Monthly Archives: January 2013

Surviving A Near Death Experience

Quack pillsWell, it seemed like it, anyway. I’ve recently emerged from ten days of illness that probably wasn’t really life-threatening – but at the time it certainly seemed like it. I’ve always been fortunate that illness is something that has mostly bypassed me, and to be honest, it’s always seemed a bit odd to me that a lot of other people seem to come down with various ailments while I have usually seemed to get on with things without any illness at all. I suppose I’ve just been lucky, but this episode gave me food for thought.

For the first time in a lot of years, I was just totally incapacitated. My wife, being the fuss-pot she is (bless), wanted to call the doctor in, but I persuaded her not to. I just reasoned that if I became so ill that I was unable to stop her from doing that, then that would probably be the indicator that now was the time to do so.

Anyway, although I spent a lot of time asleep, and my waking time wasn’t very pleasant, I did wonder about how other people cope with illness. I’m not talking about the sensible people who do actually go to see their doctor when they become ill, but those who turn to various and sundry quack medicine alternatives. I vaguely remember wondering if, in the name of research, I should try one of those alternatives, just to see what would happen.

But here’s the problem: which alternative remedy? And how would I know if it worked?

Does that sound like a stupid question? You take a remedy; you get better; of course it must have worked! What more do you need to know?

In fact, there is a lot more you need to know. One of the reasons that quacks flourish is the fact that people in general have no idea about how to work out cause and effect relationships. So often, someone comes down with some temporary ailment, they take an over the counter remedy, then they get better. It seems that their recovery must be due to whatever they have taken because their recovery comes after the “remedy” is administered. Unfortunately, it is not that simple.

I remember when I was a small child, I had a very, very sore throat and and extremely distressing and almost debilitating cough. My grandmother, however, tied an old sock around my neck and told me that that would cure me. Sure enough, about a week to ten days later, the sore throat and the cough were gone. So it must work, right?

Unfortunately, although my little anecdote is true, the old sock did not cure me, but the story illustrates why quackery kills rather than cures. The believers in quackery confuse correlation with causation. Yes, my childhood sore throat and cough disappeared about ten days after my grandmother tied that old sock on me, but I would have gotten better anyway just because a sore throat and cough is one of those self-limiting ailments that would have disappeared anyway.

That’s all fine and well for minor ailments, but there are more serious implications when an illness is not just a self-limiting cold or whatever. Many people die because they think that alternative medicine works (it doesn’t). But, like the old sock, there is no shortage of anecdotes and personal testimonies from people who genuinely think that alternative or complementary “medicine” has something real to offer them. Even some cancer sufferers will forgo proper medical treatment because they think that their magical thinking trumps scientific knowledge. It’s very sad that in this day and age, people die needlessly even when viable, tested treatments are available.

The bad thinking associated with the belief that quackery is any use tends to fall into the category of false correlation: 1) You get ill; 2) You take some quack nostrum; 3) You get better.

And there are lots of stories like that. It’s how the quacks survive and prosper: publicise the “cures” but don’t publicise the failures/deaths. It’s significant that homeopaths, chiropractors, acupuncturists, herbal specialists, Reiki Masters and all the rest of them get by and prosper on one thing: testimonials from satisfied customers. No such thing as randomised, double-blind control group clinical trials, of course. Well, no, they wouldn’t, would they? Every properly controlled test of these nonsense remedies demonstrates one thing: their effectiveness is no better than placebo.

I assume my grandmother had seen the same correlation, but she was in no position to do any kind of properly controlled test. Not that she would want to: in her experience, an old sock worked and that was it. No different from nowadays when someone (who might feel desperately ill at the time) feels much better after taking some nonsense treatment, without realising that they would feel better anyway without taking anything more than a good night’s sleep.

Things get worse, however. Not only will some people resort to claptrap in a misguided effort to find a cure for whatever ails them, many parents are denying their children life-saving vaccinations. Untold millions of lives have been saved with the use of preventive medicine in the form of vaccinations, and yet now there are parents who believe that vaccines not only do not prevent serious illness but even cause serious illnesses. Cases of measles and whooping cough, for example are on the rise, and they are killing children who do not need to die. It’s just incredible that proven treatments are being set aside because of a combination of the ignorance of some parents, and the propaganda propounded by anti-vaccination campaigners.

This sort of thing demonstrates the importance of good science communication. An adult can decide not to accept medical treatment, but denying that treatment to children, who have no say in the matter, is a serious business. Sometimes the law has to intervene in such cases, but it would be better if that did not have to be the case.

Maybe the education system is to blame. There seems to be an alarming rate of illiteracy among school leavers nowadays; then again, a person’s beliefs seem to be shaped by their personal environment. A child brought up in a religious home will usually develop the same religious superstitions as his or her family. Faith healing might be the order of the day for some people; others, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses might just reject medical science because it conflicts with their particular interpretation of the Bible.

Even without a particularly religious viewpoint, people’s beliefs are often shaped just by what they are told by other people they know. Vitamin supplements? Yeah, right; some people swear by them, even though they are completely unnecessary unless they have a particular vitamin deficiency (which is probably going to be determined by a doctor).

It’s interesting, actually, to read about some of the history of medicine. It took a long time to tease out the various causal factors of disease. Cholera, for instance, was a serious killer, and yet all it took to defeat it was a clean water supply. Scurvy among sailors was a killer, but a supply of vitamin C (oranges and limes) sorted that out in short order. Even if the exact mechanisms of disease weren’t properly understood at the time, a – dare I say – reductionist approach with a statistical analysis to back it up, solved a lot of problems and saved a lot of lives.

Yes, many prayers were said for the victims of disease, but no prayer ever saved a life.The medical science we have nowadays is despite religion and associated superstitions. The people who survive life-threatening illness and injury do so thanks to science. Some of them might well say prayers as they go through the various stages of whatever ailment they have, but when they thank their particular god for their subsequent recovery they are thanking the wrong person.

People can die from bad thinking, so it’s important for blogs like this to exist to counteract the misinformation and downright dangerous nonsense being propagated by amateur and professional charlatans alike. Now that I am back to full health (more or less), I will carry on with the blog’s mission – to poke a pointy stick in the eye of irrationality.