Saturday, November 05, 2005

Thoughts on Medical Politics

I have copied an article below by Nicholas Regush because he did a fine job in expressing what I have long thought.

Reading medical studies is not for the faint of heart nor for those who like their sanity. Just the other day I read a study that found that administering the flu vaccine to child asthmatics increased the number of asthmatic episodes requiring trips to the hospital and that there is a lack of clinical evidence demonstrating any benefit. What is the advice that come out from the health authorities? They especially want asthmatic children to have the flu vaccine. Hmmm...

By Nicholas Regush

Forgive me but I’m boiling. There is only so much nonsense that I can take on any one day. I had the misfortune to read an article in The Washington Monthly today that further convinces me that we have so-called "journalists" doing pieces on health when they should be writing about camping or maybe the art of walking big dogs. Something safe and relatively simple, so that not too much psychic challenge is involved in the enterprise.

This particular writer, Chris Mooney, who is described as a "senior writer" at The American Prospect, has just written the most garbled fable imaginable about "alternative" health. Not only is he clueless about what is going on, but he pretends to offer a critique of science of the type that he badly misunderstands and wouldn’t "get" even if enlightenment hit him on the nose. I suppose the Washington Monthly published this bilge because the editor is also clueless. Quite a team!

Here’s the essence of the piece: Government spends tons of money to test so-called "complementary and alternative medicine," or CAM. Researchers funded by the National Institutes of Health multiply like weeds to do the research at major medical institutions (Harvard, Yale, whatever). Research is often indecisive. Because research is often indecisive, this gives the practitioners of CAM an "out," enabling them to carry on with their practices. After spending $500,000 in tax dollars, the medical gurus can’t prove their methods work — "how convenient." The researchers (who obviously have an ax to grind) "fall back on the old mantra that "more testing" is necessary. Others try to bend science to their own specifications." And, oh yes, (as an example) one Tibetan meditator can’t show his stuff because he has a monitoring thermometer up his rectum. Bad Tibetan meditator!

Mooney presents a half-witted (I’m being kind) review of how there is so much difficulty in pinning down CAM. Did this guy ever read a science text book or a series of medical articles related to a controversy? If he did and caught the drift, Mooney would understand that medical science in general has difficulty pinning anything down — and when it purports to do so, there is a hue and cry from Members of the Opposition. Furthermore, whenever anyone reaches a conclusion in a study that goes against the Establishment grain, chances are the results will get shat on and the investigators will be get what amounts to a kick in the teeth. This is called medical politics, which Mooney and the Washington Monthly apparently never heard about.
To single out research on CAM as though it suffers from anything more than conventional medical science suffers from is hilarious and demonstrates the extraordinary bias against the non-conventional. Anyone covering medicine as long as I have — some 30 years — knows full well that every single research effort is subject to political as well as methodological dissection. If you don’t know that, then please write about dog runs or do work sharpening pencils. It’s bad enough that the entire edifice of medicine is entrenched in corruption and conflict of interest. We have to put up with the spectacle of this rotting corpse of science performing badly in regard to innovation — and worse still, we have to endure Mooney-like stories that clearly are more hell-bent on some type of quack-watching rather than understanding the problems science has when it tries to understand the complex and dynamic nature of things.

Look, let me be clear about one thing here: I am sure there is a ton of "alternative" stuff out there that deserves to be thrown into the sea. I’m talking about BS products that are merely created to rip people off. And there are specialized courses training people to become healers in a weekend. And there are so-called "practitioners" of CAM that need a good whacking. And so on. But what do we expect in a free-market economy? The BS will often rise to the top.
However, what we are seeing in CAM is a huge movement trying to reconcile ancient ways with modern sensibilities and political realities (particularly the sad state of modern medicine) and so we should expect some problems in the translation as well as problems with the staffing of the enterprise. But to keep sniggering away, as the Mooney types do about CAM, without understanding the social and political dynamics involved in the evolution of medicine (Forget about CAM, just think total medicine), is to succumb to a pernicious type of quack-hood — health journalist quackhood.

If anyone wants to debate me on this issue, I’m ready.

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