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Steve Jobs and medicine that works

Illustration by GRANT ERTL - ertlgr@mnstate.edu

The late Steve Jobs is quickly becoming the archetypal tech-genius of the internet age and will perhaps do for technology what Einstein did for physics.

In the numerous tributes written for him in the weeks following his death, he’s been imbued with such amiable characteristics as iconoclasm, creativity, vision and drive. Children should learn from the life of Steve Jobs; people who make their own medical decisions should also learn from his death.

Several years ago, when Jobs was diagnosed with a form of pancreatic cancer that has a less than 5 percent mortality rate if surgically removed. Jobs chose instead to fight the cancer with a diet advocated by alternative medicine proponent Dr. Dean Ornish.

Once it became clear that the diet wasn’t working, Jobs bought the best science-based medicine money can buy, and this thankfully prolonged his life for a number of historically productive.

There’s a very straightforward way to define alternative medicine: If it actually worked, it would be called “medicine.” The inverse is also true: Medicine doesn’t become “alternative medicine” until it is rejected by medical science. That’s really what we should call it: Rejected medicine.

The simple rule would be to not spend any of your real money on fake treatments, especially if your ailments aren’t imaginary.

Since this is a hyper-liberal not-religious-but-spiritual I-believe-in-the-energy-of-the-universe college campus, though, I suspect that this sort of peremptory “alternative medicine is always rubbish” message will meet some resistance. I also know that there’s a market for this, as an alternative medicine story graced the front page of this very newspaper shortly before Job’s death.

Belief in alternative medicine (acupuncture, naturopathy, homeopathy, etc.) comes from a respectable but misguided place. It’s comforting to think that you can find medical answers in places other than hospitals, places like nature or the herbal clinic in a strip mall. However, you aren’t getting anything better than an expensive placebo from these places, and there’s a small chance you get something harmful.

A detailed understanding of the placebo effect and the fallibility of anecdotal evidence would, I think, turn just about everyone off alternative medicine for life. With alternative medicine, you are only paying for a proven way to lie to yourself.

There is also the belief out there that science can’t know everything, and maybe it has missed something. There is nothing wrong with this belief. However, just because  real doctors don’t know everything doesn’t mean that alternative medicine practitioners know anything real doctors don’t. There is a reason it’s infinitely more difficult to become a doctor in science-based medicine than an acupuncturist. If acupuncture and naturopathy worked, it would be taught to them in medical school anyway.

There is also the anti-corporate attack on science-based medicine, which would have you mistrust science-based medicine because, of course, massive pharmaceutical corporations don’t make money on people who get better. This type of conspiracy thinking is massively out of touch with reality.

The idea that the medical community would rather line their pockets than cure diseases and make people better is as insulting as it is absurd. If we found the cure for cancer or AIDS, we would know about it simply because it would mean that those who found the cure would be immortalized in medical history.

In the grand scheme, however, I couldn’t care less if people take herbal medicines to make their cold go away in only a week instead of the normal seven days. Alternative medicine generally only hurts the wallet.

However, if you or someone you love is diagnosed with a serious disease or disorder, go to a real doctor and stay away from alternative medicine. Really. Go to a real doctor.

The idea that the man behind my MP3 players, laptop, desktop computer and phone may have died prematurely because he decided to try alternative medicine isn’t one I like to think about. I don’t like to think about people I look up to — people much smarter than I am — falling prey to snake-oil salesmen and charlatans,  but that is what happened.

It’s an important lesson: Not everyone who falls for this stuff is an idiot; one of them was a genius.


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