The Decade’s Top 5 Threats To Science In Medicine

As 2009 comes to an end, it seems that everyone is creating year-in-review lists. I thought I’d jump on the list band wagon and offer my purely subjective top 5 threats to rational thought in healthcare and medicine.

Of course, it strikes me as rather ironic that we’re having this discussion – who knew that medicine could be divorced from science in the first place? I thought the two went hand-in-hand, like a nice antigen and its receptor… and yet, here we are, on the verge of tremendous technological breakthroughs (thanks to advances in our understanding of molecular genetics, immunology, and biochemistry, etc.), faced with a growing number of people who prefer to resort to placebo-based remedies (such as heavy-metal laced herbs or vigorously shaken water) and Christian Science Prayer.

And so, without further ado, here’s my list of the top 5 threats to science in medicine for 2009 and beyond:

#1: Congress

Money is the most powerful gasoline that can be poured on the fire of pseudoscience. And thanks to Senator Tom Harkin, and a few merry enablers, there is now legislation in the Senate healthcare reform bill that would allocate tax dollars to disproven and unproven medical therapies. Healthcare providers recognized by CMS will include alternative medicine practitioners – many of whom can meet licensing requirements with online degrees from schools that do not teach actual science. They will be eligible to become primary care providers, use “doctor” in their self-designation, and do untold harm to patients nationwide through misdiagnosis and mistreatment.

Please refer to this post for detailed amendment language, and for goodness sake – call your congressman or woman and ask them to move to strike this language from the reconciled house and senate bills before it becomes law. Seriously. Go call them NOW.

#2:  Mainstream Media

For some reason, snake oil has captured the imagination of the mainstream media. Thanks to people like Oprah and the major news networks, there is a steady parade of pseudoscientific poppy cock being spoon fed to the public. And because of the lack of critical thinking taught in schools, Americans (on average) have a 6th grade understanding of medicine. They have a hard time distinguishing science from pseudoscience, and with the constant barrage of miracle cures, “scientific” breakthroughs, and conspiracy theories about anything that actually works (e.g. vaccines). They have become skeptical of science while often totally accepting of snake oil.

Before we become completely despairing of any sliver of health enlightenment reaching the public through mainstream media – let’s recall that 2009 brought us a handful of journalists willing to stand up for truth and critical thinking.Newsweek’s Weston Kosova, the Associated Press’ Marilynn MarchioneWired’s Amy WallaceChicago Tribune’s Trine Tsouderos, and The Washington Post’s Clive Thompson deserve praise and encouragement for standing up for science.

#3: Academic Medical Centers

Often referred to by David Gorski as “Quackademic” Medical Centers – there is a growing trend among these centers to accept endowments for “integrative” approaches to medical care. Because of the economic realities of decreasing healthcare reimbursements – these once proud defenders of science are now accepting money to “study” implausible and often disproven medical treatments because they’re trendy. Scientists at these centers are forced to look the other way while patients (who trust the center’s reputation that took tens of decades to build) are exposed to placebo medicine under the guise of “holistic” healthcare.

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