Alternative medicine is my fault

My boot camp instructor’s name is Keith and he’s about as hard-assed as they come. Love him. He reminds me of Jack Nicholson’s character in A Few Good Men. “You want me on that wall…you NEED me on that wall.”


Today as our class was grunting and sweating out jumping lunges and hill sprints, he told the class of an experiment he did on himself eliminating gluten from his diet for a month. Bottom line: he lost 9 pounds after a few days, and put that weight back on after two days of reintroducing gluten back into his diet. I’m with you dear reader, besides a handful of people with Celiac disease, I think the gluten free graze is a lot of BS. But Keith is not a fool. He knows he did not loose muscle or fat in 48 hours, that what he experiencing was shifts in water weight.  And he monitors his food and his weight very carefully.

Feh, you say, one anecdote, no controls, gluten diet stuff is still BS, not science.  Yeah, but it dawned me after class watching everyone come up to him with questions about what he ate that Keith is a master of outreach, by that I mean the part of science where epistemology happens.  As a scientist, I sorta feel we have the lock on epistemology, how we know what we know and create knowledge, but as we discussed on a PubStyle Science, the world is more complicated than the scientific method.  A critical part of creating knowledge happens when disinterested observers become convinced of one side of an argument.  That’s what I saw happening at boot camp, people who don’t care about randomized controlled trials were becoming convinced.  Hell, even me.

Point is, scientists and doctors can look down their noses at alternative medicine and old wives’ tales about what to eat, but it is our own fault for being so damn slow to examine issues that people care about.  Clinical research moves too damn slowly, and many people turn their noses up at the medical establishment in return.  

There is increasing attention to the need to accelerate medical research, but most efforts are misguided because they are intertwined with a capitalistic urge to develop new pharmaceuticals.  Yes, we need better drugs for horrible diseases.  But the Pharmaceutical Era has reached it’s peak and we could accelerate research if we started to think about anti-pharmaceutical approaches.  The gluten thing is a good example.  Testing a new drug requires much bureaucracy to protect people from harm.  More on this in another post, but what I call anti-pharmacy, eliminating compounds from consumption might move quicker.  “Don’t eat gluten for a month” is arguably inherently safer proposition than “take this drug for a month.” 

Another place where I see the general public doing an end run around the medical establishment is with pot.  I was recently in Colorado and visited a marijuana dispensary for the first time in my life.  (Purely for research purposes, I assure you!)  It was a store that had a history of operating in the medical marijuana space, and the staff explained in great detail the different medical benefits of different strains of pot.  This strain for arthritis, this strain for cancer.  Yes, yes, more untested BS, I’m with you, I’m with you.  But these folks know that different strains have different concentrations of different active ingredients, and the fact is that while controlled trials are years/decades away, people are experimenting on themselves.  While I agree that 90% of the claims will eventually be confirmed BS, I’d be willing to bet that there are scientifically confirmable truths in there somewhere.  There is no doubt that different chemical components will be found to have different effects and different toxicities.  It’s not the fault that people believe this stuff now, IMHO, it’s our fault in the medical community that we move so damn slow to test their hypotheses.  

8 thoughts on “Alternative medicine is my fault

  1. For me, the issue becomes with people that insist that every minutiae and alternative iteration of a hypothesis be tested when there is substantial evidence to suggest that the hypothesis would not be supported. Many of these folks are also very poor at accepting negative outcomes in clinical trials. I offer you the vacc-aloons as an example. The only thing that they’ll believe is an affirmative trial showing that vaccinations did cause Little Jimmy’s autism.

  2. So those who are trained to do research well recognize there’s little value in spending on research that has little prior plausibility.

    Those who are willing to spend anyway are usually invested in a positive outcome, introducing enormous bias.

    What’s needed is research that isn’t tied to public funding, but is still held to an extremely high ethical and epistomological standard. Is there room for independent patronage in modern science?

  3. Removing gluten from your diet and replacing it with *what*?
    If you stop eating wheat pasta and start eating brown rice, that’s one thing. If you stop eating wheat pasta and start eating corn/rice flour pasta held together with mono and diglycerides, it might be like the old margarine swapped for butter thing. Or how we’re swapping out BPA for a host of less tested probably equally endocrine disrupting new plastics.

    A month of any trendy substitution product probably isn’t going to hurt much, but dietary interventions are hard when they meet the real world of how people actually behave.

    • True enough, although I can’t succumb to nihilism on these issues, we can learn if we want to. I’ve been leery of the the “big data” trend, but maybe looking at tons of data from people even outside a clinical trial would help.

  4. Pingback: Links 9/8/14 | Mike the Mad Biologist

  5. He eliminated starch, and substituted …. what? You WILL lose weight when you eliminate carbs. That’s probably what happened with him, but he doesn’t know enough about diet to understand that.

    • When you say, “he doesn’t know enough..” you are resorting to ad hominem arguments, which are a fail. The dude is razor sharp and eats a maniacally monitored diet. He knows he lost water weight because it moved to fast to be anything else.

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