PARALOGISMS OF SCIENTIFIC JOURNALISM
“Life only comprehends life through the mediation of the sense units that raise above the historical flow”
In recent issue of the New York Times (Jan/16/2007), Dan Hurley published an article whose title caused considerable curiosity in readers worldwide. Under the title “Diet Supplements and Safety: Some Disquieting Data”, the journalist presents data that are really disquieting on the use of repercussions of freely sold products such as vitamin supplements, essential oils and herbs. According to the reports mentioned by Hurley and sourced from the American Association of Poison Control Centers, the consumption of vitamin supplements and essential oils may represent a significant epidemiological risk for the population. 14,006 cases were reported in 1983; 121,595 incidents reported based on the use of vitamin supplements and similar products. These numbers are modest if compared to those published by the National Institute of Health in its 2006 report “Congressional Justification” discloses in the sub-chapter “Why people differ in the way they respond to drugs” regarding conventional drug substances when they regret that “unfortunately the most significant cause of deaths in the USA is adverse reaction to drugs”. From 1989 to 2004 the Food and Drug Administration, Hurley goes on, received a report with the list of 260 deaths associated to herbal medicines and other non-vitamin products. These are relevant facts, since most of these products are freely sold. In pharmacies and drug stores they are not even kept behind counters, with restricted access. Any citizen, here or there, may fill a basket or supermarket cart with a variety of products of this type – from vitamins to natural processed compounds, whose indication is, usually, both inaccurate and dangerous. In spite of the analytical deficit of the matter, there lies the merit of this alert, that disassembles the common sense belief that the “natural” products – with the criticism of the mythology that the word is subject to – is, at most, innocuous. One novel aspect is that Hurley included in the package of obnoxious substances, the homeopathic drugs and “products”. Without too much detail, he says that in 2005 there were 7,049 reports of reactions, including 564 hospitalizations and two casualties. Only to situate the problem, I will present below a brief context. A good part of researchers that investigate ultra-diluted substances believe that they may really be harmful to health if ingested without due care, guidance and medical assistance. There is no secret here. It has been clearly established that all drug substances may induce adverse reactions, from mild to the most potent. They will depend directly on the patient’s sensitivity and idiosyncrasies. That is why, often times, the only and blessed preventive action, is taking excessive care in the use of any pharmaceutical product (be it natural or not) or food supplement. Therefore, what part of the world media, including important medical magazines, have published in the most recent discussions (and here is where we find paralogism) is that infinitesimal substances are suspect – not of toxicity – but exactly of the opposite. They are suspect of not presenting any detectable biological effect. Neither in vitro (in laboratories) nor in vivo (in human beings). Of course these are partial conclusions, therefore, challengeable, since an hermeneutical regard would determine distinct results. Experimentations in human beings, observation studies and quality of life in health, for instance, contradict strongly these conclusions of inaction. This is a challenging aspect. If the Food and Drug Administration can find empirically that the answer is yes, there are adverse effects in homeopathic drug substances and they are significant, how is it that, with stoic obstinacy of a mantra, they are accused (they, the drug substances) of being pharmacologically inert substances? In reality, this has been the unsurpassed epistemological obstacle, a kind of Rubicon of homeopathy, since its inception, considering that there is no consensual scientific support to explain the action mechanism of the drug products.. This means the following: discarding happens sometimes on the excess side, sometimes on the lacking side. The notorious question: “does it work or not?” from now on, will carry an unbearable ambiguity: It works. Only to intoxicate. But, hold on a moment! Infinitesimal substances are not even “substances” strictu sensu. If there is not even a trace of active drug, nor any other validated evidence, how can one determine such actions? We are faced – and this article in the New York Times is just a pale sample – with a superficial diagnosis of mechanical and non-criticized data that reverberate, impacting both society at large and the community of users with misinformation. Just to give you some numbers, around 180 million Europeans consume homeopathic medications. In addition to double criteria, the surprise here is the size of paralogism. We would be as follows: one of the most influent newspapers in the world announces that homeopathic medications are poisonous. However, until recently they considered that there was nothing in the flasks, just water. Effects would be only mirages for the believers, placebo-effects. After saying it, either we see the course of a remarkable epidemics of placebo-effects in the poison monitoring centers or we see a phenomenon that, once verified, should be at the top of the investigations list, generating, additionally, public support for research. The corollary that would follow would contain the following concerns: are the medicines fake? Are there active poisons in infinitesimal doses? If there are, everything has to be reassessed. Restrictions on the truthfulness of the action should be replaced with the desire to know better these clinical accidents, which appeared in the practical life of the most industrialized society in the planet. Would it be fit to think that these facts take place because – without any conspiracy theories, only commercial assumptions – all pharmaceutical companies stimulate consumption and self-medication? But, there is, in fact, a more daring alternative: evaluate sociologically what is happening with scientific journalism. We know that logic itself, is insufficient to meet all the demands and possibilities of validity, that, as shown by Thomas Kuhn, is supported by values and needs of a certain culture, at a certain moment in time. This means that it is important to recognize the non-universality and the non-univocationality of the regulatory standards of a certain science. In his classic book “Structure of Scientific Revolutions” he warned us that there is one single pressing aspect in the analysis of development of theories and scientific verifications: the psycho-sociology of sciences and understanding of motivations, senses and meanings of its discourses. In this case, the agenda is urgent.
Paulo Rosenbaum, Physician, Master in Preventive Medicine and PhD in Sciences from FMUSP. Member of the Medical Rationalities Group of the IMS- UERJ. Author of “Between Art and Science” (Hucitec Publishers), and “Homeopathy, Customized Medicine”, etc.