An audience member at a recent NYC Skeptics meeting asked me how I handled conflict surrounding strongly held beliefs that are not supported by conclusive evidence. As a dentist, he argued, he often witnessed professionals touting procedure A over procedure B as the “best way” to do X, when in reality there are no controlled clinical trials comparing A and B. “How am I to know what’s right in these circumstances?” He asked.
And this is more-or-less what I said:
The truth is, you probably can’t know which procedure is better. At least, not at this point in history. The beauty of science is that it’s evolving. We are constantly learning more about our bodies and our environment, so that we are getting an ever-clearer degree of resolution on what we see and experience.
It’s like having a blurry camera lens at a farm. At first we can only perceive that there are living things moving around on the other side of the lens – but as we begin to focus the camera, we begin to make out that the animals are in the horse or cattle family. With further focus we might be able to differentiate a horse from a cow… and eventually we’ll be able to tell if the horse has a saddle on it, and maybe one day we’ll be able to see what brand of saddle it is. Each scientific conundrum that we approach is often quite blurry at the onset. People get very invested in their theories of the presence or absence of cows, and whether or not the moving objects could in fact be horses. Others say that those looking through the camera contradict one another too much to be trusted – that they must be offering false ideas or willfully misleading people about the picture they’re describing.
In fact, we just have different degrees of clarity on issues at any given point in time. This is not cause for alarm, nor is it a reason to abandon our cameras. No, it just gives us more reason to continue to review, analyze, and revise our understanding of the picture at hand. We should try not to make more out of photo than we can at a given resolution – and understand that contradicting opinions are more likely to be evidence of insufficient information than a fundamental flaw of the scientific method.
Triumph of the Heart, as its name does not suggest, is about science. The book’s author, Jie Jack Li, is a medicinal chemist who meticulously reviews the history relevant to the discovery of lipid-lowering drugs. He spares no details, even recounting the amusing quarrels and quirks of the scientists engaged in the “apocryphal showdowns” leading to the manufacture of cholesterol in a laboratory.
The personalities of the various scientists and Nobel laureates described in the book are highly entertaining. From beating one another with umbrellas, to insisting on wearing blue clothing only, to egos so large and unappealing as to empty an entire academic center of all its promising young recruits, one has the distinct impression that brilliance does not go hand-in-hand with grace.
That being said, each of these scientists did seem to share a common approach to research: carefully testing hypotheses, repeating peer study results to confirm them, and patiently exploring complex biochemical pathways over periods of decades. The physicians, physicists, and chemists showed an incredible ability to doggedly pursue answers to specific questions – understanding that the results might influence human health. But even more importantly, they were each willing to invest their careers in analysis that may never lead to anything more than a dead end. In fact, the book is full of examples of great ideas, developed over decades, that did not lead to a marketable drug. In some cases the research was halted due to lack of efficacy, in others political forces or personal whims influenced the course.
“A person is smart. People are stupid.”
- Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones), Men In Black
Regular readers of my blog know how passionate I am about protecting the public from misleading health information. I have witnessed first-hand many well-meaning attempts to “empower consumers” with Web 2.0 tools. Unfortunately, they were designed without a clear understanding of the scientific method, basic statistics, or in some cases, common sense.
Let me first say that I desperately want my patients to be knowledgeable about their disease or condition. The quality of their self-care depends on that, and I regularly point each of them to trusted sources of health information so that they can be fully informed about all aspects of their health. Informed decisions are founded upon good information. But when the foundation is corrupt – consumer empowerment collapses like a house of cards.
There is growing support in the consumer-driven healthcare movement for a phenomenon known as “the wisdom of crowds.” The idea is that the collective input of a large number of consumers can be a driving force for change – and is a powerful avenue for the advancement of science. It was further suggested (in a recent lecture on Health 2.0), that websites that enable patients to “conduct their own clinical trials” are the bold new frontier of research. This assertion betrays a lack of understanding of basic scientific principles. In healthcare we often say, “the plural of anecdote is not data” and I would translate that to “research minus science equals gossip.” Let me give you some examples of Health 2.0 gone wild:
Four weeks ago I wrote a blog post about Sanjay Gupta’s nomination by the Obama administration as our potential new Surgeon General. Many of you voiced concerns about Sanjay’s nomination, specifically because of his poor handling of the Raelians’ Clonaid fiasco, his inability to counter Michael Moore’s health statistics as presented in Sicko and his relationship to the pharmaceutical industry.
As I wondered about what Sanjay Gupta might be like as Surgeon General – and specifically how he might assist in “restoring science to its rightful place” – I decided to educate myself about his thought processes by purchasing his recent book “Chasing Life.” The question I sought to answer was, “is Sanjay Gupta a crank?”
The short answer is: I’m not sure. Although I wouldn’t go so far as to say that he is a crank, I think he’s more likely to be a shruggie. For those of you who haven’t read my post on shruggies, here’s the definition:
Shruggie (noun): a person who doesn’t care about the science versus pseudoscience debate. When presented with descriptions of exaggerated or fraudulent health claims or practices, their response is to shrug. Shruggies are fairly inert, they will not argue the merits (or lack thereof) of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) or pseudoscience in general. They simply aren’t all that interested in the discussion, and are somewhat puzzled by those who are.
The longer answer involves an exploration of Gupta’s disturbing insistence on flirting with cranks, if it gets him publicity. The back cover of Chasing Life caries an endorsement from Deepak Chopra – and the inside page a favorable review from Andrew Weil. Normally, I would assume that the author of any book endorsed by those two would contain an intolerable blend of science and pseudoscience and refuse to read it. But for the sake of the readers of Science Based Medicine, I stifled my gag reflex and purchased the book. I hope that my sacrifice will benefit you all.