I Wonder: Real Medicine

Sometimes I wonder about wonder. I’ll clarify – lately I’ve been hearing the same kind of sentiment expressed in many different ways, and from sources ranging from woo-peddlers to people I love and respect: ‘The thing that gets me about skeptics and skepticism is they take the wonder out of life’. The notion of taking the wonder out of life has never sat easy with me – for one thing, I feel like life becomes more wonderful when you take the mysticism and superstition out of it. What’s more, once you’ve removed those extraneous distractions you’re able to appreciate the world for how it really is, and see the wonder that exists in reality. And in my eyes, somewhat ironically, one of areas where the wonder of a mysticism-free reality is most apparent is the very same area that tends to get the most criticism leveled at it: the defence of real medicine against the pseudomedical.

Right now, here at the Merseyside Skeptics Society, we’re well underway with our plans for the 10:23 campaign – a campaign which will become more vocal in the early parts of this year, and one which has had a somewhat mixed response in some circles. The reason for much of the criticism (excepting that of the predictably irate and irrational homeopathic community), arises where perhaps the intention behind the campaign is misunderstood. Because we’re looking to ‘take on’ homeopathy and the claims made by homeopaths, this is seen by some as an act of aggression and negativity. Plaintiff calls of ‘Leave them alone, everyone has a right to believe what they want!’ and ‘People should be free to choose what they like’ ring out in our general direction. But I think these complaints perhaps miss the point being made – it’s not a case of attacking pseudomedicine, it’s a case of defending conventional medicine from the attacks of those of the alternative industries. While doctors and surgeons and nurses save lives, homeopaths and chiropractors and acupuncturists lambast what they see as the failures of medicine, to the detriment of the reputation of real healthcare.

In the recent evidence check on homeopathy, Peter Fisher admitted no homeopathic remedy has ever been withdrawn due to adverse effects and it’s inherent harm – only a malaria prevention remedy removed because it was proven not to work. In the meantime, in real medicine, numerous drugs and medical techniques have been withdrawn – where side effects outweigh benefit, where new techniques become available, where old techniques are proven to be more harm than good. Does conventional medicine ever fall? Definitely. But only real medicine picks itself up and learns from the stumble – using the knowledge to refine or redefine it’s approach, so there’s no repetition of the same mistakes. Pseudomedical practices like homeopathy prefer to deny all flaws, rather than seeking to eradicate those flaws methodically. What’s more, where conventional medicine is concerned, built into the system is a method of progression, advancement, development – while alternative medicines will cite their hundreds or thousands of years of unchanged practice compared to the ever-changing world of conventional healthcare, they fail to see that continual change is a strength, not a weakness.

Pseudomedicine thrives on anecdotal data, while scientific practice of conventional medicine shuns this unreliable form of results for more impartial, measurable information. Well, sod it – this is my blog, and I’ll be unscientific if I like. And I have anecdotes too…

  • My sister was born with cerebral palsy. Not so severe, mercifully, that she’s unable to talk, walk or function without a degree of independence; but no small thing either, leaving three of her limbs significantly-impeded if not partially-paralysed. The operations and physiotherapy she received at a young age kept her out of a permanent wheelchair for 27 years and counting; while her arthritis and muscle spasms leave her prone to collapse at unpredictable times, it’s real drugs and healthcare management that are keeping her on her feet; where she has fallen, and where the arthritis leaves her in near-constant pain, it’s painkillers that are fighting to hold back the agony for her.
  • When I was 6 or 7, my grandma was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma – almost 20 years later, she has real medical care to thank for each day she’s here to tell the tale. What’s more, in that time conventional medicine has enhanced and increased her life in innumerable ways – whether it be the spectacles she wears, the hearing aid she uses, the operations that removed her cataracts, the antibiotics which helped her fight pneumonia, or the myriad of other interventions that have allowed her see in another New Year.
  • At the age of 18 my girlfriend discovered she had dysplasia in her right hip, where the socket of the joint was too shallow for the top of her thigh bone, causing her thigh to protrude out of her hip and leaving her in excruciating pain – at the age of 25 she had an operation to break her pelvis in 3 places and reset it to alleviate the condition, allowing her to walk without discomfort and continue her life free from pain. The operation was severe, but thanks to skilled surgeons, physiotherapists, nurses and anaesthetists, as well as took-for-granted techniques like blood transfusions and orthopedic screws, she’s now perfectly healthy. What’s more, due to the latest surgical practices, the whole invasive operation was carried out through relatively minor incisions, leaving her with the very minimal of scarring.
  • Personally, I wore spectacles from the age of 10, and they were a big part of who I was. At the age of 25, a skilled expert was able to use a high-powered laser to cut the front of my eyes open, and burn the corneas into more efficient shapes with extreme precision, leaving me with perfect 20-20 vision. The operation took 20 minutes, to put an end to 15 years of wearing glasses.

Real medicine is amazing – stop and think of what can be done these days and it really does blow your mind.

I have any regrets about my sister’s healthcare, it’s not that she didn’t try having her back cracked or her spine needled or the lumps on her head read – it’s that she wasn’t born in 20 years time, when our medical techniques will have improved even further, when her suffering would be even further lessened. But even those regrets are tempered by the knowledge that in the future, other people who are born with the same condition will have more options, greater care, and less suffering. Science progresses, develops, improves. And I for one find that worthy of genuine wonder.

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  1. #1 by Redwinelover on January 4, 2010 - 11:22

    Well said! Couldn’t agree more.
    I’m fed up with people taking conventional medicine for granted.
    There can’t be many people who haven’t benefited from conventional medicine in some way, if only they’d take the time to think about it.

  2. #2 by Andy Wilson on January 4, 2010 - 11:47

    Excellent post Marsh. I really felt that.

    Some of my own

    At 15 I had an accident which shattered my cheekbone and fractured my eyeball socket. Thanks to some skilful surgery and the delights of titanium plates I look as normal as possible (insert your own joke about my looks here)

    January last year my Uncle Mick died as a result of prostate cancer and its development into bone cancer. He broke his hip in the October and never came out of hospital then hospice. The care and pain relief he received allowed him to survive longer and pass away with dignity in the January.

    I share your wonder, and your frustration at the purported infallibility of homeopathy, with its lack of side effects and modifications.



  3. #3 by Stu on January 4, 2010 - 14:13

    At 20 I was knocked down by a van on a main road which resulted in a shattered jawbone, multiple skull fractures and pretty severe brain damage (friends tell me that makes a lot of sense(!)), I was out for three days.

    Had I not been treated by one of the best head injury hospitals in Europe – University Hospital Bochum, Germany – I wouldn’t be typing this!

    I wonder what would have happened had I been treated with a ‘complementary therapy’. Death probably.

  4. #4 by Zeno on January 4, 2010 - 16:48

    Excellent, Marsh. But forget broken legs, etc – many of us would never have survived birth without the knowledge and experience of conventional medicine.

    Perhaps the AltMed proponents think they could save countless more lives with this:
    Alternative Ambulance?

  5. #5 by Hayley on January 4, 2010 - 18:06

    This is a really touching read, Marsh. Thank you for sharing.

    I actually owe my life to conventional medicine and not a day goes by that I don’t remember that. It’s why I’m so opposed to the quacks that pose in my local town as people who can really help.

    At the age of eighteen I was told that I had three months to live unless I had extensive surgery on my ear to remove a rather vile growth that has started to eat through my skull and was making its way towards my brain.

    I underwent 2 surgeries that combines lasted for 15 hours. I have a curved scar behind my ear to show for it. They removed the growth, rebuild my inner ear as best as they could and widened my ear canal so that should they ever need to go back in there it will be easier for them.

    The only possible complication that could have arisen from the surgery was that if a nerve in my ear had been touched I would have been paralysed down the right side of my face however this was such a slight risk that it had only happened once in over two decades.

    Compare this to the brain tumors, meningitus, definete facial paralysis and, oh yes, death, that I could have faced and you can see the comparison isn’t worth making.

    Convential medicine saves lives, I’m the proof of that as are millions of other people. It really gets to me when people don’t understand the importance of basic and safe health care.

  6. #6 by Carmenego on January 4, 2010 - 19:17

    About three years ago, I was hit by a car and broke my arms, legs, hips, and was severely facially disfigured.

    Homeopathy gave me the strength to recover with dignity and without any side effects, and I didn’t even need self proclaimed, bogus “allopathic” medicine to get better. It was all down to safe, natural, and totally awesome alternative medicines. And all you skeptics are really just afraid to face the FACTS and be open minded. You people can’t know everything, therefore you know nothing, it’s kind of like science, yeah? But a bit too complicated to explain to narrow minded denialists.

    Just kidding. Thought I’d throw a troll-ey comment in there to break up the excellent comments left, all of which I agree with! 😛

    Just wrote a massive rant and had to delete it. To sum up:
    1) If it worked, we wouldn’t need to cherry pick studies to prove it
    2) A basic knowledge of molecular structure (as taught in pre-GCSE science lessons) shows that things like homeopathy don’t work
    3) Why are all these “natural therapies” so bloody expensive? Surely Mother Nature would rather us have them for free?
    4) Having met a bunch of scientists over the years, they are generally quite an inspiring lot, whose belief that we are building a healthier, safer, happier world through the application of knowledge, philosophy and trigonometry is quite infectious 🙂

    Great blog post as always!


  7. #7 by Trystan on January 4, 2010 - 20:07

    Is the lack of wonder gambit the best some alt med people can come up with? I’ve never seen what that has to do with anything and it is a complete red herring on their behalf. The issue is whether the damn treatment works or not.

  8. #8 by Seedy Pete on January 4, 2010 - 21:41

    I have Ankylosing spondilitis, which at times is agony, I would love woo to be true! The thought that a little sugar pill could cure all my pain is very tempting so I can understand why people might be attracted to scam medicine. The horror for me is there are deluded or unpleasant people out there only too quick to take my cash, for empty promises and water with nothing in!

  9. #9 by Dr*T on January 4, 2010 - 22:48

    With you all the way Mr Marsh.

    At age 30, I was running half-marathons, at age 31, it got to the point where I could barely walk a few 100 yards due to osteoarthritis in my hips. 2 x open hip surgeries later & things are different – now 32, I’ve just come back from the a 45 min gym workout.

    Not being able to walk -> being able to walk.

    No needles, sugar pills, herbs or prayers could ever do that.

    …and I only have two very subtle scars to show for it.

    (It has made also made me *very* protective of the NHS….)


  10. #10 by Betty D on January 5, 2010 - 00:36

    I’m hesitant to comment on here as i know this is a mainly UK based org and i’m a silly american (from Kansas, no less), but…

    Dr*T- your point about being protective of the NHS kind of highlights how ridiculous it is (to some of us) that alt med has any kind of popularity or acceptance in the UK. If you’ve all got access to modern medicine without the kind of financial hardship some of us face here, why the hell would ANYONE be running around with magic water and crystals?

    I’m lucky enough to have a job that offers a reasonable health insurance plan, but I’m still carrying nearly 8K in debt for a surgery i had last year that was refused coverage. They can’t really give me my gall bladder back, but they can keep me from taking out loans in the future.

    At least i’ve GOT access to it though, even at such a ridiculous price. There are way too many locales in the world where access to modern medicine is far too scarce. Knowing that western medicine is the one with real, solid evidence behind it, it’d be nice if we could set the progressive, modern example and collectively leave the rest of the nonsense behind.

    Or something. I digress.
    Thanks for a beautifully put post, Marsh, and thanks all for such a fantastic podcast.

  11. #11 by Stu on January 5, 2010 - 10:02

    Doesn’t that last comment make you want to donate to Médecins Sans Frontières?

    By the way. Great post Marsh!

  12. #12 by Allan on January 5, 2010 - 15:14

  13. #13 by Dr*T on January 5, 2010 - 22:17

    “Dr*T- your point about being protective of the NHS kind of highlights how ridiculous it is (to some of us) that alt med has any kind of popularity or acceptance in the UK.”

    Modern medicine is still pretty ‘mechanical’ when it comes to something like hip arthritis – sure, the painkillers, anaesthetic, procedures, hygeine, recovery times, etc are bouncing forward but outside of surgery there isn’t much by way of help for arthritic pain, apart from painkillers. Hence, people in pain turn to anything that provides a glimmer of respite, even if it is psychological, and are inevitably sucked in by seductive sales pitches from quacks.

    (I’m not a medical Doc BTW!)

  14. #14 by Ricky on January 17, 2010 - 09:46

    So how come a woman last month was cured of her menopausal hot sweats that she had since coming off HRT after 3 doses of a homeopathic remedy. How come also babies and animals are cured of their ailments via homeopathy? How do I know? I am a homeopath and have documentation pertaining to this

  15. #15 by Mike on January 17, 2010 - 11:26

    Why is it that homeopaths think that babies and animals aren’t susceptible to placebo effects?

    Ricky, 30C Belladonna – what’s in it?

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