Alternative Facts in Medicine

While we are collectively freaking out over the Trump’s White House use of Alternative Facts, these kinds of “facts” have been floating around in medicine (and politics) for a long time. And it is instructive to take a look at how we as a society have been dealing with Alternative Facts in Medicine and what damage these “facts” have wrought on us individually and collectively.

I propose the following formula for how Alternative Facts come to be:

Desperate Need + Greed = Alternative Fact

Medical Myths: Beliefs Based on Outdated Science

To start, allow me to refresh your memory, for our history is full of myths when it comes to our heath and our diseases. Let’s begin with a bit of bloodletting.

A man is being bleed

Bloodletting is almost as old as our civilization. Thousands of years ago (that’s thousands, with three zeros!), a healer’s first choice of treatment was to let out the “excess” blood from a patient. Be it a migraine, an infection, or a virus, a person who was probably too sick to object was cut with a lancet or some other easily available tool and weakened even further via blood loss. The Greek physician Erasistratus believed all illnesses were due to too much blood flowing through the patient — so let it out! An individual needed to be lucky to survive their illness and their treatment!

Bloodletting scene by N. Keyland, 1922

And in case you thought the practice of bloodletting was ancient, consider that it was still part of a doctor’s toolkit in 1922, as per photo above.

But let’s continue with a few more Medical Myths. Smoking. Doctors used to prescribe cigarettes to patients with upper respiratory infections, lung cancers, and tuberculosis. The prevailing belief was that smoking relaxed the bronchial tubes and allowed the patient to breathe better.

Cigarettes endorsed by a doctor

A man smoking whilst throwing medicines out of the window

And of course, smoking wasn’t just good for your lungs, it was great for weight loss!

smoking and weight loss

Here’s another example: curative powers mercury.

application of mercury

What were we happy to put into our bodies in the hopes of a cure? How about mercury? It is so shiny. It is a metal that flows! It must possess some magical properties, and by transference, that magic might cure us. People managed to administer mercury up and down both ends. It is rumored that Isaac Newton was a devotee.

A patient suffering from the adverse effects of mercury treatment

Of course, we now realize that mercury is a terrible poison to the human body and try to avoid it. But even one of the smartest men in human history wasn’t immune to Medical Myths — “facts” as they were understood at the time of his life.

The formula for Medical Myths can be summarized as:

Need + Ignorance = Medical Myth

Ignorance and Willful Disregard

I once walked out of the doctor’s office because there was a blood stain on the wall! Yes, it was fresh! It was disgusting, and lack of hygiene completely freaked me out. But my fastidiousness about cleanliness is but a recently acquired requirement.

Doctors' hygiene

It was common for doctors to dissect corpses and then to attend to births without washing their hands. Many women and their babies died of infections that were easily preventable by application of soap and water. The change which led to better doctor hygiene came from people lower on the social medical order — midwives! In 1846, birth attended by midwives had a lower death rate than those attended by physicians! Hungarian doctor, Ignaz Semmelweis, noted the difference and instituted hand washing in his hospital.

But if you think that the need for doctors to wash hands as a public policy is ancient history, allow me to dispel that belief. “The first national hand hygiene guidelines were published in the 1980s…” Shocked! Shocked that medical professionals needed to be told to wash their hands… But it still doesn’t happen regularly! In August of 2016, CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) had to run a public campaign to improve hand-washing in hospitals among medical professionals!

The research showed that doctors were the worst offenders of hygiene rules.

Here’s a formula for Willful Disregard:

Arrogance + Social Power = Willful Disregard

Alternative Facts

We might laugh at our past naivety — it’s all ancient history! We are much smarter and more advanced now. We don’t believe in Medical Myths…not anymore. Perhaps other cultures are guilty of such self-deception, but not us.

Rhino horn used to increase male virility

But we shouldn’t be so sure of ourselves. We are always on a look out for the next snake oil and its salesman.

Hamlins wizard oil poster

It’s just that we managed to wrap this “wizarding remedies” in Alternative Facts that seem true. We create thousands of Fake News medical sites. We listen to the “wizarding remedies” pushers who dress and sound like medical researchers. And we want to believe! And the more despirate is our situation, the more we want to belive.

vitamin supplement pills

We want to believe so much, that our own doctors won’t deny us. We find doctors who share our beliefs! We live in the world of Alternative Medical Facts Bubbles. It’s always something like:
“My Aunt Betty’s hairdresser’s niece’s friend used the wizarding oil and it cured her!”

One of our latest wizarding oil remedies is Antioxidants — a substance (a chemical or a food group) that removes damaging oxidizing agents, which supposedly cause cancer, from our bodies. People want to believe that there are magical things that they could take (preferably via a small oral pill) that would keep them healthy and prolong their lives. Some regularly overdose on Vitamin C, thus speeding up their demise! They do because they believe. Because despite what the scientific evidence shows, Alternative Medical Facts pushed into their social bubbles of Fake Medical News “prove” to them otherwise! Scientific American recently published an article debunking the curative properties of Antioxidants: “The Myth of Antioxidants“. (That article is under the paywall, but here is a PDF made available by Melinda Wenner, the author of the article.) After the article came the readers’ comments. It is instructive to read those and understand the passion that people feel for their beliefs, however wrong they might be.

Anecdotal evidence is not scientific proof, but most don’t know the difference. Just because everyone around you thinks something is true doesn’t make it so, no matter how much you might wish it to be. That’s why we have science and evidence-based research.

But the result of our desire for an easy solution to health combined with unscrupulous individuals happy to make money off the ignorant is the proliferation of Alternative Medical Facts.

And that’s the formula:

Desperate Need + Greed = Alternative Medical Fact

This formula is bound by our human nature. We want…we need solutions to problems. And as long there is a demand, there will be a supply. Our job as enlightened consumers is to be weary, to be careful, to avoid being cheated by some greedy charlatan. We want to believe in Alternative Facts because they make us feel better (not really, but psychologically), because they preach what we want to hear. They give us what we desire emotionally.

And of course, it’s not only Alternative Medical Facts. We believe in all sorts of things that make us feel better about ourselves. We believe that we are all above average in looks, and in smarts, and in our ability to spot fraud. And we are willing, all too easily, to support those that give us what we want to hear.

Alternative Facts

This brings me back to Alternative Facts in Politics. Those who voted for Trump despite his ugly racism, and disgusting sexism, and his flat out inability to tell the truth about anything, and self-importance and self-aggrandizing, and his repeatedly-proven disrespect and failure to pay people who did work for him, and his belief that cheating the US Government out of paying taxes is just smart business, and his stealing money from his own charities, and his total lack of any experience or even education (knowledge) of how the government works, all those Trump voters supported him because they had a desperate need. Those voters might have lost their job and had their standard of living plummet. Or they lost their houses or were unable to give their children education. Some lost everything to the opiate epidemic. Some were terrified of “others” coming in and taking all their hard-earned achievements away. Trump voters’ need was great, and Trump greedily pounced on it.

Alternative Facts are not outdated science. Alternative Facts are not disputed facts. Alternative Facts are flat out lies. They are easily proved false. But the audience at which they are aimed is in need of them to be true. These individuals live in a parallel world where Alternative Facts are the truth, and they base their life decisions on these “facts” as if they were indeed true. That is terrifying. For them and for people who see Alternative Facts for what they are — ugly, manipulative lies.

And now we live in the world of Alternative Facts because just like Trump voters, President Trump has a Desperate Need — he needs to be liked and respected by everyone. He is terrified of ridicule. And the people around him, who owe their livelihoods to Mr. Trump, are happy to promote any Alternative Facts he wants them to because their paychecks and power comes from him.

It’s the same formula:
Need + Greed = Alternative Fact

So we the people have to careful. Just as were have to be careful not to let ourselves be bleed to death, or be poisoned, or cut and prodded unnecessarily in the name of profit and longevity. Because if we are not careful, we will end up drinking goose semen to reduce the pain of pregnancy!

Pet Goose  (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)

Thank you for reading!


On February 1st, Scientific American published the following article:

The Delusion of Alternative Facts

How science can guide the search for “actual” truth in our post-truth era