Cognition & Reality

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Medical Science: An Ideology

In a previous post, I referred to “medical science” as an “ideology.” Modern medicine, since its beginnings in the 19th century, has had a number of amazing successes: Open heart surgery, and the use of insulin to treat diabetes have saved countless lives; orthopedic surgery has literally made it possible for cripples to walk again. Vaccination, pasteurization, and other health measures have virtually rid the industrialized world of a host of plagues. Advances in obstetrics are in a class by themselves because they have been such a huge factor in reducing human misery. These successes have led to the arrogant presupposition that every ill has a cause that will ultimately fall under the purview of the physician.

Although the amalgamation of medicine with biological science has been fruitful, it has led to the belief that the two together can provide the answer to every question. Germ theory has been important, both theoretically and practically, but it has led to the confused idea that every observed “pathology” has an identifiable physiological cause. Medicine has likewise embraced molecular genetics, leading to the similar confusion that every observed variation must represent an underlying genotype. These unsupported propositions have been applied to the understanding of human behavior.

Therefore, the idea that behavior results from physiological substrates has become an article of faith. Behavioral geneticists have more or less deliberately exaggerated the heritability of behavioral traits by using statistical techniques that magnify the apparent “genetic” component. Meanwhile, despite increasing evidence that antidepressants and other advanced pharmaceuticals don’t work or don’t work well, the medical community has continued pushing chemicals that are supposed to modify mood and behavior. In this, they are aided and abetted by the entertainment industry, which continues to make reference to genetic influences on behavior and to the role of “chemical imbalance” in psychoemotional distress.

They can continue to do this as long as the public buys the medical ideology, something that is supported by the news and entertainment media. Although medical community has conceded that “chemical imbalances” do not explain depression and other psychoemotional disturbances, the myth survives, in large part because it’s easy to believe and relieves all parties of responsibility.

As we have seen, the imperium of medicine extends beyond behavioral questions into other areas where medicine has repeatedly failed, but continues to exert an all-powerful influence. The “war on cancer” has gone on for decades without yielding the long-promised cures. Instead, doctors prescribe chemotherapy, which causes great discomfort, often prolonging life at the cost of a patient’s misery. The cure is worse than the disease, or no better, at any rate. For example, after successfully fighting brain cancer that spread to her brain, the wife of a former client has spent the past two years suffering from iatrogenic conditions that resulted from her initial treatment, and has had to have a shoulder and a hip replaced because the medications made her bones brittle. The last I heard, she was still not out of the woods with her cancer, either.

The success of medicine has come at a great price. In the first place, it is literally very expensive. Secondly, we have allowed the many successes to blind us to the many failures. We have forgiven the latter in part because of the ungrounded expectation that present-day failures will turn to success later on. Rarely does that happen. Most advances that have occurred, such as in heart and orthopedic surgery, have been incremental. New discoveries that change the entire life-and-death picture seldom occur. Because of the faith the public and the medical profession have put in genetics, for example, the Human Genome project was long expected, to yield answers about various forms of mental illness, but has not done so.

It is quite possible that the great discoveries that propelled medicine for a long time, vaccination, sterilization, etc., which mostly occurred in its early days, do not in any way predict the future of medicine. The discovery of DNA, over half a century ago, was possibly the most spectacular, but it might also be the last. Those early discoveries bequeathed to industrialized society a false model of medical progress, one that has not applied for some time. The great hope for medicine that remains is based largely on laurels accumulated long ago. It is time to see that our society has idolized and idealized medicine out of all proportion to what it can or will deliver.

Advertisements

Leave a Comment »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: