Monday, June 2, 2008

Lorenzo's Snake Oil

I have mentioned here before, I think, that I am a fan of snake oil. Maybe not. But I am.

One of the reasons we're in the current health care mess is that doctors lobbied very successfully to lock their trade down and to enlist the government's help in beating the tar out of anyone who might compete.

This was a long battle, going back into the middle ages, actually, but fought particularly fiercely in the past two centuries. You can see casualties in likely geniuses such as Ignaz Semmelweis and likely quacks such as Wilhelm Reich. My great-grandmother used to cure tuberculosis patients--I'm not sure how, since she stopped early in her life when they threatened to throw her in jail for it.

Let that sink in for a bit: She was threatened with jail for curing TB. She didn't charge for this, and her patients were people who had been sent out west by the doctors to die. Even so, she was a big enough threat for the local medical establishment (100 years ago now, mind you, and in a relatively small midwestern town) to leverage the force of the government against her.

Here in California, I believe it's illegal to say you can cure anything.

I've had some interesting run-ins with snake oil.

This diet, for example, saved one of my kid's life. It was fascinating because at the time we had a doctor who clearly cared--went out of his way to care for a child he knew was consigned to a shortened life of seizures and ineffective (and harmful) medications. He was a very good man, I think, and yet he resisted, strongly, even so much as trying the diet.

His resistance persisted well into the diet being successful.

Let that sink in for a while.

Anyway, this same doctor, in trying to dissuade us, brought up Lorenzo's Oil. We hadn't seen it--still haven't, actually--but people kept referencing it, and curiously they all had different stories about what happened at the end. This doctor, for example, insisted that Lorenzo died in the movie.

So it was interesting to me to read that Lorenzo had just died at the age of 30.

I've seen a lot of this--it's not hard to find people defying conventional medicine. It's also not hard to find people hawking snake oil. Part of the Nanny State Americans accepted over half-a-century ago was the transfer to the government of the power to decide how to handle their bodies. (Unless it's an abortion, of course.)

But while doctors can peddle drugs that have success rates about at the level of placebo (and some even perform worse!), and can physically harm you as long as the treatment conforms to some legal principle, non-doctors are thrown in jail (or threatened) for being successful.

I've done some treatments that worked for me, and I used to engage in debates about "scientific" principles and the like, but of course, all that I really care about if I have a health problem, is getting rid of that problem. I don't care if I'm cured by a placebo effect or not. Hell, I'd prefer the placebo effect, since side-effects tend to be pretty low.

But I suppose that's another freedom we won't be getting back.

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