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Doctor vs. Quack

Being a doctor, or at least almost one, means that friends and family members or even your roommate will inevitably call for medical or nutritional advice. I don’t mind giving quick and free medical advice when I can. Funny thing is, after they’ve heard what I have to say, they don’t always listen.

For example, my roommate who is sharp in finance but has no scientific training believes that dish detergent residues on dishes cause cancer, which is why she only washes her dishes with water. (Ironically, she will indulge without hesitation in cigarettes, fast foods and whiskey.) When I tell her that whatever particle of dish detergent that might be left on her dishes, even consumed over a lifetime, is highly unlikely to cause any ailment, and that there are many other things she can modify in her lifestyle that will be much more beneficial, she decided to stand by her beliefs.

Perhaps I am lacking in the art of persuasion, but when it comes to science, it is not about persuasion, and much less about beliefs; it is about facts.

Aside from my bachelor of science undergraduate degree and my four years of medical training, my involvement with the McGill Office for Science and Society for almost a decade now has taught me to have a very keen eye on spotting quackery, even though quackery can, and often is, made to sound very convincing. Even I sometimes also fall under the traps of fancy scientific words. When a Youtube video about Japanese scientists creating artificial meat by recycling fecal matter went viral on the Internet, I bought it. Not the poop, the science. The idea wasn’t so implausible, after all. It turned out to be a spoof.

Pranks such as the Japanese Poop Burger are more or less harmless and gave me a good laugh after I found out about my own gullibility, but too many claims and promises out there are not only false, but dangerous.

A friend recently told me that she read from what she thought was a scientific source that a vegan diet not only prevents, but also halts or even reverses numerous diseases, including cancer. If you already have cancer, she says, and you adopt a vegan diet, then your cancer cannot go past Stage II. And then my friend added that her friend who is studying nutrition agrees.

At the risk of sounding arrogant, which truly is not my intention at all, I do not have to do any research to know that cutting out meat and dairy from one’s diet to stop or reverse cancer is wishful thinking. It just does not make sense. Not only so, I firmly believe that broadcasting such claims is criminal. Yes, telling a patient that his coronary artery disease will be totally reversed if he adopts a vegan diet, or advising a cancer patient that her cancer cells will only multiply to Stage II if she eliminates animal protein from her diet is criminal. I use such a strong word because false and wrong information such as this one can and has killed lives.

I don’t think I did a very good job at explaining or convincing my friend. Perhaps I take the issue too much to heart and got prematurely upset. But at least in her case, being young and healthy, if she decides to forego fatty burgers and fried eggs for two weeks as a cleanse, it’s no big deal. But what do I do about my future patients who are seriously ill, and who obstinately choose to follow their beliefs or the latest health fad, which might or might not be of any benefit, instead of following sound medical advice? And who is to blame them if even doctors and scientists sometimes go to the “dark side,” either from self-delusion or for monetary gains?

That is something they don’t teach you in medical school.