British Medical Jourmal Says Doctors Are Not Scientists

I have previously reported on the AMA doctrine of Medical Infallibility in my Blog: Apostolic Succession and Western Medicine, How the “God Complex” Proliferated. I have never believed that placing the initials MD behind your name made you incapable of errors in judgment, or surrounded you in divine grace in such a way that, as a Doctor, you were impervious to venial sins of omission and commission, and above the seven mortal sins of extravagance, gluttony, avarice, discouragement, wrath, envy, pride. Doctors are human. Humans make mistakes. Doctors can, are and will be wrong about something every day; it’s a human thing. Just because they proclaim something does not mean their patient should  acquiesce unquestionably. You are the ultimate subject matter expert concerning your body. Listen carefully to what your health care professional says, ask questions, if you don’t understand the answers, ask again. If you have any doubt about a course of treatment, procedure or an operation get a second or third opinion.

We are Inconvenient Women — Its what we do.

The following BMJ Editor’s choice article, Doctors Are Not Scientists, was originally published in June of 2004. I was researching reported adverse effects from the HPV-vaccine in the United Kingdom when I found it in BMJ. Based on the citation list, it has been referred to — a lot. I think it is an important article for all Inconvenient Women to Read. Doctors Are Not Scientists reminds us that we are each personally responsible for our own health decisions. Doctors and health care professions are advisers, but at the end of the day, we are the Chief Operating Officer (CEO) of our bodies and bodies of our minor children — not the State, or some petty regulator, and certainly not the CFO and VP of Advertising for some Big Pharma corporation.

Doctors Are Not Scientists

Some doctors are scientists—just as some politicians are scientists—but most are not. As medical students they were filled full with information on biochemistry, anatomy, physiology, and other sciences, but information does not a scientist make—otherwise, you could become a scientist by watching the Discovery channel. A scientist is somebody who constantly questions, generates falsifiable hypotheses, and collects data from well designed experiments—the kind of people who brush their teeth on only one side of their mouth to see whether brushing your teeth has any benefit. Most doctors follow familiar patterns and rules, often improvising around those rules. In their methods of working they are more like jazz musicians than scientists.

Questioning whether doctors are scientists may seem outrageous, but most doctors know that they are not scientists. I once asked a room of perhaps 150 medically trained educators which of them thought of themselves as scientists. About five put up their hands.

If doctors are not scientists then it seems odd to supply them, as medical journals do, with a steady stream of original scientific studies. Teachers and social workers are not sent original research. Nurses are sent some, but are they simply aping the illogical ways of doctors?

The inevitable consequence is that most readers of medical journals don’t read the original articles. They may scan the abstract, but it’s the rarest of beasts who reads an article from beginning to end, critically appraising it as he or she goes. Indeed, most doctors are incapable of critically appraising an article. They have never been trained to do so. Instead, they must accept the judgment of the editorial team and its peer reviewers—until one of the rare beasts writes in and points out that a study is scientifically nonsensical.

Sometimes readers will alight on an article as a bee alights on a flower to suck a little honey. They will alight, I suspect, for reasons that are more personal than scientific. I am interested in the study showing a steady rise in hospital admissions for acute pancreatitis from 1963 to 1998 (p 1466) because my brother had pancreatitis—maybe, indeed, that link had something to do with the study making it into the journal just as it’s been suggested that the BMJ publishes on toenail fungus because so many of the editorial team suffer from it. The authors note that the prognosis of acute pancreatitis is poor and that mortality after admission has not fallen since the 1970s—reflecting the absence of innovations in treatment.

I am attracted as well to the study on whether the uncertainty principle is violated in clinical trials (p 1463). The principle says that you shouldn’t conduct a trial if you think that one treatment is likely to be better than another. The study looked to see if trials more often favoured the experimental treatment. I guessed they would—and, indeed, they did. The authors, however, judge that the trials do satisfy the uncertainty principle. I’m unconvinced.

By Richard Smith, editor, BMJ the British Medical Journal is published by BMJ Publishing Group Ltd, a wholly owned subsidiary of the British Medical Association.


Author: H. Sandra Chevalier-Batik

I started the Inconvenient Woman Blog in 2007, and am the product of a long line of inconvenient women. The matriarchal line is French-Canadian, Roman Catholic, with a very feisty Irish great-grandmother thrown in for sheer bloody mindedness. I am a research analyst and author who has made her living studying technical data, and developing articles, training materials, books and web content. Tracking through statistical data, and oblique cross-references to find the relevant connections that identifies a problem, or explains a path of action, is my passion. I love clearly delineating the magic questions of knowledge: Who, What, Why, When, Where and for How Much, Paid to Whom. My life lessons: listen carefully, question with boldness, and personally verify the answers. I look at America through the appreciative eyes of an immigrant, and an amateur historian; the popular and political culture is a ceaseless fascination. I have no impressive initials after my name. I’m merely an observer and a chronicler, an inconvenient woman who asks questions, and sometimes encourages others to look at things differently.