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  • Sam Darling

Your physician is crap at science

There are a lot of physicians in my family and perhaps that’s why I’ve befriended doctors, their children, and worked for a number of them. Doctors are amazing people. Most of them take self sacrifice and community service to an extraordinary height. I’m in awe of people who can manage the grueling physical and mental gauntlet required to become a doctor.

For the average person, their family doctor or specialist represents the voice of education, experience, and science. Unfortunately, physicians are crap at science. It’s not their fault. They’re not trained scientists. The training required for doctoring relies heavily on the ability to memorize and function well on almost no sleep. There is very little actual intellectual rigor involved in the practice of medicine. Your average philosophy major has more critical thinking training than even a seasoned doctor.

I first realized the problem of very smart people with stupid ideas when I worked for a doctor for the first time. Taking an avuncular role he would try to impart important life lessons to me. One example that almost made me laugh out loud: “All the people in mental institutions smoke cigarettes. If you want to avoid being friends with mentally unstable people you should avoid being friends with smokers.”

Let’s tattoo all doctors:

Correlation =/= Causation

I’ve suffered listening to doctors say nonsense far too often. I nod politely and wonder why so many smart people could be such sloppy thinkers. Just this week I was barefoot at a veterinary office (long story) and the vet lectured me, “If you catch a chill you’ll get pneumonia.” Did she miss germ theory? I said, “Thanks for that!” But I wanted to challenge her to a duel. Even the oft-repeated idea that being cold and wet puts you at greater risk of becoming ill was proven false. Perhaps she meant to say hypothermia but I don’t see how standing barefoot indoors would put me at high risk for that either.

The unfortunate result of this problem in training is that information disseminated through doctors to the public is often garbled and incomplete. All of this was further brought home in listening to the doctors talk about why it’s okay for them to work on little or no sleep in this episode of White Coat, Black Art. You’ll notice in the segment that members of the medical establishment don’t start by asking the pertinent questions, the very first step in scientific inquiry. The entire argument in favor of keeping the system as it stands boils down to:

Everyone you know has a story about a doctor who said something profoundly confusing or dismissive to them. It’s difficult to stand up for yourself against authority figures. If a doctor says something that sounds boneheaded you should probably fact check the science.

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