Today, like most mornings, I biked to a cafe to hack on my laptop while slurping on iced coffee. Exercise, fresh air, sugar, caffeine and R&D. On this lovely sunny Autumn day I’m tapping away on my lappy, teasing bugs out of my latest digital radio system.
Creating new knowledge is a slow, tedious, business.
I test each small change by running an experiment several hundred thousand times, using simulation software on my laptop. R&D – Science by another name – is hard. One in ten of my ideas actually work, despite being at the peak of my career, having a PhD in the field, and help from many very intelligent peers.
A different process is going on at the table next to me. An “Integrative Health Consultant” is going about her business, speaking to a young client.
In an earnest yet authoritative Doctor-voice the “consultant” revs up with ill-informed dietary advice, moves on to over-priced under-performing products that the consultant just happens to sell, and ends up with a thinly disguised invitation to join her Multi-Level-Marketing (MLM) organisation. With a few side journeys through anti-vaxer land, conspiracy theories, organic food, anti-carbo and anti-gluten, sprinkled with disparaging remarks on Science, evidence based medicine and an inspired stab at dissing oncology (“I know this guy who had chemo and still died!”). All heavily backed by n=1 anecdotes.
A hobby of mine is critical thinking, so I am aware that most of their conversation is bullshit. I know how new knowledge is found (see above) and it’s not from Facebook.
But this post is not about the arguments of alt-med versus evidence based medicine. Been there, done that.
Here is what bothers me. These were both good people, who more or less believe in what they say. They are not stupid, they are intelligent and want to help people get and stay healthy. I have friends and family that I love who believe this crap. But they are hurting society and making people sicker.
Steering people away from modern, evidence based medicine kills people. Someone who is persuaded to see a naturopath rather than an oncologist will find out too late the price of well-meaning ignorance. Anti-vaxers hurt, maim, and kill for their beliefs. I shudder to think of the wasted lives and billions of dollars that could be spent on far better outcomes than lining the pockets of snake oil salespeople.
There is some encouraging news. The Australian Government has started removing social security benefits from people who don’t vaccinate. The Nursing and Midwifery Board is also threatening to take action against Nurses who push an anti-vaccination stance.
But this is beating people with a stick, where is the carrot?
Doctors in the Dark Ages were good people. They really believed leaches, blood letting and prayer where helping the patients they loved. But those beliefs sustained untold human misery. The difference with today?
Science, Education, and Policy.