Eugene Straus, M.D. – Medical Marvels, Compassion, and Skepticism

August 11, 2006

Eugene Straus, M.D., is Emeritus Professor of Medicine at the State University of New York Downstate College of Medicine. He’s also served as a senior faculty member at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University, and the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. In these positions, he directed research, teaching, and clinical activities for thirty-five years. He has published over 150 scientific papers and text book chapters. He has also traveled very widely to observe health care in many parts of the world, and has advised the Health Ministries of India and China. He is a member of many research and clinical societies.

In this interview with DJ Grothe, he discusses his new book, Medical Marvels: The 100 Greatest Advances in Medicine. He also details some of the problems he sees in current medicine and gives advice to consumers who are inundated with so many suggested alternatives to medical science.

Also in this episode, Lauren Becker explores some of the reasons “Alt Med” may be attractive to its adherents despite the lack of evidence to support its claims.

This is point of inquiry for Friday, August 11th, 2006. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe a point of inquiry is the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry. Think tank collaborating with the State University of New York at Buffalo on the new science and the public master’s degree. We also have branches in Manhattan, Tampa and Hollywood. Now Washington, D.C., in addition to 11 cities around the world every week on point of inquiry, we look at some of the most central beliefs of our society. We mostly focus on three broad research areas, one pseudoscience and the paranormal. Second, we look at alternative medicine. Some people call it complementary medicine. Third, we’re interested in the intersection of secularism and religion in our society, science and nonbelief. We do this by drawing on SIFIs relationship with the leading lights of the day, including Nobel Prize winning scientists, public intellectuals, social critics and thinkers and renowned entertainers. I’m pleased that on today’s point of inquiry, we will be talking about medicine. Medical marvels at a time when health care management corporations are transforming the once very intimate doctor patient relationship into what some would call an impersonal provider customer transaction. It’s really difficult for both doctors and the public at large to view medicine as an idealistic calling devoted solely to the healing of the sick. Our guest today, Eugene Strauss, is emeritus professor of medicine at the State University of New York Downstate College of Medicine. And he’ll help us explore these kinds of issues in addition to teasing out the difference maybe between what’s called alternative medicine and scientific medicine. But first, our favorite, Lauren Becker, with a thought on exactly what is alternative medicine. 

Alternative medicine, it’s a classification that means different things to different people. So if we’re going to talk about it first, we have to ask alternative to what? For some, alternative medicine is an alternative to what they see as an overly corporate health care system, a cold network of insurance companies, hospitals and drug companies that counts profits ahead of cures and therefore leaves out the poor, the uninsured and the incurably sick. For others, AWALT Med represents an alternative to the new drug culture, the hyper advertized medicines that are constantly pushed by the pharmaceutical industry. A pretty little pill to cure any problem you might have, all for only five dollars a dose. Call your doctor today. Side effects may include dot, dot, dot. I think both of these groups are responding to a general feeling that today’s health care system is rigged, that they are ripping us off. Whoever they are, there’s a sense of distrust towards the establishment, a sense that they have no real interest in our well-being. A suspicion that they’re hiding cures from us because they make more money if we’re continually sick. So alternative medicine is seen as a way to get better without playing the fool. It’s a feeling that we can get in on the secret, a feeling that we can win the health care game. If there’s one thing that Americans especially love, it’s the feeling that we’re beating the system. And many feel they can do that if they choose an alternative path to well-being. These days, there are many alternative paths, homeopathic chiropractic and naturopathic remedies, acupuncture, psychic and faith, healing, irad allergy, magnetic therapy and on and on. But what is the real meaning of alternative medicine and why should we pay attention to it? If we’re going to talk about alternative medicine, we need first and foremost to explain that it is the alternative to science. The alternative to evidence. The alternative to everything we currently know about chemistry, biology and physics. It is the alternative to over 400 years of progress in our understanding of anatomy, physiology and organic chemistry. It’s the alternative to reality. And ironically, amidst ultimate claims of natural cures, it’s actually the alternative to nature. DJ Grothe, He recently interviewed a guest on point of inquiry named Thomas Keita. He spoke about a six pack of problems that lead everyone. You and me, to to accept bad ideas. One, we prefer stories to statistics, too. We seek to confirm not to question our ideas. Three, we rarely appreciate the role of chance and coincidence in shaping events. For we sometimes misperceive the world around us. Five. We tend to oversimplify our thinking. Six. Our memories are often inaccurate. Skeptics, the kind of people who like point of inquiry. We see science and the methods of science as a cure for these six problems. But alternative medicine is an alternative to science. So instead of addressing these problems, the pool of old med actually appeals to them. And this is why it can be so dangerous. It’s the result of bad decisions about flawed ideas. But here’s the thing. Science, though a very good tool, is also a humbling exercise for every time we think we know something. Our inquiries reveal so much more that we have barely begun to understand. And this is why we skeptics must always keep an open mind. There is still so much we don’t know about the nature of the universe in general. Most of us find this fact absolutely thrilling. We’re all looking forward to many great new discoveries from physical to astrophysical. We can’t wait to see what’s around the bend. This excitement, this hope of finding the next big thing. We share this with those who reach for alternative medical help. The tragedy is that their hopes are laden with those six problems, the ones that get in the way of good thinking. As a skeptic and a humanist concerned with reality and devoted to making it better, I propose a swap or maybe some sharing rather than rejecting alternative medical claims out of hand. Let’s borrow some of the creativity expressed in these ideas and use it to remind us to humbly keep an open mind amidst a universe more amazing than we can imagine. In return, let’s recognize the hope that people seek in alternative cures and channel it into a renewed push to use the scientific method to improve health care and reliable, effective and proven ways. If we don’t first alienate them with cynicism. These are skills we can teach from a common ground of hope. After all, aren’t we all interested in improving the human condition? One last thought. It’s important to point out that most of the complaints that old med proponents have about modern scientific medicine are more about the health care system than about the science of medicine when it comes to personal well-being. Most people trust the pure science behind medical advances. They like the idea of testing evidence and results. The problem is one of access. They believe the system has left them out. So they are seeking an alternative system that will let them the nonscientist, the non privileged in. We skeptics may not find any use for the conclusions of alternative medicine, but the need for it is very instructive. Perhaps if we truly wish to address the problem of ultimate, we should look to the system that spawned it. But that’s a subject for future discussions. 

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It pleases me to have my next guest on Point of Inquiry. Eugene Strauss, M.D., is emeritus professor of medicine at the State University of New York Downstate College of Medicine. He’s also served as a senior faculty member at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University and the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. In these positions, he’s directed research, teaching and clinical activities for 35 years. He’s published over 150 scientific papers and textbook chapters. He’s also traveled very widely to observe health care in many parts of the world, and he’s advised the health ministries of India and China. In addition, he’s a member of many research and clinical societies. He joins me on point of inquiry today to discuss his fantastic new book, Medical Marvels The 100 Greatest Advances in Medicine. We’ll also discuss some of the problems he sees in current medicine and advice he gives to consumers when there are so many suggested alternatives to medical science. Dr. Strauss, thank you for joining me on Point of Inquiry. 

Well, T.J., I’m very happy to be here. And I’m particularly thrilled to be on a program that deals so well with these difficult and controversial subjects that are so important to everyone in the world today. 

Dr. Strauss, medicine. It’s a very big subject, what with each specialty and all the new advances. Not to mention all the new alternative therapies that consumers have available to them. Why did you decide to write this book about medical marvels? 

Well, you’re right. Medicine is a very big subject and a very important subject. I prefer to think of the whole area as healing rather than medicine, because it emphasizes the fact that some of the most important advances and principles are non-technical human advances because medicine is a uniquely human endeavor. I decided to write the book because there is so much today that has to do with science and technology that’s negative, that brings pain and suffering to people’s lives. So much so that the whole notion of progress is something that can and has been questioned. But in the area of healing, I think it’s so important that we celebrate the great advances that have brought a reduction in suffering and then improvements in the quality of life. 

What makes a medical advance a marvel? I mean, what makes a certain advance great, as opposed to just adding to the accumulation of our knowledge about this or that subject to what makes it a marvel? 

Well, in the book, I define what I mean in terms of four criteria that have to be met before an advance can be considered great. And to simplify the matter, I would say that in word, for an advance to be considered great, it has to have positively affected the direction of people’s lives and have improved human life and existence. The big criteria can be more carefully, sadly, by those who read the book. But that’s the essence of things that have changed our. Direction as a species and more than our own species. For all of its species on the planet and for the greater good. 

I’d like to let our listeners know that you can purchase a copy of Dr. Strauss’s book. Medical Marvels by visiting our website Point of inquiry dot org. Dr. Strauss, what’s the single greatest medical advance in your estimation? 

The single greatest medical advance. Is the movement from the abandonment of the sick and injured individuals to taking them in and attempting to heal them. 

This happened, of course, in many societies, in many places quite a while ago when we were all hunters and gatherers, we had to move to chase the movements of game and to follow the flowering of and brooding of plants of a different species. And so we didn’t live in a single place. We were wondering and as such, we couldn’t stop to take care of people who were injured or sick. Most people did this same thing. They were easier hunters or gatherers. And there was little specialization in what people did. And so one individual’s work was very much the same as another. When we became agricultural and had more stable society, these people’s activities and occupations became more diverse and certain peoples were very valuable and couldn’t see dispense with. And the development of healing flourished so that people who were sick or injured were taken in like children and nurtured back to health. That, I think, is that the very most fundamental for the development of these advances. 

So the single greatest advance is this kind of change in consciousness where we where we as a people, as a species, a society, we took care of the ailing among us as opposed to just letting them fall by the wayside. That’s the single greatest advance in your book, you talk about all the other kinds of advances, therapeutic radiation, bone marrow transplant, contraception, the control of polio on and on you. You spend a lot of time covering the hundred greatest advances in medicine. When you hear some of the futurist talk about medicine and they’re talking about all these advances that you’re covering in your book, they say that we might not recognize medicine 25 years from now, that with advances in biotech and nanotech and the like, we’re in for some even more amazing developments. So, Dr. Strauss, what’s next in medicine? 

Well, I’d I’d like to address that, but I would first like to make a couple of points about these most basic advances which are in today’s thinking, non-technical, their human achievements in thinking and feeling. 

They are the introduction of compassion into our society and into our actions. And I would like to point out that this was not just something that happened a long time ago. 

This struggle between abandonment and healing is going on today. And there’s much even more important to understand today and to appreciate, because we can see this in the way in recent times of people with certain diseases like leprosy have been treated. And we can see that in the way people today with all sorts of conditions are treated when they don’t have money, they don’t have insurance, and they’re left by the side of the road. Even as the road passes right in front of a great hospital center, if they don’t have the money to pay, they are abandoned. 

So, Dr. Starrs, you’re saying that even more central to all the technological advances you’re calling for and make this point in the book that it’s. Human advances, the advances in a kind of humanism, taking care of the fellow man that’s important, where people without insurance or people with certain kinds of diseases, leprosy or AIDS, are left by the wayside, just like in a hunter gatherer times, those who were stricken were left by the wayside. 

Absolutely true. And I I’d like to point out that we see this even in now a language we use to refer to the relationship between the sick person and the healer, which, by the way, is the greatest contract between human beings that has ever developed. 

And I talk about that extensively in the book. And we we should understand that the way this has been and is continuing to degrade the healer and the sick person is much more intimate and committed than the relation between the doctor and the patient, which in turn is much more intimate and committed than the relationship between the customer and the provider. From a from a situation and are continuing to go in this country and many others in the direction of having compassion at the center of the relationship to having money in the center of a relationship. This is not in advance. We must recognize that this is the devastation in our lives and it should be corrected. 

So the hyper corporatization, if you’ll let me make up that word of health care you’re saying is not advanced. Even if it brings with it advances in technology, it reduces the humanity. 

The relationship that contract between healer and patient that you were talking about, the Cooperative Association of Medicine, has in no way advanced medicine or healing. It adds nothing to the problem. There is no value added. All the great advances that have been made, with almost no exception, have been made. Not with corporate money or on the basis of corporate activity, but with no funding or public funding. And I talk about that in the book, the The Corporatization of Medicine, again, which we have essentially only developed to a very high level in this country. Has has not done these things, such as the New England Journal recently did published a study comparing, for example, American medical care with Canadian medical care and care in other countries that cooperate. Ization of medicine has not improved the care of the citizens in this country or throughout the world. 

Those are some pretty controversial statements. But you’d treat them at length in your book. 

Yes, we should understand that healing is a very controversial subject. If you’re afraid of controversy, if you’re afraid to take a look at societies and what they were all about and there is a way they function, you don’t want to endeavor into the world of health care and healing. 

I love that you said that listeners to point of inquiry will know that something about controversy turns us on here, I would guess. So let’s get back to that last discussion we almost began when we were talking about the changes in technology in the future. I understand your emphasis on the human element and the healer’s relationship with the healed. I understand that. And that is central. I’d also be interested, given your background in medicine and your book, about the hundred great advances where you see medicine advancing in the future with biotech, nanotech and the like. 

Well, medicine or healing has always begun with observation of various sorts. There was a time before science was qualified where the people who are making these observations were ordinary folks and they made some of the great advances in medicine. 

At one time it was called the folk healing or whatever. 

And for a long time, it was done, for example, by wise women. Also known as witches or midwives. These people were empiricists who didn’t wait for the revealed wisdom of handed to them by authorities of a religious or other types of authority. They made observation. They learned from these observations. And they discovered many, many great things that we use even today. That was the science of its day. And some of these people paid dearly with their lives and were burned at the stake for their heresy of observing and learning for themselves. 

And that was the text and logical advance in the way later on. There were other great advances. For example, Anthony von Ruan Hogue, who discovered micro-organism and cells and who made some of the greatest discoveries of all time of a medical nature and of a healing nature had no training whatsoever. He was a linen draper and a haberdasher, and he did not discover the microscope. He used and made microscopes himself in order to examine carefully the cloth that he was making and selling. And one day he looked in in a raindrop and he saw little, as he called them, Adam McCool’s. And then he looked in a drop of pond water. And then he looked at the at the tile there that was between teeth. And he discovered and described all manner of bacteria, of fungi, of protozoa, the of human cells, red cells and white cells of the blood of the sperm cells and egg cells. He discovered the uric acid crystals in his goudey toe, etc. He was the man who had no scientific training. And yet he made one great technical advances of world time that we still use today. 

And so many of the technological the scientific advances in the history of the Western scientific enterprise were serendipitous, kind of accidental, even by non-special tests. You’re saying that. 


That doesn’t sound like a very controversial statement. In fact, any historian of science would say here, here, but we’re talking about health care, which is very controversial now. One source of concern among those in medicine. One reason it’s controversial is because it’s kind of a source of confusion among some consumers. This growing alternative medicine movement, you talked about midwives and their experimental methods when they were seeing if this or that route or that herb could help with this or that disease. Well, that is a kind of empirical enterprise. But these days, there are movements that seek to replace scientific medicine with what I would consider to be untested, new remedies, alternative medicine, what some people might go so far as to call quackery. 

Yes, that’s true. But we also have to understand that one of the great things that we’ve learned in medicine. And one of the hardest lessons to learn. 

And another lesson that we have to learn and relearned and reread, learn all the time is to have an open mind. 

That is a hard thing to do. It’s easy to say that we have an open mind, but we have to actually understand what that means because many of the great discoveries that were made might have been considered alternative and were made by other than medical scientists, whether it’s the use of corollary that was discovered by Indians in the Amazonas. 

And we still use today in the operating room or the discovery of aspirin or the discovery of digitalis of colchicine. 

All right. You could go on all day long. Were at one time alternative. 

Now, on the other hand, alternatives should be examined carefully and not simply taken on faith, just as scientific advances or discoveries should not be taken on faith and should be very carefully invested. Let’s see if they really function well for us. 

And the same thing should be done for alternative so-called alternative cure Jim Underdown service skeptic of alternative medicine would agree with you 100 percent. 

No one should reject out of hand any claim. Instead, look into the evidence. If someone says quarantine helps with malaria, that’s all fine and good. Let’s test it. Let’s see if it actually does. And all the other folk remedies that you mentioned that turn out to have real scientific benefit. They were tested in the lab or inexperience and discovered that they did, in fact, work. So a skeptic agrees with you. A skeptic says have an open, mind tested Jim Underdown look into things. Don’t take any of these claims on faith yet. 

We should all be skeptical. 

We should all require a very careful examination of our so-called cures or helpful remedies and one that is neglected as it has been in Western medicine many times for many years, because these things have difficult to do. We have things that have been used. They could we don’t we don’t have the time to go into it, but have been used in Western medicine for a long time that don’t don’t work and don’t help people and even have done harm. 

Give me just one example. 

The various treatments that the kidney disease is associated with lupus that used to be used and with various other diseases shown when studied carefully not to benefit patients, but to make them work. And there there are others there are books written about this subject. But the point that I’m trying to make is no matter what you call the so-called remedy or advance, whether you call it scientific or whether you call it false medicine or whether you call it alternative, it should be lead and it should be demonstrated by good principle that the benefit can be repeated. The benefit is outweighs whatever risks are involved, etc. There are not two different areas. One area in which is involved with aligning the Choctaw is in another area, which is giving somebody a pill of some kind. There are just methods of of healing and they should be demonstrable as to their beneficial effects by similar methods. 

Right. And it’s easy applying the methods of science to see which ones work and which ones don’t. 

Well, it’s not always easy. It’s easy when they have powerful, positive affect, when doctors dancing and then to actually best. Wasn’t that doctor. He was only two demonstrated that insulin can cure people with diabetes who were near death from diabetic coma. They injected one one child twice within Sawan and within a very short time, his glucose levels, his sugar levels in the blood came way down from hundreds and hundreds of MG percent to the normal range of about 60 or 70 milligrams per liter. 

This took a very short time. One experiment in a single day at which proved that insulin was a very important and curative substance in this situation. 

However, when medication saw healing applications don’t have such a profound effect, it it’s more complicated. You need more observation under more tightly controlled circumstances, because the effort really to see and really to represent is no ideal business in face of the constant factors that make for muscles. Things can be complicated. And if you’re looking for a beneficial effect, that’s not overpowering, but maybe nevertheless good. 

It might not be obvious, but is still worth investigating into. 

That’s right. And. Maybe harder to be sure. 

And so you have to be careful because everything can have good effect. And then you also can have a noxious side effect. So one has to be careful and study in ways that are becoming more precise. 

Dr. Strauss, you right that right now it’s the best of times and it’s the worst of times for medicine. In conclusion, why don’t you tell me what you mean by that? Why is it the best and the worst of times for medicine right now? 

It’s the best of times because our powers to understand and our powers to change things, even very fundamental things like the human genome and genetic disorders such as sickle cell anemia or tay sachs disease or so many thousands of others is at hand. This gives us tremendous inside and power to heal and even wipe out diseases like those I mention. And this is the future of medicine. It’s the worst of times was in the face of all of this power and cetera. We have control over the activities of medicine. Then what can be studied and what can be worked with, such as the stem cells, which will be the basis for many of these treatments, such as preamp Lambe Tatian genetic diagnoses and and the giving of fertility to people who have not been fertile, etc., that this is increasingly in control of people who are using these things for economic gain and for political advancement. 

This is reflected in the fact, for example, that the budgets of the National Institutes of Health have been cut and the things that can be studied scientifically in order to derive benefits from these advances in understanding and technology are under the control of political people and police people with agendas other than that compassion that should be at the heart of healing, arts and sciences. 

Thank you very much for joining us on point of inquiry, Dr. Strauss. 

Well, I’m very, very glad to have been with you. 

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Thank you for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry. Join us next week for another episode where we look at some of the fundamental beliefs of our society to get involved with an online conversation about the topics covered in today’s show. Alternative medicine and the great medical advances in our society. Go to w w w dot CFI dash forums, dot org. Views expressed on point of inquiry don’t necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on today’s show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry. Dot org or by visiting our website. Point of inquiry. Dot org. 

Point of inquiry is produced by Thomas Donelli and recorded at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York. Executive producer is Paul Kurtz. Point of inquiries, music as written and composed for us by Emmy Award winning Michael Quailing. Contributors to today’s show included Sarah Jordan, Thomas Donnally and Lauren Becker. I’m your host, DJ Grothe. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.