Last Thursday, I had the distinct privilege and honor to be invited to speak at Grand Rounds at the Florida State University College of Medicine in Tallahassee. Ray Bellamy, who is on the faculty there and is also the husband of our very own Jann Bellamy (who is herself is the founder of the Campaign for Science-based Health Care), invited me down to give a talk on “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) and “integrative medicine” (IM). Although I’ve spoken to skeptics’ groups, such as local groups or even to workshops at The Amazing Meeting, and to medical students’ groups, this represented the first time I had been invited to speak in front of a large group of medical professionals, not all of whom necessarily agreed with our viewpoint here at SBM. So it was with some trepidation that last Wednesday I braved the trip to Tallahassee, with the unfortunately requisite connection in Atlanta that necessitated my practically running from one end of that massive airport to the other in order to make my connection to the little puddle jumper of a jet that took me to Tallahassee. Whether or not my talk was a success or not, readers can judge for themselves, as it’s been posted online on the FSU Grand Rounds page. (Just scroll down to November 10 and then hit the link. Unfortunately, it appears that you’ll need Microsoft Silverlight to get the video to work.) I haven’t watched the whole thing yet, but I encourage you to do so and tell me how good (or bad) I was and why. I want to get better, and I won’t rest until I’m as good at communicating medicine as Neil deGrasse Tyson or Richard Wiseman, for instance, is at communicating science.
Ray and Jann were, of course, consummate hosts and did their best to make me feel right at home. No surprise there. What did somewhat surprise me (a little) was the dinner they had arranged for Wednesday night. No, it didn’t surprise me that there was a dinner the night before, but rather how it was arranged. Invited were several members of the local Center For Inquiry affiliate, some faculty from FSU, one reporter, and two members of the FSU medical student interest group in CAM. The reporter, Mark Hohmeister, ended up interviewing me for an article that was published on Friday in the local newspaper entitled No shortage of snake oil in alternative medicine, but what intrigued me most was the presence of the two medical students. I truly have to give them credit for bravery, given that the attendance was largely stacked to the skeptical side and that unfortunately their faculty advisor was away at another meeting and unable to attend. I don’t know that I could have done something like what they did when I was a medical student. Back then, I was a lot less outspoken than I am now. Also, there was a faculty member there who, I was told, thought that homeopathy might work and was fairly heavily into CAM/IM. Actually, strike the word “fairly.” He made arguments that made me think of Deepak Chopra, complete with the invocation of quantum effects as a possible explanation for how homeopathy “works.” One exchange that stands out in my mind was his telling me that my conclusion that homeopathy is about as close to impossible as a hypothesis can be is based on “Newtonian thinking.” When I informed him that it’s not just Newtonian physics that proclaims homeopathy to be impossible, he seemed relatively unfazed.
Don’t get the wrong idea, though. The dinner was quite congenial, with excellent food and drink, but the conversation was not without disagreement. Of course, that was its very purpose, to bring together students and one faculty member to encounter a viewpoint that they perhaps had never really encountered up close and personal before. Don’t worry, we weren’t too hard on the students. In fact, they won my admiration, even though it saddened me how much their thought processes had become tainted with the sorts of arguments that CAM practitioners make. One of them even made the argument that various CAM modalities are so “individualized” and complex that they can’t really be studied using randomized clinical trials. They also appeared fairly impressed by a recent talk by a chiropractor to their group.
All of this led me to wonder why these bright, enthusiastic, driven students were so attracted to CAM. Even after asking them that question, I’m still not sure I understand why, but I want to. Certainly part of it has to do with their desire to be closer and more empathetic to their patients, although I did try to point out that it doesn’t require pseudoscience to be more empathetic to one’s patients. The attraction also seemed to derive from an understandable desire to be a more “holistic” doctor, although I pointed out that one doesn’t need to “supplement” science-based medicine with modalities not supported by science in order to be holistic. In the end, I really liked these kids (if you can call 23-year-olds “kids”; I suppose you can when you’re almost 50) and couldn’t help but hope that my talk would have some effect on them. They did attend the talk, but unfortunately I wasn’t able to talk to them afterward. I don’t know if I was too “strident” or “dismissive” in my talk, but on the other hand speaking bluntly is sometimes necessary to drive a point home.
Certainly, it’s a good thing that FSU was open enough to Dr. Bellamy’s desire to counter some of the CAM messages that medical students are receiving, both in their curriculum and from the medical world at large. Quackademic medicine has infiltrated deeply into medical academia, risking turning it into medical quackademia. I only hope that, in my own little way, I might have planted a seed in some minds, and not just the students from the CAM interest group, that will later blossom.