Friday, May 29, 2009

Expecting the unreasonable.

A 'natural remedy' shop has taken the brave step of asking for comments. Predictably, the comments are from sceptics and that's only to be expected. The sceptics are at least being mostly polite on this one.

But what they are asking is unreasonable. Not unreasonable in a scientific sense. They are asking for proof that the remedies work. That's perfectly fair comment, speaking as a scientist. If you're producing a remedy for an illness, especially if you claim it works on illnesses that kill people, there should have been studies published to show it works. What is unreasonable is expecting the end-point seller, the shop, to provide references to those studies.

If you go into a pharmacy and ask for aspirin, would you demand that the pharmacist refer you to the studies that proved aspirin works? Would you honestly expect the pharmacist to know?

In fact, when you get right down to it, do you know of any studies that prove aspirin works? To all the sceptics out there who are now scoffing and shouting 'Don't be silly, of course it works', consider that I have asked the same question you demand of homeopaths etc. You have just given the same answer.

It's not easy to find the studies that prove any form of medication works. As for aspirin, would those of you who eschew natural remedies turn away a dose of wintergreen? I'm sure you would become derisive at the very notion of curing your headache with a shrub. Wintergreen contains salicylic acid. The active ingredient in aspirin. It's a natural form of that little white pill. Yet there are those who would pay for a chemical while the remedy might be available in the local woods for free. All you need to know is a little botany.

I'll put my cards on the table before you all dismiss me as some sandal-wearing weirdie beardie. I don't take homeopathic remedies. The whole 'memory of water' idea has been demonstrated to be wrong (in an embarrassingly theatrical way, but demonstrated nonetheless). So I don't see how homeopathy can work. At the same time I don't dismiss it as nonsense. I haven't studied it or tested it. I have no time to do so, so I won't scoff because well, you never know. I don't have a beard or sandals either.

I do take herbal remedies but I'm not religious about it. If I was diagnosed with cancer I'd be off to have it cut out, not relying on chamomile tea and oregano. For trivial things, headaches and the like, I'd rather consume something natural than hit the chemotherapy straight away.

Consider, those who defend modern medicine as if it knows all there is to know - was thalidomide such a roaring success for pharmacological science? There are many people still suffering the effects of that particular triumph of modern medicine. No herbal or homeopathic remedy has ever done anywhere near that scale of damage. Before you throw stones, remember your house is made of glass.

Blood transfusions, too, are defended as though Moses brought them down on a third tablet of stone. Find the reference to the clinical trials. There isn't one. Blood transfusions started in an age when leeches were used to treat most illnesses and mercury was given to treat syphilis. They have been refined since then but they have never been put through a clinical trial. Yet the blood transfusion is lauded and evening primrose oil is derided.

Natural remedies are the product of centuries of knowledge. Some work, some are placebos, some do nothing at all but few do actual harm. Where harm is shown it's because someone has such faith in the natural remedy that they refuse modern treatment, even where the modern treatment is far more effective. That's not the fault of the herbs, it's the fault of the idiot who refuses to accept they have limits.

Modern medicine, on the other hand, has killed, irreparably damaged and maimed people using modern treatments. Again, not the fault of the treatment, but the fault of the idiot who refuses to accept they have limits... and side-effects.

Modern medicine is not perfect. Not by a long way. The British health service has killed more people this year than all the natural remedies, of any kind, have ever done.

So don't get too smug because you are a believer in the religion of science. Science isn't finished yet. There is a great deal more to do and we won't live to see even a fraction of it.

It is NOT the Perfect Word of God. It was never meant to be. Stop treating it as though it is.

For us scientists, that's really embarrassing.


Southern Writer said...

I thought the base of aspirin was vinegar. Wintergreen? Huh.

What I've always wondered is how aspirin knows where to go. If I have a headache, it goes there. If the arthritis in my hands is bothering me, it goes there. And of course, I have to take that low dose every day for my heart. It's truly a miracle drug.

As for alternative remedies, I've said before and will continue to tout it for the rest of my life--reiki is amazing, too. Read about it, and it sounds like quackery along the lines of snake oil and such, but IT WORKS. Really. Truly. How could it possibly? But it does.

Dr. Brainiac said...

Unlike a lot of scientifically-minded folks, the one thing I've learned is that the more I learn, the more I realize I don't know.

Then again, there are lots of things for which empirical validation is unnecessary, such as whether there is more visible light available at midday as opposed to midnight. Not that I know anything or anything.

Romulus Crowe said...

SW- aspirin is salicylic acid (might not have the spelling exactly right on that) which is found in a few plants. I believe these days it's synthetic, not extracted from anything.

Any time a botanist finds a new plant species, the pharmacological companies descend on it and take it apart to look for potential medicines. They're herbalists, just with more sophisticated methods.

Oh, the aspirin goes everywhere, every time. You only notice its effects on the part that hurts.

Romulus Crowe said...

Dr. B - true, there is more out there than anyone will ever know. When new species of apes and huge deep-sea creatures are found, it always amazes me that we hadn't seen them before. A species of spider can be overlooked, but an eighteen-foot squid? What else is still out there?

More light at midday than midnight - hmm, there are days in a Scottish winter when you might well need a light meter to prove it!

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