Are the Dinosaurs of Medicine the Innovators or the Sceptics?

In 2013, Steven Salzberg declared Battlefield Acupuncture the worst quackery for 2011. Follow this link for…his explanation.

Battlefield Acupuncture was pioneered by Dr Richard Niemtzow and is administered at the point of injury to provide comfort and pain relief to wounded soldiers. Salzberg uses pejoratives such as pseudoscience, nonsense and unscientific to label acupuncture, as well as other complimentary therapies such as magnetic field therapy.

 

Fast forward to 2018 and the Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force, General David Goldfien was the keynote speaker at the 2018 Air Force Association’s Air Warfare symposium on innovation and integration. The theme of the general’s talk; Thriving In The Revolution…

“Victory goes not to the innovators, but to the rapid integrator of ideas”.

“It’s vital to embrace change to stay ahead of your adversaries”.

 

 

General David Goldfien & Dr Richard Niemtzow

During his address, General Goldfien invoked the example of the Wright Brothers as inspiration for breaking down the barriers that prevent people from adopting new ideas, such as Battlefield Acupuncture. See speech here.

 

 

How little has changed. If born in that era, Salzberg might have also sided with the leading intellectuals who ridiculed the 19th century Hungarian, Dr Ignatius Semmelweis. Semmelweis deduced that only if doctors performing autopsies would wash their hands before delivering babies, it would drastically reduce the number of women dying after childbirth. The only problem it predated germ theory, so Semmelweis’s hypothesis made no sense. You can almost hear the doctors of the time proclaiming correlation does not imply causation. So the mortality rate among new mothers remained needlessly high for many decades and meanwhile Semmelweis was banished from his profession.

So I’ll ask the question again, who’s the dinosaur…Salzberg or Niemtzow?

 

You could say sceptics are simply critical of dubious claims. But it’s routine for them to cite the silly cases and ignore the credible. This applies to acupuncture as well as magnetic field therapy.

Don’t get me wrong, accepting new therapies without evidence supporting efficacy and more importantly safety, is folly. Particularly for therapies that are expensive or expose the patient to significant risk. But all too often, demands for evidence is little more than protecting powerful agendas and maintaining the status quo.

If only the sceptics were as critical with conventional medicine as researchers such as Dr Peter Gotzsche in his comprehensive work “Deadly Medicines and Organised Crime: How Big Pharma has Corrupted Healthcare.” Some are, such as medical commentator and author Ben Goldacre in Bad Science, published by Fourth Estate (2008).

This was our response to a prominent sceptic of magnetic therapy that was published in a popular Australian magazine.

 

Examples such as Ignatius Semmelweis are widespread throughout history, whether it be Galileo or the lesser known but fascinating tale of German meteorologist Alfred Wegener. Wegener was the first scientist to provide evidence for the theory of continental drift and that initially all the world’s continents existed as a single land mass he called Pangaea. At the time, the prevailing theory was that the Earth’s mountains and ocean basins occurred naturally as it cooled, the so-called “baked apple” theory.

 

Wegener set out his theory in his 1912 book – The Origin of Continents and Oceans. Like many new theories that swim against the tide, the resistance was spectacular. Over the decades the undeniable evidence grew, as did the more absurd counter-theories to maintain the status-quo. Evidence such as:

  • The geometrical fitting of facing coastlines like South America and Africa.
  • The similar fossil distribution between once connected continents
  • The related rock strata features between once connected continents
  • Palaeomagnetic studies examining the Earth’s magnetic field history to confirm seafloor spreading
  • Seismic monitoring along tectonic plate boundaries.

English geologist Arthur Holmes proposed a mechanism for how convection currents moved tectonic plates in his 1944 textbook – Principles of Physical Geology and it was still widely criticized. Particularly in the United States where one reviewer there fretted, without any sense of irony, that Holmes presented his arguments so clearly and compellingly that students might actually come to believe them.

 

Meanwhile, famous American geologist Charles Hapgood was lamenting how gullible British geologists had become for believing such nonsense. In fact, the great Albert Einstein, in one of his last professional acts before his death in 1955 wrote the forward for his book – Earth’s Shifting Crust: A Key to Some Basic Problems of Earth Science. In it, Hapgood attempted to demolish the idea that the Earth’s continents were in motion and invited readers to have a laugh at such ridiculous theories.

 

Surveys published in 1980 noted that even then, one in eight American geologists still did not believe in plate tectonics and continental drift. The story really came home to roost in 2018, when I discussed the subject with a relative, Malcolm Johnson, a research geophysicists at the US Geological Survey (USGS). Malcolm had completed his PhD in physics at the University of Queensland and had just started a new position as Assist. Prof. at the University of Michigan in 1970. On being asked to teach a subject on continental drift, he enlightened the students on the theories of Wegener and Holmes, only to be labelled a heretic by senior professors in the Geology and Mineralogy departments.

 

Ironically, American geologists Isacks, Oliver & Sykes wrote a paper “Seismology and the New Global Tectonics” that for many, put the matter to rest and liked to credit them for the theory.

The story of continental drift is an example of how new theories are resisted to maintain the status quo and how they are adopted to varying degrees in different regions. That’s even before considering the use of techniques such as astroturfing to protect commercial interests and reputations.

The development of the theory of continental drift is brilliantly told by Bill Bryson in his novel A Short History of Nearly Everything. A Black Swan Book, 2003.

 

By James Hermans

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