White Coat Underground

I can’t tell if it is a trend yet, but it seems there has been a bit of a decrease in the outright quackery published in the Huffington Post lately. But that doesn’t mean it’s disappeared, and the poor quality of the writing more than makes up for the decreased quantity.

Case in point: Why We Overreacted to an Ordinary Flu, by Philip Slater, a sociologist with no medical education (a point that becomes evident very quickly). For example:

In an online newsletter recently some mad housewives were sharing tips on how best to triple-wash and triple-sterilize their countertops. What on earth did they think they would catch from their own countertops?

Um, Salmonella? E. coli? In case he hasn’t picked up a newspaper in the last couple of years, there are a few little problems with food safety in this country. But I’m sure that he will find a cogent way to relate prevention of food cross-contamination to the current influenza problem—right?

Since I eat food that has fallen on the floor, both in my own and other people’s houses, not to mention the ground outside, and since I was never vaccinated against all the childhood diseases children are vaccinated against today (and came down with most of them), and since I grew up before antibiotics existed, I should, in the view of the mad housewives, be dead by now. And I have never had a flu shot.

I’m very glad he is doing so well. Based on his photo, I’m pretty sure he doesn’t pre-date antibiotics. I’m also not so sure what eating dirty food has to do with the current flu pre-pandemic. I certainly hope you don’t mean to say that because you turned out OK (except for some apparent cognitive dysfunction) we should put everyone at risk. Would you have treated your strep throat with the antibiotics that you didn’t know about? That’s how you prevent rheumatic fever, you know.

I’ve always held the view that if I wasn’t stressed or exhausted no flu germ could ever touch me, and that if I was stressed out and exhausted, any stray bug could have its way with me. Of course there’s still time for one to do me in some day, but no one lives forever. I think we’re in far more danger today from our obsessive over-protectionism with regard to microbes than from the bugs themselves.

I’m glad you have so much confidence in your ability to wish away disease. That’s so nice. I’m also glad you think we’re in more danger from “over-protectionism” than from “the bugs”. I’m sure that will bring great comfort to the moms who are so ill from HIV that they can’t care for their kids who are dying of diarrhea and malaria.

Why are we so obsessed with killing bacteria? Especially when we depend on them so utterly. We each of us carry within us trillions of bacteria — ten percent of our dry body weight, in fact. They slave night and day to maintain and repair our cells, digest our food, and in a hundred other ways keep us alive. I have every confidence that they know what they’re doing — a confidence very, very few doctors have ever inspired in me.

Why are we obsessed with killing bacteria? Personally, I’m not at all obsessed with killing 99.9999% of the bacterial species I encounter, only the ones that try to kill me or my patients—I get medieval on them. And where did you get the idea that bacteria are slaving away to “maintain and repair our cells” and the rest? Seriously, where? I only ask because that bears no resemblance to anything I’ve read in my biology or medicine texts.

Western medicine, which is based on a military model, is also obsessed with killing. If doctors can’t find something to kill or cut they seem to be at a loss. Not that doctors are alone in this — our political leaders seem to approach every social problem by making “war” on it, and every international problem by throwing bombs at it.

That’s the ticket! Once you’ve said that, you’ve pretty much summed it up. I’m a vicious killer. Seriously, has this guy ever talked to a doctor?

Bacteria were here millions of years before us. And they’ll be here long after we’ve destroyed ourselves with our impatience.

That’s so nice. Bacteria are cute and fuzzy and will outlive us all. I’ll tell you what—you go ahead and catch all the bacterial diseases you want. Just stay away from my waiting room. I’ve got real patients in there trying to stay healthy.

Oh, and influenza is a virus, not a bacterium. Make a note of it.

Comments

  1. #1 perceval
    May 8, 2009

    Looks like he’s confusing real live e coli with this .

    Who could resist one of these lovelies Don’t stress, they don’t bite if you’re relaxed and positive ;)

  2. #2 Connie
    May 8, 2009

    Perhaps we should refer to them as HuffPOS.

  3. #3 Jimbo Jones
    May 8, 2009

    When someone trots out the line “I was never vaccinated” and seems proud of it? Self-preservation dictates I read no further. Apoplectic rage against idiocy isn’t good for me, so I’m told.

  4. #4 D. C. Sessions
    May 8, 2009

    I’m sorry to be the one to break the news, but disease promotion is not exactly new at HuffPo.

  5. #5 Denice Walter
    May 8, 2009

    OT/(“Just when I thought I was out, they *pull* me back in”).As the economy improves, I spend less time monitoring prices and therefore, less time listening to noontime radio woo,so I don’t know if this is real or faux:on my way out the door today,I heard(WNYE)that Null’s guests “were” (?)Drs.Robert Gallo and Luc Montagnier, who “appeared” at the end of the show for about 10 minutes(*le grand fou de woo* has an internet radio show-@PRN- that follows,so they possibly continued).Be that as it may,the two doctors spoke about HIV and anti-viral treatments in response to the host’s idiotic questions.Would two well-known scientists show up on an HIV-denialist’s whimsy-based show? Is this the way to counteract woo and denialism? Someone might want to follow up on this.

  6. #6 T. Bruce McNeely
    May 8, 2009

    We each of us carry within us trillions of bacteria — ten percent of our dry body weight, in fact.

    Huh?

    First of all, what is “dry body weight”? Is it your weight when you are teetotal? Is it your weight when you are dessicated?
    Second – 10 per cent? Good lord, I’m carrying around 18 lb. of bacteria (when I don’t drink).

    Also – this guy is a sociologist? I know that some of us tend to scorn the social sciences (me! me!), but even a sociologist should know that a testimonial does not equal data.

  7. #7 JohnV
    May 8, 2009

    I’m not sure about the 10% value for mass, but dry body weight would refer to dessication.

    A clearer number for him to trot out would have been that for every human cell in our body there are about 10 bacterial cells.

    I suppose that might allow one to arrive at the 10% dry weight statement, if you know the approximate bacterial and human cell counts and the approximate dry weight of each.

  8. #8 Badger3k
    May 8, 2009

    That 18 lbs of bacteria will probably all magically drop out with a good colon-cleansing coffee enema – I’ve heard it cures everything. :)

    I think this is the response to the one piece of good science – they had to up the woo factor to make the right balance. After all, it takes a lot of woo to balance one tiny bit of reality.

  9. #9 D. C. Sessions
    May 8, 2009

    Hey, peeps, don’t diss sociologists. For all their faults they don’t deserve the blame for this one.

    Actually, I’m informed by a well-informed if not totally objective source (my sociologist daughter) that outside of academia the CDC is very high on the list of employers for sociologists. It seems that sociology and applied epidemiology have a lot in common.

    Of course, that implies a competent sociologist.

  10. #10 James F
    May 8, 2009

    Since I eat food that has fallen on the floor, both in my own and other people’s houses….

    Five-second rule FTW!

  11. #11 Noadi
    May 8, 2009

    Triple sterilising countertops is probably a bit excessive (unless your cutting chicken directly on the counter instead of a cutting board that’s easier to soak in bleach solution). I’m generally at peace with the micro-organisms around me, except for that .0001 percent that don’t want to be at peace with me, those I show no mercy. Especially in the kitchen, I’ve had salmonella and I have no wish to have it happen again.

  12. #12 TimK
    May 8, 2009

    re: obsession with killing bacteria

    Most guns I see in my daily life are in the possession of officers whose job to maintain civil society I utterly depend on. By Slater’s logic, I should therefore not object to anyone having a gun.

  13. #13 D. C. Sessions
    May 8, 2009

    By Slater’s logic, I should therefore not object to anyone having a gun.

    Emphasis added — I’m pretty sure you meant it that way.

  14. #14 joannalh
    May 9, 2009

    Great post! I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry about the HuffPo article. ???

  15. #15 Ciaphas
    May 9, 2009

    What an incredibly narrow view of medicine people like Slater have. That stuff you hear about eating right and getting enough exercise and not smoking, that’s western medicine too.

  16. #16 Tim
    May 10, 2009

    Good post. By the way,some of his comments might have originated from this interesting TED talk:

    http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/bonnie_bassler_on_how_bacteria_communicate.html

  17. #17 Brian X
    May 11, 2009

    You know, the “swine flu overreaction” meme is starting to become rather common, and it irks me. What happened was what was supposed to happen — we didn’t know what we were dealing with, and had to be prepared for it to get ugly.

  18. #18 PalMD
    May 11, 2009

    Yeah, that TED talk is interesting (although her early comments on human physiology are wrong). I’m still not sure why all these folks think it has something to do with morgellons and lyme.

  19. #19 JohnV
    May 11, 2009

    He didn’t answer my question about brushing his teeth. I’m curious if he finds killing his oral microflora to be acceptable or not.

    After all, the bacteria know what they’re doing and work hard to protect him.

  20. #20 Doug
    May 11, 2009

    It seems Huffpo is a bit touchy on the comments as they are rejecting quite a few of them. I’m supposing they have been a bit flooded with comments pointing out the guy didn’t know what he was talking about.

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