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Really Bad Science
By Jack Monster

CINCINNATI--In transitioning from a raw, often blinding faith in the miraculous and superstitious in affairs of religion and politics, modern man seems well-prepared to believe every tick and tock of the hard science crusade of the present age. A close peek at the styles and trends which are initially hawked as scientically proven, reveals a pattern that should bear witness to the irrepressible gullibility of well-educated well-meaning folks, who, just like their less astute backwater kin, will nevertheless hawk any number of products or trends that require just as much blind faith as many of the tenets of ancient religion.

Well, not quite. But how about eggs? After years of shunning the egg with its high chloresteral count, we have learned that eggs may not be as bad for you as once proposed in a fit of supposed enlightenment. Even butter is now deemed healthier than the umpteen types of margarine you can find on the shelf at your local grocery. And now with the "good" cholesterol at war with the "bad" cholesterol, every calorie is suspect. In fact, every month, it seems, some generally accepted nutritional icon is subverted by new evidence.

Now we hear that three servings of tea a day can help stave off a second stroke. Now that makes good sense doesn't it. We could all use a little extra kick, especially if our system is already gummed up with all that bad egg chlolesterol. Imagine the delight of the entire English tea culture. The empire redeemed in an instant!

We have come to expect that diet fashions, though promulgated with scientific authority, change like the seasons. What we do not expect is a change in hormone fashions. Hence the shock this week when a massive study of hormone replacement therapy in postmenopausal women had to be halted three years early because the estrogen-progestin combination appeared to cause an alarming increase in invasive breast cancer, blood clots, strokes and heart attacks.

With that, the decades-old medical axiom about the protective powers of hormonal therapy was overturned in a flash. The reverberations were immediate. The company whose pill was being tested, Wyeth Pharmaceutical, lost 24 percent of its value in one day. Millions of women are now frantically calling their doctors for advice on whether to continue.

Most shocking, perhaps, is the simple reminder of how contingent are the received truths of modern medicine. We know how pre-modern medicine got it wrong, from centuries of leeching and bleeding to the lobotomies and shock therapies that destroyed the lives of so many psychiatric patients in the mid-20th century. But we think of modern science as infinitely more enlightened, more solid, more honest.

Not so. Less than a century ago, the most exalted scientific theory, Newtonian mechanics, was overthrown. Today its successors, general relativity and quantum mechanics, have yet to be fully reconciled. Thirty years ago, the scientific consensus was that we were headed for global cooling. Today it is global warming. The only thing we might be reasonably know for sure is that 30 years from now meteorological science will have delivered yet a new theory, a new threat, a new thrall.

The problem is that even the most sophisticated scientific studies are limited by method, by modeling, by sampling and by an inevitable margin of error. Hence error and revision.

In medicine, because its solemn pronouncements are so widely propagated and so ingrained in people's lives, these revisions are particularly shocking. Yet common. When I was a kid, everyone got a tonsillectomy. It was a rite of passage. We now know that this was unnecessary surgery, indeed, worse than useless. We also routinely were given antibiotics for earaches. It now turns out that this did not hasten recovery, and in fact may have made us, and the population in general, more resistant to antibiotics.

Even as real breakthroughs are made, medical myths continue to dig holes into our once grounded sensibilities despite milleniums of loving observations by everyday people living everyday lives. One such myth, that infectious diseases had been conquered, was put on ice when HIV arrived with all its scary drama of denials and extrapolation. Others, such that asthma is a psychological condition and that ulcers are caused by stress or stomach acid have been eroded to some degree in the public mind. But one man's health is another man's cause celebre. For decades, at the height of the psychoanalytic fad, the cream of the New York intelligentsia sent its healthy children to five-day-a-week psychoanalysis, and reaped the benefits in cocktail party prestige.

For decades, breast cancer was treated with radical mastectomy, a disfiguring and deeply invasive surgery. The idea that many patients should instead be treated with lumpectomy was ridiculed for decades. It is now accepted medical practice. Now pollution has been linked to the common cold. Of course it is, right along with rapid weather changes, over-or-under dressing, exhaustion, weakened immune system, and a host of other nasty otherworldly assailants.

In the three-ring circus of popular science, everyone is rushing around seeking the perfect cure for what ails them. Yet science, like its religious forerunner, has a hard time with humility. The rage today is regenerative medicine. Stem cells. Cloning. The growing and harvesting of replacement parts. It sounds like a gift from beyond, and may yet turn out to be, but beware the panacea. Not long ago, it was fetal tissue transplants for degenerative diseases and angiogenesis inhibitors for the cure of cancer. All of which looked wonderful on paper, but have not passed muster.

This is not to say that this embryonic research will not produce useable results. But when you hear a congressional crooner insist that the research cloning such and such bill would promote will improve your quality of life, hold onto your shirt. That hired gun may be talking about the speculative benefits from the most speculative of new technologies--at a time when science can not tell us, as one pundit put it, the effects of existing postmenopausal hormone therapy on known medical conditions.

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