Tuesday, November 01, 2005

How do we know what we know?

In an online musician’s forum I participate in, a vocalist asked for recommendations on getting over her cold. I’m sure you can imagine that she got as many different opinions as we have members in the group. This group is no slouch, scientifically. The group includes a medical doctor and a biology professor with a Ph.D.

Our respected M.D. mentioned treating the symptoms and getting plenty of rest and fluids. Several others (including myself) mentioned herbs and other natural preparations. Still others mentioned colloidal silver, and so on.

The discussion that ensued was interesting, to say the least. I think the alternative folks were more vocal than our good doctor. What was funny was how they tried to support their opinion, and start an argument with the MD, by making claims such as “I live with a bunch of microbiologists” and so on. The MD had never discredited them; they just started in on the MD and tried to justify their position. In our good doctor’s defense, our resident biologist mentioned that he would rather trust a person who has studied, trained, and become licensed in medicine than any number of less studied (or even unstudied) recommendations.

It brought up an interesting question for me, as a proponent of SOME natural and so-called alternative medicines. How do we know that any of these things work? How do we know anything? It’s hard to discount a positive result in our own lives when using an alternative therapy, even if some people shake there heads and roll their eyes at us, telling us it was “just a coincidence.”

People on both sides of the alternative vs. traditional argument site study after study, in some cases denying that such studies exist. I can’t count the times I’ve been told, “There hasn’t been any research on such and such a remedy,” when I’ve seen and read them myself.

On the other hand, I get concerned when people start talking about natural and alternative medicines as being completely safe, when it’s simply not true. I know people who swear by colloidal silver. I’ve taken it, but I didn’t notice a real helpful result that couldn’t be achieved through taking some other herb or medicine much safer than a heavy metal solution. I’ve heard the claims that a colloidal solution of gold or silver is safe, but I’ve never seen the real studies to back that up. Maybe one of my readers can point me to one.

But the problem continues in that some studies are designed to give a specific result, rather than actually test a hypothesis. That’s why peer review is so important in the scientific community. To cut down on scientists pursuing an agenda that leads to bad science. The problem is that some studies get published before going to peer review because they support a publisher’s specific agenda.

To me, that means that we need to quit believing that science and medicine, from any modality, is some kind of sacred cow; that it’s solid and can’t be questioned. We need to question everything. As a people we used to believe that atoms were the smallest particle in existence, now we know about protons, electrons, quarks, gluons, and all those other sub-atomic particles. People used to believe the earth was the center of the universe. Now we know better. We used to believe that Neanderthal man was part of the evolutionary chain that leads to Homo sapiens. Now, with increased understanding of genetics, we’ve proven that to be false. According to modern evolutionary theory Neanderthal man and Homo sapiens both evolved from a common ancestor, but are not directly related.
I’ve had this discussion with several of my professors, now. While we may differ in opinion on certain points, there are a few things we are in agreement with. The questions should constantly be, what is the data showing us? What can be claim with some certainty, based on what we see?

What do we really know? I think that understanding how we know what we know is just as important.

No comments: