Today, thoughts on medicine, self-deception, and
scientific literacy. The University of Houston's
College of Engineering presents this series about
the machines that make our civilization run, and
the people whose ingenuity created them.
A letter from a listener,
Attorney Robert Musicant, voices frustration with a
phrase that he hears from business, social, even
medical organizations: The phrase is, "More
research is needed."
For example, everyone knows that tobacco is a
murderous addictive drug. Everyone knows that
low-fat, plant-based diets reduce heart disease.
Everyone knows we drink too much alcohol and are
damaged by it. Yet we run for the same high ground
of unsatisfied skepticism on all these matters.
Caring for illness takes 27 percent of the federal
budget and it tears our economy apart. We could
solve that problem by focusing on just a few
destructive agents --like tobacco, alcohol, high
fat, and a lack of exercise. But we're all part of
infrastructures that support these agents. Which of
us doesn't own stock funds that make money from
them? Television often praises the virtues of
exercise at the same time it depends on making us
into couch potatoes.
Musicant says he feels like Ignaz Semmelweis.
Semmelweis was the Hungarian doctor who got into
trouble when he told other doctors they could avoid
killing one mother in seven if they would just wash
their hands before they delivered babies. "Your
idea isn't sufficiently researched," they told him,
and they continued business as usual. When obvious
scientific truth opposes our social order, we'd
rather not hear it.
I recently drew flak when I criticized an arts
organization that accepted money in exchange for
promoting a cigarette company. Many listeners knew,
on a visceral level, that such criticism threatens
the social order woven around us. At the same time,
ours is a science-based social order and science
dies when we turn our back to avoid unpleasantness.
We know, without a shred of doubt, that high-fat
diets cause heart disease, that tobacco kills more
Americans in a year and a half than the total
deaths in any war we've ever fought, that much
(maybe most) of our alcohol use is physically and
mentally destructive, that a lack of exercise opens
the door to illness.
By accepting a few plain truths we could all but
eliminate heart disease, adult-onset diabetes,
emphysema, and more than half of cancers.
Acknowledging the obvious could solve the health
care problem in America before it bankrupts us. It
could save countless loved ones from suffering
horrid illness and death.
This isn't new. But it represents greater
foolishness in the light of today's knowledge than
it did 2400 years ago when Plato wrote:
To stand in need of the medical art through
sloth and intemperate diet ... do you not think
this is abominable?
Our ongoing failure to face increasingly
clear facts vividly illustrates what it means to be a
scientifically illiterate people.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Musicant, R., Personal letter, December 11, 1996. Dr.
Musicant's Ph.D. degree is in Biological Psychology.
He is presently writing a book on this problem. He
suggests the following source material:
Concerning Cardiovascular disease, diabetes,
hypertension, osteoporosis, and COPD, see, e.g.,
references collected in such popular works as
Dr. Dean Ornish's Program for Reversing Heart
Disease, The Pritikin Program for Diet
and Exercise, and any of Kenneth Cooper's
Willett, Colditz, and Mueller, Strategies for
Minimizing Cancer Risk. Scientific
American, Sept. 1996, pp. 88-95.
Plato passage quoted by Dubos, R., Mirage of
Health. New York: Harper and Row, 1959, p.
The program I refer to in the text (about tobacco
money for an arts organization) is Episode 1182.
For an informative website with information on
tobacco and health, see http://rampages.onramp.net/~bdrake
Note Added, July 15, 2016: Since I did this episode in 1996,
the thinking about fat consumption has changed. My statement that a high fat diet can lead
to heart disease is too emphatic/simplistic, in the light of more recent findings. The role
of fat in the diet is too complex to be condemned out-of-hand. If I were writing this
episode today, I would need to include a number of qualifications.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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