Saturday, March 14, 2009

Meanwhile, in the world of medicine...

There was a time when I would have felt at least some measure of righteous indignation on finding out about the dastardly deeds of Bernard Madoff. USD 60 billion is nothing to sneeze at, and that kind of money could have done a lot of good, especially now, in a world where there's really never enough. These days, however, such things feel... normal. They feel like the status quo, that a Bernard Madoff lurks wherever there's an abundance of gullible people easily tempted by easy money. And that's the awful tragedy of it, I suppose, that such things have become "normal".

So it came as no real surprise to me when, in the field of medicine, another unscrupulous wretch was uncovered. The URL says it all, really:

That having been said, I am irked by this, which is to say, this pisses me off a lot more than the Madoff case. Why? Oh, where to start...

I'd like to think that medicine is a science. I find it comforting to believe that the body of medical knowledge is acquired through means empirical, i.e. placebo-controlled trials, peer-reviewed journals, checks and balances, etc. Matters of health are close to everyone's hearts* so an insane amount of time and money and hope are invested in medical research. Especially money, as Ben Goldacre points out. So it's a harsh and unsettling reminder to all just how badly the medical profession has been compromised by the profit motive when we see someone like Reuben rise to prominence and bamboozle everyone with falsified data and unscrupulous practices. Forging signatures, for fuck's sake!

So what does it mean for the profession when such filth as Dr Reuben turns up? Obviously there is a serious flaw in the system, and this is no small matter, given that the word of one prominent doctor can, at the same time, earn said doctor hundreds of thousands of dollars and cost millions of lives. And it doesn't stop there, mind you. Even after the perpetrator is caught, the profession is dealt a serious blow to its credibility, sending sod knows how many thousands of the paranoid and gullible scurrying off for alternative treatments. You know the type. Crystals, homeopathy, laying of hands, quacks, maybe some magic ointment from the local shaman**. How many more lives do you suppose that will cost?

And it ripples out still further. Medicine, to the uninitiated, is, like many sciences, an impenetrable bastion of diabolically complex terminology, and, by association, a failure in the field of medicine is a failure for all of science. Because of the taint of one scumbag, the boffins are all that little bit less trustworthy. One more justification for the anti-intellectualist, the Luddite, the religious conservative...

Perhaps you may think that people aren't that stupid. I think not. Maybe it could just be because I'm in Malaysia. I could walk into any shopping mall*** and rope in, say, 100 people, and safely bet that less than 5 of them could tell you, in the simplest terms, what is the scientific method. I'd expect very much the same rate of scientific literacy in, say, an accounting firm, Republican states and damn near any house of worship you can name.

This whole Dr Reuben debacle is indicative of an awful failure at so many levels it's embarassing to look at them. Because the medical establishment failed to police itself, his papers got published. Because society fails to police it's corporations, conflicts of interest arise within the medical profession. Because of failures in the education system, the greater part of the populace is ignorant, gullible and scientifically illiterate.

And this is in the USA, mind you, where, despite the best efforts of the Republicans, groundbreaking research is still being carried out in many fields of science. Can you imagine how deeply the cancer of ignorance spreads in Malaysia, where the highest one can aspire to is come out on top of a scrum of vapid, inane, consumerist cubicle-jockeys? One need only turn on the TV or the radio! Verily, our air is abuzz with the very best (and utterly tasteless) efforts of our unspeakably crass marketing executives. If our government has failed to educate, it is they who perpetuate into adulthood the intellectual wasteland put there by our textbooks.

So, thank you very much, Dr Reuben. Don't misunderstand my meaning, you are still a 24-carat cunt, and deserving of the very worst tortures imaginable for your crimes against humanity, but your crimes are a sharp reminder to us all, that we can do better, and that we must do better.

* And every other part of their anatomy, ahahaha...

** Still plenty of those here in Malaysia, alas. See, this is why many foreigners (including my Jap teacher) think people still live in trees over here.

*** Except maybe for the wonderfully geek infested Low Yat Plaza.

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