Tuesday, December 18

Snake Oil and Other Preoccupations - John Diamond

In 1996 journalist, broadcaster and columnist John Diamond first wrote of his concern about cancer – he had a throat lump that he was afraid might be cancerous. In his regular column for The Times he wrote about the scare, and his relief (tinged with the loss of drama) that it was only an unusual cyst.
Only it wasn’t an unusual cyst – Diamond had throat cancer, almost certainly secondary to smoking, and by the time he died in 2001 he’d had multiple surgeries, a permanent tracheostomy and significant resection of his tongue, had suffered through radio- and chemotherapy, and was being fed through a tube.
He also maintained columns in a number of publications, and was six chapters into a book debunking alternative or complementary therapies – many of which kind readers had written to him about. He opens by stating that he’s not interested in defending allopathic medicine – it’s not perfect, he knows the statistics about iatrogenic (hospital-caused) complications and waste and short-comings – but in examining the less-commonly critiqued arena of reflexology, homeopathy and the like. At the outset Diamond reports that he doesn’t deny that some remedies might help alleviate symptoms, make people feel better, or allow them to feel as though they have some control over their diseases – if that’s all it was, he says, there’d be no reason for him to write the book. Diamond’s issue is with those practitioners who report they can cure diseases (up to and including cancer) and that allopathic medicines make people sicker than the diseases they’re supposed to treat. Many practitioners say that this is an irresponsible position, that no reputable practitioner would make this claim, but nonetheless there they are, purporting to be reputable and claiming they can cure cancer.
Rather than focusing on specific claims about therapies, though he does look at some of these, Diamond concentrates on the meta-claims, like the argument that "the orthodoxy is hidebound and scared of change." While there’s sometimes resistance to new and counterintuitive ideas (like Warren and Marshall’s 1982 discovery that helicobacter pylori, a bacteria, is responsible for most stomach ulcers, not stress and lifestyle issues), any volume of a peer-reviewed medical journal will be full of articles contradicting, arguing against, or trashing researcher’s findings. And while it did take 12 years for the orthodoxy to swing around to the H. pylori thesis, that’s a short period of time – says Diamond – in terms of medical research, and it was accomplished without any apparent consensus from vast pharmaceutical conglomerates.
Compare this with naturopathic medicine: "I’ve never come across a herbalist who has revealed that a remedy used by his professional forebears has been discovered, after all, not to work, or a homeopath complaining that his craft is still stuck in the rut ploughed by homeopathy’s founder two hundred years ago." A point I’d never previously considered.
Sadly, Diamond died before he was able to finish – the book ends with the evocative sentence "Let me tell you why." The rest of the volume comprises a selection of his columns, from the very amusing "The Bland Leading the Bland" in 1988, through writings on first dates, Geneva (perhaps the only humorous writing about that apparently dour city), bottled water, reflections on Judaism, and fatherly obsession. In 1996 he first writes about this ‘cyst’ and his resulting experience of the private health care system in the UK, and over time his health understandably becomes more and more the focus of his writing. Throughout, Diamond is engaging, informative, admirably free of self-pity, and articulate, and the frustration he feels is palpable. Anyone interested in a critical but not overly technical critique of complementary medicine, and/or in the lived experience of being a patient and of dying, should go no further. I had never heard of John Diamond before I discovered this book while looking for something else, and my life would have been the poorer without that serendipidous discovery. – Alex
Alex 2007

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