Will the Real Quacks Please Stand Up!

Standard

I’ve never been much of a fan of alternative medicine and those peddling their cure-all treatments.  For one, their typical pitch being an attack an the profits of conventional medicine is actually a red flag about their own motives. 

And, secondly, testimonials (or anecdotes) are fabulously awful evidence.  A person can say anything they want or attribute their current positive feelings to whatever, but it doesn’t mean their A led to B assessment is actually correct. 

Unless there is concrete evidence, I dismiss the alternative quacks.  Sorry, I simply do not want to take or sell your mystery juice.  It is disturbing that so many can’t see through this kind of nonsense.

But what is far more disturbing?  

When the mainstream starts to resemble these frauds.  

Yes, it is obvious that modern medicine works.  My successful neck surgery as proof of this.  There were measurable results nearly overnight, almost immediate relief to pain and the numbness.  The whole process was very straightforward.  However, that was a cut and dried form of treatment.  In that they took the old broken stuff out, put some new hardware in, and gave my pinched nerves a chance to heal.  

And yet, while it is amazing what can be done, not everything in our human biology is as simple as disks and vertebrae. 

Indeed, there is a murkier side to modern medicine, things that aren’t 100% clear even after many years of study, having to do with the more complex parts of our physiology and how these systems interact, and this is something that must be explored.  More than that, however, our own psychology, tendencies towards bias, could be leading the collective enterprise in the wrong direction.

#1) Money Money Everywhere 

The first stop is profit motive.  If I don’t mention this then someone else will.  It is the low hanging fruit in this discussion and certainly a factor.  People need paid, and medical professionals get paid for treating disease.  Healthcare is a 4.1 trillion dollar industry in the US and pharmaceuticals are a significant part of that overall cost.  Does this mean that the medical establishment wants to keep us sick and dependent?

Public health officials and regulatory bodies are, indeed, potentially compromised by this opportunity to cash in.  Top US physician, Dr. Anthony Fauci had received undisclosed royalties, part of the $350 million paid by third-parties to NIH and scientists employed by this agency.  No, this isn’t itself proof of corruption, people should get paid for their contributions and lobbyists may very well believe in what they’re promoting.  But there is the reality that money can overrule ethics and potentially cause people to turn a blind eye to problems.

Still, this is not my go-to explanation and for the simple reason that this accusation could be made against any for-profit enterprise.  I work for a truss manufacturing company and we do profit off of fire jobs and wind damage.  Does that mean we intentionally set fires or build an inferior product so it fails every ten years?  Absolutely not!  To make such a claim is, again, more an indication of the heart of the person making it and not proof of anything unless there’s clear evidence.

#2) Testing 1, 2…Good Enough…

Testing and peer-review is also one of those areas of concern as well.  And not because there is nefarious intent either.  But more a matter of scope or methodologies. 

My neck surgeon, for example, opted out of being a participant in a study involving a new line of disk replacement hardware because it was comparing it to a far inferior older product rather than newer better products already available.  In other words, it was a stacked deck or research that is designed to lead to a particular conclusion.

That’s the big problem I have with these broad often unqualified “safe and effective” claims.  It begs the question: Compared to what?  Bungee jumping?  A placebo? 

Most people, including physicians and scientists, simply do not have the time to be experts at everything.  The body is incredibly complex and nobody can actually do their own scientific research for every issue.  For that reason those in the medical field must, as a matter of practicality, rely on diagnostic manuals for treatment and various journals to stay on top of things.  Coloring outside the lines, challenging powerful government agencies, doing unproven or experimental treatments, is a risk of their license or a malpractice lawsuit and ill-advised.  There is an inherent need for those employed in these fields to trust the system and accept what other professionals do. 

If not this, if  their training and education, what else are they going to rely on?

I don’t expect those employed in the medical industry to doubt the very foundation that they stand on. 

Unfortunately, this reality is what makes their consensus useless.  Sure, they might know much more than the average person about the science.  Still, are they up all night, in the laboratory, carefully repeating the results of the latest studies themselves?  No, when other experts in related fields endorse what another expert is saying it is merely a sign of statement of their faith—that being their faith in the overall system.  

But it seems every other week a study comes out that seems to contradict prior findings.  Most of this is due to how limited the focus of research actually is.  They can’t possibly test every variable and especially not in a very short amount of time.  This reality, of finite resources, is a legitimate cause for healthy skepticism and abundance of caution.  The problem is that most people, including those well-educated, don’t have great critical thinking skills or even the ability to know the right questions to ask—it is far easier to “trust the experts” and go with the program.

#3) Confirmation Bias Is Always a Problem 

The problem with research is that we often go in looking for a particular result.  Sure, a double blind study is designed to reduce this as a factor.  However, the underlying bias can show up as far as what gets tested and what does not.  It can also be a factor in how we interpret the data available.  Group think and echo chambers, things like functional fixedness, are as much (or more) a problem with those very knowledgeable as it is with anyone else.

One example of this is how “effective” kept getting redefined down.  What once was supposed to prevent the disease and stop the spread would shift, overnight, to being a way to merely lessen the severity of the symptoms.  Which is a foundation so subjective and shaky that it is basically in the same category of the testimonials used by snake oil salesmen.  It is another area where the studies aren’t as conclusive as many would assume.  And, at the very least, correlation does not equal causation.  In other words, the vaccines could simply be acting as a placebo for those who believe that they are effective. 

What is not taken into proper account is how these perceived benefits, that are shrinking day by day, weigh against both short and long-term risks. 

For example, someone very dear to me, fully vaccinated, boosted, is currently suffering from a persistent respiratory illness, starting a month or so ago, and now is having flu-like symptoms again.  Could this be this is a result of an immunosuppressant effect of the injection?  It sure does appear that way and would be worthy of a study of the things presumed to be unrelated to the vaccines that very well may be related.  There is only a trickle of information coming out, discussion of side-effects buried in the search results and censored on social media.

What is most unsettling is the reality that our mainstream medical establishment is as prone to confirmation bias as those pushing alternatives.  They see what they want to see in the evidence and dismiss or downplay anything that contradicts what they were expecting to see.  The biggest difference is that it is more convoluted than it is with the obvious quacks, whole institutions get on board with a solution and too often it just gets cycled through, reinforced in each cycle, without enough awareness of the potential failure due to the blinders we all wear.

#4) Political Bias Is Endemic

One of the most troubling revelations of the past few years was how awfully politicized the coverage of a pandemic was. Anyone who thought that partisan differences would disappear in times of a national crisis was dead wrong.  If anything it is what likely drove much of the response.  At first leading to charges of racism (for travel restrictions from the virus epicenter) and accusations of over-hyping the threat of Covid—before swinging wildly in the other direction with onerous state-level mandates that destroyed great economy on the eve of a national election.

But one of the most disturbing episodes (and disgusting) is how proven medications, like hydroxychloroquine and Ivermectin, were treated as if they were especially dangerous and controversial simply because the ‘wrong’ person mentioned their potential as being a treatment option.  It is truly a great way of explaining how propaganda works.  The partisan media would pick the most extreme case of an overdose, ridicule a proven multi-use medicine as “horse dewormer” despite the many uses, and then misleadingly ‘fact-check’ the technicalities of language.

I mean, sure, these proven medications do not “cure” the disease.  But they are most certainly treatments that are effective for preventing severe symptoms if taken prior to the infection taking hold.  This is why several older doctors that I know (whom I will not mention by name for their protection) were quietly stockpiling these much maligned substances.  They didn’t dare speak too loudly either or they would be risk their own medical licenses for promoting unproven cures or some other nonsense.  Bullying and peer-pressure is as real for a professional as it is for anyone else.

This, along with other much more expensive (and profitable) treatments being pushed, is fodder for the conspiracy theory crowd and for good reason.  For me it disproves any notion that the system we rely on, including the medical establishment, is impartial or fair.  Sure, I’m glad that The Lancet, a trusted medical journal, eventually retracted a study that falsely claimed that hydroxychloroquine led to death for some Covid patients (as they have with another study linking vaccines to autism) and yet the damage was already done.

#5) Lost in Oversimplification 

One of the harder or more difficult problems to explain is how the common models of are often too dumbed down to be accurate.  

Up until recently depression was explained as being “chemical imbalances in the brain” and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) the solution.  This overly simplistic explanation has been called into question and this is a cause of alarm for those told to “trust the science” when it comes to the professionally prescribed answers.

I love metaphor and analogy to explain things less visible or intuitive.  However, if these tools are misunderstood as being exactly the same as the thing being described this can lead to very wrong conclusions. 

Just like a ball and stick model of atoms is useful yet doesn’t truly explain the reality (an electron is more cloud of probabilities), the various illusions used to sell parts of the pandemic response are as flawed.

Sure, the theory of “flattening the curve” is great on a graph, and swiss cheese makes a very compelling illustration of how a multi-faceted approach could work, in theory, but both give a false impression of being complete or unquestionable. 

But is this theory working in reality?

Of course, how diseases spread in the real world is different from the even the best models and it is quite possible that slowing the spread only makes things worse, as is the case with attempts to manage forest fires. In that effort to control can eventually lead to much more devastating fires. Slowing down the process could result in a scenario where the burn is thorough, everything gets consumed, rather than the alternative of a fire that moves quickly and skips over areas.  The point being that analogies don’t account for the nuances and could lead to the wrong ideas taking hold in the public imagination.

No, this is not to claim that I have a better grasp of virology than those who have studied these things their entire lives.  It is only to say that these illustrations give too many undue confidence.  There are many factors that these crude analogies gloss over and factors that could vastly change the final outcomes.  The problem is that many are unable to see the more complex picture as a result of these elementary level descriptions that are used to sell a particular approach.

It makes us unbalanced.

In Conclusion…

There is no individual that can provide an opinion that is completely infallible nor any agency that is able to offer a perspective free blindspots or bias. 

Our “settled science” today make seem as bloodletting in a generation or two.  And the same kind of thinking that leads crackpots to their ‘alternatives’ is also all too present in the mainstream.  There is always the money motive, with the lack of adequate testing, the confirmation bias, the influence political agenda and faulty or misleading explanation, all tainting both the perception of the general public and professional opinion.  The biggest difference between those who believe the quacks and those who insist that the vaccine is effective is the level of funding behind their perspectives.

This doesn’t put the outliers and mainstream on equal footing, there is such thing as strength in numbers, yet what is popular is sometimes only a product of propaganda and common ignorance. 

Don’t be so sure that the things being ridiculed in the current paradigm are any different from what is being promoted.  We know less than many think we know.  There may be future studies or new discoveries that will completely upended the too hasty conclusions of our time. 

No matter how confident we are in our own position or settled we believe a topic is, it is always best to stay humble.