MUST WE DEBATE EVERYTHING?


1983:  I am in court testifying that a woman post cardiac arrest is irreversibly brain damaged.  Her husband wants to discontinue support; her sisters sued to keep her on the ventilator.  Nothing I said in the hospital had changed the sisters’ mind.  I knew the science and the outcomes of persistent vegetative states after cardiac arrest, and I agreed with the husband.  Eventually, he prevailed.

February 1988:  I show a nurse the conjunction of Saturn and Uranus in the morning sky.  She said they were in Capricorn (the proper name is Capricornus), but the two planets were visibly in Sagittarius.  I argued with her for 5 minutes before realizing nothing I said would change her mind.  Their next conjunction is in 2032.

Later, a man got a great deal of publicity for supposedly having discovered a new planet near Neptune.  I got a call at home from the man, who told me the planet was moving rapidly.  I stated that at Neptune’s distance from the Sun, the planet would move about a finger breadth at arm’s length every year among the stars.  No matter.  The man was convinced.  Nothing I could say would change his mind.

A physical therapist took me to lunch and told me that manipulation of the bones in the skull got rid of headaches.  I told him that skull bones were fused in adults.  No matter.  “It works!” he said; nothing I could say would convince him otherwise.

1984-1994: I said that the science underlying asymptomatic carotid artery stenosis meant that operations should be done only if the surgeon had a complication rate of less than 0.5%.  No matter.  Many were done at the hospitals I practiced; the major complication rate was 14%.  I got screamed at and threatened a few times, for intimidation, repetition, and reputation often trump facts.  I did not prevail.

2005:  Terri Schiavo.  Senator Frist, a physician, said she had cognition, despite clear evidence she was vegetative (smiling is part of the vegetative state).  Congress intervened briefly, an example of government’s dictating medical care if ever there was one.  Fortunately, science (amicus curiae brief by the American Academy of Neurology) and the court prevailed; indeed, the 600 gm brain with large ex vacuo hydrocephalus at autopsy confirmed what we neurologists knew.

March 2012:  I am in Tower Blind at Nebraska’s Rowe Sanctuary, guiding people to a suitable place to see the Lesser Sandhill Crane migration, one of Jane Goodall’s top 10 sights in nature and one of my top three.  As we waited for the cranes to land, my co-guide, an elderly woman, told me how she saw an egg stand upright on the recent equinox.  I said that can happen any day of the year.  The equinox is an instantaneous point in time, like the tangent to a function, with no influence on egg behavior.  No matter.  She was convinced.  Nothing I could say would change her mind.

More people believe in astrology than know why we have seasons.  Many believe we didn’t land on the Moon, that strange lights in the sky are aliens, who may abduct us.  A woman doing the luge at the Olympics held her neck in a certain way to “increase vertebral artery blood flow to the brain”; holding her breath would have been better.  Each of us has heard some remarkably odd ideas from people, totally convinced, totally wrong, about how the body functions.  Laetrile and colonic cleansing come to mind.

Our Sun is at least a second generation star, for elements heavier than iron must form in supernovae.  I believe in evolution and that vaccines are several orders of magnitude more helpful than harmful. I wish in the above instances I asked a simple question:  “Is there anything that you could learn that would convince you that you are incorrect?”  If the answer is “nothing”, then I am wasting my time.

We should change our beliefs when sound science shows that our beliefs are wrong.  When I learned that anticoagulation did not help vertebrobasilar insufficiency, I stopped using it.  When physicians at the University of Western Ontario discovered EC-IC bypass didn’t improve outcomes, they discontinued the operation.  They discharged four patients that very day.  There are many issues in medicine that we should study, in order to do the best for our patients; after all, each of us will be a patient.   We should discuss, not debate, the way we need to change American medicine, because I believe few are happy with the current situation.  We need to listen to and understand other points of view.  We must be willing to try new approaches, in order to learn from and modify them.  We need leaders able to convince people they can do great things that they never thought possible.  We need to use the best science available, even if it shows that our beliefs are wrong.

Children are born curious; alas, too many have it drummed out of them.  Perhaps if more were curious, we would look for answers, discover what we thought was true wasn’t.  That to me is moving forward.  Could I be wrong on climate change?  Yes. I don’t think I am, but yes, sound science could change my mind.  But I would rather discuss how we are going to fix medicine, locally and nationally.  My error reporting system has languished, unused, for 11 years.

I hope I am wrong about human-caused climate change; if I am, I will admit it.  Promise.

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