Pseudo-expertise versus science-based medicine

I am a skeptic.

My support for science-based medicine, as important as it is and as much time, sweat, and treasure I spend supporting it, is not the be-all and end-all of my skepticism, which derives from a scientific world view. That’s why, every so often, I like to step back from medicine a bit and look at the broader picture. It’s a good idea to do this from time to time, because to me, many of the topics that I and my fellow SBM bloggers write about are not just manifestations of anti-science and pseudoscience in medicine, but rather of a broader problem of anti-science and pseudoscience in society at large. I concentrate on medicine because it’s what I do and because manifestations of pseudoscience in medicine have the potential to harm or even kill large numbers of people.

Look no further than the anti-vaccine movement if you don’t believe me. Already, a mere decade after Andrew Wakefield’s lawyer-funded, incompetent, and perhaps even fraudulent “study” about a supposed relationship between the MMR vaccine and autism, uptake of MMR vaccines have plummeted throughout the U.K., with some areas of London reporting only 50% uptake, far too low for effective herd immunity. Thanks to J.B. Handley, Jenny McCarthy, Jim Carrey, and the know-nothing band of celebrities and activists, we are in serious danger of having the same sort of thing happen right here in the U.S. Indeed, Jenny McCarthy herself has even acknowledged that, although in her characteristically self-absorbed and vulgar manner, she refused to take responsibility for her part in this impending public health debacle, dismissing her role by saying, “I do believe sadly it’s going to take some diseases coming back to realize that we need to change and develop vaccines that are safe. If the vaccine companies are not listening to us, it’s their fucking fault that the diseases are coming back. They’re making a product that’s shit. If you give us a safe vaccine, we’ll use it. It shouldn’t be polio versus autism.” Meanwhile autistic children suffer from the quackery to which they are subjected in a futile attempt to “recover” them from “vaccine injury”-induced autism.

But it’s not just the anti-vaccine movement. It’s cancer quackery, promoted by “luminaries” such as Suzanne Somers and Bill Maher, given aid and comfort by doctors gone bad such as Dr. Rashid Buttar and Dr. Nicholas Gonzalez, “bioidentical hormone” woo promoted by the aforementioned Suzanne Somers and Dr. Christiane Northrup. It’s all manner of other faith-based and definitely non-science-based medicine so called “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM, which is neither complementary nor medicine, although there is no doubt that it’s “alternative”) or “integrative medicine” (which “integrates” pseudoscience with effective medicine to the detriment of patients) finding its way into our academic medical schools, even to the point of being mandatory at at least one medical school and being a strongly touted option at many others. Meanwhile, the misbegotten behemoth of woo, funded by your tax dollars and mine, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) promotes remedies based on a prescientific understanding of how the body works and what causes diseases, even going so far as to promote “integrative medicine” residencies. Meanwhile science-based medical students face a serious dilemma: Go with the flow or fight.

Although I’ve only been a blogger for SBM for less than two years and its managing editor for less then a year, I have been in this battle for nearly a decade in various forms, and not just in medicine. Indeed, over the last several years, I’ve subjected myself to some of the most outrageous bits of unreason, conspiracy mongering, and pseudoscience. Be it the anti-vaccine movement, quacks, 9/11 Truthers, Holocaust deniers, creationists, or any of a variety of other bits of pseudoscience, I’ve come to appreciate that what distinguishes believers in such nonsense seems to be, as Prometheus so aptly put it, the arrogance of ignorance. Even so, there seems to be more than that going on, and leave it to, of all things, an article in the L.A. Times by James Rainey entitled Childhood vaccines, autism and the dangers of group think. It’s an article looking at Amy Wallace’s excellent article for WIRED entitled An Epidemic of Fear: How Panicked Parents Skipping Shots Endangers Us All, which documented how the arrogance of ignorance has led the anti-vaccine movement to endanger public health, and the exceedingly (and typically) nasty reaction the anti-vaccine movement with which the anti-vaccine movement responded, particularly J.B. Handley’s misogyny.

There are two key passages in Rainey’s article that tell the tale, a tale that is no surprise to skeptics, in particular skeptical bloggers like myself:

“They will say, ‘Who do you think you are to tell me?’ or ‘Who does the government think it is to tell us what is best for public health?’ ” Wallace told me this week. “They say, ‘You can’t know my child like I know my child.’ “

Wallace has run smack into an abiding, perhaps growing, phenomenon of the Internet Age: Citizens armed with information are sure they know better. Readers who brush up against expertise believe they have become experts. The common man rebels against the notion that anyone — not professionals, not the government and certainly not the media — speaks with special authority.

Where it stops, nobody knows. But already we see a wave of amateurs convinced they can write a pithier movie review, arrange a catchier song, even assess our planet’s shifting weather conditions, better than the professionals trained to do the job.

I wish he hadn’t mentioned movie reviews and song-writing. Not to denigrate either skill, one of which I can do (albeit not that well) and one of which I can’t (I’ll leave it to the reader to guess which is which), but in contrast to examining the complex science behind medicine, it is much more possible for an amateur to succeed in these endeavors than it is for an amateur to succeed at analyzing the complex problems science addresses at the highest level of medicine and other sciences. Indeed, writers penned books and articles, and songwriters wrote songs before there ever was such a thing as a “professional” songwriter. Come to think of it, people did science before there was such a thing as a professional scientist, too. The difference, at least today, is that science has become so technical and complex that it is very, very difficult to master and all but impossible to teach oneself, particularly medicine.

However, Rainey’s better at identifying a major contributing factor:

The rise of computer literacy, high-speed Internet connections, blogging and social networks has emboldened the common man to tell his own story and, sometimes, to disdain trappings like a university degree, professional training or corporate affiliation. The citizen activists often frame themselves as truth tellers fighting against an establishment that is hopelessly venal. No matter that the corruption, routinely claimed, is seldom supported by more than innuendo.

This is indeed the cult of the amateur, as the title of a book mentioned in the article goes. There has always been a strain in American culture that is deeply anti-intellectual and suspicious of experts, as documented in Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life back in 1966, with the same lament being echoed by Susan Jacoby last year in her The Age of American Unreason. Although it can cause a lot of problem, a healthy skepticism of experts is not necessarily a bad thing. Experts are not always right, and “the best and the brightest” have at times led us horribly astray. However, in the process, our nation appears to have somehow devalued not only expertise, but science itself. Science is the “other.” It’s not something that “everyday people” do, or at least it’s not perceived that way, which is all the more sad because anyone with a reasonable level of intelligence should be able to understand the very basics of the scientific method. The same is true of critical thinking. Indeed, in many areas of of life, the “average Joe” is admirably skeptical. For example, many people are more than capable of evaluating the sales pitch of a car salesman or, as my wife and I had to do several months ago, the high pressure sales pitch of a roofing salesman. Yet, in other areas these same people are credulous marks for any conspiracy theory that comes around.

In the case of the anti-vaccine movement, what drives this arrogance of ignorance is an old-fashioned American distrust of authority (often good, but not always) combined with a democratic tradition in which every person is assumed to be equal. The problem is that equality before the law and possessing equal rights (which are the American ideal) do not equate to equal abilities or knowledge. Unfortunately, we as a people seem to conflate the two and assume all too often that, if Paul Offit can pontificate about vaccines, so can we, even though we don’t have any special expertise in the relevant sciences about them. Too many of us assume that a few days or a few hours (or, sometimes, even much, much less) spent in front of a computer studying at the University of Google renders our understanding nearly equal to (or even greater than) that of scientists and experts who have spent their entire lives studying a problem. Celebrities are no different, either. Indeed, fueled by ego and surrounded by yes-men and other enablers, celebrities seem even more prone to the arrogance of ignorance, be they Bill Maher, Oprah Winfrey, Jenny McCarthy, Jim Carrey, Billy Corgan, or Suzanne Somers. Worse, they have a much larger soapbox from which to spread their nonsense. But they’re not alone. Whenever I want to demonstrate what drives this attitude, I like to quote anti-vaccine activist, bully, and all-around unlikable guy J.B. Handley:

I’m not intellectually intimidated by any of these jokers. Their degrees mean zippo to me, because I knew plenty of knuckleheads in college who went on to be doctors, and they’re still knuckleheads (I also knew plenty of great, smart guys who went on to be doctors and they’re still great, smart guys).

I chose a different path and went into the business world. In the business world, having a degree from a great college or business school gets you your first job, and not much else. There are plenty of Harvard Business School grads who have bankrupted companies and gone to jail, and plenty of high school drop-outs who are multi-millionaires. Brains and street-smarts win, not degrees, arrogance, or entitlement.

Except that brains and street smarts count for very little in science if they exist without an understanding of the scientific method and knowledge of the context behind a scientific study or even a scientific consensus on an issue.

From my perspective, the progress made on developing Internet may well be the single greatest development of the last 30 years. When the Internet was first developed, it was used primarily by educational, government, and defense institutions. It wasn’t until the mid 1990s when huge numbers of people started to have access to the Internet, and today in developed countries most people take Internet access for granted. Personally, I don’t know how I’d survive without it. It’s made, for example, looking up articles for my research and writing journal articles and grants a snap, comparatively speaking. However, there’s a down side, and that’s too much information, so much information that it makes it very easy for someone without the requisite background necessary to be able to separate the wheat from the chaff to develop a sense of pseudo-expertise. In other words, they may pick up a lot of facts and be able to cite a lot of studies, but they do not know the scientific context behind these facts and studies. They don’t know why scientists will value one study over another or consider the studies they like to cite to be nothing more than a load of fetid dingo’s kidneys, not worth the electrons that carry the PDF file containing the study to the computer the crank used to download it. Worse, they don’t know how to recognize good studies compared to bad studies or understand that critically examining the evidence against your beliefs is even more important than examining the evidence for them. The result all too often turns into an orgy of cherry picking and confirmation bias.

The result, when combined with someone like J.B. Handley, who thinks that expertise can be so easily dismissed, is the anti-vaccine movement, creationists, Holocaust deniers, 9/11 Truthers, and quacks.

The other driving force behind the proliferation of pseudo-expertise is a very human trait that we all share, namely the tendency to confuse correlation with causation. Once again, this is one of the first lessons in science, not to confuse correlation with causation, but those of us in science forget just how against human nature this is. We are creatures that value personal experience over statistics and science. One good anecdote trumps reams of evidence, hundreds of painstaking scientific studies, even a convergence of evidence from multiple different disciplines. This produces, for example, the alternative medicine maven who swears by homeopathy because the symptoms of their self-limited condition got better after they tried it, anthropogenic global warming denialists who justify their rejection of climate science by their observation that this summer was unusually mild in their area, and deniers of evolution who look at nature and cannot fathom how humans might have evolved from other animals over millions of years because they an only see the pitiful handful of decades each of us is given to walk this earth. It’s what drives Suzanne Somers to believe that her decision to eschew chemotherapy in favor of mistletoe extract after her curative surgery and radiotherapy is what saved her life. It’s what drives virtually the entire groundswell of support for CAM modalities, the vast majority of which do whatever it is they do through placebo effects.

Having said that, let us not forget that, at the level of a single person, correlation sure can appear to be causation. As was pointed out a month ago by Orac, one example is heart attacks and the flu vaccine. More than 3,000 people have heart attacks each and every day, which means that by random chance alone there will be probably several people a day who have a heart attack within 24 hours of being vaccinated for the flu. “On the ground,” to those people it may appear all the world as though the vaccine caused the heart attack, when in reality it really was just coincidence. It’s not enough simply to observe an adverse event happening after something, say, vaccination. You have to show that there is an incidence of that adverse event significantly greater than what could be predicted by chance alone. The same applies to the claim that vaccines cause autism. If you have a child who regresses within a day or so of vaccination, it will appear all the world to you that the vaccine caused the regression. In that case, it is then very difficult even for highly educated parents to accept the results of science, namely that epidemiological studies do not find an elevated incidence of autism after vaccination.

Combine the all-too-human tendency to confuse correlation with causation with the anti-intellectual attitude of a J. B. Handley, a Jenny McCarthy, a Suzanne Somers, a Bill Maher, or any of the panoply of celebrities, celebrity wannabes, or regular people who made it big through the promotion of snake oil with the arrogance of ignorance that pseudoexpertise derived from studying at Google U. produces, and you have fanatical adherence to a crank movement. It all boils down to a basic human need for a perception of order in the universe. We need to identify causes when bad things happen; we need explanations. To the non-scientist (and even to all too many physicians and scientists), “you were unlucky” or “it was just an unfortunate coincidence” are not answers to the question “Why?” that satisfy. They may be the most likely to be true, but they do not satisfy. Blaming something does, be it blaming vaccines for autism or constructing elaborate conspiracy theories to explain how 19 men with box cutters could hijack commercial airliners, destroy the two of the tallest buildings in the U.S., severely damage the Pentagon, and cause the deaths of 3,000 Americans, or why evolutionary biologists do not accept that “God did it” as an adequate explanation for the diversity of life in direct opposition to what preachers and parents have taught.

Becoming a real expert in anything is very hard. As several surgical conferences and Grand Rounds have recently reminded me, it’s been estimated that in general it takes 10,000 hours of practice and study to become an expert in surgery. There are no shortcuts around that. True, it may take somewhat less for surgeons with a natural knack for operating and patient care and longer for those of more modest and average capabilities, the latter of whom often have to work harder and practice longer to achieve the same level of expertise (if they ever achieve it at all), but that’s the average number of hours needed to become a master. The Internet may seem like a shortcut that levels the playing field between experts and the great unwashed masses, but in reality it only gives an illusion of expertise or, as I’ve called it, pseudoexpertise. Similarly, in the past, the lay person just plain did not have direct access to medical studies. Obtaining such studies would require a trip to a medical school library, which may or may not be far away, prolonged searching through Index Medicus, piling journal upon journal on a cart, and then feeding coin after coin into the machine to copy the articles desired. Now, virtually any abstract can be accessed through PubMed, and articles reporting federally funded research are deposited in PubMed Central within a year of publication, where anyone can access them. While this open access to knowledge is appropriate, given that our tax dollars funded the research, it inadvertently fueled the rise of the pseudoexpert.

It’s also been pointed out before that medicine seems particular prone to the depradations of the pseudoexpert. People who would never think trusting “alternative flight” or “alternative engineering” seem to think that, when it comes to medicine, “alternative” medicine should be given a pass on being as rigorously reality- and science-based. Worse, I’ve seen this tendency even in people who really, really should know better. For example, over the last several years, at times I’ve seen a distressing tendency for even those proclaiming themselves to be “skeptics,” even going so far as to join skeptical organizations like the Center For Inquiry or to support skeptical organizations like the James Randi Educational Foundation, to be prone to some serious woo when it comes to medicine. I’ve spoken with self-proclaimed “skeptics” who actually buy into the idea that vaccines somehow cause autism, a pseudoscientific concept that has so much evidence against it that personally I would almost go so far to say that anyone who takes such anti-vaccine propaganda seriously should forfeit the title of “skeptic.” (Actually, forget the “almost.”)

Perhaps the most striking example of this disconnect occurred when the Atheist Alliance International (AAI) bestowed the Richard Dawkins Award upon a rabidly anti-vaccine comedian named Bill Maher. True, Maher holds the “right” position with respect to religion (he’s against it) and science such as anthropogenic global warming (he accepts the science supporting it and ridicules AGW denialists), and evolution (he accepts the science and ridicules creationists). It also appears in retrospect to be equally true that, at the time the AAI chose him for the Richard Dawkins Award, it apparently didn’t matter one whit that Maher is simultaneously as rabidly anti-science as Jenny McCarthy, Suzanne Somers, or Jim Carrey when it comes to medicine, championing anti-vaccine views and distrust of “Western” medicine (which is, as readers of this blog know, usually a derogatory code word for science-based medicine), cancer quackery, and germ theory denialism, even though one of the criteria for the award was that its recipient must “through writings, media, the arts, film, and/or the stage advocates increased scientific knowledge.” It only mattered later, when complaints about the selection started to bubble up too insistently to be ignored.

Truly, even though there are notable and heartening exceptions, such as Phil Plait, James Randi, and our very own Steve Novella and Harriet Hall, all too often science-based medicine is treated like the Rodney Dangerfield of the skeptical movement. Certainly, compared to evolution, we “don’t get no respect.” Or so it all too often seems to me. At the very least, until relatively recently, we didn’t get the same level of attention as creationists, dowsers, and psychics. Even now, with things probably better on that score, I’m still not sure that we do.

It’s not all bad, though. The very same forces that produced the anti-vaccine movement and fuel the panoply of cranks provide the weapons to combat them. It is that easy access to blogs and the web that cranks take advantage of to spread their message that provides scientists and skeptics the weapons to combat cranks. The Internet, while empowering all manner of pseudoscientists, snake oil salesmen, and enemies of public health such as anti-vaccine activists, also allows skeptics and supporters of science-based medicine to band together to counter the madness. That’s what we try to do right here each and every day, to provide a voice raised against the anti-science and pseudoscience engulfing medicine. Unfortunately, it’s a lopsided battle, and not lopsided in our favor. As long as there is Oprah Winfrey, Jenny McCarthy, Jim Carrey, Bill Maher, Suzanne Somers, and other celebrities brimming with the arrogance of ignorance, it will be a lopsided battle. But it’s not by any means a hopeless battle, and it’s one we can’t afford to lose, even though none of us will live to see a victory against pseudo-expertise.

Posted in: Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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53 thoughts on “Pseudo-expertise versus science-based medicine

  1. ZenMonkey says:

    “The Internet, while empowering all manner of pseudoscientists, snake oil salesmen, and enemies of public health such as anti-vaccine activists, also allows skeptics and supporters of science-based medicine to band together to counter the madness.”

    Exactly right. You don’t have to look too hard to find skeptical communities online, and if you really want to jump down the rabbit hole, there’s a wealth of, shall we say, “accredited” courses at Google U. Like those offered here.

    I’ll be saving this post for the next time the loonies attack. This much sanity is a great defense.

  2. Rogue Medic says:

    People who would never think trusting “alternative” flight” or “alternative engineering” seem to think that, when it comes to science, “alternative” medicine should be given a pass. Worse, I’ve seen this tendency even in people who really, really should know better.

    Beautifully put.

    The ability to misdirect by pointing out coincidences, causing confusion, and expressing concern has nothing to do with an understanding of science. Generally, it is the absence of these that indicates scientific competence. The other sign of anti-science is a nice simple answer that flatters the ego of the mark.

  3. provaxmom says:

    Your post today sounds so sullen. I hope that it is temporary. I feel like the tide is turning. I think many parents like myself, knew there was a vaccine debate, but figured “to each his own” and just went along vaccinating our kids.

    That is no longer the case, particulary in the special needs community. We are angry at the non-vaxers because they put our high-risk kids in danger. We are tired of media attention and research dollars being spent on this nonsense all to appease such a small group. Gene & brain research is where our focus needs to be, not vaccines. Yes, keep monitoring vaccines for safety, but they do not need to receive the disproportionate about of funding they’ve been getting.

    We need to speak out more, not be afraid. I contact media outlets all the time. Some publish my op/ed pieces, some don’t. We can’t be passive anymore–they are not. We need to fight back.

  4. Kylara says:

    Regarding the internet as a defense:

    I was pregnant last year during flu season, and was surprised when, this year, several pregnant friends e-mailed to ask me what I’d done about vaccinating because they were nervous. I responded that of COURSE I’d vaccinated (and, having had a nasty bout of bronchitis while five months pregnant, that I was in favor of anything at all that prevented pregnant coughing!) and linked to some information from the CDC, this blog, and some other places.

    I was surprised because it only really occurred to me to discuss it with my doctor, but here was MY “social network” leveraging itself to get information on the topic.

    Several of the women thanked me and said they felt like they SHOULD get vaccinated and always HAD gotten vaccinated for everything recommended, but that there was so much pressure and fear out there about vaccines and pregnancy (and vaccines and babies) that they were second-guessing themselves, and felt better with information-y links and the reassurance that I had gone ahead and done it.

    People also ask us about vaccinating our baby, and I think they’re surprised when we’re so forceful in saying of COURSE we get him vaccinated, because we’re kinda granola. But we’re green, not dumb.

  5. micheleinmichigan says:

    “all too often science-based medicine is treated like the Rodney Dangerfield of the skeptical movement. Certainly, compared to evolution, we don’t get no respect.”

    Great line!

    I do have to point out though, that because medicine has obvious positive results that people are affected by daily, it is often it own best defense.

    Very few people see the positive results of evolution based study (or global warming, etc). In the U.S. they take for granted the advantages of engineer (until something falls down). Thus the need for advocacy.

    My thought is that one difference between engineering and medicine is that medicine requires more participation from the user. The patient must take the test the doctor recommends, get the shot, take the medicine daily, follow the diet, report their results, symptoms. When you drive over the bridge you aren’t required to participate in the process of it’s design.

    If you talk with an architect, software engineer, automotive engineer, you may find that their clients have a lot of interest in “alternative engineering” Their customers are looking for something cheaper, easier, more glamorous. Medicine just has alot more “clients”.

  6. lkw says:

    I feel depressed that we have so utterly failed in the area of science education, despite decades of talking about how we need to be better at it. It’s the ignorance in the “arrogance of ignorance” that is the problem. The arrogance is just an annoyance.

    Not everyone can/will become an expert, but the general public needs more tools to comprehend the experts (and the rubbish on the Internet).

  7. weing says:

    “It’s the ignorance in the “arrogance of ignorance” that is the problem. The arrogance is just an annoyance.”

    I wouldn’t be too sure about that. I think humility is a prerequisite for learning something. You have to accept that you don’t know something that someone else does. Arrogance would prevent you from learning.

  8. DevoutCatalyst says:

    The autodidact also needs peer review. A library full of books or a Google University is useless to the thinker who never embraces a sobering challenge to his or her ideas. I’m naturally a skeptic, but my “skepticism” was often misguided in embarrassing ways. Turns out I’m not immune to boneheaded thinking. Wtf.

    “…People who would never think trusting “alternative” flight” or “alternative engineering”…”

    No and no. I trust engineering, but engineers sometimes push materials beyond what they can do in the real world. Maybe too often. The first iron bridge across the Mississippi river was not designed by an engineer, rather by someone who had a good feel for the material. The materials guy can be successful if he overbuilds and keeps it simple. It would have been beyond the ken of that same non-engineer to design the Tacoma Narrows bridge, but engineers notably can get it wrong. There are numerous examples and they continue on into today. Recently, titanium bolts were ordered replaced with steel ones by the FAA when there were failures in a helicopter application. I trust engineering because engineering learns from its mistakes, even if they must first be taken behind the woodshed by a regulatory agency. I also trust that engineering errors will continue to be made, and hope I’m not in that helicopter when it takes on the characteristics of alternative flight.

  9. superdave says:

    I think the worst part of the internet is that it has democratized information. I think if you have any preconceived notion, I mean anything, political, sexual, religious, astronomical, you name it; you can find a website online to backup your beliefs. I think what the skeptic movement needs to focus on is teaching people how to decide if a website is trustworthy because there is in fact great information out there on the internet, even wikipedia is pretty good though not perfect.

  10. micheleinmichigan says:

    provaxmom – Good on you!

    I have often wondered this season if the focus was less on WHETHER people should vaccinated and more on HOW to get adequate vaccine distributed to high risk populations we’d be in better shape with h1n1 and flu vaccines.

    I’m in total agreement on the gene and brain research. I’d also add research, training and delivery for appropriate speech, physical and occupational, educational therapies that target problematic symptoms for ALL children with special needs. I am beginning to feel the antivax storyline (and celebrity) has caught the imagination of the public so much that they have forgotten that other conditions in children can be equally debilitating.

  11. lkw says:

    “Arrogance would prevent you from learning.”

    Now that needs a study! I don’t buy it.

  12. lkw says:

    And, by the way, I’m talking about science education at the K-BA/S level. Not the education of 40-year-olds. You’re probably right that arrogance plays a role there, but I doubt it is a key issue in our failure to teach science to primary/secondary/college students. We have failed and the ignorance of the populace is our punishment.

  13. Richard says:

    I’ve come up with a new word for integrative medicine. How ’bout calling it infiltrative medicine because it’s trying to infiltrate the medical establishment like creationism is trying to infiltrate the educational establishment. Haha!

  14. weing says:


    Agree on both counts.

  15. Adam_Y says:

    You do realize that the regulatory agencies are run by engineers don’t you???

  16. Harriet Hall says:

    It’s unfortunately true that many people who are skeptics about everything else are not skeptical of alternative medicine. At least one subscriber to Skeptic magazine cancelled his subscription because of my SkepDoc column. He wrote Michael Shermer and said it was OK to be skeptical about most things, but it wasn’t OK to be skeptical of alternative medicine!

  17. Lawrence C. says:

    [quote]“Come to think of it, people did science before there was such a thing as a professional scientist, too. The difference, at least today, is that science has become so technical and complex that it is very, very difficult to master and all but impossible to teach oneself, particularly medicine.”[/quote]

    The comments about the technicality and complexity of the contemporary state of knowledge are a very old complaint, one that Plato fussed about. The above-quoted passage unfortunately sounds to some like the position of the Catholic Church in regards to the Reformation and the Enlightenment. Scientist are therefore the new “priestly class” who have, by virtue of vocation and long training, exclusive access to matters that ordinary people cannot comprehend much less be trusted with. The rise of the internet and Google U has extensive parallels with medieval society and the printing of bibles in vernacular languages. Suddenly, everyone could be an “expert” on God and what he wanted us to do and not do. And voila! suddenly there were thousands of churches instead of one or two.

    Every age thinks it is a unique one with so very much to study that only a few can master it. Perhaps this is true as knowledge seems to be forever increasing. But when the average skeptical citizen hears such things the natural reaction, as noted elsewhere in this otherwise wonderful article, is to dismiss the whole lot without bothering to examine any particulars. Many in modern society don’t want to be told there is something they cannot comprehend without extensive training and experience. The arrogance of ignorance seems to come around again and again and again as a model of behavior that leads to the splintering of the old order.

    Based on past patterns, the future is not one of “integrative” anything but of increasingly separate spheres. Not long from now there will probably be CAM “medical” schools and science-based medical schools, completely separate and with increasingly different kinds of practices.

  18. yeahsurewhatever says:

    While this open access to knowledge is appropriate, given that our tax dollars funded the research, it inadvertently fueled the rise of the pseudoexpert.

    This trend won’t last. They ARE trying to be better informed and more responsible. This level of access is new in human civilization, and nobody on the amateur end knows where the dividing lines are. They have to be taught, and eventually a culture will form that steers them relatively straight.

    In the mean time, yes, a pain in everyone’s ass. Even their own.

  19. Jeff says:

    “The Internet may seem like a shortcut that levels the playing field between experts and the great unwashed masses, but in reality it only gives an illusion of expertise or, as I’ve called it, pseudoexpertise.”

    I don’t believe this is a battle, as Dr. Gorski seems to, between brilliant experts and ignorant dummies. Some alternative medicine is espoused by people with as much education and expertise as himself. It is simply a difference of opinion.

    For example, Bioidentical Hormones are not “woo”.

  20. hairyape68 says:

    I got a flu shot and the Yanks won the series. What could be more clear-cut than that?


  21. David Gorski says:

    For example, Bioidentical Hormones are not “woo”.

    Actually, as espoused in the article you link to and as espoused by Suzanne Somers, yes they are woo in that they aren’t these magical, safe things that can miraculously protect you from cancer and provide you with the fountain of youth. Much of the woo around bioidentical hormones comes from the claims of people like the doctors who led Somers to believe that saliva tests are accurate measures of hormone levels and that increasing hormone levels to what they were when she was 25 will hold aging and cancer at bay.

    Nice straw man, though, about this being a battle between “brilliant experts and ignorant dummies.” Rather, it is the battle between true expertise and pseudoexpertise. Actually, highly educated people tend to be the most susceptible to pseudoexpertise. They tend to conclude that, because they were smart enough and driven enough to succeed in one field of endeavor, they can succeed in teaching themselves advanced science. It’s not a coincidence that much of the anti-vaccine movement is made up of white, upper middle class or even wealthy people who have been quite successful in their lives. J.B. Handley, for instance, is a successful investment banker who somehow thinks his expertise in finance allows him to “figure out” autism and vaccine science.

  22. Mandos says:

    There’s a reason why people who wouldn’t trust alternative flight would trust alternative medicine. The equivalent to the airplane in flight is the body in medicine. Since our awareness is housed in our bodies, we feel we have some subjective authority over it and some privileged knowledge. We don’t generally have this feeling in airplanes, especially, when we step off onto the jetway corridor.

  23. pmoran says:

    I would again warn that it is not all about the science and most people will never ever reach the levels of scientific understanding required.

    Quackery, and even to a certain extent antovaxc It is being sustained by potent forces: high public expectations of medicine, unmet medical needs, real deficiencies in what EBM can provide, and a part-truth concerning the individuality of patient reactions to medical interventions based upon placebo and other non-specific responses.

  24. pmoran says:

    I would again warn that it is not all about the science and most people will never ever reach the levels of scientific understanding required.

    Quackery, and even to a certain extent antovaxc It is being sustained by potent forces: high public expectations of medicine, unmet medical needs, real deficiencies in what EBM can provide, and a part-truth concerning the individuality of patient reactions to medical interventions based upon placebo and other non-specific responses.

  25. pmoran says:

    Sorry, again, folks. I must stop trying to edit on the fly.

    I mainly wanted to say that we will not get far with browbeating the public about the science. That is our preoccupation, not theirs.

    They simply perceive certain problems, mostly real ones, and they are looking for answers to them wherever they are offered. Trying out certain treatments and even testing out certain ideas does not necessarily mean an undelying scientific conviction. Many just want a reassuring voice.

    We need to precisely identify their concerns and react sympathetically and directly to them with a minimum of talking down.

  26. pmoran says:

    Regarding using science to try and convince the public we are on the side of right, look at the level of sophistication of some of the recent discussion of Amy Tuteur’s recent papers. Yet the answers to basic questions still remain somewhat uncertain. Science is often very hard.

    What other ways may there be of fostering trust wherever we think we deserve it?

  27. graceandrory says:

    Thank you for the excellent contributions to reason and sanity. I am asked several times a week about the safety of vaccines because my friends and coworkers know I have a four year old daughter with autism. I was able (perhaps, magically) to read the journalism and science associated with Wakefield’s “research and studies” (whatever) prior to my daughters’ births and understand that no credible, peer-reviewed, and reproducible scientific evidence existed to support a cause. I work with highly educated people who get visibly angry with me when I tell them that if I am blessed with another child, I would subject them to the same vaccination schedule as their sisters. I do what I can. I tell them to talk to their pediatricians. They are the experts. Not the friend of a friend on Facebook who happens to be best friends with the sister of someone name Handley. God help us.

  28. lkw says:

    pmoran: “most people will never ever reach the levels of scientific understanding required.”

    If you are talking about the entire body of scientific study, then, of course, no individual can master it. On any given subject, only a few will be expert.

    What I am talking about is educating people to understand the *process* of science … perhaps teaching with particularly good examples of continuing research questions or leading students through research projects that do not lead to simple answers but complex assessments. At very young ages, even.

    Teaching them facts as delivered from on high is not much better than teaching them religion. We may think that we qualify our statements enough to make them understand the ongoing nature of scientific inquiry, but how often do we *demonstrate* this to them?

    People don’t actually need our sympathy (they have family and friends for that). And they don’t need to comprehend every subject in detail.

  29. Robin says:

    “While this open access to knowledge is appropriate, given that our tax dollars funded the research, it inadvertently fueled the rise of the pseudoexpert.

    I think you hear a lot from the woo side of it, maybe because you’re attuned to it or listening for it, but, I think access is a good thing for lay people.

    My sister spoke to her pediatrician about her fears of vaccination — she’s a young mother, with little education, and has a special needs child. He of course suggested they be vaccinated but did little to address what the problem was — her fear. Some women in the circle of Dr. Sears mommy friends were scaring her quite a bit.

    I don’t have children, but, I sat down one afternoon and read the scientific literature, including abstracts from pubmed, and then read some of the woo stuff too so I could understand what they were telling her. I was able to address all of her fears about MMR, autism, thimerasol, the immune response, and read her some lay articles about what could happen if her children got pertussis or measles. I pointed out that our great aunt died of diptheria before our grandmother was born in 1920. She felt a lot better and her children got vaccinated, and recently got their h1n1 nasal sprays.

    There was woo way before the internet (remember Jane Fonda telling people not to feed their children microwaved food?) and as Amy Teuter points out on her blog, anti vaccinationists have been around since the advent of vaccines. I doubt your average woo believer reads pubmed. Limiting access to information is not the answer — helping people get past the fear that turns them to woo is much more useful.

    And, you sound really down in that post. Have a drink and relax. Life’s too short to get upset about this stuff.

  30. gaiainc says:

    Three times in the past 2-3 weeks I’ve had pregnant women come in not wanting either flu vaccine. Each time when I ask why, their initial response is “I just don’t want it”. When I probe further, I get to the fear. I try to address the fear. Of the three, one will not get the vaccines, one did, and the other is still undecided. I’ve told the two who haven’t gotten their flu shots that I will continue to ask them if they want the vaccines or not. Reading SBM and other medical blogs really help me know what the fears are and how best to argue about them. So thanks!

  31. momkat says:

    Some alt-meders are capable of seeing woo. Check out this piece in The Daily Beast (new tonight 11/9/09):”Do Suzanne Somers’ Best-Sellers Pitch Snake Oil?”

  32. SF Mom and Scientist says:

    “I got a flu shot and the Yanks won the series. What could be more clear-cut than that?”

    Well, I’m a Cubs fan, but since vaccines weren’t around in 1909, I can’t really blame them for my misery.

    btw, interestingly enough, the day after my son received his first H1N1 dose he reached a milestone we had been anxiously awaiting for months. I had an someone tell me that she heard a story about a child falling gravely ill after getting this vaccine, and therefore the vaccine must have caused it. I told her my story, and that therefore the vaccine must have caused my son’s milestone. She looked at me strangely and said that this was impossible. Well, duh! But why is it easier to false believe something bad could happen than falsely believe something good could happen?

  33. DownWithWoo says:

    When my first child was born she was perfect and tiny and needed me so much. I wanted to make all the right decisions for her welfare.

    A close friend of mine (who is very clever and has a PhD in physics) had a baby 1.5 years older. She warned me about vaccination – she told me about mercury in vaccines and the evils of big pharma and how polio rates were already decreasing long before the vaccine was developed and how vaccines aren’t 100% effective – whereas actually getting the illness will get you immune for life and how most diseases that babies are vaccinated against really aren’t a big deal and how fragile a baby’s immune system is and how dangerous vaccines are (she sent me a video with a couple’s story about how their baby died within hours of being vaccinated)….etc. I had also heard about MMR and autism.

    I went to Google university and I looked up all the websites my friend recommended. It was very scarey stuff.

    So there I was, armed with this information. I had a beautiful and perfect baby – did I really want to risk damaging her by getting her injected with vaccines containing mercury and heaven knows what else? Afterall, what is the actual likelihood that she would even get something like measles? I don’t see any kids with measles around here. And, really, how bad is it anyway? I had measles when I was a kid and I survived it just fine.

    It seemed quite clear to me that I should avoid vaccination at all costs.

    I am not a scientist and was not a skeptic. I’m just your average trousered ape – I find anecdotes compelling, am convinced by my own confirmation bias, and suck at critical thinking. However, in this situation, luckily a thought occurred to me – “if vaccination is so bad & uneccessary, why do we still do it? are health professionals and the government really out to get me?”.

    So, I went back to Google university and looked up the pro-vax side of the argument (this time without the help of my anti-vax guru friend…I didn’t have a pro-vax guru friend to guide me) and…h0ly sh!t! I read about vaccines, I read about science, I read about the scientific method and how we know what we know, I read about skepticism, I read about how crappy most media sources are at reporting science and medicine issues, I read about how anti-vaxers distort and omit info, I read about how measles can indeed be very dangerous.

    What I read made me so ANGRY!! I felt as though I had been hoodwinked. I felt so stupid for considering not vaccinating my daughter. I had been duped and I was seriously pissed off about it. Needless to say, my daughter’s vaccinations are now all up to date.

    Over the last couple years I’ve worked hard on trying to rewire the way my brain thinks. I’ve gotten a bit better at thinking critically, but most importantly I’ve learned how to ask questions. When a health decision arises I’m much more comfortable with discussing it with my doctor – I still go to Google U, but I also listen to the experts and will ask a frank question when I don’t understand something.

    I wonder if my experience is completely unique or whether there may be a kind of pro-science backlash against the woo as time goes on (and as woo kills more people)?

    Oh, and now whenever someone tells me about how a homeopathic remedy cured them or some such story I always tell them about how my aunt gets really bad headaches and she just rubs a cat against her head for a few minutes and her headache is gone within 2 days*. This is a great way to spark off a conversation about placebo and self-limiting illnesses.

    * I can’t remember for sure, but I think I got the cat analogy from Dara O’Briain.

  34. splicer says:

    If DownWithWoo’s comment doesn’t cheer David up I don’t know what will.

  35. SD says:

    Sprach pmoran:

    “Regarding using science to try and convince the public we are on the side of right, look at the level of sophistication of some of the recent discussion of Amy Tuteur’s recent papers. Yet the answers to basic questions still remain somewhat uncertain. Science is often very hard.”

    Pfft. Good luck with that line, I’ve tried it here before and it doesn’t work. The supercilious feel they need no cure. (Yes, I am aware of the irony, no need to point it out.)

    “What other ways may there be of fostering trust wherever we think we deserve it?”

    There is no easy answer. If you wanted ‘easy’, you’re in the wrong place. Science, engineering, mathematics, physics, chemistry… all hard sciences involve extreme periods of boredom and tedium with occasional flashes of excitement. God does not hand out victories lightly, or without cost. You cannot expect people to *know* with apodictic certainty that you are right, nor to simply take your word for it – you can only argue your point of view and let them decide for themselves. “Take it as you find it, or leave it as you find it; these two are the only options.” This is one reason among many that I prescribe absolute freedom; it is the only sovereign anodyne to the cries that science is being “forced” down the public throat, instead of “presented” as the True Path, down which the enlightened may choose to walk. You cannot force-march a man to Damascus at bayonet-point and rationally expect the scales to fall from his eyes along the way; human beings don’t work that way. Take *that* lesson from the bitter experiences of history, if no other.

    “… and the left turn at Albuquerque will get me to Damascus, right?”

  36. SK says:

    DownWithWoo: Congratulations on arriving at the correct answer.

    But I’m curious what made you trust the provax info sources more than the antivax ones. You could have gone the other way around quite easily (in fact many have), it seems.

  37. micheleinmichigan says:

    I have to agree with pmoran. The average person doesn’t have the science or statistics to make an informed decision based on the research. Although I do think teaching scientific method is helpful. Often it just comes down to who you trust and how much it matters.

    I think critical thinking skills are more important. I was lucky to have a couple of good teachers in middle school that really interested me and I think it did a world of good for me.

    Considering reliability of the source, the motivation of the source, the logic of an argument and spotting spin are all important. One thing I also consider is the cost/risk of believing or disbelieving a certain idea. That is one reason I believe in global warming. Not because I understand the science (laugh) but because I think the risk of not believing is greater than believing.

    lkw “People don’t actually need our sympathy (they have family and friends for that). And they don’t need to comprehend every subject in detail.”

    I don’t agree with this. If you are trying to advocate a certain position or just help that person, part of gaining that trust, advocating appropriately or problem solving is understanding the position they are in, their concerns and fears. That is what I think of as sympathy (not pity).

    I’d just like to add. People become quite distrustful of government health agencies, doctors, or science when they observe corporate or political interests influence those group’s decisions. I think sometimes the decision makers from these agencies forget that or underestimate the cost of losing that trust.

  38. Joe says:

    SK on 10 Nov 2009 at 5:19 am “… But I’m curious what made you trust the provax info sources more than the antivax ones. …”

    That’s a good question.

    A good example of what happens when smart people, who are not technically sophisticated, try to do scientific research seems to be Penn & Teller. They set out to examine both sides of a controversy (or manufactroversy) with an open mind, and then settle on one side without regard to the scientific merit of the evidence. In their increasingly deplorable program (BS!) they choose a lot of unreasonable stances. They denied the evidence for harm from second-hand smoking (they later retracted that claiming that newer research changed their mind). They also want you to know that there is no obesity problem.

  39. David Gorski says:

    All too true. Also, Penn & Teller are anthropogenic global warming denialists. I will say, though, that at TAM7 Penn was asked point blank on a panel about AGW, and he came the closest I’ve ever seen him to actually admitting that he was wrong about AGW. Unfortunately, in the end Penn weaseled out of admitting error by, after answering a series of questions, such as “Is the earth warming?” and “Is human activity affecting warming?” with “probably” or something like that, he weaseled out of the final answer to “Are humans causing AGW?” with “I JUST DON’T KNOW!”

    As I said, a copout. Oh, well. Maybe next year.

    In any case, as much as I’ve liked them otherwise, I noticed a few years ago that Penn & Teller do at times have a distressing tendency to let their libertarian political views interfere with their skepticism and support of science. I haven’t seen “Bullshit!” lately (for various reasons, I haven’t had Showtime in our cable package for a couple of years), but it wouldn’t surprise me if, as the seasons roll by, they started to let their political views infuse their show more and more. I can’t say, though, because I haven’t seen it in at least two or three years.

  40. DownWithWoo says:


    That’s a good point. At first it wasn’t so much about trusting the pro-vax info sources more – it was more a matter of learning about how the scientific method works and changing the way I thought about things. I read tons about how we know what we know, how science works, how researchers design a fair test to find out if a proposed treatment works, etc. I think what I’m trying to say is I learned that the best way to judge an answer is to carefully examine how the answer was found – how the conclusion was arrived at.

    I think I learned how to think a bit more rationally and this allowed me to step back from the fear of vaccination just enough to look at all the anti-vax info more critically. Looking at the the anti-vax info with my newfound “how science works – critical thinking & rational” glasses on instead of my “petrified parent” glasses on, I found that most of the anti-vax stuff out there comes across as, well, kind of religious. This made me very suspicious.

    I also have a fantastic doctor – he knows his stuff but he is also very kind and compassionate. I am much more confident about asking him questions now and I don’t worry that he’ll think I’m stupid for asking something. It doesn’t matter if he is rushed for time, he will take the time to answer my questions thoroughly and won’t brush me off. I think a lot of woo in our culture would evaporate if more people had access to doctors like him. I also wish more of those well meaning, compassionate, caring people who are now naturopaths/homeopaths/cranial-sacral therapists/etc had instead learned how great science is at finding out what really works and then trained as GPs.

    I think I’ve come a long way. Certainly a big part of the value in my wee knowledge quest was learning just how ignorant I am and how I fall into the various thinking traps that are common to all us humans. I am learning to develop my “woo meter”. For example, someone sent me this recently:\

    A few years ago I would have bought into this (afterall, it’s based on a study so it must be true, right?). Now, I can skim this webpage and see immediately that this guy seems to be full of balony. Yes, there is a study, but I wonder if it actually says what he says it says. I also wonder what he’s selling.

  41. Calli Arcale says:

    DownWithWoo, you are awesome. I mean that; your writing style is very good, and I hope you share it with lots of people!

    I wonder if my experience is completely unique or whether there may be a kind of pro-science backlash against the woo as time goes on (and as woo kills more people)?

    Well, that’s more or less what happened in the early 20th Century, leading to the passage of the Pure Foods Act and the creation of the FDA. Maybe it’s somewhat cyclical.

    Regarding “rocket fuel in infant formula”, the pedant in me wants to say that it’s a total lie. After all, perchlorates (the substance involved) is used as an oxidizer in solid rocket propellant, so it is not technically a fuel. ;-)

    Actually, perchlorates are used in more things than one might expect. Solid rocket prop is one use, in the form of ammonium perchlorate. Lithium perchlorate is used in oxygen “candles”, which are used as backup oxygen sources on airliners, spacecraft, and submarines. Potassium perchlorate is used to treat hyperthyroidism, with half a century of safety data.

    So how does it get into formula? Well, formula is made from cow’s milk or, sometimes, soy. Both organisms can take up perchlorates from contaminated groundwater, and recent surveys have revealed that quite a lot of groundwater (possibly most groundwater) is contaminated with perchlorates. It’s not clear whether this is industrial contamination (some certainly is; perchlorates also turn up in the process of making synthetic fertilizer, though they aren’t present in the finished product), agricultural contamination (high levels of perchlorates are in the natural fertilizer called Chile saltpeter, mined from the Atacama Desert), or if it’s just naturally occurring in the region. It’s also not clear how recently any of this contamination could have occurred.

    The groundwater contamination becomes more of an issue when the formula is mixed, because the tap water may also contain perchlorates, with the combination possibly raising the level above EPA guidelines. Mind you, it’s not clear whether the EPA guidelines are too restrictive, and in any case, contaminated tap water means it can get into breast milk too (and *does*). Perchlorate can be a health problem, as demonstrated by its use in hyperthyroidism. It could depress thyroid activity. However, the actual level at which it poses a real threat isn’t known, and the fearmongerers have jumped aboard. It’s pretty clear, though, that the levels in formula don’t pose a severe risk. If there is any risk, it’s low, or doctors would have seen more problems.

  42. SF Mom and Scientist says:

    @DownWithWoo – thank you so much for sharing that. I thought it was so well written.

    “However, in this situation, luckily a thought occurred to me – “if vaccination is so bad & uneccessary, why do we still do it? are health professionals and the government really out to get me?”.”

    I thought this was key. In my opinion, to be truly against vaccinations you need to believe that the medical establishment, including pediatricians, are out to harm children. In fact, on one of Generation Rescue’s websites, they have a section called “The Bad Guys”, and first on that list is the American Academy of Pediatrics. My husband’s cousin is anti-vaccination (ugh). When I pointed out that thimerosal was removed from pediatric vaccines (here is California that is true for the flu shot also) and autism continued to rise, he said that this because OB’s are now forcing pregnant women to get vaccines with thimerosal, so as to keep the autism rate rising. There has to be a deep belief that these people who have dedicated their lives to medicine are only out to do bad.

    Kudos to you for seeing through this.

  43. SF Mom and Scientist says:

    I would like to add something I observed recently, which again tells us a lot about these people. On our local parents’ listserve, someone forwarded a few links, including the following,

    Luckily, many people responded, explaining the lack of scientific evidence, and the danger that the spread of such garbage can do. Eventually, the originator wrote back telling us that we were “censoring” them, and how this must not be such a free country after all. This is so typical. They push anti-scientific trash which does nothing but endanger the health of children, and when someone calls them out, they cry “censorship” or some other nonsense because they cannot really back up what they are pushing. It is easier to act like some kind of martyr.

    And leave it to an anti-vaxxer to not understand the meaning of censorship.

    Sorry for the rant, but this stuff really drives me crazy.

  44. provaxmom says:

    I have a story similar to woo’s. Prior to my son being born, I knew there was a ‘vax debate’ or thought there was one ;) but decided that vaxing was for me. Didn’t really care what other people did, but I was just going to go with the standard protocol. And did, up to and including his 6 month vax.

    At 9 months, we got the news of his chromosome disorder. Among other things, he is at high risk for seizures and developing autism. I panicked. I of course went to the internet, to read as much about his condition as I could, which led to more sites and more sites and more sites. All of them nonsense.

    But I wasn’t in my usual state of mind, we had the grieving process to go through, to mourn the loss of our typical child and begin to prepare for life with a special needs child. It’s not an easy trip I can assure you.

    So I stopped vaxing him. For about a year, year and a half. Every ped visit, we’d argue and argue. There were tears (mine) and yelling (both) and we’re better today for it. But once I had time to process everything and got my feet back under me, it sank in. Every time I would say “I’ve done my research!” she’d say “No you haven’t, there is no research.” I got my bearings, got my feet back under me and came to my senses. She was right–there is no research to support non/delayed vaxing.

    And now I tell her she’s created a monster. :) Because now I have completely swung to the other side and have little patience for those who don’t vax. As I stated elsewhere, I write letters and email to media outlets. I’m working on one right now about AW. Fiction about vax is much easier to find than facts, I’m going to make it easier to find the facts.

    My sisterinlaw lost a baby to bacterial meng., a rare strain for which there is no vax right now. She works with legislators on mandates and is working on getting more strains included in prevnar. Together I suppose we make quite a pair. The antivaccinationists may be prettier, shaplier and have more money–but never doubt how strong willed some moms can be. I’m passionate about this–I hate research money being wasted, I have a ‘weaker member of the herd’ so to speak in my home, so I am worried about herd immunity. And I’m logical and find it irritating when people aren’t.

  45. provaxmom says:

    Oh and sfmom and woo bring up good points about the ‘conspiracy.’ I belong to an atheist/agnostic parenting group. And there are some non-vaxers, delayed vaxers etc. This is the group I don’t understand. To say you reject religion and use science as your guiding principle…….then reject vaccines. I can’t even begin to reconcile it in my mind. They talk about risk/benefit and of course take the whole herd for granted, it makes me crazy. And at times we laugh at the conservatives who have all their crazy conspiracy theories about Obama brainwashing our children. Yet in their minds it’s perfectly acceptable to believe that the entire medical and pharmaceutical industry is out to get you and your money, damn whatever damage is done to children along the way. It’s ok to make jokes about someone having faith in a specific deity, but having faith in “it won’t happen to me” is ok. Is there really a difference? Isn’t it just a different faith?

  46. micheleinmichigan says:

    Down with Woo

    I’ve got a terrible headache. I’ve got a cat. Should I use clockwise or counterclockwise movements?

    hehe (Good one).

  47. DownWithWoo says:


    It depends – do you live in the northern hemisphere or southern hemisphere? And what colour is your cat?

  48. TsuDhoNimh says:

    micheleinmichigan: Clockwise in the Northern hemisphere, counterclockwise in the Southern hemisphere. If you are within 10 degrees of the Equator, rub the cat in straight lines from forehead to crown of head.

    And there is no evidence that the colour of the moggy has any effect on the therapy’s effectiveness, despite anything DownWithWoo may say.

  49. micheleinmichigan says:

    David Gorski “The Internet, while empowering all manner of pseudoscientists, snake oil salesmen, and enemies of public health such as anti-vaccine activists, also allows skeptics and supporters of science-based medicine to band together to counter the madness.”

    It occurred to me this morning to mention my experiences in regard to this. I belong to a few yahoo groups dealing with parenting my son who we adopted at age 2. He was born with cleft lip and palate and unilateral deafness, so I belong to a groups for deaf and hard of hearing caretaker/parents, cleft lip and palate and adoptive parents of cleft lip and palate.

    These groups are very helpful to me for post-op tips, education and checking on potential surgeries. The parents are quite respectful. On one occasion a women posted asking about a surgery for her 3 yo advised by her surgeon. Many parent (me included) posted about their discussions with their surgeons, that this age was younger they generally advised (although there were exceptions) and the quite common drawbacks. Generally the advise was either go back to your doctor and ask these questions or get a second opinion. I think this was very appropriate since this woman had not come out the doctor’s office with the information she needed to make an informed decision on surgery (for whatever reason). So for me, that is the blessings of the internet.

    The topic of the risk of vaccination and other medical interventions come up and it is very valuable to have an informed well spoken voice in the dialogue. I’ve seen a h1n1 topic go quite awry even when a couple people spoke up (myself included). We just not have the knowledge to be compelling enough, I think. (That is the curse of the internet.)

    I saw one discussion over anesthesia start to derail badly when one mom pointed to a link that stated a correlation between use of anesthesia and learning disabilities. There were about five posts of concerned parents pointing out the number of surgeries their child had and that they had LD. Then one mom (or Audiologist, RN, not sure) stepped in and very eloquently spoken about causation and correlation using some very good examples. It stopped the anesthesia debate dead and got the discussion back on track to help a mom get appropriate educational support for her son.

    What I’m try to say with this long-winded comment is that banding together can be good, but if you want to convert people don’t under estimate the impact you may have in going out and “prosthezing” a bit. Join some parenting yahoo groups or if you have a child or care for children with ADHD, LD or any other special need join an active web support group. You may feel you have their condition under control, but you may be able to provide other parents that voice of reason when they need it.

    I’m sure some people who read this blog already do that, but maybe it hadn’t occurred to some others.

    TsuDhoNimh and Down With Woo – I tried a clockwise rotation with my calico cat last night and it worked! My headache is pretty much gone this morning. ( I’m sure it wasn’t the Zyrtec and Aleve I took last night, they are useless.) The only side effect was the scratches on my face. One looks a little infected this morning. But I put witch hazel on it, so it should be okay.

  50. micheleinmichigan says:

    I have to point out, one reason I may not be compelling enough is that my posts always end up with grammatical errors and typos. I don’t know what wrong with me. My apologies.

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