Google “breasts” to find good science

Why can't I find that prolactin pathway in Google Images?

Why can’t I find that prolactin pathway?

Recently I was reflecting on the utility of fighting un-scientific and often outright quack medicine. ScienceBaseMedicine does a great job of explaining why all the un-scientific and unproven treatments out there don’t work. But sometimes it feels like an analogy of telling kids not to smoke or do drugs. The ones already convinced won’t do it, the ones that already do it will find reasons not to listen. The real concern is the naive audience. This third group of kids were blissfully ignorant of all the addicting stuff out there, and with some luck, they might have remained so. Yes, I hear you, there’s hardly a kid out there who is truly ignorant of cigarettes, marijuana and other drugs. But there’s a large group that simply don’t care enough to do it. In high-school senior year (grade 12) about 13% of students smoke, about 25% smoke marijuana. [Disclaimer: maybe a higher percentage try smoking/drugs throughout high-school and there is certainly under-reporting happening, but on the same note, the two groups are not mutually exclusive either].

So, say I’m Jenny McCarthy and I think vaccines are the spawn of devil. I go on air and just shout down any reason and rationality, drag my autistic child into it, make the bleeding hearts sympathize with me.

What happens then? Something like ScienceBasedMedicine can come along and try to prove that I’m wrong. Every doctor and scientist in the world can cite data and provide evidence but the Joe Smith in the crowd will just look at them blankly and say “but her child is autistic”. Done. Argument over. You lost.

Not only that, but increasing publications online bring up more keyword searches on things like homeopathy, touch therapy, energy therapy and what-have-you. In other words – any publicity is good publicity. Google doesn’t generate search results based on good vs. bad evidence. Google generates searches based on key words. (Yup, I just did it too).

So when you type “touch therapy” into Google, you get nice relaxing pictures. Most of the websites that come up promote it. And even skepdic.com [the skeptic dictionary] says “Therapeutic touch (TT) is a type of energy medicine whereby the therapist moves his or her hands over the patient’s “energy field,” allegedly directing the flow of chi or prana so the patient can heal.” These are the first thing that people see in the definition. What, you thought that you put “allegedly” in there and now people will become skeptical? What if you already believe in energy fields? Then you just copy and paste the first line of the definition from skepdic.com and there you have it, skepdic.com just effectively defined (and thus supported) touch therapy.

“But, that’s not all that skepdic.com says!”

Nope, but who cares? Scientists and doctors fighting the anti-vaccine movement also say a lot of stuff. But people only hear “autism” like it’s some kind of satanic possession to be exorcised. Bring in the exorcist [ahem, I mean, Jenny McCarthy]!

When you type in “breasts” into Google images you don’t expect to see anatomic diagrams and endocrine glands do you? Remove the filters and try it. You know what, don’t remove the filter. You still get porn. Don’t argue with me about the definition of porn – if the image isn’t there for surgeons and physicians, it’s porn.

So get this, your kid goes to school and he gets told that smoking is bad because it’ll cause cancer, so maybe your kid is smart and won’t smoke. He gets told that drugs are bad, but not very specifically, so very few kids will do crack cocaine but (and thus the above statistics) but more will smoke pot than cigarettes.

Now, go visit their science class. What’s the last time the biology or chemistry teacher made a link between medicine (applied science) and basic chemistry? So now you expect this kid to graduate and make the link himself?

“My kid is smart, he got 90% in Chemistry“. You’re missing the point. He didn’t get 90% in Applied Pharmacology did he? It’ll be another 12 years until he can get a PhD in that. But before he does, Google will make the link for him. And Google doesn’t even have a filter for “bad science”.

Now, obviously we can never get rid of all the crazies. There may still be people out there that believe that the Earth is flat, but just because they do, doesn’t mean we’re duty bound to give their voice value and send expeditions to look for the edges of the world. So if we don’t do that, why do we keep on commissioning publicly funded trials and laboratories to test completely unscientific practices in health care?

The point that I’m trying to make is that, while writing about how un-scientific medicine is wrong is important, it is also important to expand our scope to teach people, and especially children about science. And for god’s sakes, please make the links for them. Don’t leave Google to teach the rest of the chemistry lesson to your child.

P.S. I’m hoping that Google will associate “satanic”, “possessed” and “Jenny McCarthy” and the Catholic Church will exorcise her.

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