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Nine Breakthroughs and a Breakdown
on April 20, 2010
The author describes what he believes are the 10 greatest discoveries in medicine that have saved millions, etc. 9 of them are uncontroversial discoveries that have been on other top-10 lists, but his 10th choice is one that no other list of top discoveries has ever included. He realizes that, and even admits in his introduction that a former editor of The New England Journal of Medicine refused to review his book because there is no such thing as alternative medicine, only treatments that work and treatments that don't. But he "respectfully disagrees."
Hippocrates' discovery that disease had natural causes, sanitation, germ theory, anesthesia, X-rays, vaccines, antibiotics, genetics, and treatments for mental disorders are all worthy candidates for the list. But Queijo ludicrously lists the "rediscovery of alternative medicine" as the tenth "great discovery." He presents no evidence (because there is no evidence) that alternative medicine has "saved millions" or that it has saved anyone. He doesn't realize that alternative medicine represents a betrayal of exactly the kind of rigorous scientific thinking and testing that led to all the other discoveries. His list of ten breakthroughs is actually a list of 9 breakthroughs and one breakdown.
He tells compelling human-interest stories about the discoveries. The complexities, the mis-steps, the near-misses, and the ups and downs make fascinating reading. He offers fascinating tidbits of historical information. He tells how, in the early days after the discovery of x-rays, Thomas Edison received a request to "Please send me one pound of X-rays and bill as soon as possible."
Most of the book is entertaining and informative, but in the chapter on alternative medicine, Queijo loses it entirely. He seems to think that modern medicine has become so fixated on diseases and technology that alternative medicine had to rediscover that diseases occur in people. He criticizes the reductionism of the scientific approach, but offers no evidence that a non-reductionist approach has ever resulted in discoveries or provided better patient outcomes. He sees the struggles between scientific medicine and alternative medicine as politically motivated turf wars rather than as efforts to establish the truth.
He accepts homeopathy uncritically and seems to think it is supported by science. He likes the idea of homeopathy because it "shares some underlying values seen in ancient traditional medicines" such as vitalistic energy concepts, detailed interviews to inquire into every detail of the patient's life, stressing the healer-patient relationship, and deriving many of its remedies from natural products.
He says, "Alternative medicine offered something Western medicine had too often abandoned: the view that every patient was an individual, that natural treatments were sometimes better than dramatic surgery and dangerous drugs; and that the essence of medicine begins with a caring relationship between healer and patient."
This is a straw man argument that badly mischaracterizes mainstream medicine, and it fails to show that alternative medicine has any advantage over scientific medicine practiced with judgment and empathy. He even goes as far as to accuse the stethoscope of being a nefarious device that distances practitioners from patients! He calls its invention "a dark omen for the terrible turn Western medicine was about to take." Now, really!
Much of this book is an eloquent paean to the value of science. Unfortunately, it abandons science in its discussion of alternative medicine. It deteriorates into apologetics for belief-based medicine based on misunderstandings and opinions rather than on any evidence. Alternative medicine represents a breakdown of the process that led to the real breakthroughs.
If you read this book, I recommend skipping chapter 10.