Monday, 18 October 2010

Vatican + doctors = bad medicine

Shady goings on at the Vatican with the canonisation of Mary MacKillop. Two cases of remission from cancer and TADA!!!!! a new saint!!!. This nonsense is lent ostensible gravitas by the commission of doctors. The Medical Committee of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints is responsible for establishing whether a genuine medical miracle has occurred (quick recovery from a laminectomy in the case of Cardinal Newman's beatification). Now, all studies thus done have shown no benefit from intercessory prayer. Thus, any doctor who testifies on any Vatican medical committee ignores evidence and invokes a supernatural explanation. That's not being a doctor, that's bearing witness. They might as well ask anyone with a belief in supernaturalism. If a doctor is giving evidence about something to which his training is irrelevant, then a committee of ice-cream salesmen could do as good a job.

Most of these miraculous justifications state that at least one doctor said "the patient would never walk again", or "had 6 months to live". No doctor I've ever known has never had the confidence in their skills to make a definite prognosis like that (and I've known some pretty confident consultants). That's the way doctors break bad news in Hollywood films and bad daytime TV dramas. Patients might unfortunately hear it that way, and people anxious to prove a miracle might make it up, but doctors don't say it. Doctors say things like "his spinal cord is almost completely severed at T7-T8 level. It's extremely unlikely he'll ever get sufficient motor function back to be independent of a wheelchair". Or "On average, people with small-cell lung cancer survive 6 months". Prognostication is something EVERY doctor has doubts about his ability to perform, as each one knows several patients who defy the odds (whether they pray to Mother McKinnon or not). I've seen diabetic patients whose blood sugars should have killed them years ago. I contact their GP, not the Vatican.

Adele Horin (thanks Pharyngula) has another splendid angle on the whole affair here.
At the time Mary MacKillop answered the prayers of a woman dying of leukaemia, there was a lot of static in the air. In China 43 million people were dying of starvation in one of the world's worst famines. Thirty years later in the 1990s, when MacKillop answered the prayers of a woman dying of lung cancer, 3.8 million were dying in the Congo wars, 800,000 in the Rwanda genocide, a quarter of a million in the Yugoslav wars.
Very good of MacKillop's ghost to hear and answer the prayers of two Australians amongst such carnage.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

VP of Center for Intelligent Design in Glasgow is a consultant colorectal surgeon!

David Galloway is a consultant colorectal surgeon working at Gartnavel General Hospital and Western Infirmary, Glasgow. He is also vice-president of the new Centre for Intelligent Design in Glasgow. Yep - a surgeon holding office in an organisation that gets into all sorts of difficulties with evolutionary concepts such as development of bacterial resistance to antibiotics.

A member of the Lennox Evangelical Church, Dumbarton, his medical career has not been visibly hitherto encumbered by the cognitive dissonance involved in reconciling Eve's creation from Adam's rib (or Mary's virginity) with his scientific training. Indeed, he is current vice president of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow. I would think that august institution is particularly proud of his new affiliation and its rather unsubtle attempt to get intelligent design teaching into schools north of the border (thankfully, down here the government has clarified its position on that sort of nonsense). However, the centre's leaders have rather given the game away by talking about their fundamentalist Christian beliefs rather than the supposedly scientific basis of ID. Oopsy.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Francis Collins betrays the rational basis of his profession

With a distinguished research career, and having directed the National Center for Human Genome Research and latterly the National Institutes for Health, Francis Collins is one of the most accomplished and important doctors of his generation. But that doesn't make him a good example to other doctors.

Collins is an evangelical Christian, but he's not a bigot else I doubt if Christopher Hitchens would have suffered his friendship for long. Of greater concern is that Collins has written in the Washington Post about how he's praying for Hitchens ('Praying for my friend Christopher Hitchens'). Praying for someone who believes his legacy will be to have "made a stand for those who are trying to hold reason and science against superstition", and who has requested people do not pray for him seems pretty disrespectful (that is, after all, why most Christians are participating in the 'Pray for Christopher Hitchens' day). But doing it without a shred of dignity by putting one's piety on display for the purposes of self-promotion in the pages of a national newspaper is doubly so.

In any case, Collins is the sort of apologist who finds no clash between science and religion, believing that his god is outside the normal universal terms of reference and therefore impervious to scientific investigation. (Jerry Coyne begs to differ here). In other words, so as not to fall foul of the 'God of The Gaps' (the gaps eventually yielding to scientific investigation and thus progressively squeezing the hiding places for the irrationality of faith), by a sleight of hand he's invented in his own mind a chasm rather than a gap. But to ensure that even this chasm can't be bridged by science, he's importantly declared that this chasm has only one side. And to think that Thomas Aquinas went to all that bother with natural theology.

I've alluded to various psychological research that shows how of the cognitive biases that allow intelligent doctors to believe nonsense, but it is astonishing what otherwise reasonable people can do in the service of their beliefs. Collins' acheivements cannot excuse the poor example he sets for the medical and clinical science. Don't worry about an evidence-base if it doesn't suit your purposes. Just make something up. Preferenably something that other people can't call you on.

And whilst you're there, why not take the opportunity to do a bit of proselytising by writing about it in the Washington Post?

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Royal College of Psychiatrists spirituality group chairman thinks Demons can cause mental disorder

In 1976, two Bavarian priests were convicted of negligent homicide in the case of 23-year-old Anneliese Michel, an epileptic who died after her treatment was discontinued in favor of exorcism.

It's nice to know that such potential is still alive and well in the UK. I previously blogged about an article appearing on the Christian Medical Fellowship's website advocating that doctors should consider demonic possession as a differential diagnosis in mental disorder. It was picked up on by Iain Brassington at the excellent Journal of Medical Ethics blog.

At the time I didn't realise that the author held office. The article was written by Prof. Chris Cook, who is now the Chairman of The Royal College of Psychiatrists' Spirituality and Psychiatry Special Interest Group. He's a consultant psychiatrist who still works for Tees, Esk & Wear Valleys NHS Foundation Trust. Is it only mental disorder, or are other disorders caused by demons, such as hypertension or diabetes? It's one thing when society stigmatises mentally disordered persons, but quite another when members of the medical profession do so.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Hospital chaplains facing the axe

The National Secular Society has an article on swingeing cuts facing hospital chaplaincies.

The chaplains have always attempted to justify themselves by saying they provide an important source of spiritual comfort to the religious (of all denominations) and non-religious alike. The notion that those of other religions benefit from the pastoral services of Christian chaplains is of course nonsense, a bit like saying that the provision of free petrol benefits those with diesel cars (or, in the case of atheists, no car at all). Try to imagine Christians utilising pastoral services provided by Scientologists (and proposing that these services are paid for by taxpayers!). Those sharing the beliefs of the chaplain are privileged by this spending.

And what a lot of spending it is. Many people I talk to are amazed that hospital chaplains are funded by the NHS. In 2009, figures obtained under freedom of information requests revealed the total annual cost of chaplaincy services to the NHS in Great Britain to be upward of £35million.

The Unite union for healthcare workers is investigating whether chaplains are being targeted 'disproportionately' as in Nottingham, where four out of five chaplains have been cut. If the alternative is to cut doctors and nurses, whose services are needed by everyone in hospital irrespective of creed, I think this could be a case of most people agreeing where the axe should fall in the NHS.

Now, that defence department spending review: shall we cut Trident or army chaplains? ( not get started).