Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, February 06, 2006

The Reality Based Health Community

Quackwatch is a web site I have visited profitably for many years. Its owner is Dr. Stephen Barrett, a retired psychiatrist. It is a largely volunteer effort, which according to information on the site costs only about $7,000 a year to operate, and I've got to tell you, they get a lot done for the money. There is a mountain of resources there to explore, most of it very thoroughly researched, well written and often entertaining as well as informative.

A lot of the postings on the site are specific debunkings of various scam artists and popular pseudo-scientific beliefs. At times the writers (Dr. Barrett provides only some of the content) may err a bit on the side of orthodoxy, in my view. There is also plenty that goes on inside the realm of accepted medical practice that could benefit from the same squinty eyeball they direct at the con artists and fabulists who inhabit the untamed wilderness outside of it.

But criticizing medical orthodoxy is not their job. In recent years, there has been a growing and increasingly effective movement to do so from within, and therein lies the crucial difference between medicine and quackery -- medicine strives to be evidence based, in other words scientific, which means that skepticism is encouraged (at least officially) and old practices and ideas are regularly overturned when new evidence warrants. (Not often enough, maybe, but it happens.)

So I particularly commend some of the essays on the site that discuss the fundamental principles for establishing truth, including Distinguishing Science from Pseudoscience by Rory Coker, and Robert Novella's The Power of Coincidence. There is an awful lot there to explore.

The proximate reason for my bringing up Quackwatch now is that, in my view, quackery is no different from religious and other ideological claims about physical reality, such as creationism, denial of global warming, etc., as practiced by the current administration. It starts with a conclusion and works backward to justify it: cherry picking facts and ignoring others; relying on supposed authority rather than direct evidence; repeating supposed facts and observations even after they have been proved false; using the convenience or comfort of a conclusion as an argument for its validity; depending on rhetorical devices and psychological manipulation; claiming that lack of knowledge is proof of some arbitrary conclusion; and using scientific-sounding terminology and aping forms of scientific argument while simultaneously ignoring real scientific evidence and reasoning.

We live in a dangerous world. We need to confront our problems with clarity and rigor. That goes for international relations and environmental protection as well as our individual health and well being. We need to stop employing quack politicians as well as quack doctors.

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