Once upon a time, in a far away land called New Hampshire, I worked on Obama’s first presidential campaign. I’ve discussed a little bit of why my politics changed on the libertarian podcasts I’ve appeared on, but that’s really not the point of this blog entry. The point?
I was almost thrown out of the bar the night that we won the fuck out of that election. Because the bartender “just knew” what he saw.
‘I just know’
We left the campaign office to sit and wait at the bar and watch the electoral votes stack up. About two hours had passed when they announced that Obama had won. All the crying, the hugging, the ridiculous level of exhaustion…
As a whole, we were a little out of it. The last two weeks leading up to the election, the group of us that had been working on the election was working around the clock. We canvassed neighborhoods, made endless phone calls, and even drove people to their polling stations. When the polls closed and there was nothing left to do but wait, we needed a to let off some steam.
But I’d only had two drinks over the course of two hours.
The Table or the Drinking
And then at my wobbly table, somebody’s drink fell off the edge of the table. I hadn’t touched the glass, but I did pick it up off the floor.
The bartender walked over to me to tell me I was cut off and ask me if I needed to be escorted out of the bar. Surprised, I asked what the problem was. He said that he saw what happened, and that I was clearly intoxicated.
Because a glass fell in proximity to me, I must have been drunk.
I explained to him that I had only had two drinks (and given that I hadn’t lost the weight yet, that wasn’t enough to get me intoxicated). He wasn’t buying it. He told me he’d been a bartender for decades, and he “just knew” what he saw. It was his bartender’s instinct after all, he had to protect his baby, the bar, right?
I get it. He thought he saw something. I had been drinking and there was probably alcohol on my breath. I was with a loud group of people celebrating. He had reasons to think what he did.
But he was wrong.
…Three Spurious Correlations
Have you ever just gotten the wrong impression of a situation? We all have.
Ever seen millions of people all get the wrong impression of a situation at once? That’s the anti-vax movement. Those are the people who think GMOs are causing new allergies. Those are your anti-science movement.
There are a lot of places in life where we conflate correlation to mean causation. Why do we make that mistake? Life, unlike in the science lab, doesn’t present the option of reducing complex situations to a group of single variable controls.
When life is your laboratory, you have to pick apart the variables one at a time until you find one that works.
The Drill or the Painkiller
My brother had oral surgery. He was prescribed codeine for the pain. After surgery, he had migraines for weeks on end. My family had a history of allergy to codeine. I’m not sure who in my brother’s medical history made this diagnosis, but from then on out, there it was in my brother’s chart:
Allergy to codeine. Result: migraines.
…Wait just a fucking minute.
I was eleven when this happened. I just kept being fed the line that codeine was the cause of the migraines.
Why was the blame put on a drug that reduces pain? Why didn’t anybody point the blame at the giant fucking drill that was making holes in his jaw?
It’s still maintained that codeine makes my brother nauseous. But I believe it’s off the hook for the migraines.
The Trip to Missouri or Miserable DNA?
On March 7th 2010, I got the worst headache of my life and it never went away.
My doctors didn’t spot right away the connection between the headache and the rest of my seemingly disparate symptoms. Hypermobility, tendency to rip ligaments and dislocate joints, flat feet, scoliosis… For now, we worked on the symptom that was screaming for attention. We tried throwing different medications at it. At the same time, I tried altering my diet because… well something might do it, right?
Vegan. Organic. Paleo. Squirrel.*
Because in all those health blogs, I had done something to throw my system out of order, so I had to put it back into its natural state.
What did I do?
Was it my previously unhealthy diet? Was it the insanely long hours I was working (between 50 and 60 plus 2.5 hours of commuting each day)? Was it the damn trip I’d taken two weeks before to Missouri?
I was desperate and looking for anything I could change that would make the pain not be there. That meant looking for anything that I possibly did that caused it.
You know what eventually worked? Medicine.
I realized I did nothing to cause it. I was a time bomb. Ehlers Danlos Syndrome is a rare disease that can come with several different presentations. It’s marked by hyper-mobility in a majority of cases. In my case, it came with a headache. I could look for behaviors and what I’d done around when it presented all day long, but at the end of the day? Nothing I did would have caused the inevitable, and nothing would have fixed it either.
Why these three stories? Because we try to make associations that go away when presented with better evidence.
What happens when millions of people observe the same anecdotal correlations? Is it still just a correlation? Did the table still just wobble? Is Ehlers Danlos Syndrome still always an underlying condition or was it the trip to Missouri?
Is autism still on the rise or is it the vaccines?
We’re seeing more cancer now. That’s a thing that’s happening, right? People are sicker now and just living with disease. You hear that all the time from the natural health movement. “We’re living sicker than ever!”
We’re living. We’re not dying from being kicked in the face by a horse anymore.
Reality is that something is going to kill you eventually. Science and medicine extends life and the quality of it. Once upon a time, medicine’s ability to help you was very different. In your own medical history, what would have happened differently a hundred years ago?
Once upon a time, you could be maimed or killed by a disease like the small pox, polio, or measles before we had vaccines.
… Or you could die in childbirth because you had a home birth when we didn’t have the option of the technology available in hospitals.
… Or you would die in battle… of an infection. The most common causes of death in battle until the mid-twentieth century? Infection and diarrhea, not battle wounds.
Now, you’re lucky enough to live long enough to get an autoimmune disease or cancer and deal with “doctors who don’t know everything” and “evil big pharma.”
But the point? You lived long enough to get cancer. And you say that something “gave you cancer.”As I’ve covered in previous blog entries, there are some environmental links to cancer, but mainly? Cultures that have people living longer lives have higher rates of cancer.
It’s not the GMOs, the vaccines, and it’s probably not even the pesticides. You’re just not dying of a horse kicking you in the face anymore.
Allergies are on the rise. That’s not debatable.
Food Activists Mommy bloggers like Robyn O’Brien will tell you it’s what we’ve done to the food supply. It’s the genetic modification, it’s the pesticides, it’s… find a way to blame Monsanto and the government somehow, obviously.
I maintain it’s a bizarrely similar answer to why more people are being diagnosed with cancer; it’s a disease of whack-a-mole.
If you are lucky enough to be born in the first world where we have access to antibiotics and, subsequently, you are prescribed those antibiotics at a young age? New research is showing that the changes to gut bacteria caused by the use of antibiotics may be the cause of allergies. Allergies could be induced and then wiped out by removing and restoring the correct bacteria in the guts of laboratory animals. The research is new, but instead of continuing to blame the food supply, wouldn’t you think that Robyn O’Brien would be thrilled to find out why allergies are on the rise?
Of course not. She’s found the guilty party. Why would she keep looking when she ‘just knows?‘
Autism appears to be rising. And a lot of times, children will appear to regress after they’ve gotten certain shots. Well they had the shot and now they’re showing the signs, it’s the shots, right?
Now, if you’re not versed in the scientific process, it’s easy to say that because a child got a shot and had a series of symptoms weeks later, one caused the other. But they did dozens of other things in that week. They played in a sandbox, they drank milk, they took a bath (hopefully). Unlike in this story of the child and the truck acting as a sadly hyper-extended metaphor, what else happened when autism cases appeared to go up?
– We changed the definition of autism. Once upon a time, autism just included ‘classical’ autism, i.e. non-verbal and deeply withdrawn. Today? It’s known as ‘Autism Spectrum Disorder.’ We changed the definition, so children who once upon a time would have just been “the weird kid” are now “autistic” and are getting more of the help they need from education specialists. There is not an epidemic of ASD, there has been an increase in awareness and diagnoses.
– Every time we disprove it being a different link in the vaccines, the anti-vaxxers change it to a different part of the vaccines. It’s the wrong form of mercury? It’s the aluminum. You can eat more aluminum in an antacid tablet? It’s the formaldehyde. There’s formaldehyde in a pear? Well you inject it so it’s bad.
They just know it’s the culprit. So instead of looking for the genetic causes of autism, they keep demonizing an innocent bystander.
There’s a danger in just knowing that something is guilty without due process. When you “just know” that an unrelated correlation is a causation and you’re wrong? You risk demonizing something that could be helpful. And worse, you stop looking for the real cause.
Whether it’s autism, a headache, or just a broken bar glass, if you’re getting cut off with bad information, odds are you’re being fed a line of bullshit.
*=no actual squirrel harmed in the making of this blog entry. Who knows. I did take that trip to Missouri.