In the first part of this article that I posted I discussed my world view with regards to skepticism and tried to give a basic definition for how to approach both science and medicine and identified what I would view as one of the major issues within the medical sector today and that is the industry around Supplements, Complimentary and Alternative Medicine (SCAM’s) which tend to be generally accepted by the public but which have absolutely no basis in science in terms of having a provable or repeatable method of acting or proof via scientific trials and so forth.
In this follow up I will discuss two main issues. How I arrived at the point of view outlined above plus secondly briefly discuss some resources you may find useful in terms of reading up on the subject. In part three to follow I plan to move on to outline some of the major issues that face myself and fellow skeptics and how these might affect our views of the NHS, private medicine and science generally.
How I became a skeptic :
I’ve always had an interest in science, despite being fairly pathetic academically at all but the most basic science and mathematics. To the point where I failed a physics ‘O’ Level (yes I am that old), was allowed to take physics at A level and promptly failed that too (I did manage to scrape a C in biology when re-taking that subject during my first year in the Sixth Form). As a result, with passes in Economics, History and General Studies at A Level I went on (astoundingly I’m sure you will agree) to take a humanities degree course at university.
However, leaving university and moving into first the insurance and then more specifically the health insurance sector I’ve kept an eye on mainly medical advances in science for many years and as a avid reader of current affairs it has been impossible to miss some of the major health and science stories of the last two decades. It wasn’t until 2007 though that the filter by which I approached these topics became of a more skeptical bent. Essentially I discovered the phenomena of podcasting – for those who do not know, podcasting is a culture of (mainly) free radio shows on a now infinite variety of topics that arose on the back of the popularity of the Ipod and its capability through the iTunes store to transfer the new podcast craze into your pocket for consumption on an increasingly easy basis.
The early pioneers of the podcast were those with the technical knowledge to understand the idea behind podcasting and who had the skill set to produce and post them on-line. This meant that in the early days the podcast quickly became the realm of the ‘geek’ broadcaster and so information and content on technology and science has been literally ‘hard wired’ into podcasting – so when I stumbled on podcasts with my 1st Gen Ipod Nano in early 2007 I was instantly drawn to some of the harder science and related podcasts – one of the very first I listened to then (and still subscribe to and listen to on a weekly basis now) was called : The Skeptics Guide to the Universe.
If you are interested in science and the reality of the world around you I can recommend no better introduction or primer on the ideas of being a skeptic. The podcast, hosted by Dr Steve Novella (a practising Neurologist and Assistant Professor at Yale University) is a weekly round up of news, discussion and focus on the world of science and medicine and by listening to a few shows (which average around an hour per week) most people should begin to understand the process by which we skeptics try and seek the evidence for the way the world works rather than simply accepting the prevailing understanding or the line sold by the media. The podcast is also a great summary on the level of understanding of science on a range of subjects that we skeptics term to be ‘Woo’ i.e. ideas not driven by science but often sold or represented as scientific by ‘peddlars of Woo’ – this might include a range of SCAM’s (see my comments on the previous post), psychics and other proponents of unproven, illogical and often preposterous theories. The Skeptics Guide like most skeptical podcasts and resources spends a certain amount of time tearing down non-scientific nonsense both as a public service – a kind of skeptical outreach and also to sharpen their (our) skeptical ‘spider senses’ – it can be very satisfying to consider a news story (usually in the Daily Mail) : coverage of a ghost or UFO photo or lake monster and apply such skeptical tools as Occam’s Razor (which states that among competing hypotheses, the hypothesis with the fewest assumptions should be selected) to the piece and enable both yourself and anyone who will discuss it with you to understand why it probably wasn’t really a ghost or a space ship !
It’s not always easy applying skepticm to the world around us and the human reliance on seeking patterns in chaos often means that those around us are more willing to accept pat or easy solutions to problems that are actually far more complex and interesting that the easy non-scientific answer. To use a medical example. It would have been easy to accept the assertion that the MMR vaccine caused autism. In fact for a time the media and now whole industry of ‘anti-vaxxers’ focus on and play up this link. But science and dogged investigation has proven that the link, suggested by Andrew Wakefield – now discredited and struck off the medical register, simply does not exist and the growing measles epidemic in the UK is testament to the error of simply ‘accepting’ the media lead hysteria with regards to the MMR vaccine. Autism is an increasingly diagnosed problem (possibly more diagnosed because of the desire to medicalise previously unknown or uncategorised problems) but it is not one caused, to the best of our knowledge by the MMR vaccine.
It’s not easy sometimes to apply this level of skepticism to every day life but there are a number of resources out there – if you’d like more information on the skeptic movement please do feel free to contact me via the blog but can I also suggest the following additional reading/resources :
Skeptics with a K – a UK based podcast, posted every fortnight – more irreverent and ‘funny’ than the SGU. Available on iTunes and at www.merseysideskeptics.org.uk/podcasts/
The books : Bad Science and Bad Medicine by Dr Ben Goldacre – invaluable information on how to assess medical and science stories from a skeptical standpoint with useful data on how medical trials and statistics operate
With the SGU and SWAK and one or two books by Ben Goldacre you should have a basic grounding in skepticism and hopefully a desire to practice your budding new world view.
In the third and final part of this Skeptical Approach to Medicine next time I am going to bring the topic back round to applying skepticism in medicine with discussion of some of the key areas for skeptics in medicine.
If you are interested in looking at my business blog (and I do occasionally touch on skeptical subjects on my own blog) or my websites please feel free to visit my blog at :
www.localventure.blogspot.com and business websites :