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 work.
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 "Aeorbics" books.
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. 143.
The program I refer to in the text (about tobacco money for an arts organization) is Episode 1182.
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.