HuffPo---the Great Attractor of idiocy

The shamans of stupidity over at Huffington Post recently wrote a completely insane article whining about how unfair it is that science keeps winning. Orac did his usual best to illustrate how bizarre these folks are (and how wrong). But I also love the comments to the piece. They were an interesting mix of jaws hitting the floor in shock at the inanity, and "crank magnetism", as other idiots piled on science, which despite its successes must somehow bow to an alternative magical belief system. This comment was the best (broken down for your convenience):

Having been trained in the rigorous field of rocket science, I am somewhat horrified at the lack of rigor in medical research, and the pathetic level of knowledge as to how the human body really functions. They have yet to figure out the causes of any of the major chronic illnesses, and are still looking for the origins of our immune system. It is arrogance and ignorance that seems to fuel the medical-industrial complex, and it is a travesty to compare the medical arts with science as I know it.

One of my partners was also trained in "the rigorous field of rocket science", except he would never call it "rocket science" with a straight face. He left the field for medicine. But RS's appeal to his own authority is cute---pathetic, but cute.

Apparently, they don't teach medicine in rocket science school because despite RS's claim, we do know quite a bit about the causes of many diseases.  I have no idea what his point is about the human immune system.  

Primary prevention is all about avoiding the development of disease in the first place, thus also avoiding the medical community, except in the case of accidents or injury. In other words, the goal of primary prevention is that you never have to set foot in a doctor's office or a hospital or take a drug. Primary prevention is an anathema to the medical business model, so it is not taught in medical school. In fact, it is not even a recognized discipline. 

Primary prevention: you keep using that phrase.  I do not think it means what you think it means.  Primary prevention, as discussed in the space many times, is the prevention of the development of disease.  We like that.  Our goal in primary prevention is not to keep people from ever having to "step foot in a doctor's office" but to keep our patients healthy and happy.  Sometime, primary prevention requires significant exercise and dietary changes.  Sometimes it requires drugs.  Sometimes, a disease cannot be prevented at all.  To say that prevention is "anathema" and "not taught in medical school" is once again wrong.  

Being a "rocket scientist" does not make one somehow more knowledgeable about medicine.  My rocket scientist-partner had to go to medical school after rocket science school.  Arguing a point from one's own ignorance is pretty silly, but a well-worn tactic at the Huffington Post.

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As soon as I read rocket science, I knew you were talking about Roy. I devoted a couple blogs to his comments at Huff last summer. If this was your first exposure to him, then I encourage you to look through some of his previous comments. He believes in the ingestion of clay for health purposes, holistic dentistry, and a diet extremely high in fats, among many other interesting ideas.

I will note, however, that he was kind enough to send me a signed copy of one of his books.

Hmmm.a rocket scientist...that would be a BS degree, and the MS (more of the same) and finally a PhD (piled higher and deeper). I do have a friend who is a real rocket sceintist. He has piloted them and launched them. I know the difference.

That rocket scientist's comments remind me of some of the things Bill Maher has said about vaccines and medicine in general. It's also very reminiscent of people exclaiming that there are no transitional fossils.

Even if his premise wasn't wrong, how does the conclusion follow? In many ways it *is* disappointing that medical science has been unable to uncover some quite pressing mysteries... but this merely demonstrates the complexity of the problems, not some kind of bizarre centuries-long conspiracy to hide the truth. Sheesh.

To me, this is an argument against woo: Our very best and most rigorous minds have been unable to fully understand or explain some aspects of medicine, which makes it even more asinine to trust some dude online who is just making shit up as he goes along.

The term "rocket science" is, in my opinion, incorrect. Most people described as "rocket scientists" are in fact engineers, not scientists. This is not a bad thing. Their job is to devise, design, and build new and better rocket propulsion technologies. The systems they produce are complex, generally operate within a very narrow envelope outside of which is typically a very loud and dramatic failure ("catastrophic failure" takes on new meaning when the vehicle is loaded with thousands of tons of hypergolic propellants), and frequently involve quite large numbers where most people are used to seeing quite small ones.

The trouble is, engineers (and I myself am an engineer, albeit in a less, ahem, dynamic discipline) are accustomed to working in an area where most everything is already known. This I because they are working with things that somebody has built. Want to know how a turbopump works? Look up the drawings. Read the white papers. Medical scientists do not have this luxury. Nobody built the immune system, so they have to reverse engineer it to figure out how it works. And it's vastly more complicated than a mere turbopump, which really is just precision mechanics rather than an extremely complicated chemical Rube Goldberg machine, most of which only works by accident, and some of which probably doesn't do anything useful at all but simply isn't harmful enough to have evolved itself away. And some of which is actively harmful! It's a hell of a thing to reverse engineer, because unlike a vernier thruster stolen from the Soviets in 1960, you can't assume any sanity -- or even intent -- in its design.

Engineers get used to working with complicated things, and those who work in rocketry get used to working with *very* complicated things. This can give them a false sense of security, because it can lead them to underestimate how vastly more complicated the human body is.

All that said, there are definitely scientists who work in rocketry. Some of the most important areas are fluid dynamics, chemistry, aerodynamics, celestial mechanics (which is technically physics but ends up being more math than anything else), and thermodynamics. There's more too, of course, but these are the biggies. And in these areas, it is not wise to be smug. Fluid dynamics is a great example of a field where much is still poorly understood. They know a lot. But they have a lot yet to learn, which is why launch and entry are still both major nailbiters for mission control, even on unmanned flights.

By Calli Arcale (not verified) on 11 Jan 2010 #permalink

Addendum: if this fellow continues to annoy with his assertion that rocket science is all controlled and knows what it's doing, unlike medicine, ask him why they haven't completely licked pogo oscillations yet.

By Calli Arcale (not verified) on 11 Jan 2010 #permalink

I have an engineering degree and I'd long thought that the life sciences didn't have as rigorous process of inquiry as the physical sciences. I think this is largely due to the media and what studies are reported on. I mean, come on, twenty monkeys who have autism due to vaccination. It's only after I dug deeper and realized what studies were really being done and the misrepresentations which were reported on did I realize my initial perception was wrong.

By WonderingWilla (not verified) on 11 Jan 2010 #permalink

My husband actually went to the USAFA and he got a good laugh when I told him about the 'Rocket Scientist' who knows all about medicine.

Dear Mr. Rocket Dude,

You make rockets. You find your job to be complex and mentally challenging, but the fact remains that you make rockets. Allow me to repeat that for emphasis: you make rockets. This is an important point, because all of the complexity in your rockets themselves is manmade and you get the luxury of engineering around difficult innate physical parameters, such as wind resistance.

Although life does perpetuate life, I do not make biology. I can only look at biology from the outside. I am, in effect, reverse engineering an incredibly complex and nonlinear system that I cannot even see. We understand far more about biology than you will allow yourself to see, and we are getting better by the minute. I posit that biology, in many ways, forces those who research it to be far more clever than those who make the very objects they study.

If you wish to attempt a similar intellectual challenge as I face daily, please produce a detailed model of the International Space Station using only your naked eyes and a set of Lego.


Oughta be noted that Dr. Rocket's "I ain't gonna talk to you because you didn't swallow my rhetoric whole" tactic is rather quite skeezy.

I'm kind of wondering if people with this attitude towards 'primary prevention' are also anti-vaccine. Isn't vaccination a form of primary prevention? Or am I not understanding that term properly?

Toaster -- I know people who would leap at the opportunity to build such a model, given a sufficient supply of LEGO. ;-) It would be the work of a lifetime, but oh, what a lifetime!

By Calli Arcale (not verified) on 12 Jan 2010 #permalink

The problem with Engineering and Biology is if you want to reverse engineer a product, you generally pull it to bits, submit it to several destructive tests, subject it to all manner to abuse and then try to make one yourself out of pieces you find in the workshop.

You try to do that with biological organisms, and all of a sudden you're "Tampering in gods' domain", labelled a 'Mad Scientist' and find your Evil Lair in ruins.

I hate it when people start to talk from authority outside their expertises. I hate it even more when people can't even makeup a decent degree other than 'rocket scientist'.

Leeman, would it make you feel better knowing I have a BSAA, which is a Bachelor of Science in Aeronautic and Aerospace Engineering? Though I try not to talk outside my level of expertise. I took my first biology class since 7th grade a year ago.

A variant of the recently documented Dunning-Kruger effect.
This individual, perhaps well-versed in his own field, has amassed enough conceit to believe himself an expert in every field, even if his information is barely above the level of an encyclopedia entry.

"In many ways it *is* disappointing that medical science has been unable to uncover some quite pressing mysteries... but this merely demonstrates the complexity of the problems, not some kind of bizarre centuries-long conspiracy to hide the truth. Sheesh."

Most of the great discoveries in modern medicine had nothing to do with solving really difficult problems (unlike engineering/science). Often medical discoveries come about because a scientist or researcher decides to venture off the mainstream path and discovers something that was there for the looking but wasn't examined due to assumed lack of financial return or to religiously held incorrect biological or medical assumptions. Once medicine has the profit motive removed I think we will see much more progress in medicine. Hopefully we will soon have open-source medicine the way we currently have open-source software.

By TheDissenter (not verified) on 14 Jan 2010 #permalink

"Although life does perpetuate life, I do not make biology."

Perhaps you haven't noticed, but you ARE biology. What could easier than studying a subject of which you yourself are an example?

By The Dissenter (not verified) on 14 Jan 2010 #permalink

Maybe we can send Rocket dude the Mental floss t-shirt "I'm no rocket surgeon"


By The Blind Watchmaker (not verified) on 19 Jan 2010 #permalink