When Science Lies

Life is simple. We make it difficult.

We take simple circumstances and attach meaning to them. We look to define things instead of letting them simply be. One of the ways that we attach meaning, believing that this meaning is credible, is by quoting “science”. Trouble is, science is not perfect, not foolproof, and definitely not absolute. Relying on “science” can be incredibly misleading and have a devastating impact especially when we incorrectly believe that all results that scientific processes produce are credible. They’re not.

It is foolish to put absolute trust in a system where absolute proof is known to be nearly impossible. Even when their findings gain acceptance from their peers, scientists know that their results are considered valid only until such time as they are disproven in a future study or experiment. Every published experiment carries a footnote explaining its “statistical significance”; a disclaimer, so to speak, acknowledging that the results obtained are valid only for the sample studied. (If only the media would ensure this was understood instead of reporting each finding as factual.) 

As if science wasn’t imperfect enough already, add to the equation the human element, with its ego and ulterior motives, and the cloudy water gets even more muddied. In fairness, there are many, many scientists out there doing incredible work and I salute them and their dedication. With or without breakthrough results, I believe that the vast majority of scientists are largely selfless and pursuing their work for most, if not all, of the right reasons. However, as the famous quote explains, one bad apple spoils the bunch. Unfortunately, one is a severe understatement.

When I was in elementary school, I obsessed over hockey boxscores. Every morning after a hockey game, I would take a piece of loose-leaf, lined paper, a black Pilot Fineliner pen and a copy of the sports section. I recopied the boxscore over and over until I got it absolutely right. One spelling mistake or poorly written letter and that piece of paper found itself crumpled on the floor beneath wherever I was sitting. I would take a new paper and start from the beginning. There’s no question that my behaviour was obsessive and likely related to a perception that errors and failing were unacceptable. Was this behaviour indicative of a disorder or simply of an idiosyncratic 9-year-old boy? 

I focused completely on this activity but rarely succeeded in giving the same attention to most of my teachers. Back then, no one thought twice about it. Today, many kids (and even adults) who exhibit the same behaviours are diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) or Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Based on what? The majority of the “symptoms” tend to have a completely rational explanation. When does simple disinterest or lack of a challenge in class turn into a disorder that “requires” medication to treat it?

Comedian Carlos Mencia has a reputation for calling things as he sees them and never beats around the bush. While ranting about the lowering of educational standards in schools, he remarks:

“And then people started coming up with diseases… “my son can’t pay attention because he has attention deficit disorder” – which is a bullshit disease that they made up in the 1980’s for your f**ked up kids that are eeeehh (groan-like unintelligent sound referring to a stupid person) and you don’t want to admit it.”

He sums up his views with a pointed conclusion:

“A.D.D. my ass, that’s a bullshit disease! If it didn’t exist when I was a kid then (expletive) it’s not real!”

I think he’s right on.

ADD or ADHD, they’re just fancy scientific-sounding terms to say that the person doesn’t pay attention. Instead of seeing this as a made-up condition, people are buying into it for self-serving reasons. Parents want a diagnosis that explains their child’s behaviour, excuses the kid’s problems and shortcomings and ignores any possibility that the parents’ child-rearing decisions had anything to do with it. People want a diagnosis that makes everyone “feel” good (read: tell them that it’s not their fault) but truth isn’t invited to the party.

It’s nothing more than a crutch. This diagnosis, for too many, is akin to patronizing them and treating them like incapable babies. Essentially, the patient and, in the case of a child, their parents hear “you have a legitimate medical problem and there’s nothing you can do about it.” From that point on, any issue with attention is met with the excuse “I have ADD”. (read: it’s not my fault, I can’t do better, or don’t expect much of me.)

We might even be teaching our children to be unfocused. These days, many North American children grow up with more toys than they have time to play with. We’re teaching them to not spend more than a few minutes at a time (if that long) on one task/activity before moving on to the next one.

Doctors dole out Ritalin like candy and society is left to deal with kids who are medicated to the point of artificial attention. Patients rely on the meds and “deal with it” rather than doing something about it. Worse, if patients see “positive” results with the medication, they will actually begin to believe that medication is the only viable solution, causing them to be addicted to the drug. Consider please that treating the symptoms while ignoring the root cause of the problem is never an effective long-term solution.

Perhaps, using the basis of neuroplasticity (as previously described), a more appropriate, more effective treatment would be to work with patients, invite them to take responsibility for their levels of attention and train them, using exercises and practice, to “heal” themselves over time. 

This approach would actually respect people’s abilities and empower them to deal with issues that hold them back in their lives. However, the preferred approach to attention issues continues to focus on medication. The reason might lie (pun intended) in the ulterior motives I mentioned earlier. To respect people, to empower them, to teach them, would all lead to less profit for pharmaceutical companies who count on drug sales to boost their bottom lines, even if the drugs are treating phony “disorders” that we are naturally equipped to deal with. Unfortunately, it will likely take a protest on a global scale to effect these kinds of changes. Overeager and simple-minded doctors all over the world have discovered that an ADD/ADHD diagnosis is a quick and painless way to make their patient feel better (by absolving them of all responsibility) and then moving on to the next billable patient.

ADD and ADHD aren’t the only examples of made-up disorders. “Antisocial personality disorder” is the scientific term that could be more honestly expressed as “he/she is awkward around other people”, but we’re too polite for that. We convince ourselves that seeing people as “sick” and pitying them is more honourable than risking ill feelings, challenging their beliefs and teaching them to help themselves.

We cannot give scientists free rein to make stuff up, because the most vulnerable among us will unquestioningly consume it as fact. In 1998, a British study linked the vaccine for Measles, Mumps, and Rubella (MMR) to childhood autism. As a result, millions of parents in Britain, Canada, the U.S., Australia, and New Zealand decided against vaccinating their child, leading to millions of unprotected children. The British Medical Journal recently disclosed new details into this how this “study” was fraudulent and, not surprisingly, once again ulterior motives are at the forefront. The journal notes that, beyond the laughably small number of subjects (8) that the findings were based on, the whole study had been skewed in advance, as the patients in the study had been recruited via campaigners already opposed to the MMR vaccine.

I believe that the more we repeat a lie, the more likely we are to eventually believe it to be the truth. This week, AFTER it was revealed that this 1998 British study was branded “a crafted attempt to deceive” and “an elaborate fraud” among the gravest of charges in medical research, polls conducted in various North American cities suggest that news that the study was completely unscientific and that there is no link between the MMR vaccine and autism will encourage very few parents who previously opposed the vaccine to change their minds.

It appears that the damage is already done. The lie got to the people and they ate it up. Those with ulterior motives are the epitome of selfishness. They don’t think twice about the consequences of their actions and could care less about who they hurt on the road to getting what they want.

When will we learn? When we’re fed information, feel free to take a bite. But, before you swallow, make sure to chew it well and, if it tastes funny, spit it out!

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15 Comments

  1. I’m not sure I follow your logic here, Mark. I agree that science isn’t perfect or absolute, but it does tend to reflect the best knowledge of the time. In most cases, it’s based on observation and experimentation. I think outright frauds (like the vaccine-autism link) are more the exception than the rule.

    Science keeps marching on, and new discoveries are constantly being made. Just becaue a diagnosis wasn’t given in the past doesn’t mean the consition didn’t exist, and it doesn’t mean that the only way to deal with it is through medication.

    Bloodletting used to work for a bunch of diseases, and probably still would today, but now our greater understanding of science and biology have led to better treatments.

    The example you gave of the millions of unvaccinated kids, and how that’s not a good thing, would fall apart if you didn’t have the scientific knowledge of how “herd immunity” works (I got that term from CNN, referring to how being surrounded by immunized people reduces the chance of any one individual contracting the disease).

    Ultimately, I think it’s up to the individual to make the decisions that they think is best, but I also think it’s just as much an abdication of personal responsibility to say “don’t trust scientists because some of them are less than honest”.

    • Thank you for your comment, Jer.

      For the record, I never said “don’t trust scientists because some of them are less than honest.” I said that people should question scientific announcements to understand what might be going on in the background.

      I understand very well the concept of herd immunity. This is a fall-back, a bonus, if you will. It is not something to rely on. It is entirely irresponsible to make a decision to not vaccinate solely based on the assumption that the herd will protect you. Last year, during the H1N1 vaccination campaign, I was a firm proponent of vaccination. Herd immunity served me well mentally, but only as a hopeful way to rationalize people’s decisions to not vaccinate after they made them. It works a rationalization only, not a plan.

      • Allow me to clarify. I didn’t mean people should rely on herd immunity (and I was explaining the concept for benefit of those readers show may not be familiar with it, as I was until last week). The point I was getting at is that the “herd” falls apart if the individuals that compose it decide not to immunize themselves based on a distrust of science. I didn’t mean to propose it as a solution in itself, or as an excuse not to get yourself vaccinated. i agree with you 100% that relying on the herd is irresponsible. But it’s ot a fall-back or bonus, it’s an important part of the concept.

        As for the rest, yes, people should use their own heads and look at everything. But I still maintain that science on the whole is a good thing, and the people engaged in it are good people.

        I’m a big believer in taking personal responsibility, but not everything in one’s life is entirely within their control, and there’s nothing wrong with trying to understand more about those things.

  2. You make a good point that the latest study etc. should not always be taken as toras emes and there are obvious flaws in epidemiology, especially when there are corporate interests that have a direct influence over the nature of studies. I also agree that there is likely a huge over prescribing of drugs for conditions that may be treatable in more wholesome ways, that may just take more effort.
    However, your outright dismissal of ADD and ADHD as legitimate conditions seems fairly baseless. To use the comedian’s line as anything more than just comedy, one would expect people our age to deny the existence of HIV/AIDS, or someone at the turn of the century to deny the existence of microorganism related illnesses. The fact is that ADD did and does exist, and the people who had it were more likely just marginalized and prevented from success, and not encouraged to take responsibility for their attention and training, as you suggested. The levels of poverty in past centuries, and inability to succeed even in a society where jobs required much less concentration and mental resources than they do today, are indicative that many people fell through the cracks. The difference now is that a proper diagnosis (not one made out of convenience, to ease the burden of overwhelmed parents, or to pad the wallet of the prescribing doctor) can now enable an individual to transcend the condition and succeed in school and in society, sometimes by means of medication, and sometimes by means of other therapies that are designed with the condition in mind (rather than just telling people to pull themselves together, for all the good that does.)
    Mental illness in general was not widely recognized until recently, to the great detriment of many people who could have taken part in general society but instead were relegated to insane asylums or left to rot in the street.
    In summary, yes, I do think that there is a high level of irresponsibility in over-diagnosing and over-prescribing for ADD, however for the people who do legitimately have such conditions, responsible science and medicine can and have been of indispensable help.

    • Thanks for your comments, Yoni.

      You comment that “the fact is that ADD did and does exist.” Just because we say something is a fact doesn’t make it so. Through all of my research, I have yet to see a single objective scientific indicator of “ADD” or “ADHD”. The diagnoses are based solely on patient reports, which are subjective by nature, and are almost always coloured by patients’ hidden agendas, namely to avoid responsibility for their behaviour and actions and/or to rationalize their lack of success or achievement.

      Furthermore, you can’t prove your theory that ADD/ADHD has always existed but was never recognized any more than I can prove that it’s completely made up. “The levels of poverty in past centuries” etc.. might just indicate that lazy, unfocused, responsibility-denying people have existed in every generation.

      I did not, and would not, compare the legitimate HIV/AIDS to the make believe ADD or ADHD. The former is visible in patients that have it and cause real, observable complications and consequences. On the other hand, ADD and ADHD are, as I mentioned, just fashionable, scientific-sounding crutches with absolutely no physiologically-observable differences between an “infected person” and a “normal person”. Why? Because there’s no difference!

      I am also not denying the entirety of “mental illnesses.” As I mentioned, when a condition can be diagnosed through physiological and scientific observation and testing (i.e. differences in brain size, formation, etc…) and such a condition exists in all patients diagnosed with the same syndrome/disorder/disease, then it is likely real. If not, then we need to smarten up and deny it loudly from the start so that it can’t grow into the ridiculous epidemic that we see with ADD/ADHD.

  3. While I whole heartdly agree with your claim of over medicating conditions which can probably be better serviced through cognitive behavioral, training and/or natural pharmacology (think herbs, better diet, exercise, etc…) many current ailments do have physiological/true science foundations.

    True ADD/ADHD can be seen in brain scans. Different areas of the brain are activated and in different ways in those who are affected by chemically (aka. true) ADD/ADHD. Those people, while they will probably benefit from chemical based medication, are also supposed to be under medical care and partaking in cognitive behavioral therapies to learn control in those areas which impede them most.

    Your broad brush stroke makes the field of psychology and medical discovery very black and white, which it isn’t. To date, neurologist will say they have only managed to understand 10-20% of the how the brain works and it’s mapping. As they continue to discover more, more will be available for scrutiny. Scrutiny does not mean that those findings are subjective nor should they be brushed aside until sufficient evidence is found to support them.

    Illnesses like PPD were (and in many places still are) very taboo and thought to be completely in the sufferer’s head. Comments like “she just has to snap out of it” or “get over it” were often heard. PPD is a very real illness and has symptoms ranging from mildly excessive sadness and lethargy to a complete psychotic break from reality.

    You reference anti-social behavior disorders, and while I agree with you that, again, this is widely overused and often as an excuse to “get one’s act together”, to completely dismiss it is equally wrong. Asperger’s Syndrome (well documented and scientifically supported) is one such anti-social behavior disorder.

    As I said when I began, there is much truth to what you have written. Where I differ in opinion is that I do not feel such a broad stoke of dismissiveness is appropriate. Yes, we should question medical ‘discoveries’ and those in the field should weigh their words and publications more cautiously. No, we should not group all people who have a diagnosis in the same boat and claim they are all really ok and should own up to that. While what we read/are told by the medical profession is one part of the equation, how we choose to use that information is equally important.

    • Thank you for your comment, Rachel.

      What is the basis of your assertion that “true” ADD/ADHD can be seen in brain scans? I have not seen any such proof.

      Perhaps I am not being clear. I am not pretending that the symptoms that lead to a “diagnosis” of ADD/ADHD/Antisocial behaviour are not happening. I believe that we all have issues of some kind, but I dispute the assertion that they are medical issues. I think that we would all be better served if we would call a spade a spade, so to speak, and deal with the underlying issue (i.e. laziness, disinterest, lack of experience in social situations or understanding of current societal social conventions).

      In terms of Post Partum Depression, which you bring up, I admit that I do not have enough information on the science of it to comment with any intelligence. If I had to take sides, I would default to attributing PPD to a hormonal issue. So many hormone changes during pregnancy and more after delivery makes this hypothesis at least considerable. However, if PPD symptoms are objectively viewed scientifically, then it would be valid in my books.

      And Asperger Syndrome? Explained as “characterized by significant difficulties in social interaction, along with restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior and interests.” How is this a medical problem? Once again, there’s a clear, rational, possible explanation for these “symptoms” – perhaps the child got joy/ satisfaction/ approval/ validation or has a particular aptitude and simply repeats it over and over and over again because they enjoy the success or the attention etc… It could be that simple.

      As it relates to all of the above disorders, scientific or not, I think that people need to do some soul-searching and help themselves. They need to differentiate between what they believe is real and what actually is real (see my blog post called “What is real?”), objectively get their heads straight, and change their minds and take on the hard work that is required to slowly fix the issue themselves.

      • My basis for the ADD/ADHD brain scan info is from the psychologist and neurologists who have asked if I would like these scans administered on one of my children who has a number of issues. He has also undergone blood work etc… to verify levels of different hormones which are attributed to anxiety and depression (both of which he presents with) – to be clear, my child is in early elementary school and has had “issues” as you call them since birth. A newborn is not lazy – s/he is – they survive by their instincts – feed me, change me, hold me.

        Regarding PPD – hormones are chemicals and as such chemical imbalances require other chemicals to help reestablish balance.

        re: Aspergers – I don’t know where you choose to obtain your information but this link may provide more accurate information: http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/asperger/asperger.htm

        I again feel it is necessary to reitterate that you seem to brush everything as black and white – or simple by nature and complex by subjectivity. This is unjust to the wide array of conditions and issues you are mass grouping. Are there particular (maybe even excessive) numbers of people who prefer to hide behind a overgeneralized and overdiagnosed issue – sure. But that does not invalidate the entire realm of that prognosis – it merely means there are people who are taking advantage of a situation – which, for the record makes it increasingly difficult to get help when it is really necessary (as spoken from personal experience).

      • You’re right. I do brush whatever possible as black and white, because I believe, like I started the post with, that “Life is simple. We make it complicated.” You’re also right (and say it quite well) when you say “simple by nature, complex by subjectivity.”

        What if things actually were as simple as I suggest. I ask people to allow for that possibility.

        What if the “wide array of conditions and issues” was actually artificially created to make and justify new jobs? What if the array is actually quite narrow and, uh, simple. Ulterior motives.

        As for your Asperger site, I went to it. It says about the same thing as I said. Here’s a quote from your site:

        “The most distinguishing symptom of AS is a child’s obsessive interest in a single object or topic to the exclusion of any other. Children with AS want to know everything about their topic of interest and their conversations with others will be about little else. Their expertise, high level of vocabulary, and formal speech patterns make them seem like little professors.”

        If I had a quarter for every person I knew who fit this description… Are they all Aspergers Syndrome, or maybe, could it be that these are normal kids who are socially awkward, like I said?

        I am encouraged, however, that their “treatment” section favours “social skills training” and “cognitive behavioral therapy” before mentioning “medication for co-existing conditions”.

        I never said that social awkwardness didn’t exist. I just maintain that it, and all of its equally made up cousins, shouldn’t be called “syndromes” or “disorders.” Any treatment would be more effective if it started from a place of empowerment instead of starting with a label of “disorder”.

  4. Things are what they are, and then we attach meaning to them.

    A brain scan may show lighted areas in the brain and for different durations, but WE have created the definition that it “means” something about a person’s capabilities or limitations. We lose our ability to question anew and rediscover potential answers when we see current knowledge and findings as facts.

    As Rachel said, “To date, neurologist will say they have only managed to understand 10-20% of the how the brain works and it’s mapping.” And although we only have that limited knowledge to go on, it’s amazing to see how much we rely and do not question those findings on an individual level.

    As a professional who administers standardized exams, one comment that is missing so far in this thread is that these exams (as well as any brain scans) are hardly ever conducted under “regular” or “natural” circumstances, and therefore we can only extrapolate to a person’s every day life. Just the term “standardized” explains that they are not personalized and not occurring as in a natural (uncontrolled) environment.

    I do not know the answer to this for others, so I can comment only so much as my own personal experience permits. But working in the public school system, of all the children I have EVER worked with who were taking medications for ADD or ADHD, not once did I see any report results in their file indicating that brain scans had been used to reach this diagnosis. Instead, parent reports, psychologist and (sometimes) psychiatric testings were completed to reach this conclusion. Hardly a conclusive or definitive method.

    So does ADD and ADHD exists? I honestly do not think that this question produces a useful answer in and of itself. Can the “symptoms” of a child or adult exhibiting ADD/ADHD tendencies be regulated, supported and overcome without medication? I propose that if we believe the answer to be yes, then as we search and work to prove it, everyone will benefit and succeed.

    • Thanks for your comment, Jennifer.

      Very well said, in my opinion. It’s time that we question subjective conclusions and send a loud, clear message that we’re paying attention.

      It’s time to tell pharmaceutical companies that they should focus on developing meds to combat the real ills of the world, and not the ones they made up themselves. Imagine all of the efforts (and money) that could have been put towards cancer research instead of developing Ritalin?

  5. I am curious whether anyone who has been diagnosed with ADD or ADHD and who chose NOT to take Ritalin nonetheless overcame their difficulties. I know there are behavioural interventions out there (e.g. changing seating the classroom, or giving the child a headset so they hear the teacher’s voice louder than anyone else), but we rarely hear about these in the media when ADD or ADHD is mentioned because people want a quick fix, and that’s what medication does. I am also curious if people have researched side effects of being on Ritalin for years… besides affecting the person’s ability to pay attention, what else does it do?

    • From personal experience – we have consulted a number of professionals both in the modern medicine fields and natural medicine fields. One thing that has been made very clear from these groups (and followed up with personal experience and experiments) is that food plays a very big part in this formula and is often overlooked (or ignored). When my older children were put on a diet low on simple starches and sugars, higher in protein and fiber-rich foods, they slept better, were more alert, less emotional, and more articulate (their thought were clearer). Even one day high in simple carbs and sugar will cause 2-3 days of back-peddling to get them back on track. Today’s kids are so hyped up on artificial stuff (I cannot call it food) laced with toxic chemicals, sugars, and completely void of nutritional value and nutrients. They have limited outlets for creativity and physical exertion. They are boxed into these tiny spaces and are forced to act in manners their bodies are not designed (sitting in classrooms for hours on end, staying indefinitely quiet, etc…) it’s really no wonder they exhibit behavioral issues.

  6. +1 mark and +1 rachel i 100% agree and all this start in early 1970, pharmaceutic was making all medication we need and they could not make more $$$ and start to make less$$$ so they start inventing sickness to sell medcation …… at this time when someone was sad because a lost (wife, kid , job) it was normal to be sad for week, month…. but in the 70s it need pills to ill this sadnest!!!!! and there is much more like this….

    just my 2 cent…

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