I get mail!

Apr 29 2009 Published by under Absurd medical claims, Medicine

Pursuant to my policies, I am reprinting an email, with identifying details redacted. I thought it would make for a nice conversation.
A few comments first. The tone and intent of the letter is, I would say, very nice. The content, however suffers from all kinds of being wrong, and contains great examples of common logical fallacies (don't forget to point them out!). Still, thank you very much for writing.


I don't expect any kind of acknowledgement, actually I frankly expect you'll just hit the delete key with the thought, "another uneducated ".

Now that that's out of the way... (You're still here? Wow.)

As a "layman", I have no "medical" credentials --MD, ND, or otherwise-- and no particular axe to grind either way.

What I do have is logic, a solid grounding in the scientific method, an engineering degree, a knowledge of history of medicine, and a good bit of life experience.

Your original question was plausibly civil, but the ensuing "discussion" --if one may be so charitable as to call it that-- unsurprisingly was hardly inviting to those whom you asked for replies. Why on earth do you think that these people would bother wasting time posting in a clearly hostile room, merely to satisfy your ego?

As I said, I have no axe to grind. If anything, my evolution of thought started from the position of being strongly pro-MD. (My uncle was the founding physician of [insert famous institution here], the largest private hospital in [insert civilized country here]-- and before you dare think "backwater", I'll inform you that he was also the in-country physician for visiting President [insert former US president here]. If you think that the Secret Service would allow that man or his hospital near the President of the USA without having his sh* in one sock, you are a fool.)

With that out of the way, I will also tell you that there are a bunch of MD's who are very open to "natural" treatments. They are quiet about it because they don't care to be mocked (or worse) by the medical profession.

Before you castigate persons choose to seek assistance from outside the "official" medical profession, perhaps you should reconsider the history of your own profession. Were you aware that the physician who PIONEERED WASHING HANDS, was run out of the medical profession as a "quack" because what he was teaching ran counter to the "accepted medical practice" of the age? If you think I'm making it up, please don't take my word for it -- do a bit of history reading.

What makes you think that today's medical practices and regimented thinking is any better than that time?

Those of us who are on the sidelines don't hate medicine. I for one certainly do not.

I haven't chosen sides. I simply have come to understand that the "medical profession" does not have an exclusive lock on knowledge.

What I and many others have come to loathe about "medical professionals", though, is the rampant arrogance and dismissiveness of other perspectives.

There's a big difference between intelligence and wisdom.

Learn some humility, boy.

Then you may gain some wisdom about life.

And your patients will be much better served.

Before you discuss, I'd like to remind folks that it is not myself or my perceived arrogance for which I advocate. It is for truth, and, as my friend likes to say, "A statement of fact cannot be insolent".

22 responses so far

  • Ramel says:

    I'm always depressed when I see another engineer with delusions of expertise out side of their fields.

  • Markk says:

    Arrgh! (is it still talk like Shakespeare week?) the "Engineering Degree" with knowledge of the scientific method. It is such a stereotype, and I would be sad if I didn't see it all over a lot of woo. I say to the writer - good you want to subject all of medicine to reality so we know when things like "not washing hands" come up, we'll be able to get rid of them fast, right? Well its funny when most of "alternative" or "natural" medicine comes under scrutiny, it fits right in with the "don't wash your hands, it's not needed" group.
    (As an EE my Engineering credentials are good too, and I have a good grasp of scientific method I think, my mother taught nursing, my brother is chief of medicine at a major medical school, wait I should be writing an alternative medicine book, I fit the profile!)

  • PhilB says:

    I must say, I've about hit my limit of tolerence for people who play the "Galileo Gambit" (or whatever else it's been named at this point). Especially considering that even George Will recently used this in a column on global warming. These folks continually seem to neglect the fact that all those mythological folks who battled an established view, provided their evidence and eventually were accepted as their results were duplicated.
    I know I'm not saying anything new and others have commeted on this before but today was just my breaking point.

  • Toaster says:

    Personally, I advocate the cholera diet for obese celebrities and politicians looking to lose weight quickly. But that doesn't make it sound medical advice.

  • Bill H says:

    I know what you mean Phil. I feel the same way about the "appeal to other ways of knowing" fallacy the writer uses toward the end.
    As an interesting note, alt med proponents bring up Semmelweis often enough that teh wikipedia mentions the Semmelweiss gambit on its Galileo gambit page.

  • MS1 says:

    I am always surprised especially about the "Semmelweis Gambit". Yes, while he was often rejected out of hand even his moderate supporters were a little hesitant and simply requested some basic animal experiments, which he flat out refused to do. Furthermore, his results were not reproduced because his definition of "hand-washing" was poorly described and hard to reproduce. "Child Bed Fever” was a horrific disease though it was also incredibly variable, and with anything variable seemingly effective treatments proliferated. In response Semmelweis used the most loathing rhetoric. He claimed to be gifted by god and laid thick accusations on any who had even slight question about his methodology. He was a terrible scientist and not even a good person. Hardly a role-model for what doctors much less medicine should be.
    People need to also base their perceptions about what MDs value actually from physicians and not from the straw thick projections propagated by alt-meds. I don't care in the slightest whether a treatment came from some ancient guru passed down through generations or was purely an artificial construct conceived by a super computer crunching protein structures. The only thing that matters is whether that treatment is safe and then effective. Period, nothing more but also nothing less.

  • Tex says:

    Sure they laughed at Columbus, and Galileo, and Semmelweiss. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown and the Three Stooges. Just because someone is laughed at, that does not automatically make them correct.

  • Jim says:

    Isn't it funny how people say "I don't have an axe to grind', right before they go grind an axe, in the same vein as saying 'With no disrespect, but...', right before disrespecting you.
    'Learn some humility, boy.' That makes the old-school in me cringe; a pretty disrespectful manner of address, which I might tolerate from a 90 year old perhaps, but not many others.

  • antipodean says:

    OK- logical fallacies.
    Lot's of argument from authority. My Uncle that is an MD and the secret service trust, my engineering degree etc. So poor authority. I understand the physicists also have problems with retired engineers sending in the answer to the theory of everything.
    Galileo Gambit- already covered.
    ND is not a medical credential.
    Ad hominem. You arrogant boy, you, PAL. You are wrong because you are rude and obviously younger than your correspondent. May also be Bulverism -you must be wrong because you are not humble enough/ are an MD/ are too young".
    Lot's of MD's that s/he knows are doing it but are afraid of persecution. Other people are doing it so it must be right. Argumentum ad populum.
    Argument to moderation. That somehow because two school of thought exist the truth must be somewhere in the middle and perhaps we can learn something from alt med (apart from successful marketing which I'll concede is true).
    I'm sure I'm missing at least another couple. But the final flourish
    "There's a big difference between intelligence and wisdom."
    Appeal to other ways of knowing... To which I like to respond "There's a big difference between proper evidence and just making shit up and repeating it ad nauseum"

  • Badger3k says:

    Yeah - despite the fallacies, the "learn some humility boy" sounds likes it coming from Sheriff Rosco T Coltrane.
    At least he didn't end with "I'll pray for you"

  • idlemind says:

    Are they teaching experimental design in engineering school these days? They certainly weren't back when I was in college. I'd say that the average graduate student in psychology knew a lot more about it than a graduate student in engineering.

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    And here I never knew that Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes was was

    run out of the medical profession as a "quack"

  • Harry says:

    Your email author is an example of what frustrates me about engineers. Engineers do great work and they can do math that I can't even come close to understanding.
    Engineers have so little creativity. They work on problem sets, they usually don't come up with ideas. They are not trained as scientists. Oh, and linear thinking.
    They also make so much more money than I did while I was working in Molecular Biology!

  • What I do have is logic, a solid grounding in the scientific method, an engineering degree, a knowledge of history of medicine, and a good bit of life experience.

    No offense to legit engineers but this doesn't surprise me one bit.
    I also love this

    Learn some humility, boy.

    considering he said the first quote above.

    Before you castigate persons choose to seek assistance from outside the "official" medical profession, perhaps you should reconsider the history of your own profession. Were you aware that the physician who PIONEERED WASHING HANDS, was run out of the medical profession as a "quack" because what he was teaching ran counter to the "accepted medical practice" of the age? If you think I'm making it up, please don't take my word for it -- do a bit of history reading.

    One of my favorites. The Science was wrong before Gambit.

  • Mu says:

    As someone who first went through science education before getting engineering training - engineers think VERY different from scientists. Most engineering involves not figuring out why it works, but how to make it work. If the numerical approach works, toss in a safety margin and forget about the analytical solution. Why that works well in making cars, it's not really a long term solution to today's medicine, where usually better understanding of the underlying phenomenon yields a better solution. Unless you're into combinatorial methods, there you just need more monkeys and typewriters if it didn't work the first time.

  • catgirl says:

    I have no objection to "natural" treatments, as long as they stand up to testing. That's the only thing that matters. Hand washing is good not because some "quack" thought of it, but because the evidence has shown that it is effective. It doesn't matter who came up with it. It doesn't matter who currently supports "natural" medicine. I just want evidence.
    If homeopathy, acupuncture, or other woo are tested and shown to be as effective as hand washing, then I welcome them. But none of these things is supported by evidence.

  • melior says:

    How reassuring it must be for the letter-writer to contemplate the fact that Orthomyxoviridae are 100% all-natural and organic! Bonus: ingestion is not recommended by any of the dastardly axe-grinding "pro-MD" "medical professionals" I am aware of, so it's probably good for you and they're just trying to suppress the knowledge for their own craven profits.

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    Engineers have so little creativity.

    I would suggest that this says more about your ability to understand the subject than about those who practice the craft.
    There are some shockingly elegant works of engineering out there, but by the nature of things the only people who see them are other engineers.
    For an example of engineering elegance, try wrapping your brain around the principles of a sigma-delta data converter sometime.

  • bsci says:

    The engineer bashing here is a bit ridiculous. There are many types of engineers and the line dividing engineers and scientists is fuzzy with a lot of people straddling the border.
    There are engineers who don't understand science. There are MDs who don't understand science. There are scientists who don't understand science. Stereotyping entire profession really doesn't do wonders for anyone's point of view.
    That said, I agree with many of the criticisms of this specific engineer's email.

  • Ramel says:

    Engineers have so little creativity??? I'm sorry but thats just utter bollocks. Engineers of varying types are the people behind pretty much everything that makes modern society function, from power generation, to roads, to that computor you're sitting at none would be available to you without engineers!
    Just becuase the proffession has some idiots who think they know things out side of their feild of expertise is no reason to attack all engineers (or those of us who aspire to be one). It's like attacking neurosurgeons based on the existance of Dr egnor.

  • The Blind Watchmaker says:

    How 'bout "False Analogy". This is probably the most used logical fallacy.
    ..."Were you aware that the physician who PIONEERED WASHING HANDS, was run out of the medical profession as a "quack" because what he was teaching ran counter to the "accepted medical practice" of the age?"
    He is referring to Dr. Ignaz Semmelweiss. In the 19th Century, the Scientific method was not a widely used tool in medicine. Practice was often based on common folk-remedies. Dr. Semmelweiss made observations. He then formulated a hypothesis from the observations. Experiments resulting from these observations supported his hypothesis. This contributed later to the Germ Theory of Disease.
    PalMD's posts call for this type of rationality. On the contrary, the cranks that we rant about here are the one's that do not follow the scientific method.
    To compare modern medicine practitioners to the doctors of old is a completely false analogy. It is guys like Dr. Ignaz Semmelweiss that gave rise to modern medicine.

  • DuWayne says:

    I find it rather ironic that inn response to a post about an email chock full with logical fallacies, there are several comments in this thread with their own logical fallacies. Engineers are generally not ignorant morons. Engineers do tend to be, as a rule, rather creative. While they may not develop an underlying principle, they are the one's who actually make it work in the end. Quite often they're the one's who actually come up with real world applications in the first place.
    And there are many folks out there who wear the mantles of scientist and engineer. People who more than blur an already fuzzy line.
    Come on now, lets not counter ignorant stupidity, with more ignorant stupidity.