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Why Science? Part 3 – What Could Go Wrong?

yup - this used to be cough medicine

So what if we don’t use science?

What if we made important health decisions based on our beliefs, intuition, experience, or expert (guru) opinion?

What if we trust things just because they are popular or have been around for a long time?

What could go wrong?

Let’s look at some interesting (i.e. painful, gruesome, and terribly tragic) examples, from ancient history to modern times.


  • Trepanning
    (~ 10,000 BC)

Prehistoric Trepanning - a picture I took at the London Science Museum

Said to be one of the first surgical techniques, ever, trepanning is drilling a hole in a persons skull to cure some sort of illness. Prehistorically, it may have been to ‘release demons’, and during the Middle Ages and Renaissance eras, it was said to cure seizures and skull fractures.

circa 1500's

Here’s the crazy thing: some skulls found from prehistoric ages even show signs of healing – indicating that people actually survived this operation!

These days surgeons might remove a piece of skull to relieve intracranial pressure if a person has internal bleeding from a head injury. But it’s called a craniotomy, it’s done under anesthesia, the bone is replaced afterwards, and it’s much more… elegant.

  • Cataract ‘Couching’
    (~800 BC)

hold still!

‘Couching’ was a form of cataract surgery. Basically, you stuck a needle in the eye to move the cataract out of the way. 2

We now know (ahem… from science) that cataracts are actually on the lens of the eye, which isn’t the first layer! It’s not as simple as just pushing it out of the way. 3

The funny thing is, it seemed to actually help. People could see clearly again (according to ancient writings – probably by the surgeons themselves). However, this probably only lasted a few days, as the complications would have been severe. 4

  • Bloodletting
    (~1000 BC to 1800’s)

Apparently the most common medical practice performed by doctors until the 1800’s, bloodletting involved bleeding a significant quantity of blood to cure an illness. 6

During antiquity, it was used to “balance the humors”. But even after that theory was abandoned, the practice continued. It wasn’t until the 1800’s that its value was questioned.

It is now known that it isn’t really good for anything except extremely rare conditions. In fact, it’s mostly harmful, causing weakness and increasing risk of infections.

  • Mercury
    (very popular during the 1500’s – 1700’s)

Although the history of Mercury as medicine goes much further back, it was especially popular during the Renaissance period. People used to drink that stuff.

Turns out it’s poisonous, and may have even killed Mozart! 8

  • Heroin as Cough Medicine
    (1898 to 1910)

Heroin was first sold as a cough suppressant. It was created to be a “non-addictive” morphine substitute. It actually turned out to metabolize into morphine, and was actually a quicker acting form of the drug. 9 Whoops!

  • Lysol as a Feminine Hygiene Product

Nope, not kidding.

Lysol, the household disinfectant cleaner that we all know and love for it’s lemon scent, was actually marketed as a feminine hygiene product for a short time.

Apparently, it was suggested that “a diluted Lysol solution prevented infections and vaginal odor, and thereby preserved youth and marital bliss”. It was also used as a morning after birth control method. 10

  • ‘SIDS’ Sudden Infant Death Syndrome
    (1950’s to present)

While many of the examples listed above are interesting and even funny, this last one is downright tragic. It’s a classic example of the importance of evidence based practice in healthcare.

Dr. Benjamin Spock 11 was a very famous pediatrician with a very famous book: ‘Baby and Child Care’ . For its first 52 years of publication, it was the second best selling book – next to the Bible! Not only that, he was an anti-war activist and an Olympic gold medalist.

This guy was awesome.

So it was no surprise that just about everyone believed him when the 1958 edition of his book recommended babies be placed on their front to sleep, so that if they vomit, they won’t choke.

You may have heard this same recommendation for people who pass out after binge drinking. Sounds legit, right?

However, over the proceeding years, numerous research studies we’re published showing statistics that babies sleeping on their fronts had higher rates of SIDS 12. By 1970, there was ample scientific evidence that babies should be sleeping on their backs. Still, many parenting books continued to recommend front sleeping.

It wasn’t until the 1990’s that the idea really caught on, and the ‘Back to Sleep’ 13 campaign was implemented to raise public awareness. Since then, SIDS has dropped by over 50%. It is estimated that this ‘expert opinion’ may have led to upwards of 60,000 infant deaths. 12

epic historical face-palm

How did these things happen!?

What now seems absurd and dangerous was once considered wise and accurate!

Of course, we didn’t know then what we know now, and the future will be much the same.

What is important is that we learn from our mistakes and move forward in a positive direction.

So what can we learn from these historic blunders?

  • For numerous reasons, we can basically trick ourselves into thinking something works when it actually doesn’t. Read: ‘Why Science? Part 1 – Because We’re Usually Wrong’
  • An idea isn’t a good one just because it’s been around for thousands of years. 14
  • Just because something is new, doesn’t mean it’s any better either (like the sleep position for infants).15
  • Just because an expert recommends something, doesn’t mean it’s correct. 16
  • Just because something is popular, doesn’t mean it’s right. 17
  • If we’re going to try to ‘cure’ something, we should have at least some clue what’s actually causing the problem, rather than thinking a panacea 18 (a cure-all) will work for every possible illness. It’s never that simple.

Conclusion – Why Science?

Science is a method we can use to gather evidence that can be observed or tested. Reliable evidence… not just testimonials or expert opinion!

With this evidence, we can design treatments for illnesses that actually make sense, and then test it to see if it actually works (because even things that make sense can be wrong)!

With carefully designed experiments, we can get rid of our biases (mostly), and see the results for what they truly are… whether we like them or not! For more detail on what science actually is, see ‘Why Science? Part 2 – What is it?‘.

Of course, science is only as good as we make it – after all, scientists are only human!

But generally, things have gotten much better, and continue to improve. Let’s hope this is just the beginning, and that we continue to improve our health and quality of life for centuries to come.

Thanks for reading!

Further reading:

Popular but Weird and Dangerous Cures – by Paul Ingraham at Saveyourself.ca.

Why We Need an Evidence-Based Approach in the Fitness Field – by Anoop Balachandran.

The 10 Most Insane Medical Practices in History – by Nathan Birch at Cracked.com.

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    2 Responses to Why Science? Part 3 – What Could Go Wrong?

    1. Toby Richard says:

      Hey Tony, they still do bloodletting in Korea . Its supposed to empty toxins out of your blood.

      • Tony Ingram says:

        Yeah. It’s still done all over the world actually, for many different reasons. It’s now called ‘phembotomy’ and it’s good for Hemochromatosis – excessive iron in the blood, which can be toxic – so I suppose you could use the toxins argument there. But usually when people talk about ‘toxins’ they are using it in the same way as silly ‘detox’ diets.

        What is interesting, however, is that there’s also research that phlembotomy lowers blood pressure a bit (but they don’t know how long it lasts or if it leads to long term benefits). Still, pretty cool.

        But bloodletting certainly isn’t the cure-all it was once considered. Back then they thought that you could treat different diseases just by bleeding different amounts from different parts of the body.

        If people want to try it, at least do it by donating blood. If it isn’t helpful for you, at least it will be for someone else!

        Good comment Tobes! Helped me elaborate on some stuff.

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