Monday, October 8, 2007

Life, Death, and Se(cts) in Between

I finally did it ... I created a blog. And it's about damn time.

It's a crazy world here, and trying to make sense of it is often times more than difficult. Perhaps documenting the crazy times will help me remember what I've learned and clarify things that still seem quite ambiguous.

It's only appropriate to mention that one of the driving factors in me starting this blog is the podcast 'The Skeptics Guide to the Universe.' I highly recommend it to open-minded people who want to be challenged and remain grounded when they seem to be surrounded by crazy people. I credit Leo DiNapoli for directing my fingers to the download on iTunes; I've finally managed to catch up on all 114 episodes, and I can't wait for each week's show to come!

I'm a grad student in the Cell Biology Department at Duke University. Tomorrow I'm supposed to present a paper on the molecular 'twisting' of the protein Dynamin that actually facilitates membrane pinching and subsequent endocytosis - I'm supposed to be working on it at this very moment, as I haven't even begun the presentation aspect yet. Instead, I've been sitting at my lab bench distracted by a friend's email concerning homeopathy.

Yes, that's right - you read correctly. Someone decided to email me the merits of homeopathy, as a legitimate cure for modern ailments - the FDA's official stance on it to be precise. He sent me this link:

He actually sent it as an endorsement for homeopathy when, in fact, it is an indictment! The only reason the FDA doesn't call it quackery is because it would offend the many people of the world that practice it, and it wouldn't be very PC to do that, now would it?

Homeopathy functions on the founding 'law of infinitesimals' - it is just as counter-intuitive as it sounds. Diluting something down to mathematically NOTHING, claiming that the water retains an imprint of the substance, and then administering it to an ailing patient in hopes of 'stimulating' the body to respond. It involves a lot of what I like to call, 'woo woo magic.' Last night during a conversation (he's originally from India) my friend informed me that my close-minded nature was preventative to understanding the true merits of this sort of treatment - after all, back home in India there are numerous medical schools of homeopathy, millions of people who take homeopathic drugs, and his grandmother's arthritis got better after practicing homeopathy - clearly this is undeniable evidence that homeopathy works ... right?

There's a crucial logical fallacy that so many people commit because it can be very subtle - generally speaking it's a good rule of thumb, but you can never rely on it to tell the truth. The concept is so old, that there's a Latin phrase epitomizing the thought: 'post hoc, ergo propter hoc.' This essentially means that because something happened after an event took place, then that event must have caused what happened. When made explicit like this, it seems obvious that it's a mistake to think in such a way. But we commit this fallacy all the time. Especially when drugs are concerned - take aspirin for example: when you take 2 aspirin for a headache, and then your headache goes away, you initially think, "Hey! My headache is gone - the aspirin must have stopped it!" Not a bad thought, but by itself, this doesn't prove anything. Fortunately we've done many, MANY clinical studies, as well as medical research showing different receptors that aspirin can bind, and the physiological effects that taking aspirin can elicit. Not to mention that in double blind control tests, patients receiving aspirin fare much better than those taking a placebo. It's clear that aspirin works in very specific ways to manipulate your body and relieve pain, as well as perform a whole host of other reactions.

When it comes to homeopathy, we initially hear the same story - someone took a homeopathic drug and their headache stopped - they thought "Hey! There's something to this - it must have stopped my headache!" Unfortunately, the clinical trials have been done, and the medical research is in - there's no effect more than the placebo effect. People think that they're doing something to treat their problem, and the subjective symptoms begin to subside. But this NEVER holds up in group studies. Let's face it, based on the principle of dilutions, there's nothing in the potion to even cause harm. But based on the belief of a molecular 'imprint' in the water, by that definition alone, there should be imprints in the bottled water that you buy at the store that should cure you of all sorts of ailments - and cause lots of harm. This belief doesn't stand up to even a cursory glance - yet somehow hundreds of millions of dollars are made every year on drugs labelled 'homeopathic' ..... ohhhhhh - now I get it; the practice may not work, but if it doesn't cause harm, no one's going to stop you from making money.

Hooray for capitalism ... I think.

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