Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Drive-by Blog

I only have a couple of minutes today, so I'll just follow up briefly on yesterday's post. We may seem to be at a historical high in the snake oil game. Of course pretty much all of medicine was bogus until around the second quarter of the Twentieth Century when medical science started to figure a few things out and doctors could do more harm than good. For quite a while medical advances such as antibiotics, immunization and rapidly improving surgical techniques built tremendous cultural authority for M.D.s and the stuff that was taught in medical school.

But I think we may have had a revolution of rising expectations. A lot of problems, notably cancer, many autoimmune disorders such as MS, psychological and developmental disorders have turned out to be much less tractable than people expected. When the scientific establishment appears to have let people down, they are often prey for people who claim that "they" don't want you to know about the miracle cure. Biomedicine can also seem dispassionate, incomprehensible, impersonal, and it really is painful and scary sometimes. Chemotherapy, surgery, powerful pharmaceuticals, all can be extremely unpleasant. The claim that there is ancient wisdom that can heal in a gentler and perhaps miraculous way can seem very appealing.

Sometimes practitioners fool themselves. People often get better on their own, or feel better after they undergo some soothing intervention that involves touching, perhaps, or other kinds of supportive contact, and the provider is easily convinced that she or he has really got something important. From there, confirmation bias takes over. There are also a lot of charlatans out there -- cynical con artists who just want to steal from you.

Leaders of the International Society for Stem Cell Research grew so alarmed at the proliferation of scams that they have set up an entire program to warn people against the charlatans. I have long linked to Quackwatch and if you go there you will be astonished by the endless list of frauds and nonsense that they have had to debunk. It's a never ending struggle. Don't get taken.

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