Skepticism about science and medicine

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Archive for October, 2014

Public (lack of) sound knowledge about medical matters

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2014/10/27

This is a scientific age, and medicine (among other things) is now based on science. And science, of course, is self-correcting.

At least that’s what the conventional wisdom is, the Zeitgeist, the common shibboleths, and what the slew of public pundits keeps repeating.

The truth, of course, is quite otherwise. We’re in a Science Bubble [1] in which conflicts of interest, commercial interests, and bureaucracy throughout official institutions and “grass-roots” organizations make it less and less likely that genuine scientific knowledge influences our policies and practices.

The media do not do their job as a Fourth Estate that might help to keep the other Estates honest, they are simply mouthpieces helping to inflate and sustain the Science Bubble.

Evidence for these assertions:
Over the last few decades, and especially the last one, there has been a spate of informed criticism of present-day drug-besotted medical practice, in dozens of books and many more articles, from prominent insiders and from competent and well informed observers [2].
But the public media have failed to bring awareness of these critiques to the general public. And when they do make some reference to bits of it, they fail to emphasize the conclusions or to draw attention to the wider context of the Big Picture.

Case in point:
For years, informed insiders and observers have pointed out that much routine “screening” has done far more harm than good, by leading to unnecessary and damaging “preventive” “treatment” for people who did not need it.
Shannon Brownlee pointed this out at least 5 years ago in relation to mammography screening against breast cancer [3]; and Brownlee practices what she preaches:
“I don’t get mammograms. I don’t do mammograms. Now, I may do a mammogram or two in my 60s when it looks like the benefit is greatest, but I don’t do mammograms. And it’s . . . because I am more worried about being harmed by unnecessary treatment. I’m very worried about being harmed by unnecessary treatment by overdiagnosis.” [4]
Peter Gøtzsche published a book about it in 2012 [5], as authoritative as one might wish since Gøtzsche heads the Nordic Cochrane Center — the Cochrane Collaboration  being an independent group whose raison d’être is literature reviews and meta-analyses to determine whether actual practices do or do not live up to claims and expectations.

But what does the public learn from the popular media?
In 2014, for example, THIS WEEK (ABC TV, 26 October 2014) mentioned, as supposedly current news, that there’s controversy over the benefits of routine mammography screening.

I mentioned this to a good friend who happens to be a statistician/probabilist. He had worked at the University of Michigan some 40 years ago in a group that reported already then that annual mammograms did more harm than good.

Long gone are the days when Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes programs, to the occasional bemusement and sometimes dismay of sponsors, advertisers, and executives, would actually call a spade a spade (or a bloody shovel, as Aussies would say).

When the Science Bubble finally bursts, it will do far more damage than the defective air-bags and other things that the media are currently obsessing over and describing as world-shattering risks. Much is wrong with present-day medical practice, scores of books have been written about that, but the popular media seem ignorant of it and continue to disseminate misleading and damaging material.

[1] The Science Bubble, Edgescience #17, February 2014, 3-6
[2] What’s Wrong with Present-Day Medicine
[3] Cancer screening: Doing more harm than good?, Reader’s Digest, April 2009
[4] Diane Rehm show, “Debate over the benefits of routine mammograms”, 12 December 2012
[5] Mammography Screening: Truth. Lies and Controversy, Radcliffe, 2012

Posted in conflicts of interest, media flaws, medical practices, resistance to discovery, science is not truth, science policy | Tagged: , , , , | 6 Comments »