Sunday, June 13, 2010

For My Upcoming Conference Presentation

The following was written for my upcoming conference presentation on pseudoscientific medicine. It is one of two essays which, collectively, make up my contribution to the conference's program packet. All links within the essay are added for this blog and not in the packet itself.

Throughout society, people are being constantly bombarded with unprecedented amounts of medical information. Unfortunately, much of this information is distorted or wrong… and most people don't have the ability to separate the good from the bad.

It doesn't help that making sense of medical information requires a good deal of expertise. There are entire disciplines of study within medicine dedicated to doing this, and it is quite possible to go to college and get a master's degree or even a Ph.D. in the study of doing so. Some of the most influential doctors in academic medicine today have done exactly this, granting them degrees in such seemingly esoteric disciplines as medical bioinformatics and biostatistics.

Any discussion on all of the ways that things can go wrong and misinformation can arise would need to be absurdly long – it happens in many and myriad ways, and even listing all of them could easily fill an entire book. This presentation is intended to cover one tiny subset of one tiny aspect of one tiny facet of a broader problem: the issue of autism-related pseudoscientific medicine – medicine and medicinal information within the field of autism which pretends to be based on science but actually isn't.

Medicine is commonly defined as the science or practice of the treatment of disease. While this seems fairly straightforward, it actually isn't – the concept of disease is complex, multifaceted, and often controversial. MedLine Plus provides the following definition:
Disease – An impairment of the normal state of the living animal or plant body or one of its parts that interrupts or modifies the performance of the vital functions, is typically manifested by distinguishing signs and symptoms, and is a response to environmental factors (as malnutrition, industrial hazards, or climate), to specific infective agents (as worms, bacteria, or viruses), to inherent defects of the organism (as genetic anomalies), or to combinations of these factors.

In other words, a disease is a harmful dysfunction – a "breakdown" of the body, regardless of its source. A traumatic injury is a disease. Heavy-metal poisoning is a disease (or, more accurately, a type of disease). Polio is a disease. Geneticists can't agree on just what a genetic disease is, but some genetic conditions are indisputably diseases.

As such, medicine is the study – or attempt – of keeping the body from breaking down. Medical views of autism must necessarily look at autism as some form of breakdown of the body: views that do not do this are not medical in nature.

Within scientific medicine, the ideal is to provide information and to practice based on critical evaluation of the sum totality of the available scientific knowledge on any given topic. Unfortunately, this is often not possible or practical in a clinical environment for a variety of reasons… but I have tremendous respect for those doctors who put in an earnest effort towards achieving this lofty goal.

Others simply practice the way they were taught to, or as experts recommend. They may parrot their lessons from back when they were in medical school, or simply repeat what various authorities tell them. This usually yields results which technically work – experts often know what they're talking about and medical schools usually teach effective treatments – but new research is always coming out; new developments occur on a regular basis; new findings constantly change the landscape of medicine; and experts, no matter how revered, are never infallible and are sometimes misunderstood. As such, people who practice this way often have information which is out of date, and are at heightened risk of error.

Some people eschew the framework of science entirely and attempt to heal or prevent illness through other means entirely. Ranging from Christian faith healers to psychics to traditional practitioners of Eastern medical systems, their advice has little to do with what we call "science". These systems range from the relatively harmless to the utterly destructive, from the daughter who prays in church in hopes that her mother will recover from illness to the African witch-doctor who tells desperate seekers of help that AIDS can be cured through sexual intercourse with a child.

And, finally, there is the subject of this presentation: those people who do not practice based on science, but simultaneously pretend to. Whether out of financial interest, political ideology, devout cronyism, or simple ignorance, their advice is usually poor, commonly ineffective, frequently bewildering, often harmful, and collectively stands as an ongoing threat to the lives and welfare of countless people throughout the world.

Welcome to the weird and wonky world of pseudoscientific medicine. For the sake of your health and sanity, you're probably better off if you don't move in.


  1. One commercial SPAM comment deleted.

  2. You should write a book about this. It can be like an anti-quack version of "Evidence of Harm," with actual science in addition to the testimonials.

  3. There are already books about this -- a lot of them. I'm particularly fond of Fitzpatrick's Defeating Autism: A Damaging Delusion, or at least the parts of it that I've managed to get through so far.