Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Quackery and leftery

Two pieces in the new JAMA - one of which, on a RTC of Gingko biloba extract for prevention of demention, is actually open access - crashed together to get me thinking. The other is a report by Bridget Kuehn on the establishment by various medical association and public health advocacy organizations of a new Immunization Alliance, to combat the misinformation which is causing some parents to refuse vaccinations for their children. Although the Immunization Alliance per sehas not gotten around to creating a web site, a largely overlapping group of organizations has established the National Network for Immunization Information, which summarizes and debunks the outstanding BS about immunization here.

The sad news is that Gingko biloba is totally ineffective -- does absolutely nothing, zip, zilch, nada -- to prevent or delay dementia or improve cognitive functioning in old folks. That's too bad, because I'd sure like some insurance that I won't eventually lose my own marbles, but there it is.

Now, here's why these seemingly disparate items came together for me. If you go to the hippie dippie food store where I often shop, there is a whole aisle filled with herbal extracts and nutritional supplements which are marketed to prevent or cure every ill known to humanity, nearly all of which have never been shown to do a damn thing for you and many of which have been conclusively shown to be worthless. I haven't done a survey, but I will be happy to make a decent size wager that the same people who buy this garbage are disproportionately likely to believe that vaccinating children causes autism and other harmful effects and is all a big scam by the evil medical establishment, along with antibiotics, statins, and the rest of their poisonous potions.

I can also tell you that for many people, these beliefs are associated with a broadly progressive stance which views powerful institutions as oppressive and promotes cultural transformation and egalitarian social policies. The fundamental, and really gross error here is to biomedical science as an instrument of social control and domination, and pseudoscientific nonsense as somehow liberatory.

Robert Kennedy Jr. is a prominent living example of this intellectual perversion, and he is personally largely responsible for creating the necessity to invest resources which are badly needed elsewhere in combating the widespread delusions about vaccines. His essential stance that public health and medical science constitute a conspiracy against humanity is reminiscent of Lyndon LaRouche, not ML King or Gandhi as he apparently fancies himself. But it is typical of a certain subset of people who consider themselves progressives.

Now, there are biases that enter into the scientific enterprise. I'll be the first to tell you so, and I devote a lot of time here to exposing them. Yes, pharmaceutical development is motivated by profit, not the human interest, and a lot of drugs are overhyped, oversold, and overprescribed; while there is considerable underinvestment in developing treatments which are badly needed, but less likely to be profitable. (That includes vaccines, by the way.)

But these biases can be discovered and exposed. In the end, there are scientific standards for truth which really do work and really should guide our decision making. Denying that HIV causes AIDS, making unsubstantiated claims about the health effects of herbs, or making false claims about the dangers of beneficial medical interventions is not liberal, or progressive, or empowering of ordinary people: it is fraud. The cause of science is the cause of progress.


roger said...

while i do shop in a hippie dippie store, several in fact, and i see the same stunning variety of health crap, i have wandered once or twice into a supersanitary faux pharmacy pill store where the other political side seems to get it's unnecessary and ineffective overpriced remedies, along with a shot of weird politics. there are plenty of rubes and fools on all sides. smite them (metaphorically) left and right.

Cervantes said...

Indeed. Plenty of snake oil behind the pharmacy counter as well as between the organic tofu and the free range asparagus.

Anonymous said...

Agree but, if I had a young child I would insist on spreading out the vaccines as much as possible. Giving a young child with an undeveloped immune system 5 or 6 vaccines at once strikes me as an unnecessary and massive assault on ones immune system. Frankly I am not impressed with either the integrity of knowledge of the Medical establishment.
I understand it may be good public policy to do all the immunizations at once, but I would not want to do it to my child simply because we don't know.