Monday, December 27, 2010

Demon-Haunted Inevitability

A very long time ago, I read a very good book entitled The Demon-Haunted World. As part of my efforts to help me put words to some of my thoughts, I started rereading it... and found it even better than I half-remembered. It is a touching, inspiring, and truly excellent tribute to the power, importance, and sheer beauty of science.

I am not, however, writing this blog entry in order to praise the glories of Sagan. I am discussing the book in order to explain where this blog entry is coming from. Specifically, it's coming from one quote (which is on p. 26 of the paperback edition I'm reading):

We've arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements -- transportation, communications, and all other industries; agriculture, medicine, education, entertainment, protecting the environment; and even the key democratic institution of voting -- profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.

Moreover, it isn't just science and technology that this dilemma applies to. A similar (and highly interconnected) mixture exists within medicine -- just as the populace depends on science and yet remains profoundly ignorant of it, the populace depends on medicine and yet remains equally clueless about it. Where this volatile mixture intersects with desperation, the consequences are entirely predictable.

This is especially true to anyone who's truly studied the history of medicine. Unlike the popular perception, the history of medicine is not one of straightforward progress, the history of medicine is one of delusion, stonewalling, and delay; of rampant bias and harmful treatments; and of quackery and pseudoscience. The history of medicine is a graveyard of harmful treatments which doctors once thought helpful. It is a history of failure upon failure... and of the occasional (and rare) gem hidden amongst the countless clods of fecal matter. It is a history of countless "diseases" that turned out to be benign... and countless "benign" phenomena which turned out to be diseases.

For instance, haemorrhoids, nosebleeds, and women's periods were once viewed by the medical establishment as benign forms of natural prophylaxis... and, moreover, the absence of these was viewed as dangerous and needing treatment. (1)

An absence of periods from a woman of child-bearing age was viewed as especially serious, and even dangerous (unless, of course, that woman was pregnant). While I won't deny that amenorrhea can be a sign of a number of problematic underlying issues, I do think that most of us would agree that "treating" it by placing leaches on the cervix is a bad idea... and I emphatically will deny that amenorrhea causes insanity or epilepsy (depression, however, may actually arise, especially if the woman in question is actively trying to have children). Heck -- in recent years, at least two people have actually suggested that deliberately suppressing menstration -- inducing amenorrhoea -- would be a good idea for many women (2).

Then there's our attitude towards "chemicals", the way we constantly fail to understand the meaning of the medical axiom that "the dose makes the poison", the way that the media is constantly trying to divide our foodstuffs into things which cause cancer and things that help prevent it... and even the way that many Americans' critical thinking skills are so incredibly atrophied that they are actually impressed by this lady (3) or by the "coverage" of medical issues provided by the Huffington Post.

We live in a culture of misinformation, where information is often passed on without regards to its veracity. Myths often take on the status of fact; people freely panic over things that later turn out to be false alarms. People believe in all sorts of "New Age" nonsense, and all sorts of woo -- from psychics and astrologers to countless books on the nonexistent continent of Lemuria -- are available freely at many major bookstores. The "Raw Food" movement is picking up steam, major pharmacies are selling homeopathic products, and there are even people who take this guy seriously as an information source (4).

There's very little new about this. Aristotle wrote about logical fallacies in the Organon -- and that was well over two thousand years ago. History reveals countless examples of mass hysterias, moral panics, scaremongering, health fraud, sensationalism, superstitions, and other problems of this nature. The basic thrust towards these tendencies is a consequence of countless aspects of human nature. It should be unsurprising that they show up in the world of autism.

Parents of autistic children aren't that different from anyone else (or, more accurately, any other parents) before they notice signs that their child is autistic... or they get the diagnosis -- whichever comes first. They are not particularly educated, not particularly rich, and very much not particularly skeptical. What they are, especially at first, is particularly desperate.

The fact that the metaphorical vultures are able to exploit this should hardly be surprising. Many, many parallels can be found elsewhere. The consequences may be tragic, but the problems themselves are hardly unexpected.

I just wish I could figure out a better way to deal with them.

(1) No, I'm not joking. They really believed this. It wasn't until relatively recently that this attitude changed. If you want an account of how and why, there are a number of possible sources... but I reccommend Wootton's Bad Medicine.

Incidentally -- doctors' treatments for the "problem" of an adult man's butt not bleeding? Well, since he weren't getting rid of that excess blood the "natural" way, a doctor had to resort to artificial means... or, in other words, bloodletting.

(2) I don't find their arguments particularly convincing, but that's just me.

(3) Yes, she really did say what you think she said.

(4) Yes, I munged that URL. I'm emphatically not raising his Google rank any more than I have to.


  1. Oh my gosh, I had no idea people thought hemorrhoids were a good thing! (I guess it makes sense, following the logic of too much blood = bad, but I'd never heard that particular thing before! Sounds like I need to read that book; I find medical history really interesting anyway.)

    I'm afraid I can't read either of your articles about menstrual suppression, though! One has expired, and the other just goes to the page for the current issue of that journal. What were their arguments, if you can remember?

  2. The latter article is at (they've reorganized their webpage). The former, well, I can't remember the full citation and can't seem to track it down right now.