodology of the study outlined. All those so registered should then be published to avoid the file drawer effect.

    And BrianTani responded:

    Interesting idea… and the added bonus of registering first is that you have to disclosure the methodology upfront, and therefore need to be extra careful because your study might get sacked after registering due to being badly formulated.

    There is already a national clinical trials registry at http://clinicaltrials.gov. Also, I believe FDA now requires that all new drug studies beyond Phase 1 must be registered before they start, or they cannot be used to support a New Drug Application. Furthermore, I believe many of the top tier clinical journals have stated that in the future, they will not accept results for publication unless the trial was registered in advance. So, much of this exists. (I’m not sure about the file drawer effect though.)

    The sad thing is that these systems are not preventing ridiculously stupid trials from being performed. For a perfect example, I highly recommend Orac’s post today at Respectful Insolence.

    Briefly, he discusses a clinical trial at Standford University, supposedly designed to measure the “Effect HT [Healing Touch] has on physical symptoms, mood and quality of life for women undergoing treatment for breast cancer.” A non-randomized, open label, single group study in 200 women. And it’s summarized in the national trials database and Stanford’s own clinical trials database.

    Even if we agreed that HT was worth studying (which I don’t, but even if), this trial is guaranteed to be absolutely useless. Scientifically, that is. As PR, it’ll probably have lots of value to true believers & scammers who want to sell their HT ‘services.’

    Sigh.

  34. apteryx says:

    weing wrote:

    “Someone with symptoms suggestive of angina needs to have that ruled out. ”

    If it’s the first time they’ve ever had a similar symptom, yeah – though this case is complicated in that the “patient” is likely to have more medical expertise than whoever would see her in the ER. If they have similar symptoms every time they are upset, and they have previously been assured that there is no organic disease responsible, do they need to “have that ruled out” anew every time the symptom arises for the rest of their lives? No, they do not. Since I am not an MD, I will generally argue conventional-medical issues with an MD only when they are philosophical, not technical. You may think that this is approaching the line. I think that you are advising people to behave in a way that is simply not practical in the real world. It would have enormous direct economic costs, and would cause them to receive pejorative labels to their later detriment.

    Personally, I get stomach discomfort at least partly, I suspect, in response to stress. It is not the sort of symptom that readily leads to an organic-disease diagnosis (or any diagnosis commonly used in the U.S.). If I were to call the same doctor twice a month about it for a year or two, I would be labeled a difficult patient with mental problems. I therefore accept that since a doctor is not going to cure it anyway, it’s better to keep my trap shut. If you, the doctor, really want me, the patient, showing up at your office multiple times per year for nonspecific symptoms, you need to do a few things: Reduce your fees, have office hours outside 9-5 so I’ll find it easier to keep a job, and convince me that you will be sympathetic rather than contemptuous if you believe my discomfort is psychosomatic.

  35. weing says:

    It’s the boy who cried wolf syndrome, but the MDs are held responsible and liable. And it has enormous economic costs. That’s the reason for our high malpractice rates and as a result high office fees in order to pay those premiums. That’s the reality.

  36. Harriet Hall says:

    The pain Northrup describes was new-onset, associated with exertion, and was suggestive of cardiac ischemia. Any prudent doctor or layman would have had it checked out. Northrup and her medical intuitive were well aware that the pain was consistent with heart disease (she specifically mentions that in the book), but they only considered “emotional” heart interpretations rather than physical causes.

    They may have been right in her particular case, but if everyone used Tarot instead of the ER for similar symptoms, some of them would die. Studies have shown that MI is less likely to be recognized in women; women are more likely to have atypical pain and less likely to be taken seriously. By one estimate, 10,000 cardiac events could be prevented annually by eliminating sex disparities in diagnosis and treatment. By setting a poor example, Northrup is endangering women’s lives.

  37. daedalus2u says:

    The issue I have with the “ache in her throat” incident is that it was used as an example of how one should respond to a sudden pain that to a knowledgeable MD (i.e. Dr. Hall) has all the earmarks of a heart attack.

    Perhaps Dr Northrup is sufficiently aware of her own physiology that she could recognize that it was not a heart attack. Why then did she need a “medical intuitive”?

    How many people will read her book and then when they have symptoms of a heart attack will ignore them and call a medical intuitive instead of seeking actual medical care?

    I think that is what Dr Hall objects to, not that Dr Northrup believes such things, or even practices such things on herself, but that she puts out such dangerous misinformation to the non-medical public while pretending that it is based on her medical training. To me, that is malpractice; dangerous and reckless malpractice.

    If Dr Northrop wrote the book as Ms. Northrup, and didn’t try and put a bogus medical imprimatur on her non-medical and non-science based beliefs I don’t think that Dr Hall would have objected. The problem is the pretending there is a medical basis for things for which there isn’t.

  38. apteryx says:

    That’s unjust. But it’s equally unjust for doctors to advise the public to spend their lives pursuing needless tests and treatments, that WILL do them economic and perhaps physical harm, in order to reduce the possibility that the doctor MAY suffer economic harm. It’s especially unjust to tell the public to treat every symptom as a medical crisis if you then treat individuals who actually do so as mentally ill or whiny troublemakers. I am in sympathy with your need to CYA, but traditionally aren’t doctors supposed to selflessly pursue the public welfare, even staying on the job at the risk of their own lives in a plague outbreak? If you would risk your life to do what’s right for patients, why wouldn’t you risk a malpractice suit?

    You don’t say this, but the implication of your argument is that we need universal health care and caps on malpractice damages, combined perhaps with no-fault compensation, or else better general social support for those who can’t work. Those suffering from complications of any illness could know that they would be taken care of (and continue to enjoy food and housing) without having to haul you into court with a claim that the health care you provided (or didn’t provide) bore some responsibility for their condition. Perhaps your duty to your patients should inspire you to speak up for a fairer society.

  39. apteryx says:

    Sorry, that last was for weing.

  40. Harriet Hall says:

    pec said,

    “Harriet must know that it’s illogical and dishonest to pretend all non-materialist beliefs are equivalent to believing in the tooth fairy.”

    No, I don’t agree that it’s either illogical or dishonest. All beliefs, materialist or non-materialist, are equally questionable until they are supported by evidence. The only difference between the Tooth Fairy and some of your beliefs is that you are able to see clearly that there is a better explanation for the money under the pillow – a material explanation. Most of us are able to see clearly that what you call subluxations and chakras and non-material concepts might also have better explanations. You are unwilling to admit that possibility.

    With the Tooth Fairy, at least there is actual money under the pillow that you can show to another person. You can show an objectively demonstrable phenomenon, although you can’t show that the cause of that phenomenon is a non-material Tooth Fairy. When you believe in something because of your experiences and sensations, you are on far shakier subjective ground. You usually don’t have an objective, measurable phenomenon, much less a verifiable cause.

    You say you accept the scientific method, and yet you believe in non-material things. Scientists may or may not hold personal beliefs about the non-material, but the scientific method is necessarily grounded in material reality. If something non-material has an effect on the material world, science can measure it and study it. If it has no measurable effect, science can’t have anything to say about it. And if it has no measurable effect, the question of whether it exists or not becomes moot: there is no way we could possibly verify its reality.

  41. weing says:

    apteryx,

    It’s not just a question of CYA or economic harm. It is a matter of living with yourself after losing a patient because you didn’t rule out what could kill him/her.

  42. apteryx says:

    weing – Okay, this is a purely philosophical argument. If you undertreated and “lost a patient,” even as a very rare occurence, you would experience emotional suffering. But if you overtreated and lost a patient to the side effects thereof, or caused enough harm to multiple patients to add up to an equivalent number of QALYs, apparently you would suffer much less. You are trained to intervene, after all. You would pat yourself consolingly on the back and say, “Well, at least I Did Everything I Could.” For the patient, the question is whether the repeated pursuit of unlikely diagnoses would statistically improve longevity or health. If not, then the patient is spending time, money, and energy on something that is liable to do no good. If he has been reading a lot of blog entries about “evidence-based medicine,” he might be surprised to hear that he should go through all that for the sake of someone else’s emotional well-being.

    Please note, again, that I’m NOT arguing that someone who is having crushing chest pain for the first time in his life should not go to the doctor! Of course he should! But if someone gets an ache in his chest every time he argues with his wife, and he has already been tested and told that there is nothing wrong with him, or worse that he is somatizing, will he gain a net benefit by going to the ER after every argument? If he’s been getting the same kind of upper abdominal pain since he was twenty, does it now profit him to call an ambulance just in case it’s a heart attack? If you think so, it seems to me that the burden of proof is on you.

  43. overshoot says:

    apteryx:

    If you undertreated and “lost a patient,” even as a very rare occurence, you would experience emotional suffering. But if you overtreated and lost a patient to the side effects thereof, or caused enough harm to multiple patients to add up to an equivalent number of QALYs, apparently you would suffer much less. You are trained to intervene, after all. You would pat yourself consolingly on the back and say, “Well, at least I Did Everything I Could.”

    IANAMD, just an emergency medic. Speaking only for myself, etc. and all that. HOWEVER:

    Nope. Dead bass-ackward, in fact. “First do no harm” is something I sweat — a lot. Complex systems are much easier to screw up than to repair, and a human being is a very complex system. Every time I see someone who’s in bad shape, my major concern isn’t “what can I do for them” but “what do I have to do to keep from making matters worse?”

    There have been cases where I could have done more and had some regrets, but they’re nothing like the nightmares I’ve had worrying that I might have hurt a patient. Not even “I shouldn’t have” but “maybe” is enough to keep me awake.

  44. apteryx says:

    I was speaking of weing’s expressed concerns; he mentioned the emotional repercussions to the doctor of undertreating as a rationale for erring in the direction of overtreating, but he gave no hint that the opposite argument would be equally applicable to him. YMMV. You may be especially likely to abide by “Primum non nocere” because, as a non-MD, you are aware of the limitations of your knowledge and have no pretensions to the status of ultimate decision-maker.

  45. apteryx says:

    Also, overshoot – If you screw up, as an emergency medic, it’s probably pretty obvious. If your patient dies or starts spattering blood all over the place, the consequences of failure are right in front of you. When an MD hurts someone through overtreatment, it is frequently through a test that leads to another test that leads to another test, all perhaps performed by different doctors, and finally, in the worst case, to a drug or procedure that causes severe side effects or leaves someone dead or gorked. The first MD not only has interventionist philosophy to soothe his conscience (it was bad luck, but we “had” to test and treat…), but may not have personally committed the harm at all. He has distance from it. If he doesn’t order the test and the patient then kicks the bucket, he has erred according to the tenets of interventionism, and he’s got nobody else to distribute responsibility to. Psychologically, it’s no wonder that the latter possibility stresses him more than the former. That’s a human failing, which is perfectly understandable – but it is also reason not to assign doctors superhuman superior-decision-maker status.

  46. weing says:

    apteryx,

    Physicians are not the ultimate decision makers. In my case, the patients are the decision makers. If they come to me to evaluate a symptom, I provide my expertise and give them my recommendations and reasons for them. I tell them of the possible consequences of following or not following my recommendations. It is up to them. They can even go to a tarot reader. BTW, I do recommend watchful waiting when I deem it necessary and the principle of not harming the patient still applies. I guess you could say there is an art to the practice of the science of medicine.

  47. apteryx says:

    Then you might appreciate Perri Klass’ editorial in NEJM today. You probably have a subscription, but for those who don’t, it’s free full text online.

  48. daedalus2u says:

    Very interesting editorial.

    I have just one question. Why was the child sent home with a prescription for amoxicillin when “he looked like a kid with a viral syndrome”?

    I appreciate that I am being a noodge.

    here is the link

    http://content.nejm.org/cgi/content/full/358/22/2313

  49. pec says:

    “Scientists may or may not hold personal beliefs about the non-material, but the scientific method is necessarily grounded in material reality. If something non-material has an effect on the material world, science can measure it and study it.”

    Physicists have found ways to measure all kinds of things that not long ago no one imagined existed. If you want to define “matter” as anything humans can find a way to measure, then yes, scientists only study matter, according to that definition. If you define matter that way, then science is by its nature materialist.

    But we also should admit that most of the “matter” of the universe is probably completely unknown to us. We can’t study it scientifically because we can’t measure it, and we can’t measure it because we don’t understand it, and we don’t understand it because we have not studied it.

    We depend on accidents and strokes of genius for a lot of our scientific progress. And we can remain stuck in the catch-22 I described for very long periods, with respect to certain problems and questions.

    For example, we have people who know how to open their chakras, and we have other people like Harriet who say there are no chakras. And we have no scientific way to show who is right because scientists don’t know how to measure chakras. And of course they don’t know because they are pretty sure chakras are just another ancient superstition, so they don’t spend billions of dollars trying to figure them out.

    Not many scientists want to devote their life to proving chakras don’t exist, since they either never heard of such a thing, or they already “know” they aren’t real. And people who would like to study chakras are not likely to get funding from governments or big companies.

    So the question of chakras is completely open, and we have no scientific reasons for believing or not believing. Science cannot help us decide of chakras are real or not.

    So people like Dr. Northrup are forced to rely on their own experiences and the experiences of people they trust. And she decided that chakras are real, and Harriet is appalled that an MD dared to trust human experiences and ancient traditions. But the only alternative would be to distrust our own experiences and believe in nothing except what science has already measured.

    Before you say how wonderful that would be, if people would only disbelieve everything not already discovered and measured by science, you should think about how impossible that would be. Every minute, every second, millions of things happen within us and around us that no scientist has ever measured or studied. Should we deny all those things, block them from consciousness?

    I hope some day scientists will study chakras and subluxations, and I think humanity will benefit greatly if that happens. But for now I am not going to deny and block every experience from consciousness that has not been studied scientifically.

    The things I know and care about are not always the same as the things some government agency or big corporation has decided is important enough to fund research for. I am not going to live my life according to what big agencies and big corporations happen to think is good for me.

    That does not mean I believe every stupid thing that comes along. But if something makes sense to me, agrees with my experiences, has been observed and experienced by millions of people throughout the ages, then I will not reject it simply because big government and big business have not decided to research it. If I value something I will not discard it simply because materialists like Harriet think it will not ever be measured.

    Harriet, you simply do not know. And you don’t accept that you don’t know.

    I am a scientist because I know I don’t know very much, and I know I can always learn and be surprised. To someone like me, science is not a set of laws and facts; it’s an attitude of openness and curiosity. Science should not be authoritarian. Scientists should not be appalled because someone in their field dares to hold some unorthodox beliefs.

  50. qetzal says:

    So the question of chakras is completely open, and we have no scientific reasons for believing or not believing.

    Yet note how you phrased the following:

    For example, we have people who know how to open their chakras, and we have other people like Harriet who say there are no chakras.

    People like Harriet say there are no chakras, but other people know how to open their chakras.

    You will never be a scientist until you learn to recognize the bias in your statements.

  51. Harriet Hall says:

    daedalus2u asked “Why was the child sent home with a prescription for amoxicillin”

    The illness may have started as a virus, but the doctor was convinced that he now had an ear infection (fever, red bulging eardrum) and current guidelines mandate antibiotics for a child that age when the doctor is sure of the diagnosis. In less certain cases and in older children, watchful waiting would be the choice.

  52. Harriet Hall says:

    Answering pec:

    “Physicists have found ways to measure all kinds of things that not long ago no one imagined existed.”

    And the things they have found ways to measure consist of matter and energy, not anything immaterial.

    “If you want to define “matter” as anything humans can find a way to measure, then yes, scientists only study matter, according to that definition. If you define matter that way, then science is by its nature materialist.”

    How would you define “matter” and how would you go about studying something that didn’t fit that definition?

    “But we also should admit that most of the “matter” of the universe is probably completely unknown to us. We can’t study it scientifically because we can’t measure it, and we can’t measure it because we don’t understand it, and we don’t understand it because we have not studied it.”

    There is “dark matter” but we have no reason to think we can’t eventually measure it. In fact, we can already measure its effects on other matter; that’s how we know it exists.

    “For example, we have people who know how to open their chakras”

    You’re not listening. I keep trying to tell you we have people who have experiences they interpret as relating to chakras but that doesn’t mean chakras exist. There are other possible explanations for those experiences. You can correct your statement and make it accurate by saying we have people who BELIEVE they know how to open their chakras.

    “and we have other people like Harriet who say there are no chakras.”

    That’s not what I said. I said, “what you call subluxations and chakras and non-material concepts might also have better explanations.”

    “Not many scientists want to devote their life to proving chakras don’t exist.”

    Science can’t ever prove that chakras don’t exist. It can’t even prove that the Tooth Fairy doesn’t exist. If the Tooth Fairy or chakras exist, there should be a way to test for their presence or their effects on the material world. Can you suggest how we might design an experiment to verify the existence of chakras?

    “So people like Dr. Northrup are forced to rely on their own experiences and the experiences of people they trust.”

    No, they’re not. They can rely on evidence from science but they can only speculate about what their experiences mean. If they “rely” on their experiences, they are likely to make lots of mistakes.

    “And she decided that chakras are real, and Harriet is appalled that an MD dared to trust human experiences and ancient traditions.”

    No, I’m appalled that she can’t distinguish between knowledge based on evidence and speculation based on personal experience and hearsay.

    “But the only alternative would be to distrust our own experiences and believe in nothing except what science has already measured.”

    Yes, that’s exactly what I’m trying to tell you. We can’t trust our own experience; that’s why we need science in the first place. And we shouldn’t believe in anything without evidence, because we’re likely to be wrong. In fact, I don’t think we should “believe” in anything. I think we should hold provisional conclusions based on the best available evidence.

    “Before you say how wonderful that would be, if people would only disbelieve everything not already discovered and measured by science, you should think about how impossible that would be. Every minute, every second, millions of things happen within us and around us that no scientist has ever measured or studied. Should we deny all those things, block them from consciousness? “

    We shouldn’t deny our experience. We can’t measure love. We can’t measure the “qualia” of our sensory experiences. We have to make practical everyday decisions about things where science can’t give us answers. We have to act on the basis of our best guesses. I never suggested we should deny our experiences. I never suggested you should deny your experiences of what you call chakras. I just think it is a mistake to interpret your subjective experiences as representing something in the real external world before you have objective evidence.

    “The things I know and care about are not always the same as the things some government agency or big corporation has decided is important enough to fund research for. I am not going to live my life according to what big agencies and big corporations happen to think is good for me.”

    I’m not going to depend on agencies and corporations either. Where did that come from? I’ve been talking about science, not organizations. And science can’t even tell you what is “good” for you because “good” is a human value concept.

    “That does not mean I believe every stupid thing that comes along. But if something makes sense to me, agrees with my experiences, has been observed and experienced by millions of people throughout the ages, then I will not reject it simply because big government and big business have not decided to research it.”

    You shouldn’t reject anything just because government and business haven’t researched it. I don’t. On the other hand, you shouldn’t accept anything as true or real just on the basis that it makes sense, agrees with your experiences and has been observed by millions of people. We make mistakes when we depend on those criteria. Bloodletting to balance the humors fit all those criteria and turned out to be dead wrong.

    “If I value something I will not discard it simply because materialists like Harriet think it will not ever be measured.”

    Did I say it will not ever be measured? I don’t think so! Try reading again. And I don’t consider myself a “materialist.” That’s a philosophy. I don’t follow any philosophy. I try to keep an open mind.

    “Harriet, you simply do not know. And you don’t accept that you don’t know.”

    I do accept that. Did you read my book review of “On Being Certain”? I think you are the one who doesn’t accept that you don’t know whether chakras and subluxations and immaterial things exist.

    “I am a scientist because I know I don’t know very much, and I know I can always learn and be surprised. To someone like me, science is not a set of laws and facts; it’s an attitude of openness and curiosity. Science should not be authoritarian. Scientists should not be appalled because someone in their field dares to hold some unorthodox beliefs.”

    All scientists know they don’t know very much and can be surprised and are willing to change their provisional conclusions when the evidence changes. Science is not a set of laws and facts: it’s a method for approaching as close as possible to the truth of how things work in the real material world. Science is never authoritarian. Scientists should always be appalled when someone holds beliefs that are not based on evidence and when scientists reject the scientific method in favor of less trustworthy methods of seeking knowledge.

  53. qetzal says:

    “Physicists have found ways to measure all kinds of things that not long ago no one imagined existed.”

    Unintentionally telling point by pec.

    Yes, scientists discover things no one imagined existed. So wouldn’t you think that if things like ghosts, life energy, chakras, subluxations, water memory, past lives, etc., existed, they’d have discovered at least one by now?

    Yet I can’t think of a single example of something that clearly started as woo, and was later ‘discovered’ to be true by legitimate science. Can anyone? (The closest I can get is medicinal plants, but I don’t think the general idea of pharmacological agents in plants was ever denied by mainstream science.)

  54. HCN says:

    pec said “Physicists have found ways to measure all kinds of things that not long ago no one imagined existed.”

    I see you did not spend your half a year of freshman college science education in physics. Actually, what they measured is stuff that was predicted. The laws of physics were tweaked in the 20th century, not re-written. They were tweaked to take into account bigger velocities and much smaller masses (look up Lorentz transformation).

    The reason to tweak the equations had something to do with Newton’s Laws of classical physics not working with Maxwell’s equations.

    qetzal said “Yet I can’t think of a single example of something that clearly started as woo, and was later ‘discovered’ to be true by legitimate science.”

    Well, perhaps the wave theory of light. In the 18th century the Newtonian version of geometric light was not to be debated. Except things did change. The last holdout was Poisson. See what happened:
    http://lecturedemo.ph.unimelb.edu.au/Optics/Diffraction/Od-5-Poisson's-Spot

  55. HCN says:

    This was posted on the Respectful Insolence blog, I thought it was an interesting take on how science actually works:
    http://bighugelabs.com/photos/f64da856d7c3d8efe5c0940cad03e708/motivator2459909

  56. daedalus2u says:

    Dr Hall, I realize I was being a noodge, and that under the circumstances I would have had a difficult time keeping track of the relative importance of the guidelines for antibiotic use while worrying about head trauma.

    pec, the current (tentative) definition (that I would use) of “material”, is something that interacts with mass/energy via gravitational effects. It is not a question of measurement by scientists. We know that there are things that have not been measured directly, gravitational radiation for example. We know gravitational radiation exists because we have measured its effects, the decay of co-orbiting neutron stars due to mass loss by gravitational radiation. The observed properties of the universe are best explained (so far) by the existence of gravitational radiation. There are observations that are inconsistent with the non-existence of gravitational radiation.

    We can and do study gravitational radiation scientifically. Scientists make models, generate hypotheses, think of experiments to test those hypotheses, build experimental equipment to test those hypotheses and then run those experiments.

    The only evidence to support the existence of chakras is the assertions by people who believe they exist that they do exist. As Dr Hall mentioned, we have those same assertions for the tooth fairy as well. For the tooth fairy we also have actual cash money left under a pillow.

    Your arguments regarding chakras could equally be applied to the tooth fairy.

    “So the question of [the tooth fairy] is completely open, and we have no scientific reasons for believing or not believing. Science cannot help us decide [if the tooth fairy] is real or not.”

    I could design experiments that would test the hypothesis of the tooth fairy. From those experiments I could deduce constraints on the properties of tooth fairies should they exist.

    Can anyone design experiments to test the hypothesis of chakras? To be able to put constraints on their properties? Are there any observations that are inconsistent with the non-existence of charkas? No, there are not, there are only beliefs that they exist. If a belief cannot be put in a form where it can be tested by experiment even in principle, then it cannot be a scientific belief. The people who assert a belief in charkas are putting zero effort (as far as I can tell) into trying to understand or put constraints on the properties of chakras. A lack of scientific effort in a field is not evidence that scientific effort in that field will not be productive. It is evidence that those who are working in that field are not scientists.

  57. qetzal says:

    Harriet,

    Your link doesn’t work, but I suspect it’s not what I meant. I’m asking for an example where a popularly held belief was widely dismissed as unscientific and then later discovered to be true. Ideally, it would be something that seemed inconsistent with science at the time, yet many people believed it anyway, based on the kind of evidence pec likes to cite: subjective experience, wisdom of the ancients, etc.

    If tomorrow someone showed scientifically that astrology is actually valid, or that some people really can recall past lives, those would be examples.

    pec noted that scientists occasionally discover new things that were previously unsuspected. She seems to be arguing that even though science can’t detect chakras today (or life energy, or etc.), it may ‘discover’ them in the future.

    My point is that, while science does discover new things, it never seems to ‘discover’ any of the things that the mystical set claimed to know all along. But maybe I’m unaware of examples, or not seeing them because of my own biases.

    So, is there any case where mystics & true believers claimed something that mainstream science dismissed as bogus, but later showed was substantially correct?

  58. apteryx says:

    Regarding the existence of things not scientifically measurable: What about emotion? There are still people who pretend that animals have no emotions, even though “higher” animals engage in many behaviors suggestive of emotion and possess the same brain structures that are active in humans when they are self-reporting specific emotions. Obviously, the fact that you can detect the brain activity doesn’t mean you can detect emotion directly. For that matter, we have no proof that emotion exists in humans, other than accepting their say-so, an argument from “mere” personal perception. Mechanists will assert that emotions are mere epiphenomena of chemical reactions; I assert that even if that’s true they carry a clear evolutionary advantage. Either way, few of us would dispute that we have them.

  59. qetzal says:

    @apteryx:

    I’m not sure I understand your point. Are you saying emotions are an example of something real that science can’t measure?

    I wouldn’t agree with that. The fact that we can’t detect them directly isn’t particularly relevant. There are many, many things we can’t detect directly. (Arguably, we can’t detect anything directly, since everything must be processed through our individual sensory apparatuses.) We don’t claim that they’re all scientifically unmeasurable.

    The other question, as you note, is whether an emotion is somehow distinct from whatever cellular/molecular/chemical/electrical brain patterns cause it (or support it, or result from it, if you prefer). If you believe that emotions are part of the mind (not the brain), and if you subscribe to mind/body dualism, and if you also believe that the mind is somehow beyond the realm of science, then you could assert that emotions themselves are not scientifically detectable. (I.e., emotions themselves exist is some real sense, but we can only detect things like their effects on behavior, brain activity, etc.)

    But those would be simply assertions. One could play that game indefinitely – anything science ever measured related to emotions could be dismissed as merely an effect of the emotion, not the actual emotion itself.

    Am I missing your point?

  60. apteryx says:

    Emotions are not, now, either directly or indirectly quantifiable. You can note that certain brain regions are more active in people who are feeling fear or love, but you cannot do a brain scan of an individual and tell him how fearful or loving he is feeling at that moment. Since emotion is by definition the individually perceived sensation, if you tell him he is not feeling very fearful and he tells you he is, he is right and you are wrong. If emotion were equated with anything you can see in a brain scan, the “question” of animal emotion would have been resolved beyond dispute by now, as animals have and show activity in all the same emotion-related brain regions. Maybe we will devise perfectly accurate methods of measuring emotions in the future. For now, almost all of us will admit regardless that emotions exist, and many will admit that there is useful research to be done on them, even if it is not perfectly “rigorous” because it depends upon recording subjects’ own perceptions.

  61. Harriet Hall says:

    quetzal asked for “an example where a popularly held belief was widely dismissed as unscientific and then later discovered to be true.”

    I’ve racked my brain and can’t think of a single example. I can think of lots of things that were popularly believed to be true that were disproven by science: spontaneous generation, bloodletting to balance the humours, etc. And I can think of lots of things that started as “science” and were shown not to be real: phlogiston, the ether, N-rays, etc.

  62. qetzal says:

    The current inability to determine an individual’s emotional state based on brain scans doesn’t mean emotions are undetectable or unmeasureable. It just means they can’t be reliably detected/measured by that approach.

    Also, quantifiability isn’t relevant to my point. Emotions can be detected and studied scientifically. If you doubt that, do a PubMed search for emotion or emotions or emotional in the title. I get about 16000 hits. Many are not really relevant, of course, but many are.

    You can argue that none look directly at emotions; rather they all look at effects of emotions. And again I say, so what? No one can directly detect neutrinos. They can only be detected by their effects on other matter. Is that enough to argue that they are unmeasurable by science? Certainly not.

    If you want to claim that emotions themselves are beyond the realm of science, you have to do more than argue about direct vs. indirect detection.

    The individuality argument is also uncompelling. You could apply the same argument to drug development. A randomized controlled trial can show beyond any reasonable doubt that a given drug is superior to placebo or active control for a given condition. Yet a given individual still might not respond to that drug. That doesn’t put drug response beyond scientific study.

    Take your individual. If his brain scan doesn’t conform to some population norm when he’s fearful, we could still attempt to identify a particular EEG pattern that indicated fear in him. Of course, he could prevent us from doing so by refusing to cooperate – e.g. by lying about whether he felt fearful, but that’s an entirely different issue.

  63. apteryx says:

    Qetzal – Everything is unmeasurable until you develop the understanding, including the technological sophistication, necessary to measure it. I do not assume that our present science is omniscient, nor that it is the best we can ever do. Right now, you cannot scientifically measure emotions – in any organism; you are confused about “my individuality argument.” Still, like most people, I believe that it is possible to study emotions meaningfully, and I presume you will not argue that we should not believe in them at all.

    Harriet – How about the use of honey to treat wounds? Or any number of “old wives’ tales,” consisting of knowledge preserved from the prescientific era, that have turned out to have a factual basis? These were sneered at wholesale by the scientific establishment for many years.

  64. overshoot says:

    an example where a popularly held belief was widely dismissed as unscientific and then later discovered to be true.

    The relationship of tides and the moon was originally discounted as a fisherman’s superstition until Newton explained it with solid physics. (The problem was the matter of tidal cycles being 2/day.)

  65. apteryx says:

    And there are numerous “native” observations of animal behavior that were rejected by white zoologists as embarrassing or just unlikely or unexpected. As one example, Inuit believed that polar bears were usually left-handed; this was scoffed at but is in fact true.

  66. qetzal says:

    @overshoot:

    Thanks! That’s a pretty good example of the sort of thing I wanted. I’ll look into that.

    @ apteryx:

    I think we’re talking past each other a bit. But it sounds like you’re not claiming emotions are beyond the realm of science in principle. Just that they’re not necessarily measurable according to our current ability. Our dispute seems to be about measuring emotions versus measuring their effects, but I think we both agree that emotions are not irrevocablyl outside the realm of science. Yes?

    Treating wounds with honey is sort of what I had in mind, but I’d lump it in with pharmacologically active natural products in general. Science & medicine may have sneered at beliefs regarding specific natural remedies, but has accepted the general idea that natural products can be pharmacologically active for hundreds (thousands?) of years.

    As for old wives tales that were shown to have a factual basis, can you give some specific examples?

    Polar bears being left-handed is an interesting example – thanks!

  67. daedalus2u says:

    There have been reports of the use of animal dung on umbilical cords from Africa and from India (from the literature). A midwife I know from Africa (now working as a licensed midwife in the greater Boston area) reported that her mother told her of a village that did practice this. She was a little horrified when I asked about it in connection with my NO research.

    Crocodile dung was used as a pessary (for what is unknown because there is a hole in the papyrus). NO from crocodile dung may work as a ED treatment.

    This relates to my NO research, animal dung can be a very powerful NO source (my own data published in posters).

    The Clostridia bacteria which cause tetanus are extremely sensitive to NO. This is the reason that nitrite is used to cure meat, to suppress Clostridia.

    Perhaps not quite accepted as EBM or SBM yet though.

  68. weing says:

    What about cold exposure and catching the flu? It appears that the colder the temperature, the longer the survival of the flu virus outside the body.

  69. Harriet Hall says:

    I woudn’t call honey for wounds a popular belief. It was originally used by doctors in ancient Egypt, and I don’t think science ever really rejected it; it just fell into disuse. I can remember reading about it decades ago in a book by a doctor who said it did work.

    As for cold and flu, the evidence is still mixed; and I wouldn’t say science ever exactly rejected it. It’s not entirely clear whether study results like virus survival times translate into practical clinical effects.

    I wasn’t thinking of little details like left-handedness in polar bears; we knew polar bears had hands (paws) and used them. I was trying to think of something comparable to pec’s chakras. I still can’t think of anything comparable that science rejected and later found good evidence for. Has any popular belief in anything immaterial ever been validated by science? Has anything that science classified as immaterial ever been shown to be material?

  70. daedalus2u says:

    There is the widespread belief that nitrate in drinking water is bad for you due to methemoglobin formation, and that nitrite in foods is bad for you in relationship to nitrosoamine formation.

    http://circ.ahajournals.org/cgi/content/abstract/117/16/2151

    A very recent PNAS article shows how therapeutic modest quantities of nitrite can be to augment ischemia induced angiogenesis.

    http://www.pnas.org/cgi/content/abstract/105/21/7540

    I am not sure that there was ever a popular belief that nitrate was good for you.

    There have been material beliefs that have been shown to be immaterial, the luminiferous ether and caloric used to be thought of as material then shown to not be.

  71. apteryx says:

    Qetzal – Sorry, but American science, at least, broadly rejected folk remedies for several decades. They were happy to use plants as sources of single molecules, while denying that traditional preparations could be of value. The very phrase “old wives’ tale” serves to indicate to the listener that traditional, and especially female-held knowledge is valueless as a class.

    On the net today, a large study has just shown that women who have more children lose more teeth (corrected for socioeconomic status), validating a common European folk belief. Among possible explanations, the authors lamely suggest that pregnant women avoid dental care because they’re afraid of getting X-rays. However, the belief long predates modern dentistry with its endless bite-wing series.

    Harriet seems to treat science as going back a pretty long way for these purposes – it would be interesting to discuss the limits of “real science” – so I will just mention the quaint folk belief in meteorites. For a long time, the important educated European thinkers held that nothing could fall from the heavens, so people who reported stones dropping out of the sky were obviously mistaken. Certainly, meteorites are of similar importance to chakras, especially if it’s your house they hit!

    As for emotions, no, of course they are not irrevocably outside the realm of science. Though they have not yet been proven to be purely an epiphenomenon of identifiable chemical reactions, they may be such, in which case it’s theoretically possible that we could invent instruments and techniques so sophisticated as to measure them precisely. Moreover, even if those methods never exist, you can still learn a great deal about the nature and functions of human emotion with studies that simply ASK people how they feel. (Of course, you could also say that ghosts are not irrevocably outside the realm of science; it looks that way right now, but that would change in a hurry if someone invented a device that could detect ghosts…)

  72. Michelle B says:

    Quarks may have been a bit of matter/energy that went undetected, but their presence was predicted. When technology and experimental method caught up, they were identified. Before their probability was noted by existing knowledge, no one went around saying, Quarks, there must be Quarks, I can feel them, their power, their wisdom, they have been guiding us for centuries, blah, blah, blah, like the way proponents of chakras and life energy do.

    Pec’s equating all concepts/hypotheses (that is, non-scientific theories) as all being in the same ‘unknown’ boat is a fallacy. Russell’s Celestial Teapot handles that angle: at his time, though it was not possible to be sure there was no Celestial Teapot orbiting the earth, there was a high improbability for it not to exist (based on other existing knowledge).

    Pec’s perspective calls to mind religious agnostics: that term simply means that the agnostic does not KNOW if there is a god, it does not mean that there is a 50-50 probability that god exists. An agnostic atheist, therefore, does not accept the existence of god, not because she knows there isn’t one, but that an existence of a god is highly improbable based on what we do know. This is not narrow-mindedness; it actually allows for one to be unbiased. As the common saying goes, we must not be so open-minded that our brains fall out.

    My hero, Semmelweis does not provide the kind of example that other commenters are requesting, but I just want to mention his awful travail at the hands of dogmatic practitioners of medicine in his time: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ignaz_Semmelweis

  73. Michelle B says:

    at his time, though it was not possible to be sure there was no Celestial Teapot orbiting the earth, there was a high improbability for it not to exist (based on other existing knowledge).

    Correction: there was a high probability for it not to exist.

  74. apteryx says:

    Michelle B writes: “Before their probability was noted by existing knowledge, no one went around saying, Quarks, there must be Quarks, I can feel them…”

    But people do seem to say that about superstrings.

    Now let us pause and meditate on the fundamental goodness of the three-holed Calabi-Yau manifold.

  75. Michelle B says:

    apteryx wrote: Now let us pause and meditate on the fundamental goodness of the three-holed Calabi-Yau manifold.
    _____

    Or one can just read Tau’s Theorem.

  76. Michelle B says:

    Correction: Yau’s Theorem

  77. Grapmag says:

    Nice comments. All one can say in conclusion is Ramen! I see his mighty noodly appendage in all things.

  78. WWWGJSNET says:

    The protocol of messages exchanged could serve as a model for other postings on ANY area of inquiry. Well worth reading.

  79. storkdok says:

    Harriet, very interesting post, one I agree with.

    I actually practiced just “down the road” from Dr. Northrup. I and my partners used to get a lot of patients who had seen her. She has some very nutty ideas. One of them was that the reason women got fibroid tumors of the uterus was, in her opinion, because they were sexually frustrated. Then she sold them special hot packs to put on their abdomens to “cure” them. We actually had a handout that stated these things. One patient I had had started out with a 12 week sized uterus and by the time she saw me it was 18 week sized, almost up to the umbilicus, and she was anemic.

    Years ago I remember at one ACOG meeting, she was on stage and got literally laughed off the stage with her fringy thoughts.

    It was funny to hear her ex-husband’s side of things. He is an orthopedic surgeon. By the way, I think I read in one of her earlier books that she had fibroids. She had a hysterectomy for them.

    A lot of what she says could very well delay proper diagnosis and treatment. It is a pity Oprah has continued to have her on as a self-styled expert, a real disservice to women.

  80. David Gorski says:

    Any chance you could scan the handout and e-mail it to us? :-)

  81. “Any chance you could scan the handout and e-mail it to us?”

    Great idea. Or, just go to “Dr.” Northrup’s website, where you’ll find that it isn’t just sexual frustration:

    “The baseline energetic patterns that result in fibroids are related to blockage and stagnation of the energy of the second emotional center. Caroline Myss, Ph.D., teaches that fibroid tumors represent our creativity that has never been birthed. Fibroids may also result when we are flowing life energy into dead end jobs or relationships we have outgrown. Fibroids are often associated with conflicts about creativity, reproduction, and relationships.”

    “If you have fibroids, ask yourself the following questions: What are the creations within me that I want to put out in the world before I’m no longer here? If anything at all were possible, what would my life look like? If I had six months to live, what relationships would I release from my life immediately? What relationships would I give more of my time and attention to? What relationships truly feed and nourish me? Which ones drain my energy? Write your answers in a journal. Discuss them with supportive friends. Deep within you, you have all the answers you need. You just need to be open to hearing them.”

    http://www.drnorthrup.com/womenshealth/healthcenter/topic_details.php?topic_id=64

    That pesky second emotional center can really give a girl fits!

    Here’s another interesting website:

    http://users.rcn.com/cabbidge/Index.html

  82. storkdok says:

    I’ll ask my partner if he still has it. I didn’t make a copy for myself and I don’t have access to the medical records now that I’m retired. I regret I didn’t make a copy, I just thought, what a nut.

    The patient said she was told she needed to have more orgasms and release her sexual frustration. That’s what stuck with me. There was a bunch of stuff about energy and emotions and whatever along with it, like the handout Kimball linked above. It may have evolved a bit over the last 11 years.

    My partner has a lot of stories about her, he has been in the community for many years before I came, about 18 years, and she goes back probably 25 years or more here, so he knew her when she was practicing OB/GYN, before the books and Oprah.

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