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PostWatch: An irregular correction to the Washington Post

Brought to you by Christopher Rake


Sunday, February 23, 2003
1:38 PM

Low-carb, almost done... (Do I hear cheering?)

4. I love the scientific method but am not overly impressed with the scientific, medical or health-care establishments. They have vested interests just like everybody else.

5. Established wisdom is, in fact, overturned, though it usually provokes howls of protest (ulcer treatment is one example) or outright suppression (the health benefits of moderate alcohol consumption is another).

Obviously researchers, doctors and journalists for the most part don't want to deliberately mislead people to the point of injuring their health. But the fact is that vast research establishments, career reputations and $$$ are tied up in promoting one view against another. This is no less true for a journalist like Taubes who's sitting on top of a $700,000 book contract than for clinical researchers and health-care bureaucrats who would have to repudiated a lifetime's work to concede the low-carb theory works.

The history of ulcer treatment shows what happens when decades of accepted wisdom are overturned:
Ulcers should no longer be viewed as a sore in the lining of the stomach, but instead as an infectious disease. So concluded the two Australian physicians who discovered the link between the Helicobacter pylori bacteria and peptic ulcer disease, beginning one of modern medicine's meaner debates...

From the start, the medical community was skeptical of the new theory about ulcers--and not shy about attacking its source. The two Australians, Robin Warren, MD, and Barry Marshall, MD, were not researchers but practicing physicians, a fact that led many in the academic community to view their research as suspect. "Barry Marshall was saying from the start that this was an infectious disease and that the treatment for it was antibiotics, but there was not enough data to support that," recalled David Y. Graham, FACP, chief of gastroenterology at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas.

The theatrics that followed--Drs. Marshall and Warren actually drank some of the bacteria to prove that they would get gastritis and cure themselves with antibiotics--further alienated many in academic medicine. "The worst thing someone could say is that you sound like Barry Marshall," Dr. Graham said....

Dr. Marshall, now clinical associate professor of medicine at the University of Virginia and president of the Helicobacter Foundation, an educational institution in Charlottesville, Va., remembers the furor that the reported relationship between H. pylori and gastric ulcers caused. Speaking to groups of gastroenterologists, he said, was like running a gauntlet. "Nine out of 10 would be standing up waiting to have a go at you," he recalled. "Then occasionally someone would get up and in a very timid voice say that he had treated his mother-in-law with antibiotics and that she was feeling much better. The audience would boo and tell him to sit down."...

As this story admits, new theories are batted around all the time and proven to be wrong, so there's a reason to be skeptical. Up to a point.
everybody thought they were an expert on ulcers. They said why is this Dr. Marshall telling us about ulcers, there is so much literature that we don't need anything new, we already have 28 things that cause ulcers. But as it turns out, 27 of those 28 things were actually H. pylori.

I'm not sure what it takes for one of these breakthroughs to take hold--or to actually be demonstrated, in the first place, that it's a breakthrough. But let's not kid ourselves that the scientific method is cooly and dispassionately administered by some incorruptible priesthood that floated down from heaven. ViaInsta:
The Framingham study, which began to examine risks for heart disease in 1948, was one of the first big studies to find heart benefits from alcohol. One of its researchers, Dr. Carl Seltzer, wrote in a short 1996 memoir that when he and his colleagues informed their government sponsors at the National Heart and Lung Institute in 1972 of these findings, they were forbidden to publish them.

The findings have been acknowledged only recently.

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