Monday, May 10, 2010
Lying within a couple of bytes of permanently fallow, my better blog, Surgeonsblog, still gets visitors. Some find it when searching for a specific surgical topic; others seem to stumble upon it from a moldering link on another site. When comments are left, questions asked, I reply. That it remains viable after I've mostly left it, still providing useful information or entertainment for people (or, quoting an email I just received, "inspiration") gives me satisfaction. Too, once in a while, it drives me nuts.
A post that gets regular traffic is this one, about gallbladder flushes. Like all "cleansing" procedures -- especially colon cleanses, a favorite among liberals for some reason, if reading the Huffington Post (which I do, regularly [no pun]) is any indicator -- such holy happenings are peddled prodigiously by the deluded or the deceptive, and carried out with commitment by the credulous. Unlike colon cleansing, which has no visible verifier except the expected effluvium, gallbladder flushes produce something tangible, something magical, something given the credence of a brickbat. It's real, it's there for the looking. It's proof positive.
And yet, I still get testimonials for the treatment, along with vigorous personal derogation for dissing it. Did so again recently, got into quite a little tête á tête. Hand in hand, such belief is accompanied by certainty that doctors are liars and thieves, and that the only reliable health care is to be received from -- you name it -- naturopaths, chiropracters, homeopaths, and chi-ters. The less evidence, the better.
What impresses them beyond recall to reality is the production of "stones" in their feces after they drink the potion. With minor variations, the flushee takes a combination of oil and something acidic and, by golly, like cottage cheese, it produces little curds in the turds that the true believer is convinced are gallstones. I've had them brung to me, with smug certainty, in little cups, a wrong thing on many levels. Without recounting the simple physiology of the gallbladder and the only slightly more complicated chemistry of bile, not to mention the geometry of bile ducts and the physical nature of gallstones, I'll assert, and the reader will accept based on my decades of care for patients and my hundreds of posts which have never deviated from factual, that there simply is no way taking that brew or anything else by mouth will cause a gallbladder to disgorge itself of stones. Believing these potions can work is like thinking you can change your spark plugs by flushing the radiator.
But them cute little curds: what more proof does a believer need? (Suggestion: pick one up and rub it between your fingers.)
Which brings me back into this blog's bailiwick: why do humans need to believe stuff that's so obviously untrue, easily disproved, completely bogus? Whether it's Obama's birth, the age of the earth, a homeopath's worth, or evolutionary dearth, people can be persuaded of the damndest things. Why? In the human brain, how can such disparate things dwell as art, music, love, engineering, architecture, invention... and... belief in gallbladder flushes, Sarah Palin, and Glenn Beck? With so much in us that strives for perfection, for understanding our world, for discovery, we remain capable of -- in need of, evidently -- self-delusion of the most remarkable and refractory sort. My latest in the thrall of flushes was absolutely convinced, while derisively dismissive of factual input. Not unlike some commenters here. So deep is the need.
Philosophers can wrestle with it, theses can be written. But to me, if it's frustrating and depressing, it's also simple: our minds have not kept pace with our ability to create. We've made the world too complex and too dangerous for the limited capacity we have to understand what we've done or, from the beginning maybe, to handle uncertainty. It's a paradox of evolution. Capable of so much, our brains have significant and perverse lacunae. Faced with inescapable reality, like the kid who spills ink on the carpet, we turn to pretense. When we can't deal with the world we've made, we make stuff up that feels good, that's easy, magical. Water memory. Death panels. Creationism. Fair and balanced. For that matter, in terms of demonstrating failures of human cerebration, I find it hard to make much distinction between believing there's a red-skinned guy with horns and a tail living in the center of the earth, that martyrdom gets you a two-month supply of virgins, and this. All evidence that in apprehension of reality we're fatally flawed. (By "fatally," I mean "fatally." And by "we" I mean "they.")
If we're going to save ourselves from ourselves, we have a hell of a long way to go, which means we better find a way to pick up the pace of evolution in a big hurry. I wonder if lemon juice and olive oil would work...