Mainstreaming Science-Based Medicine: A Novel Approach

I have often mused about the difference between being right and being influential – especially in light of the relative success of the anti-vaccine movement. Despite the fact that there is no evidence for a link between vaccines and autism, celebrities like Jenny McCarthy have manufactured public mistrust in one of the safest, most cost effective means of combating disease known to humankind.

So if scientists are not persuading the public with appeals to carefully designed trials and factual data, how should they make their point? I’m not sure I have the full answer, but I think I might have struck a nerve with the public lately. I decided to try a novel approach to communicating my concerns about pseudoscience on the Internet – and presented 20 slides at 20 second intervals to a conference of ePatients in Philadelphia. I did it with powerful and humorous images, tied together with a long Limerick. Sound kooky? Maybe so… but it resonated, and was received with cheers and applause. Now that’s how we like science to be recognized!

It’s hard to recreate the experience – with voice, images, and rhyme – on the blog. But please check out the slide deck here, and I’ve reproduced the Limerick in its entirety below. It’s called, “A Tale Of Two ePatients” – and the slides advanced at each “***”. I hope my fellow scientists will join me in continuing to find novel approaches to win hearts and minds. Public health really is at stake.

Megan’s Story

A woman woke up from her sleep

With a pain that felt terribly deep

It didn’t seem right

She worried all night

But resorted to counting her sheep

In the morning she saw a physician

To check on her tummy condition

But alas what he found

By poking around-

A cancer and some malnutrition


So she asked what her chances could be

Of finding a way to be free

Of the mutating cells

They should bid their farewells

She hoped to hear something happy

The doctor’s face turned very dour

I’m sorry but I’m almost sure

There isn’t a chance

You’re far too advanced

The prognosis is terribly poor


She asked if there might be some way

To research new treatments today

But the doctor moved on

To see patients anon

No time to say more now, ok?

Afraid to ask questions again

She decided to put down her pen

With her anger and hurt

And his choice to be curt

She became an ePatient right then


Meg soon found a doctor online

The top of his field – so kind

And his new research

From his USC perch

Showed promise for tumor decline

His knowledge promised to advanced her

For all things he had a good answer

He provided the data

And other schemata

And planned for a cure of her cancer


But just to be sure he was right

She checked out the NIH site

And with careful review

She knew what to do

She refused to give up on her fight

The treatment was not very easy

She often felt shaky and queasy

Yet she stayed the course

Pushing through it with force

Walking whether ‘twas sunny or breezy


A friend called to check on the rumor

That Meg picked a fight with a tumor

The friend offered advice

About herbals and spice

Which he presented in really good humor

Oh my friend this sounds really appealing

And I know all you want is my healing

But how do you know

To believe in this so

When all you rely on is feeling?


Dear Megan, he said with a wave

I know that you’re awfully brave

You don’t have to endure

The toxins I’m sure

These herbals are able to save

Well let’s look at their track record then

If they really do work I’ll give in

So they researched Medline

And Mayo Clinic online

Finding no evidence of a win


But there are people who say this will work

Herbs saved these three guys and a clerk

They put their minds to it

Were sure they could do it

And avoided chemo with a smirk

But my friend in this life you must see

We use science to think critically

If there is an effect

We’re sure to detect

A dose-response repeatedly


Meg carefully weighed all her choices

Giving weight to the most reasoned voices

She found the best science

And increased self-reliance -

Worth more than a million Rolls Royces

Her first doctor rallied to meet her

Admitting she’d saved her own keister

So she offered a toast

To the folks she loved most

And the victory couldn’t be sweeter

Julie’s Story

A woman had been in the shower

For something quite close to an hour

When she noticed a lump

The tiniest bump

Just below her tattoo of a flower

I guess I must have a bug bite

Though this bump doesn’t fe-el quite right

She wondered aloud

With her head in a cloud

Assuming that it was alright


Months later she noticed some pain

On the spot where she had a food stain

So she scratched off the spot

Took her walk to a trot

And proceeded to shut off her brain

Later on she woke up with a start

This lump’s really starting to smart

So she went to the net

Now breaking a sweat

Worried something was wrong with her heart


She netsurfed around for some time

Chatting live with the people online

They thought she might like

A short hunger strike

Or to calm down her chest pain with wine

But my skin is getting so red

Am I making this up in my head?

Why not watch for a while

Or jog for a mile

There’s nothing much more to be said


Julie liked her new friends on the web

Though with patience beginning to ebb

She asked yet again

To Kim, Kyle and Ken

If they had some ideas instead

An herbalist friend that I know

Diagnoses her friends on the go

Please call her right now

And she’ll show you how

To cure pain with good energy flow


So she called the healer in a pinch

And was told it was really a synch

She should lie on the floor

To strengthen her core

And breath without moving an inch

But my skin is beginning to crack

-Well of course it’s because you might lack

Vitamins for your dermis

Put them all in a thermos

Drink ‘em down and put on an ice pack


Do you think I should see an MD?

Julie asked of her community

Heck no, don’t go there

You won’t have a prayer

You’ll be poisoned immediately!

Don’t you think that there might be just one

Who could help out my skin rash a ton?

It itches and hurts

I can’t wear my shirts

I can tell you this isn’t much fun


Julie left her friends on the computer

To find a physician to suit her

During the exam

The doc shouted “Ma’am!”

I’ll need to call our trouble shooter

The oncologist looked on aghast

At the breast cancer’s fungating mass

Why did you wait?

You’ve sealed your fate

There’s no way to alter the past


You can’t fix this tumor for me?

Well now I see very clearly

My friends told me docs

Are as useless as rocks

You don’t do much good, I agree

But miss Julie, you’re breaking my heart

The oncologist, flipping his chart

We do have a cure

You’d have it for sure

If you came in with a lump at the start


We can treat you for pain and unease

We’ll give comfort however you please

The lesson of course:

Consider the source

As an ePatient with a disease

Oh doctor, we need to tell others

Not to mix up our health with our druthers

May my death find some meaning

My soul intervening

For breast cancer in daughters and mothers

Posted in: Cancer, Science and the Media

Leave a Comment (8) ↓

8 thoughts on “Mainstreaming Science-Based Medicine: A Novel Approach

  1. Soliton says:

    Your format is a powerful way to educate. Great idea.

  2. DevoutCatalyst says:

    Great stuff. I remember when Carl Sagan was on either Oprah or Donahue and wowed the audience with a simple animation. This reminds me of that. Lead on…

  3. Draal says:

    For a similar approach, see Skeptoid’s “How to Make Skepticism Commercial”: by Brian Dunning

  4. Kausik Datta says:

    Did Val write these two? They are wonderful – simple and to the point. Do we have a video of Val making that presentation? :)

  5. Val Jones says:

    I did write these Limericks all by myself – I do cartoons too. :) Since they were so well received, I’m going to re-present them at the Bil:Pil conference in San Diego on Saturday, October 31 (Halloween!). It will be live-streamed (I’m on at noon PT) and I hope we’ll have a video of it too.

    Bil:Pil is TEDMED’s sister conference, created in opposition to the $4000 price tag of attending TEDMED (and its exclusivity – invitation only seating). Jonathan Sheffi decided to call it “Bil” to go with “Bil & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” – I hope that Bil will be an incubator for TED up and comers in healthcare. And best of all… it’s free. :)

  6. pmoran says:


    I didn’t mind the graphic breast cancer picture. Cancer quackery thrives partly on the fact that few lay people have any clear concept of cancer and what it is really like in the flesh. We should be allowing them to share the experiences that have shaped our reaction to it.

    For example, if you knew what cancer looks like, feels like, and behaves like, you would never be liable to accept that it was a simple generalized disorder or imbalance , curable by some clean living, thinking the right thoughts, and watching what you eat.

    You would understand why doctors are prepared to use all those awful treatments, the ones that seem so out of proportion to present disability — and whether they are paid to or not.

    You would better understand why cancer patients die when they do, often for no visible immediate reason, and that it is not (usually) from anything the doctors did.

    You would better understand the palliative aspect to what can otherwise can look like cookbook medicine. Even if not curative, conventional treatments can greatly extend a reasonable quality of life, and spare patients some of cancer’s worst predations, such as that shown in this unfortunate woman’s breast.

    Very few, if any, patients would end up like this with proper modern medical care. . In fact, patients who live on long enough to get like this usually have cancers with little metastatic potential — they would have been the easiest to cure!

  7. chaoticidealism says:

    I don’t know… I can’t get past the cheesy rhymes, personally. No offense meant, really; it’s just, I’d feel kind of patronized if somebody tried to educate me that way. Maybe people who don’t tuck into science textbooks for fun don’t feel like that, though. I’m kind of weird.

  8. rosemary says:

    Wonderful! I’m glad to see you testing new ways to communicate with the general public. However, I think you have to add another patient, one who goes to a scientific practitioner in a timely fashion, but one who cannot be cured, one who dies.

    People who came of age before WWII lived with diseases that disabled and quickly killed apparently healthy children and young people. They considered disease and death natural and considered themselves lucky to survive to old age and to live relatively healthy lives. The advent of antibiotics, vaccinations and the rest of scientific medicine seemed miraculous to them. They felt very lucky and held MDs in high regard.

    One or two generations later people rarely experience bad chronic diseases or death until they happen to someone close to them or themselves. At that time many are completely unprepared to deal with those things emotionally. They have no experience. They grow up believing that good health is natural and that their birth certificate comes or should come with a guarantee for 80 plus happy, healthy, wealthy years.

    Under present laws and norms of society, those who practice scientific medicine have to be brutally honest even when the patient doesn’t want it. Those who practice unscientific medicine are not held to such standards and don’t adhere to them. They sell hope and promises, pie-in-the-sky.

    People who have never personally experienced horrible diseases are easily convinced that nasty and unpleasant treatments are awful because they don’t know that the diseases that they treat are so much worse. And because they are so accustomed to seeing all the healthy people scientific medicine surrounds them with, they don’t have a clue that someone somewhere can’t click her fingers and find a simple cure for cancer or whatever else it is that ails them.

    Thankfully, we can’t and don’t want to go back to the Bad Old Days so that people can experience disease and premature death themselves, but the next best educational way to help people comprehend that is with visuals, or better yet, videos which include audio and visual presentations.

    And that education has to include the fact that death is natural, something that science will probably never be able to cure, something that happens to all of us sooner or later. It also has to include the fact that life is not fair or just and that not everything can be cured, not even when it happens to you personally. People have to be educated emotionally as well as intellectually. They have to learn that medicine isn’t magic. Not everyone can be cured. Sometimes the best that is available is palliative care. It isn’t an easy lesson. It isn’t the lesson people want to be taught, but it is reality, and I suspect that the best place to start is by presenting it over and over again so that people become accustomed to it the way that previous generations did.

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