Tuesday, July 16, 2019

"People will believe anything": Snake oil salesmen and bad health advice

The other day, I took a nephew to see the new Spider Man movie, “Far from home”. No review here; just to say that a big part of the plot revolves around the bad guy using a high-tech virtual reality system to project fake images that everyone takes to be real. Several times in the film he and his henchmen say “people will believe anything”. The parallels to the daily reality of our times, to “fake news” and distrust of science, are too obvious to be coincidental. Of course, in the movie the bad guy loses and the good guy (Spider Man) wins.

It is still far from clear if the “good guys” (and here I speak not of specific individuals, but of those who advocate for truth, a real reality, and science) are going to win in the actual world. The forces of darkness and reaction, wearing the face of Donald Trump and facilitated by the Republican Party, but actually representing and funded by the corporate elite – gangster capitalists – may not wear capes and fly around or use astral projection, but they have enormous resources to control the dialogue, provide misinformation, and serve themselves. They are resilient not only because of their wealth and power, but, sadly, because so many people are happy to try to deal with their own oppression by hating, oppressing, and believing bad things of others.

Health and medicine are clearly not immune from the reach of “fake news” and false beliefs and those willing to exploit our willingness to believe what we want to be true rather than what is. This is often a result of also a logical fallacy, wishful thinking (which is only a fallacy when it is expressed as true; not when it is expressed as a hope or wish) but may be more appropriately called “magical thinking”, a developmentally appropriate stage for young children that is always pathological in adults. Those who promulgate false scientific, medical and health theories and advice can be doing so to make money, to exert power and control, because it derives from a pre-existing belief (sometimes but not always religious). Sometimes it is also self-delusional, especially when the proposed solution is easier, more palatable, less painful, and requires less discipline than the medical alternative (take these simple pills – or snake oil -- and you won’t have to diet/exercise/stop smoking or drinking/have radiation or chemotherapy or surgery and you can be more youthful or beautiful or sexual). I once wrote about a patient who was obsessed with getting mammograms for breast cancer, a condition for which she was not at elevated risk and was far too young for routine screening, but was uninterested in addressing her actual risks resulting from heavy smoking, uncontrolled high blood pressure, and unprotected sex with multiple partners (Healthful Behaviors: Why do people adopt them? Or not?, October 8, 2011). Because, I inferred, it was easier, and would require no real effort or difficulty on her part. This is why it is an attractive option. But it is not a good idea.

The trend toward getting health and medical advice from those who are not medically trained has always been with us, but the same easy dispersion of information (or misinformation) through the Internet that allows us to hear anything we want and, to a large extent, only what we want, impacts health care as well as politics. The “anti-vax” movement is very popular, and promoted by celebrities. (Why should we not get our health advice from those whose qualification is that they are celebrities?) In addition to being wrong, it is very dangerous to the public health. I say that with absolute certainty. The anti-vaxxers are wrong. Period. There is some risk that individuals will have a reaction, very rarely a serious one, but this impact is totally miniscule compared to the benefit of preventing disease through vaccination. Indeed, vaccination is one of the few areas in which we actually can prevent, and thus not have to treat, diseases!

Some celebrities deserve a special call-out for their comprehensive and ubiquitous denial of fact, reason, and science – amazingly, often in conjunction with a profit motive from the brand of snake oil that they are selling; Gwyneth Paltrow is the exemplar. Of course, Ms. Paltrow deserves some credit for being able to convince people that they should do things that are actually unpleasant and painful for the sake of their health and beauty, like getting stung by bees, even though these are of no actual value to her clients. Obviously, they are of financial value to her. And, while I admire much of what she does in the world, Oprah Winfrey is also a big proponent of false health information.

Sometimes, bad policies are advocated by the self-righteous, as is the case with the current Israeli Education Minister, the most recent bigot coming out for “conversion therapy” for gay people. This is an example of falsely medicalizing a condition by suggesting it requires therapy, something that should not be. Sometimes, as in Paltrow’s case and many others, it is at least in part motivated by the opportunity for profit. Often, and this is sad, it is motivated and believed because people do not trust doctors and other health professionals. One reason it is sad is because people eschew treatments that could be of benefit to them in favor of those that will not help and may even hurt. But another major reason is that many doctors and other health professionals have been themselves guilty of pushing treatments that do not benefit, and may hurt, their patients. They do this for the same set of reasons as those I criticize above: to make money themselves, to make money for drug and device makers who pay them directly or in gifts including drug samples, because they are too lazy (or “too busy”) to actually read and evaluate the evidence and so taking the advice of drug or device salespeople is easier, and because they think that because they are doctors everything they think is right. I wish this were not true, but it often is. Holding physicians to a higher standard than non-medical people is appropriate, but this is not an argument for believing people because they are not doctors, no matter how confident. Iit absolutely in no way justifies listening to the advice of non-medical people who know even less!

It is also the case that some “alternative” suggestions for treatment are helpful, and many others are probably benign (except for the cost), even if the evidence is that they are not helpful; one example is taking vitamin supplements. If you can afford them, and don’t take excessive doses, they probably don’t hurt. It is certainly a better way to waste your money than on cigarettes, but if you can’t afford them, skip them. Other medical interventions can be good, and of benefit, but the benefits are often overstated, or reified as totally important. This is especially true when it is promoted as more “natural”, a word so overused as to have almost no consistently definable meaning. One example might be the use of birth attendants, called doulas. For many people, especially those who do not have a support system such as a spouse or parents or siblings or friends (and, likely for some who do) it is very helpful to have a knowledgeable, supportive person during your labor, focused entirely on you. But they are neither magic nor necessary.

Having someone who can help you deliver your baby, like a midwife or physician, is often necessary. A birth support attendant is a nice addition. Nurse-midwives train as registered nurses then do additional years of midwifery training and attend many births, including many doing deliveries under supervision. They can deliver babies as well as support women in labor.  In contrast, becoming a doula, according to https://www.naturalhealers.com/midwifery/doula requires a total of about 2-3 weeks including the need to attend a few births. So what scientific basis could there be for NY State Gov. Cuomo is advocating the expansion of the use of doulas to decrease maternal mortality, something for which there is not only no evidence, but no rational basis for thinking.

Come on, Governor! Come on, people! Not harmful is good, helpful is even better, not breaking the bank is important, and sometimes natural is nice. But let’s not choose magical thinking over science. That helps no one, except the snake oil vendors.


Josh Freeman said...

On this same topic, Paul Krugman: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/21/opinion/partisanship-parasites-and-polarization.html

Josh Freeman said...

Another widely-held false belief: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/16/science/5g-cellphones-wireless-cancer.html

Josh Freeman said...

And more, anti-aging medicine: https://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/915408?src=WNL_infoc_190718_MSCPEDIT_AntiAging&uac=328234MR&impID=2032379&faf=1

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