“What gets us into trouble is not what we don't know.
It's what we know for sure that just ain't so.”
Mark Twain, aka Samuel
Langhorn Clemens, went right to the mark in so many of his aphorisms.
The one above seems to fit quite well with much that circulates in the
modern media and particularly with the state of modern medical
knowledge and information. Media and medicine go together frequently in
the present day. For good or otherwise.
The simple state of things is that much of what we take for fact and
truth – in this case regarding the medical field – is really tainted
and twisted, biased and conflicted, incomplete and inadequate. Often
not close to what might be called correct knowledge.
“Many of our medical problems,
and their high cost in terms of human suffering and money,
persist because we think we have already answered fundamental questions,
when we have, in truth, not even asked them.”
Energy Medicine: The Scientific Basis
“Well, how can this be the case?” you may wonder. Let’s cover a few – but hardly all of the reasons.
• Science-based knowledge is subject to change, frequent change. So do we believe yesterday’s vogue in medicine, or today’s? Or should we wait for tomorrow’s pronouncements?
In the medical as well as the mundane world, what we take as true and
factual may be updated, modified or even reversed tomorrow with quite
opposing evidence. Public medical pronouncements come and go regularly,
sometimes being drastically changed in months or years. The reader
probably can recall cases that fit this picture.
A favorite story comes to mind from a generation or so past at the
Harvard Medical School. It is told that the school’s Dean, Dr. Charles
Sidney Burwell, made it a habit to meet and speak with the incoming
students on their first day. He gave a similar pep talk each year and
always threw in a proviso about their medical education, “Half of what
we teach you here will be outdated or simply shown to be untrue in
twenty years. The problem is that we don’t know which half that is.”
In a similar vein, let us take such a simple thing as human nutrition.
Even into recent times, experts have admitted that, “the energy
requirements (calories) of man and his balance of intake and
expenditure are not known.” (J.C. Waterlow) Estimates
of nutrient requirements can be made, but medical scientists do NOT
know. A similar state of things exists in wide ranges of medical
teaching and practice. Name a medical topic and there are likely to be
huge holes in present-day understanding.
“Through learning textbook science,
one is misled about the nature of scientific activity by learning
only about relatively successful science,
and yet history teaches that the science being done
at any given time will largely be discarded,
even in the short space of a few years, as unsuccessful.
Through learning from scientific textbooks,
one is liable to learn the misconceived view
that science uses the scientific method ...”
Scientific Literacy and the Myth of the Scientific Method
• Neither science nor medicine are pure.
The public and the media – to a large degree – consider the words which
pour from the mouths of medical authorities to be almost sacred. But,
all evidence, testing, and interpretation passes through flawed human
minds and thoughts, hands and lips.
Conflicts of interest, money, status, power, etc. creep in from all
sides. Most of these impediments stand quietly hidden from public eyes
as they are part of the very substance of those professions as well as
of modern life. Read Otis Brawley’s How We Do Harm.
Brawley was for many years the highest ranking physician employed by
the American Cancer Society. His book might well have been subtitled How Money Runs Medicine.
“The financial incentives that drive the medical community
have a devastating impact on patients and health-care costs,
and we will not change unless we are forced to change.”
How We Do Harm:
A Doctor Breaks Ranks About Being Sick
• Medicine is not even a science.
Lewis Thomas has called medicine the “youngest science.” But it really
does not deserve that designation. Medicine and science are so often
used in the same sentence. The public thus takes them as being
synonymous. But, medicine is only loosely based on science regardless
of claims made otherwise. Factually stated, medical practice is largely
based on “educated guesswork.”
Medicine used to be a “healing art,” but has become the premiere
“health science.” Unfortunately, medical schools teach courses neither
in health nor in healing. Art is rarely spoken of in training. At the
same time, science predominates; students being required to take many
science courses in college and most professors being employed not for
their teaching abilities but because of their research and publication
“The only solid piece of scientific truth about which
I feel totally confident is that
we are profoundly ignorant about nature.
Indeed, I regard this as the major discovery
of the past hundred years of biology.”
The Hazards of Science
• Science and Medicine have become the Churches of modern times.
Churches of Religion ruled for centuries past. Hospitals and clinics
have taken their place and become the Temples of the times. And
physicians the priests of the day – to a greater or lesser degree.
Robert Mendelsohn, the medical heretic of a generation past, has much
to say on the faith which is placed in clinics, hospitals, and medical
centers. Churches used to be the focal points of many communities. Now,
the Faithful turn toward medical complexes, insurance companies, and
“Medicine is not based on science –
it’s based on faith.”
Confessions of a Medical Heretic
• The human race – at least in the West – is habituated to drugs.
Artificial - man-made and concocted – pharmaceuticals fit the modern
paradigm which seeks a quick response to any ill or symptom which might
be brought to a medical practitioner. Human beings are drawn to
simplistic, “this-for-that” kinds of remedies. And drugs fit that bill
quite clearly. So, what Pharma publicizes has huge sway with the media
and the public. Pharma’s financial support of medical institutions may
have an even greater effect on western life and health – or ill health.
“The desire to take medicine is perhaps
the greatest feature which distinguishes man from animals.”
Sir William Osler,
Father of American Medicine
• The stamp of the American Medical Association has large clout and a relative lock on mainstream media attention.
There are alternatives and complements to orthodox western
medicine. Osteopathy and chiropractic have held toe-holds on the field
of medicine for generations, but money has been attracted in bundles
toward “provable, scientific” methods. If orthodox medicine was really
as scientific and successful as touted, its practitioners would never
have taken time and money to squelch their “unscientific” rivals.
Furthermore, with all its power and financial resources, where all the
“cures” which have been longed promised by orthodox medicine and
This writer was an early member of the American Holistic Medical
Association (started in 1978), as an attempt to broaden the practice
and principles of standard medicine. In order to approaches human ills
in friendlier, more sympathetic ways. AHMA conferences were much
different than usual medical meetings with lively presentations, music
and humor, family-type environments. At the time, many of us thought,
“Holistic Medicine is the way of the future.”
But not surprisingly, AHMA’s days were numbered. It was not entirely
shocking recently to find that the organization now exists in name
only, having been absorbed into the Foundation for Alternative and
To get significant attention from powerful media outlets, one has to be
“a member in good standing” of the guild, club, professional clique in
power. S/he has to fit modern scientific thinking – lest being
immediately considered unscientific, unfounded, discredited, a
practitioner of pseudoscience. That even though large swathes of modern
science and medicine are themselves pseudoscience. The vast majority of
medical practices have never been proven according to what are
considered scientific standards.
“No amount of knowledge of or about science in itself causes
individuals or groups to make good decisions
about the many quandaries of life:
humans readily subjugate their knowledge to their wishes,
believing and doing what they want,
all scientific facts and knowledge notwithstanding.”
Scientific Literacy and the Myth of the Scientific Method
• Medical practices often produce illness and disease while intended to do the opposite. This seems to be the obvious, evidence-based case. Misinformation surely stands behind many of those practices.
This fact was covered at length in Ivan Illich’s book called Medical Nemesis
written in 1974. Illich identified three broad categories in which
Medical Practice produces illness: clinical iatrogenesis, social
iatrogenesis, and cultural iatrogenesis.
We are more aware of clinical – office/hospital – produced ills. The
other two stand in the background and are involved in the creation of
all sorts of problems for ourselves by medicalizing the whole of
western society. Clinical iatrogenesis includes things like mistaken
prescriptions and Adverse Drug Reactions (ADRs), hospital-acquired
infections and surgical blunders, and misdiagnoses and a host of other
human errors. These problems are experienced by millions of patients
every year; many are reported while probably even more are just
shrugged off by patients and/or physicians.
Iatrogenesis means physician-caused. Medical practices often turn out, in a greater or lesser degree, to be our own nemeses [adversaries]. Nemesis (in ancient Greek thinking) was the inevitable punishment for attempts to be a hero rather than a human being.
Much of orthodox medicine is heroic in nature. Human patients like
heroes, when most of them and their physicians are far from real
heroes. While generally well-intended, a great deal of medical practice
creates more problems than fewer – and even if only in the face-to-face
clinical end of things.
In many, many cases, patients who go for medical attention usually
appear with just one problem. But, they go home with two or more: their
presenting complaints plus the effects of their commonly complicated
visit. The latter puts them, already hurting or stressed, through tests
and procedures which will more likely add to their ills than relieve
them. Patients will also, in a majority instances, go home with one or
more prescriptions to which their bodies will have to adapt to as well
as the frequent side and ill effects attendant on their consumption.
“Medical nemesis is resistant to medical remedies.
It can be reversed only through a recovery of the will to self-care among the laity,
and through the legal, political, and institutional recognition of the right to care,
which imposes limits upon the professional monopoly of physicians.”
Medical Nemesis: The Expropriation of Health
There are surely other reasons for the state of Misinformation as well
as what passes for Information where Medicine is concerned. But, the
reasons discussed above should suffice to get the point across that
Misinformation is “part of the package” where Modern Medicine is
concerned. We live in an imperfect world and medical practice
demonstrates that in many ways.
This essay was originally completed by adding ways and means to attain
sound Medical Information. But upon reflection, we decided to let
readers sit with the ideas now shared for some time. And, to allow us
time to embellish our list in a followup essay.
So, look for Part 2 on Medical Information in a month.
Send comments to theportableschool at gmail dot com.