Total Drek

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Thursday, November 30, 2006

Illusions

People who read this blog for any length of time probably realize that I am somewhat pro-science. In truth, this is an understatement, as I am a rabid supporter of the scientific approach to determining fact. I'd be apologetic about this but, let's face it, science has a fairly decent track record of figuring shit out. Besides, I routinely reaffirm my belief that not all arenas of life are suitable for scientific inquiry and so- however narrowly- avoid being too scientistic. Or so I believe.

In any case as a science-phile I am somewhat skeptical. I subscribe to The Skeptical Inquirer and am an avid reader of skeptical blogs like the venerable Skepchick, which has the distinction of publishing a nude calendar as a fund-raiser. Relax, folks, there's a calendar for boys and girls. In any case my natural skepticism can sometimes be rather annoying for my associates. Honestly, it sometimes surprises me how negative people can be about skepticism- especially when it is focused on matters that shouldn't be of any particular emotional import. Oddly, this negativity towards skepticism seems to lead people into not being skeptical at all.

I was struck by this very phenomenon this past Thanksgiving. While conversing with my Sainted Fiancee's grandmother, whom I will call Mabel, I heard something very interesting. In short, Mabel told my Sainted Fiancee that her cousin, Kate, had called recently crying about the death of her parakeet. Apparently Kate had been using a teflon coated pan and toxic fumes from this pan had overcome the poor bird. Mabel then told us that she has disposed of all of her teflon, including some expensive items, because of their serious health risks and encouraged us to do so as well. Accoding to Mabel teflon is really quite dangeorus stuff.

Now, all of this struck me as a little odd. Teflon has been around for quite a long time and is still a popular material in cookware. If it is as dangerous as Mabel made it out to be- and if that danger is so well-established- why is it still on the market? My skeptical interest was piqued. So, I immediately turned to Wikipedia to see about some answers. As it turns out Teflon does produce toxic vapors when heated. As is so often the case, however, the devil is in the details. In order to start producing these dangerous vapors the teflon must reach a temperature of 460 degrees F, and doesn't begin releasing a large amount of vapor until a temperature of 660 degrees is reached. To give you some comparison, cooking fats, oils, and butters begin to scorch at a much lower 392 degrees and meat is fried between 400 and 450 degrees. So, in most normal usages, the pan will not produce any toxic fumes. More accurately, by the time the pan starts to generate any significant fumes the food it contains is likely burnt into inedibility.

Then we come to the additional important point: cooking oils produce the same sorts of fumes. More importantly, they produce them at lower temperatures than does teflon. It actually appears that dry heating a teflon pan likely produces fewer byproduts than the cooking oils themselves and that these byproducts will overcome a small bird at much lower temperatures than fumes from the teflon itself. So, put simply, it's likely that Kate's parekeet died from exposure to fumes from the oil rather than the teflon.

I take all this as good news in that it means that I don't have to dispose of a very useful technological innovation but I don't think everyone would respond quite in this manner. Frankly all of this reminds me of nothing so much as the Alar fiasco. Or, if that isn't enough for you, the new movements to refuse vaccines. It seems that in many cases people are quite determined to hold onto ideas with very little support and a great deal of counterveiling evidence. To return to our story, I'm not quite silly enough to bring all this up with Mabel. Perhaps she would believe me (and, more importantly, the FDA) but I suspect that she would instead sweep my findings aside in favor of good old common sense. Kate used a teflon pan, the bird died, ergo the teflon killed the bird. This is, of course, the same common sense that gave us geocentrism, but I digress.

Of more interest to me than refusing to use some newfangled product of science and industry is insistence upon using something that has received no support whatsoever. I refer, mainly, to the whole alternative medicine industry.* Now, it's entirely possible that some alternative remedies do work but, by and large, many of them are either useless or totally absurd. As I've said before, the mere fact that something is alternative doesn't make it good. Yet, these remedies continue to earn companies enormous profits while providing little, if any, benefit to their users. Why do ineffective remedies remain popular? Well, for the same reason that people come to believe that teflon will kill you: we keep hearing other people say it. If you hear from one person that teflon is dangerous you probably won't believe it. If you hear it from five or six, on the other hand, you may start to dispose of your teflon-coated pans. The problem, however, is that the raw number of people you hear a thing from has little impact on its veracity- as we should all remember from high school when rumors of a more personal nature were rampant. If all of the rumors about me in high school were actually true... well... let's just say my Sainted Fiancee would have been in for a surprise.

Well, it's time to fight fire with fire. If the popularity of ineffective remedies is maintained by rumors, then maybe it's time to start some rumors in return. Some rumors that give people the facts about their health and risks to it. And maybe this article is a good place to start:

Last week’s study showing that the widely touted and sold supplement DHEA does nothing to slow the effects of aging was only the latest major piece of research with powerfully negative results from the National Institutes of Health Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine. Previous placebo-controlled trials proved the uselessness of St. John’s Wort for depression and saw palmetto for enlarged prostates, shark cartilage for cancer, echinacea for the common cold and glucosamine plus chondroitin sulphate for arthritis.


Do us all a favor: read the article, and then pass it on. The reality is we must stop holding our tongues so that we don't offend people who use alternative remedies or who decry perfectly safe products. Some things work, and so can be used safely. Some things don't work, and so usage of them at best simply wastes money. Remaining silent about either does nobody any good and may ultimately do considerable harm.

If people want to use alternative remedies I have no problem with it. I just hope they can make their choice without any illusions.

7 Comments:

Blogger plain(s)feminist said...

"by and large, many of them are either useless or totally absurd"

And this is based on...evidence of some sort?

I have found just the opposite. My experiences with allopathic medicine and alternative medicine have taught me to seek alternative treatments first. For ex., I hurt my back in 1995 and went to several back specialists who recommended surgery to cure my debilitating pain. I elected not to try this as it was major surgery and as I knew people who had had back surgery and not been cured of their pain. (Plus, I figured something this dangerous should be a last resort.) So I hobbled along and then, about five or six years later, I tried yoga and therapeutic massage. Voila! Pain gone.

I've also known several people who have been helped by alternative medicine, and others who've not been helped by allopathic medicine. So let's not lump every alternative treatment together for dismissal. And while, yes, there are those that don't work, there are plenty of allopathic treatments that don't work either.

I'll stick with my alternative remedies. (They cure my colds, for one thing - something else that allopathic medicine can't do!)

Thursday, November 30, 2006 6:05:00 PM  
Blogger Drek said...

In terms of evidence there's a fair amount indicating that many alternative remedies don't function. Recently the National Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine has completed some major clinical trials and found that echinacea, shark cartiledge, and St. John's Wart perform no better than placebo. Glucosamine may provide some relief to those in severe pain, but is ineffective otherwise. Only acupuncture for particular kinds of knee pain has been shown to be fairly effective. When we add in classics like intercessory prayer... well... yeah, an awful lot of alternative therapies do appear to be ineffective. Moreover the sort of anecdotal evidence you cite is highly questionable in determining the overall utility of a therapy.

But, all that said, I think you're right that I'm being overly harsh here. I think it's safe to say that some alternative therapies probably are effective and we would benefit from using them. They are, however, probably not as effective as people like to make them out to be.

Thursday, November 30, 2006 8:05:00 PM  
Blogger plain(s)feminist said...

Thanks for the clarification.

It's true, of course, that anecdotal evidence isn't the same as scientifically-determined results.

We think of medicine as a very narrow field, one in which we mostly treat problems with medication and surgery. Alternative treatments often focus on correcting not just the symptom but the underlying problem (this is, of course, a generalization of both approaches).

I think the area of midwifery is one where the failures of medical science and the triumphs of alternative medicine can be seen most clearly, as midwives have altered (for the better) the way that doctors attend to childbirth (for ex., midwives and doctors who work with midwives have far lower rates of c-section births, episiotomies, and other interventions - and this is because women are allowed to labor under very different and more comfortable circumstances than when midwives (and doulas) are not part of the process).

I think, too, that your last two sentences could be said of some standard medical treatments.

Interesting about echinacea. (Zinc, however, I swear by.)

Friday, December 01, 2006 11:00:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

All I can say is that at some point I stop caring about the evidence and look at what things do for me. Echinacea does help me fend off colds - maybe the placebo effect helps, but then, really, do I care how it helps if it does? The most dramatic personal experience I have with alternative medicine is oil of evening primrose though, which has reduced my debilitating levels of period pain more than any painkiller I've used, and with far fewer side effects.

Science, and conventional medicine are good things, but they only go so far. I'll stick to my anecdotal evidence for these things.

TDEC

Friday, December 01, 2006 2:02:00 PM  
Blogger Drek said...

Plain(s)Feminist: Honestly, a large part of my beef with alternative medicine is that once something is validated scientifically it often gets absorbed into what we think of as mainstream medicine. So, the "AlterMed" field becomes a repository for things awaiting testing or things that have been disproven but still have a following. This wouldn't be so bad except this entire counter-culture develops around it.

For example, I've heard this argument that mainstream medicine just cares about symptoms but, really, I've found just the opposite to be true. That is, however, just anecdotal knowledge.

Midwifery is an interesting case in that I do think it has done some useful things. At the same time, it has been difficult to perform good studies of its actual effect in fetal outcomes since risky births are, more often than not, delivered in hospitals anyway. But, selection effects aside, I am largely swayed to the position that midwives help.

You're absolutely right about zinc, though- and here the evidence actually supports the practice.

TDEC: You asked, "...maybe the placebo effect helps, but then, really, do I care how it helps if it does?"

I've had this thought before and spent some time on it. I'd probably say that, yes, you should care. An awful lot of things have side effects no matter how benign they seem to be. So, for example, Europeans used to employ mercury as a treatment for syphilis. Unfortunately, since mercury is poisonous, if its only value is as a placebo, we should probably stay away from it. Is echinacea as dangeorus as mercury? Probably not, but then again, it's putting random chemicals in your body for little reason and you're paying good money for the priviledge.

Whether that's a good plan or not is entirely up to you.

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