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BAD Medicine : Christopher Wanjek


  10:59:48 pm, by Nimble   , 1410 words  
Categories: Announcements [A]

BAD Medicine : Christopher Wanjek

Link: http://www.amazon.ca/exec/obidos/ASIN/047143499X/thecerealkill-20

This is a great book of bad and questionable medical practices, both modern (shark cartilage, dilutions in homeopathy) and older (bloodletting and using mercury). It's pretty readable, and paints an interesting picture, especially of modern-day society where, now that we are healthier than ever before, many strangely turn to 'cures' from the days before we knew what we were doing.

The book gives a fairly speedy treatment of old medical beliefs, who invented what, and how mankind was slowly starting to figure things out, when the Roman Empire fell, and medicine devolved into superstition again. Ideas like humours and chi/qi and the like would dog medicine well into the modern age.

Some of the pre/sorta-scientific things that happened in the Age of Enlightenment were pretty atrocious. 'Snake oil' was the least of peoples' problems. Sometimes, folks got bled, purged, what have you three times a week. Placebos in an era of this nasty kind of pseudo-medicine would have worked better than 'official' cures. Prayer or dilute "blessed" water instead of being bled three times a week would have given a much higher survival rate.

It then goes into a somewhat fun section debunking some body myths, like the "you only use 10% of your brain" myth, commandeered by some charlatans to convince you that their product/tape/lifestyle can help you use more. Or that the liver needs "detoxifying".

There's an interesting section on the appendix, which while less useful for its equivalent function in cows, say, actually has some endocrine function (acts as a gland) and some immune function (sort of a lymph node).

There are many sections on aging, how you don't really lose your memory that much as you get older (unless something's truly wrong), some on balding (which can actually be chemically staved off these days).

The next big section is on diseases and misconceptions. The Black Plague is still around these days, though it is relatively contained. It's still just as deadly and quick, though. Only two out of 33 people infected in Los Angeles in 1924 survived. One of the many, many pieces of trivia throughout the book: dogs can survive the plague, but people and cats (of all things) succumb, and killing the rats that harbor the fleas make the fleas that much more desperate for new hosts.

There's the myth that antibiotics will help a cold. It won't, of course - antibiotics do nothing against viruses - but many people get prescriptions anyhow, and antibiotics are not without side effects (like killing good bacteria).

There's also a concern over antibacterial soaps. Soaps in general have an antibacterial effect, but antibacterial soaps have triclosan, which makes an antibacterial film that lasts for a while. "Good" bacteria will not repopulate this area for a while. It's the same sort of thing that causes "superbugs" in hospitals.

The most interesting part of the book (for me) was the section on antioxidants. There's an interesting balance to consider, that I was surprised about. Antioxidants do clear up free radicals in your system, and free radicals do do some damage... but the body also uses those free radicals against invaders. Interestingly, one of the worst times to take antioxidants is after you come down with cancer. It appears to impair the techniques the body is trying to use to combat the cancer.

The book takes a minor turn for the trite in the 'diet' section, in that he says many true things (we weren't meant to be fat, overeating causes obesity, etc.) in a somewhat trite way. He backhands the Atkins diet, but trips up when he conflates the ketosis the diet relies on and ketoacidosis (which isn't just more ketosis) that happens in diabetes.

Regardless, you're in for a lot of "exercise and vegetables" hammered in wherever there's a spare spot in this book, which makes it... a little trite.

(Personally, I've done the carbohydrate and vegetable approach - it left me utterly yawning with hunger, and was the period of most of my adult weight gain until I stopped the approach. I think "exercise and something-to-not-eat-so-much" is a better rule of thumb. That said, the author also says in the book that we're working just as hard, just not as physically - well, it's true.)

He then proceeds into more interesting territory: many "organic" growing operations that are actually just as bad as "big farms", since the big farm operators were attracted by the money (the moral: support your local farmers). Tap water versus bottled water, and the perhaps amusing tidbit that bottled water needs to meet lower standards than tap water does (that doesn't make it useless, but save it for when waterworks construction or the like happens). Another amusing bit of trivia: given that it exceeds the standards, Houston planned to sell its tap water as bottled water - we'll see how consumers respond.

Then we get to the debunking section, like homeopathy's dilutions. It starts with a "like cures like" conjecture, and that contrary to common sense (unless we're talking snake venom), the more you dilute the solution, the better it works (again, pure water is better than mildly dilute snake venom). If you get something labelled 30X, it means that it has been diluted 1 part in 10... 30 times. That's 1 part per million per million per million per million per million. Okay, it's pure water by this point.

(Far from being 'ancient', homeopathy was invented in the 18th century, by essentially one man.)

He then moves onto magnets, which purport to increase your blood flow by attracting iron in your blood. Most magnets sold for the purpose can't even penetrate your clothing, skin, or the sleeve it comes in. Iron in blood isn't in a magnetically-attractable state, though. Stick your hand near a one tesla magnet, or see whether people getting MRIs have their blood burst out of their capillaries.

He also exposes Ayurveda (the claims apart from the calming effects), oxygen therapy (unless your lungs are actually failing, and even then, it's a dangerous state), and distance healing.

The section on herbal medicine is interesting. Milk thistle is a proven medicine for some things, and is currently the only thing that will prevent you from dying of eating death-cup mushrooms. Of all the 'alternative' medicines, herbs have the most going for them, but they're exempt from being regulated, which means that the claims don't have to be proven, but more importantly for a consumer, that quality, amount and activity of the herbs in the supplements aren't guaranteed or often given (ginseng, for example, doesn't get any of its 'active ingredient' until at least four years old).

The later section of the book goes over many things, including the strange counter-vaccination movement that's threatening our "herd immunity" (stopping whooping cough vaccinations in the UK led to, strangely enough, outbreaks of whooping cough), citing the small but non-zero reactions and risks of the vaccines despite the giant risks of the diseases themselves.

There are sections on studies, which answer the question "why does study X say A is good for us, and the next study doesn't?", and a section on "how real life isn't like the movies" with an amusing little vignette on Rambo, as he really would have been after all that fighting with guns. Guns are loud - that much use bare-eared would make you deaf.

(I've been to the shooting range. Even with ear protection, my ears were ringing after maybe 45 minutes of sparse shooting. However, I now know that if we get invaded, I'm going to get ear protection and a carbine - handguns suck :) )

In conclusion, he figures things are going to get slightly worse before they get better again, not just because of the odd counter-culture of the rich (they go in for alternatives far and above anyone else), but because of the increase in things that kill more people than disease does these days (bad traffic conditions, lowered safety standards for workers who cannot protest), and because of the brakes on stem cell research.

All in all, it's a very quick tour through a lot of things. You won't get bored by the book (save for a few things that are repeated a lot), and it touches on many things. That makes its treatment of a few subjects lighter than they could have been, but it's an excellent summary of medical practices, malpractices and myths.


(Mind you, unless something really sucked, I probably wouldn't put it up on my blog unless I recommended it :) )

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