Much of the mail I get from visitors to the Office are questions about medical problems (only some of which I answer because I, like all doctors, cannot answer medical questions accurately if I haven't seen the patient). I also receive messages from people who like the material on my site -- and from people who don't like what I have to say.
Some of the criticism I receive is well-founded. I try to give visitors the most accurate information I can provide, but I do make mistakes occasionally, and I appreciate being told about my errors and correct them when people point them out to me. However, there are some people who criticize my facts and opinions with little or no evidence to back up their claims. An example is this message, which I received a while ago in response to my posting on thimerosal and autism:
dr reddy, Before making such claims in public, you might want to be aware that most flu vaccines used today contain thimerosol and the jury is still out on its affect. there are studies that clearly contradict your position and you do people a disservice not giving the other side and not being particularly well read. you apparently dont mind giving a child mercury or anyone else for that matter. im very diappointed in your online publication. < Name withheld. Otherwise, this message is exactly as I received it. >
Physicians -- and scientists and engineers -- are taught an awful lot in school and on the job.
Much of what we are taught consists of "facts". Some of these really are facts: most people have the same set of bones, and we have names for all of them which help us identify a particular bone to any other doctor with only a few words. However, some of the "facts" we learn are found later -- sometimes much later -- not to be true. Two examples are calomel (mercurous chloride), once used by doctors to relieve headache, and hydrogen cyanide, which was used as a sedative in the late 19th century. Both are now known as nothing more than poisons. Less drastic examples include the changes in just the last 10-20 years in the way we treat asthma, and especially in the medicines we use for asthma -- most of which weren't even available in 1988.
A lot of medical students don't enjoy memorising "facts". I certainly didn't. Memorisation is not as important in many other scientific professions -- in engineering, many tests, including licensing exams, are open-book -- and I personally think that our students don't have to remember some of what we make them memorise. Obviously we have to memorise things like the procedures for CPR that we don't have time to look up when we need them, but some things, like drug doses, should be checked every time.
The other thing we learn -- and the most important -- is how to make decisions. Our decisions have to be based on what we think is wrong with a patient, but we must also use the best information we can find on the patient's problem, its causes, and its treatment. We have to decide how valuable that information is as we work. The value of that information depends on how it was gathered and on how similar our patient is to the patients who were studied to get the information. The way we are taught to evaluate that information is similar to the way courts evaluate testimony: we look for evidence that a particular treatment helps the patient, or that a particular treatment (example: a vaccine) does not harm the patient. Evidence-based medicine is at its core merely a systematic way of searching published medical literature for well-designed studies on a problem our patient has whose results are likely to apply to our patient.
We evaluate medical evidence partly with some of the same rules courts use. For example, hearsay ("I heard Dr. Joe Blow say...") isn't "evidence" to us any more than it is to a court. Neither a judge nor a doctor want to hear what Dr. Blow said from anyone other than Dr. Blow himself -- we want to be able to ask Dr. Blow questions about his information directly.
However, we must also look closely at a medical study to see whether the results of that study can apply to our patient. Many things go into this, including:
I am indebted to two excellent Web sites on logic and logical fallacies, Logical Fallacies (whose Webmaster I haven't been able to identify), and the posting of Michael C. Laboissiere's tutorial on fallacies by the Niskor Project, as source material for this section. Several of the examples I use here are adapted from examples presented at these two sites.
We need to decide whether evidence is valid and applicable. This involves reasoning from the information we have -- taking premises (which correspond roughly to pieces of evidence) and drawing conclusions from the premises. Formal reasoning involves logic, and a logical fallacy can be thought of as an error in the process of reasoning. There are two kinds of reasoning, deductive and inductive, and two matching kinds of fallacies.
If statements 1 and 2 are true, then statement 3 cannot possibly be false.
Any deductive argument that can be false if all of its premises are true is a "formal fallacy". This is an awfully high standard, and many arguments we make, especially in science and medicine where we often must deal with statements that are probably true, do not qualify as good deductions.
Inductive arguments can contain fallacies which make them weak even if the premises are true. To think logically, one must be able to see and avoid these "informal fallacies".
Just because B happened after A doesn't mean that B was caused by A. Example:
This sounds ridiculous, doesn't it?. However, try this one...
This isn't very different from the "proof" that breakfast causes car accidents, is it?
I do not say this to denigrate people with autism or their families. As I have said elsewhere on this site, I have a family member with Asperger's syndrome, which is a form of autism. If anything, I believe that wasting time on specious connections between autism and vaccine administration is more likely to obscure the real causes of autism than it is to help find the real causes or to improve treatment.
A says that a claim is true. B attacks A by saying that the claim is to A's advantage. Example:
It is a good idea to be a little suspicious of studies funded by a drug or vaccine manufacturer -- as has been made quite clear in the press in recent years. (Disclaimer: I own (a small amount of) stock in a drug company. I also teach residents and students not to take claims the company makes about at least one of their products (not a vaccine) at face value, based on my reading of the literature and on my experience with that product in certain clinical situations.) However, 2. does not automatically invalidate 3. Also -- and more to the point -- a study performed by investigators who have been funded by (possibly) biased sources in the past will not necessarily be biased in favour of the previous sources. In fact, that kind of bias is very unlikely, especially if the investigators want to continue working in their field.
Just because lots of people think statement A is not true does not prove A is true. Example:
Statement 1 was true several centuries ago. Just because "many" or "most" people believe something doesn't make it true. The same can be said for the following, from the writer who I quote at the beginning of this page::
It's not even clear who "everyone" is here. Is it everyone in the world? Everyone in the United States? Every one of the writer's neighbours? And even if "everyone knows that most flu vaccines used today contain thimerosal", that doesn't prove that most flu vaccines contain thimerosal. (Nor does this statement say anything about how much thimerosal, if any, is in flu vaccine, or why the thimerosal is there in the first place.)
In this fallacy, the arguer misstates someone's actual position to make it seem weaker than it actually is. Then he attacks this misrepresentation and claims that the actual position is wrong. In truth, he hasn't attacked the actual position. An example, from the writer who I quote at the beginning of this page:
Conpare this to my actual position, as I have stated it on the Infections and Immunizations index page.
I am aware that there are many people who believe that thimerosal should not be used to preserve vaccines. I believe that thimerosal should not be used to preserve vaccines if at all possible. I also know several people with autism and Asperger's syndrome, including one in my own family. However, I also believe that vaccine-preventable diseases are sufficiently dangerous to patients, especially the very young (many of whom I admit to the hospital every year with complications of flu, whooping cough, and other vaccine-preventable diseases), that any risk from the preservative is MUCH less than that from the diseases themselves, and I would not hesitate to vaccinate my family against those diseases even if I could not obtain preservative-free vaccine. (That is my opinion. Other people's opinions differ. As always, you need to talk to your own or your child'd doctor to help decide if you or your child should receive vaccines.)
There are many more fallacies that I see all over the Internet and in the press. At some point I will add a few more. (And I will never identify publicly anyone who sends me E-mail, even critical E-mail, and including the sender of the message that triggered this page, without their explicit permission.)
As for vaccines, I say again that I recommend vaccines when and if I believe, based on available scientific evidence, that the risk of harm caused by the vaccine is much less than the risk of harm from the disease itself. Many of the diseases we vaccinate against, including diphtheria, HiB, measles, meningococcus, pneumococcus, polio, tetanus, varicella chickenpox, and whooping cough -- and the flu -- can kill or cripple children and adults -- and killed and crippled people regularly before we had the vaccines. I'll stop recommending a vaccine if and only if I am shown strong, valid scientific evidence that the risk of injury from the vaccine is higher than the risk of injury from the disease. And not before then.