Bill Nye “The Science Guy” recently unleashed his new show “Bill Nye Saves the World” onto the far-reaching favorite internet entertainment provider Netflix. On this show, Bill Nye, a mechanical engineer by trade, but more well-known for his previous science show and his dedication to advocating for climate change, attempts to tackle popular topics that weigh on the minds of us all from time to time using science to prove his point. The second episode of his new television foray touched on a topic that I just happen to know a lot about, “alternative medicine” . While watching this episode I found numerous objections that I was quite frankly suprised to find being that this show is supposedly conducted on a fair and honest platform. I feel the points made on the show merit a response so as to keep the average viewer more well-informed and keep everything fair. If you haven’t seen the episode, go watch it. I am normally a fan of Mr. Nye and if it improves his ratings then great. It also gives you some perspective on my article. Below you will find point-by-pint responses to the objections I found in the show:
1. Bill Nye is neither a physician nor a medical researcher. He is a mechanical engineer. As a physician, I wouldn’t recommend taking medical advice from a mechanical engineer the same way that I wouldn’t recommend taking engineering advice from a physician. It just doesn’t make sense. Plain and simple.
2. Science can’t see the future: Science has given us some amazing things…Velcro, the space blanket, moon shoes, you get the picture. But science has a flaw in that science only knows what science knows right now. Science is always right until science proves that it was wrong. For example, for centuries it was scientific fact that the Earth was at the center of the universe, and all planets and stars revolved around it. If you were to question that with any scientist of antiquity you would be laughed out of the building. Then, 500 years ago, a brilliant astronomer named Copernicus published his research and turned old scientific truths about the heavens on their heads. It happens all of the time. So the lesson is that just because science doesn’t understand something properly now, doesn’t mean that it won’t in the future. Scientific discovery is constantly shedding light on the mysteries of our world and to say that you don’t understand something now, thus it must be untrue despite empirical evidence to the contrary, is close-minded.
3. FDA Approval: Don’t even get me started on this topic. If you put all of your trust about what goes into your body based on FDA approval you are playing a dangerous game. Mr. Nye, being an engineer, probably doesn’t know much about the woes of the FDA and American consumers. FDA approval of a drug or medication is a very informal process in which often times the pharmaceutical company that is manufacturing the drug and seeking approval is the body in charge of producing the research that proves the safety of said drug. Does that raise any alarms? Do you see the conflict of interest? There is no governmental body or third party to conduct its own safety research. Since 1970, the FDA has approved and subsequently pulled from the market 35 different medications that harmed consumers. Some of the most well-known being Accutane, an acne medication that increased the risk of birth defects, miscarriages and premature births; and VIOXX, an NSAID that caused over 27,000 heart attacks in users.
And these are just the drugs that have been pulled from the market.Take a look at any advertisement for a new pharmaceutical on TV and listen carefully to the list of side effects.You will most assuredly find that some of these side effects aren’t worth the desired therapeutic effect.Take for example Chantix, a drug that is used for smoking cessation. While stopping smoking is definitely a task worth taking on you can’t help but take note of the side effects of this drug. Possible side effects include panic disorder, paranoia, seizures, anxiety, nightmares, low energy, angina, trouble breathing and even suicidal thoughts.These are serious side effects that you will never encounter with an herbal remedy or tea to help you stop smoking.The thing is that with complimentary or alternative medicine often the worst thing that can happen is that it doesn’t work.Side effects are very rare.
Another thing to consider is that the FDA is the administration in charge of approving these types of things for the United States only.There are lots of remedies that have been researched and approved for public use in other parts of the world, and that statement carries some weight.A lot of Americans are under the impression that we have the best healthcare system in the world and this is woefully untrue.As a matter of fact, in the last rankings done by the World Health Organization, the United States ranked 37th in the world for healthcare outcomes despite the fact that we spend a higher portion of our GDP on healthcare than any other country. And it also goes the other way. The FDA has approved things for consumption that are banned in other countries such as rGBH, the synthetic hormone given to dairy cows to make them produce more milk that is banned in the EU, Canada, Israel, New Zealand and Australia.
So while the FDA is a good idea, as a lot of governmental agencies are ideologically, it falls short of making its approval an absolute guarantee of safety.The FDA is understaffed and can’t possibly hope to approve every remedy that makes a health claim. Just because something hasn't yet gotten the dubious FDA stamp of approval doesn't mean that it can't be useful. So use precaution and judgment of course when trying an alternative therapy, but don’t rule something out completely because it doesn’t have the FDA seal of approval.
4. A lack of modern research does not prove something ineffective: Just because something hasn’t been researched extensively in modern times does not mean that it doesn’t work. It just means they haven’t researched it enough yet. To be fair that also doesn’t mean that it absolutely DOES work. When a remedy becomes universally understood and adopted by physicians, most of the time that is because a great body of research has been done by groups of scientists over a long period of time to prove that it works enough to apply it in clinical situations.
A lot of “alternative medicines” have been around for a long time, building empirical evidence for their effectiveness, but have also actually been researched in modern times, just not to the extent of other medicines.So don’t be afraid of something just because it has recently started to undergo research.Like I said above, use precaution and good judgment, but don’t be discouraged by lack of research, especially if the remedy carries little risk.
5. Medicine is an applied science, not a science: Nothing in medicine is a certainty. There is not 100% efficacy. The only medicine that ever had a 100% efficacy rate was penicillin when it was first introduced. That is because the body and the methods and substances that we use to affect it are still very mysterious. As an engineer Mr. Nye is accustomed to the scientific method where you can apply universal scientific principles and replicate the same outcomes over and over. The difference in medicine is that every patient is different. No remedy works the same all of the time in every patient. A very high clinical efficacy rate for any therapy is 80%, leaving 2 out of 10 patients the same or worse. So just because something doesn’t work for some people, doesn’t mean it doesn’t work at all.
6. Mr. Nye bullied, mocked and frequently cut off the “alternative medicine” advocate that he invited to participate in his panel. Just watch the episode. Every time he began to make a point he was cut off or mocked by a person who is supposed to be a scientist and open to any and all possibilities. I was very disappointed and disturbed by this section of the show in particular.
I understand what Mr. Nye was trying to do. He was trying to protect the public from spending their hard-earned money on “alternative medicine” that may not work. But the truth is, in most cases “alternative medicine” is more cost-effective and has fewer side effects than conventional medicine in the treatment of certain maladies. As a country we spend a full 20% or more of our GDP on healthcare, consume 80% of the pharmaceuticals that are manufactured in the entire world, and are not healthier for it. We are in a bad state health-wise in this country. Thankfully the medicine that I practice, Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine, has had the time, interest, and opportunity to undergo enough research to no longer be a target of such close-minded assaults. But when it comes the realm of medicine, I suggest he leave that to the numerous physicians, licensed healthcare providers and practitioners that are out there.
I found the guy who yells away cancer as strange as anybody else and while I probably wouldn’t waste my time and seek this person out for care, who is to say that in 40 years there won’t be a strong enough body of research to show that this guy wasn’t as crazy as he seemed? Like I said a few times above and will continue to say, use good judgment and precaution when choosing a possible treatment for whatever ails you, but don’t be afraid to step out of the box.