September 29, 2014 by Liberty
We have to face the truth eventually. We are naive. Yes, I don’t care who you are, you’re not above this unfortunate fact. No matter how many times people are proven completely wrong, people always believe they are now right.
One of the funniest part about this strange behavior is that a small minority of people always end up taking the credit and the blame for the ignorance even though the true credit and blame is dispersed among millions of individuals making decisions.
People in the field of medicine have been taking a lot of credit in the last few decades. Doctors are seen as people that save lives. While it may seem strange to us today, the field of medicine was not always looked at with positive perspective. Thousands of years ago doctors were more like witch doctors than the ones we know today. Some theories even suggest that medicine had a negative effect on survival before penicillin. (A major exception to this may be with emergency surgeons but they were often not considered doctors.)
Simply put, people regularly thought doctors were full of crap.
Despite what you may have been taught to believe, the field of medicine still isn’t a particularly amazing field. Despite all the positive credit our world likes to give modern medicine, it has all the trials and tribulations of any human endeavor.
Any doubts I try to give you about modern medicine would likely get countered with life expectancy arguments.
How could I possibly doubt the effectiveness of modern medicine when life expectancy has gone from 30 years to over twice that in some parts of the world?
The first point to clarify, before anything else, is this: people weren’t dropping dead at 30 from old age. Life expectancy for someone that reached the age of 30 was still plenty of years longer back then. It’s just an average. That average has often been skewed due to infant mortality and wars killing off younger men.
In fact, these rates can get skewed by hundreds of factors. It’s impossible to narrow down what’s related to modern medicine and what’s just the result of other lifestyle factors. For one thing, food is significantly more accessible for much of the world. Farming practices could easily account for a massive chunk of that life expectancy change. (Less starvation, more healthy births, better chance at recovery from illness, etc.)
That being said, plenty of people have tried to make these estimates. Richard Lewontin an evolutionary biologist estimated in the last 50 years fewer than 6 months have been added to the expected life span of a person 60 years old. The CDC has the number at only a few years. Keep in mind that the vast majority of major medical advances have taken place in those 60 years.
Modern medicine certainly can’t take too much credit for the improvements in life expectancy.
Why Medicine Struggles
It may sound like I’m trying to cast a shadow over the medicine but my goal isn’t to undermine medicine. It’s just to clarify something about medicine.
Finding cures to problems with a positive effect on life expectancy is not easy. In fact, I’m willing to estimate that it’s virtually impossible. (You can cut off a head to prevent brain cancer from killing a man but that doesn’t move you any closer to the goal of living.)
Look at mammograms for the perfect example. Specifically, look at the life expectancy difference between women over the age of forty that have received mammograms versus the life expectancy of women that didn’t. What’s the difference between these women’s life expectancy? Nothing. The only thing that changes is that women who receive the mammogram are less likely to die of breast cancer. They’re equally likely to die.
Medicine has to struggle to solve every problem that might or might not be there. If a tumor is found on a women, she is likely to need surgery to remove it. While she’s less likely to die of cancer, she’s more likely to die of surgery or complications from it. If it’s cancer she may need chemotherapy and/or radiation. While, again, she’s less likely to die of cancer, she’s definitely damaging herself through other means. It’s very reasonable just to not get the mammogram in the first place.
This applies to virtually every application of medicine to some extent because evolution has already given you the easy cures to most problems. Evolution has been doing experiments for thousands of years while medicine will always be limited by human intelligence.
That actually leads nicely into where medicine can have it’s largest impact.
Some of the greatest medical advances have come from removing mistakes of previous people.
Look at smoking. There was a time when cigarettes weren’t looked down on at all. Heck, before modern medicine tobacco was a treatment in some parts of the world. The discovery that cigarettes cause lung cancer has saved more lives than we could possibly estimate. Those lives being saved could easily outweigh every medical advance in the last 50 years.
Notice that this is a removal of previous mistakes instead of the addition of new substances.
On Human Ignorance
I’m willing to bet at this point in the article, some alternative medicine supporter is thinking, “Wow! I agree!” The thought of that makes me want to throw up in my mouth. (Sorry bud.) I am attacking human ignorance in medicine and alternative medicine. Alternative medicine just deserves it more.
Even the smartest men and women in the world make absolutely stupid mistakes. I remember hearing about one study where statisticians were asked a statistical question out of the context of statistics. The majority of the statisticians got it wrong. This is a phenomenon not limited to any particular field. No one is above this.
That does not have to mean that we’re hopeless to solve problems though.
When you accept that you’re bound to make mistakes you open the door to a less direct route to solutions.
First of all, you can’t correct mistakes until you’re willing to accept that they’ve been made. Bloodletting was a common medical practice for thousands of years. In recent history it’s been found to be mostly bunk. If no one accepted that mistakes could have been made, we would have continued to reduce life expectancy unnecessarily despite new advances.
Second, mistakes are often instructive and sometimes solutions to other problems. Just consider one of the most important advances in medical history. Penicillin’s medical use (in modern times) was first discovered by Alexander Fleming. This was not a discovery made by sheer hard work and good practice. In fact, the mold came from a completely separate experiment contaminating a petri dish.
Mistakes (and knowing how to deal with them appropriately) are largely responsible for some of the biggest discoveries in history. You might even say they’re what makes life fun.
Humans can do some pretty amazing things but despite the narrative told in virtually every fictional story, concentrated human effort isn’t anywhere near as effective as time and correcting the stupid concentrated human efforts of the past. For every concentrated human effort success story there are a million boring stories that will never be told about how it’s failed.
If you find that thought depressing then I think you’re looking at it in the wrong way.
If all your effort doesn’t dramatically increase your chances of changing the world, (Sorry, it doesn’t,) then you can reevaluate your priorities. There are things that it can dramatically change though.
If the smartest man in the world dedicated his whole life to cancer research, he’d probably, still, never come up with a cure for it. If he could then he’d always have that hanging over his head if he spent his time doing something else. It wouldn’t be a privileged to be that smart, it would be a responsibility (for most empathetic people.)
You only have one life to live and since you can’t be significantly more effective than anyone else at something, you don’t have to feel responsibility to do it. You might as well do something you love with the time you have and hopefully, you’ll still make a difference. Hell, you might even make more of a difference than you could of made someplace else.
You may be wildly unlikely to change the world and no amount of effort will significantly change that BUT… You can wildly change your life by the things you do and the effort you put into them. Changing the world just comes naturally after that.
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