Will the Real Quacks Please Stand Up!

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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.

[Don’t] Trust The Narrative

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The truth of a story is not proportional to our investment in it.  The Marvel Cinematic Universe, for example, is a movie franchise worth nearly 23 billion dollars and has no basis reality other than locations.  And still, despite being complete fiction, people are obsessed.  We treat the characters as if they’re real, repeat their lines, cosplay to participate in the fantasy, and it does seem that many would rather be lost in this exciting world of make-believe than live their actual lives.

It is really interesting how outside observers of religions (other than their own) have no difficulty dismissing the beliefs and practices.  The claims of L. Ron Hubbard, or Joseph Smith, or Muhammad ibn Abdullah aren’t all that compelling to non-adherents.  I mean, come on, riding through the sky on a horse with a woman’s head and the tail of a peacock sounds more like a crazy acid trip than something to take seriously, right?  But for this raised in an Islamic country, this makes more sense than Trinity or resurrection.

I’m quite certain that the Biblical narrative, whether Genesis or the Gospels, would have been far less believable had I not been indoctrinated as a child.  I mean, it made sense to me then.  My parents and every other respectable adult that I knew held to this belief system.  It would actually be rather strange had I rejected this outright.  It was only later that the vast differences between even various Mennonite sects, and facing challenges to my assumptions, that I even knew how to question.

Of course, this doesn’t make those raised outside of organized religion any more rational.  Secular ideas, like Evolution and Global Warming, have taken on their own narrative framework, similar to religion, that far exceeds the actual evidence.  Not all of the gaps can be explained by Natural Selection.  And climate apocalypticism has strange similarities to the “end times” prophecies common with many caught up in Evangelicalism.  Al Gore is basically Harold Camping with corporate sponsorship.

Most of these narratives can’t be entirely falsified.  The decades and decades of dire predictions from climate alarmists haven’t come true, yet they keep moving the goal posts, even making claims in contradiction to those prior, and the next generation of conscientious young people are none the wiser.  Likewise, the doctrines and practices of traditional religions evolve and get twisted every which way, to the point that you can’t get people raised in the same denomination to agree.  

The strangest thing is how these various movements never die even when their claims are falsified.  For example, the Seventh-day Adventists arose from the false Millerite prophecy that Jesus would return on October 22, 1844.  The date came and went without event.  But, despite this Great Disappointment, some who saw their central claim proven false still regrouped and continued on their way again.  Perhaps the investment made was too much to simply give it up?  

It’s sort of like I don’t expect the “believe science” midwits to ever comprehend how many times the experts get it wrong or reconsider.  They’ll probably go on praising Dr. Fauci as a saint even after the puppy experimentation scandal, even after the NIH now admits to funding of gain-of-function research, and probably because it would cause too much discomfort to consider that their trust may have been misplaced.

It takes a boatload of evidence to overturn these narratives we have built up in our minds.  Bad ideas, like Marxism, even if they fail miserably in one place, are often recycled and reintroduced.  At the same time, credit for plain luck is given to whatever a person wants to have credit.  A boom economy, with the President you voted for, and it is obviously a product of wise leadership, right?  The sun came up right after you prayed?  Must be the grace of God.

All religion, all political ideologies, the trust we have in certain institutions or people, is part of our embracing narratives.  Whether you believe vaccines cause autism or ended Polio depends more on who (or what) you accept as an authority than the actual evidence.  Past narratives might seem irrational to you, like the idea that autism was caused by “refrigerator moms,” yet made complete sense to many influential and intelligent ‘scientific’ people at one time.  Those who go against the currently popular ‘expert’ consensus can expect persecution.

All this to say that we aren’t as good at discerning truth as we imagine.  In many cases what we believe is nearly as much fiction as Captain America fighting against Hydra.  It isn’t just the conspiracy theorist kooks buying into narratives despite evidence to the contrary, we all do, we all believe a blend of religious propaganda, political indoctrination, and out-of-context or unqualified facts stitched together, and much of it as absurd as the narratives we reject.

The Two Types of Truth-tellers

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There is a story about two con artists who convince a vain emperor that they’ve made a garment for him so fine that it is only visible to the smartest and most competent people. The emperor, more concerned with what other people think that what is own eyes tell him, plays along with the tricksters as not to appear unfit and stupid.

The emperor pretends to put on the imaginary new clothes. His ministers, also fearful of appearing unfit for their positions, ignore the emperor’s true nakedness, go along with the charade and allow him to parade through town in his make-believe garment. The townsfolk, while uncomfortable, do not dare offend the emperor and keep up the pretense.

The collective self-delusion comes crashing down when a young child, lacking social awareness, blurts out the truth: “But he hasn’t got anything on!” His father first tries to hush him, but the word is whispered through the crowd and, eventually, the townsfolk erupt into laughter. The emperor suspects they are right and yet he with his ministers continues on the ridiculous procession.

This ironic story about willful blindness to reality is an accurate description of how social pressure works. It is extremely relevant in our age of political correctness. Today, like in that fictional account, scientific evidence is ignored in favor of popular narratives and many smart people lack the courage to face down the social elites.

But there are truth-tellers…

1) Those too socially unaware to know the ‘correct’ answers. These are people, who like the child who blurts out the truth, are those of lower social status and a little stupid. They are unable to rationalize their way around the obvious reality like smart people do, they do not know (or care about) the socially “right” answer and simply blurt out the truth. They are easily ridiculed, they are often unsophisticated in their use of language and uncouth, they might not be morally upstanding individuals or always truth-tellers, but they are often brutally honest in ways that the polite people are not because they lack a filter their thoughts. They, in their lowly position, do not care about what the elites think of them and might even be empowered by offending their superiors.

2) Those unwilling to ignore the consequences of living a lie. These are the rarest of people. They are socially aware, they are able to see through the propaganda and brave enough to speak out against the popular narrative. They are able to see beyond what the socially smart people do, they are too principled to play along with the delusion and yet also understanding of the consequences of speaking an unpopular truth. Still, because it is dangerous to have social leadership that is divorced from the truth, conscience compels them to speak out. So they do, albeit carefully and using their intelligence, by telling stories about naked emperors in the hopes that others will read then awake to the lies that have ensnared them.

What part do you play in the story?

Most people, at least those intelligent, like to think that they are the ones who see reality as it is and are above delusion. Unfortunately, that is the first lie that blinds a person to the truth. Even the brightest minds are not entirely rational. We all suffer from a problem called “confirmation bias” where we select or ignore evidence-based in our established beliefs.

Many people eventually lose their sight because of fear, social pressure or indoctrination. They see themselves as smart and savvy for their ability to give the socially correct answers, but they are really only parrots of popular opinion and puppets to the status quo.

There are many taboo topics in the public discourse. There are many whom we are supposed to shield from certain truths lest they become outraged when their nakedness is exposed. They may call you “hateful” or many other nasty names if you dare to challenge their protected status. They attempt to use social pressure rather than logic and reason to defeat counterarguments.

The emperor’s new clothes story is only inaccurate in that it doesn’t depict what often happens to truth-tellers when they humiliate the emperor. In reality, speaking unpopular truth often leads to social alienation and sometimes to persecution. Speak out against patriarchal abuses in a fundamentalist church, for example, and you might be unfairly labeled a “Jezebel” or feminist agitator.

There are many social domains—religious, denominational, secular or otherwise. Our keen awareness in one domain doesn’t make us immune from being deceived and deluded in other domains. Our only defense is humility and understanding the limits of our own ability to see beyond ourselves. We must first realize that we are ourselves not above being fooled individually or as part of the collective group.

The first step to being a real truth-teller is to be humble and see your own moral blindness. Once you understand the limits of your own vision you will be able to help others overcome their blindness. And, at very least, don’t walk around naked because you are too vain to admit that a ‘truth’ you were convinced of is a lie.  Being a truth-teller means first being brutally honest about your own vulnerability.