Not That I'm Biased

I've been thinking about bias. It all started with this article by David Gorski about the Oprah-fication of medicine (link fixed). Well, it started with the Newsweek article, followed by the other one and given that I've had loads of time to sit around and think while I attempted to heal this latest maiming of my body, I did some of that.

My own bias falls pretty squarely in the science orientation, but I like overthinking things (no, really?) and in the last several years, have found myself playing around with thoughts of faith, sort of straddling the divide between the two. One of the things I find very amusing when having a debate with someone who's very science-based about things like faith is to suggest that a belief in science is as much a matter of faith as is religion. And when they start talking about evidence, the presence of same in science and its absence from faith, I've countered with the suggestion that someone who believes in a deity sees evidence of a divine presence all around them. And now you know what headspace I'm in - pushed all the way out to the boundaries and trying to step over the line. Maybe it's the codeine?

I'm also very much in agreement with the two articles in terms of Oprah's responsibility when it comes to giving wingnuts a platform without an opposing view. It's not enough to claim that one's viewers are intelligent enough to do their own research, but on the other hand, Opera isn't news, Oprah's entertainment. And in a world where even the news isn't real news anymore, maybe it's not entirely Oprah's fault. But that's a post for another day.

I find it fascinating that Gorski's article - okay, so it's more of a rant - has much to say about Oprah's bias and yet, I got the sense that he's pretty oblivious to his own position having just as much bias. Aside from the "belief" in science, he has an obvious and almost virulent bias against homeopathy, lumping it into the same category as e.g., anecdotes being more important than clinical trials in determining efficacy of treatment, yet homeopathy is accepted by many as a legitimate form of treatment, e.g., in naturopathic medicine. He also sneers fairly effectively about the concept of qi (the energy flow along the meridians in the body), an integral part of Chinese medicine, including acupuncture. This it reminded me of when I was about 12 years old and in a rehab hospital where they were trying to get my RA under control (and failing). My mother would take me to acupuncture treatments on Monday mornings before she drove me back to the hospital after a weekend home and the doctors and nurses were very obvious about their disdain for this quackery. Despite the fact that I left the hospital every Friday afternoon in a wheelchair and on Monday mornings, would walk back into the ward. Thirty years later, acupuncture is an accepted practice, used by not just doctors of Chinese medicine, naturopathic doctors and chiropractors, but also physiotherapists and doctors educated in Western medicine. So I'm aware of the impact of time in changing perceptions about treatments, some making the shift from ridiculous snake oil to legitimate.

Aside from the fact that Gorski appears to be a little out of touch, he demonstrates the bias so clearly that it's obvious his brain is completely shuttered when it comes to anything but Western medicine. Except for him, it's not a bias. He's talking about The Truth and in the way the article’s written, it deserves the capital letters, as well as the label of bias. That doesn't mean that I don't think some of the theories mentioned in the article as examples of the nutbars who hold forth on Oprah are… well, shall we say they could benefit from a little bit of scientific objectivity. But that's also a post for another day.

The theme continued when I picked up The Not So Big Life again and was reading about how personal bias influences how we see and interact with the world. True enough. However, when the author went on to say "when we learn to see reality with true objectivity," I was again struck by this idea of objectivity is possible. Because I'm not sure that it is. Which finally gets me to my point and yes, I'm aware it took a while to get there - again, I suspect the codeine.

Our personal experiences, our histories, our culture, our families, our friends all colour how we see the world. To get really basic, I have a pair of pants that I think are turquoise, but others see as blue. If something as simple as the colour of my pants can create a divergent view of reality, what about the rest of the world? And although the goal in any scientific inquiry is to get rid of as much bias as possible, we all know that it is virtually impossible to get purely objective. Which, if you do push it all the way out to the outer boundaries and step over the line, quite possibly means that there is no ultimate Truth, only opinions.

And now that I've made my brain hurt, I'm going to spend the day in the park with a book.