Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Source credibility and the legalization of marijuana

A particularly subtle problem in establishing whether a claim is pseudoscience, or at least flawed, has to do with source credibility.  Note that I didn't say credentials; there are plenty of smart, well-read, logical people with no degree in the field in question, and whose arguments I would consider carefully, and I've met more than one Ph.D. who gave every evidence of being a raving wackmobile.

Credibility is a different thing than a piece of paper with some Latin hanging on your wall.  It has to do with establishing that you understand the basics of rational argumentation, that you are familiar with the fundamental principles of science, and that you don't have a particular vested interest or agenda.

A particularly good example of this came my way yesterday, in the form of a New York Times editorial piece written by Dr. Ed Gogek, entitled "A Bad Trip for Democrats."  The gist of the article is that the legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington last week is a terrible idea.  His arguments:
  • 90-some-odd percent of patients who have been prescribed medical marijuana received it to alleviate pain.  Pain, Gogek says, is "easy to fake and almost impossible to disprove."  Further, chronic pain patients are mostly female, while 74% of marijuana users are male.
  • Medical use of marijuana for glaucoma is no longer recommended.
  • Marijuana is addictive, despite claims that it's not.
  • Use of marijuana lowers cognitive function.
He then ends with an interesting statement:
In effect, America now has two tea parties: on the left they smoke their tea; on the right they throw it in Boston Harbor. Both distrust government, disregard science and make selfish demands that would undermine the public good. 
Now, let me be up front about the fact that I am not a pharmacologist, and am not qualified to evaluate the soundness of clinical studies of the efficacy of THC for treating glaucoma.  I do know enough neuroscience, however, to doubt his claims that marijuana is addictive; most addictive substances create addiction one of two ways, either by activating the brain's dopamine-loop pathway (such as cocaine) or by creating a rebound effect if you stop (such as heroin).  Marijuana does neither, so I have a hard time seeing how it could be addictive in the strict sense of the word.

I'm also skeptical of his suggestion that claims of chronic pain are being used as excuses to obtain marijuana.  While in one sense he is right -- it's impossible to prove, or disprove, that someone is in pain -- the idea that a significant number of patients who claim to be in chronic pain are lying remains very much to be seen.

However, even with all of those questions about Gogek's statements, I would not have been prompted to write about him on Skeptophilia if it hadn't been for one additional thing I discovered about him:

Dr. Gogek is a homeopath.

He doesn't state that anywhere in his piece; at the end, his bio statement says, "Dr. Ed Gogek is an addiction psychiatrist and a board member of Keep AZ Drug Free."  But whenever I have questions about a study -- or even a brief editorial, like this one -- I always want to find out what the writer's background is, to see how credible a source (s)he is.  And lo and behold, a quick search brought me to Dr. Gogek's homepage, wherein he makes the following statement:
Many people think homeopathy refers to all forms of alternative medicine, but it’s actually one specific type of alternative practice, very different from nutrition and herbs. Classical homeopathy works well for most medical and psychiatric problems. For people in psychotherapy or suffering from addictions, it removes roadblocks, and speeds the recovery process. And the right homeopathic remedy will also transform marriages and other significant relationships. Nothing heals and transforms a person’s life like the right homeopathic remedy.

In my experience, homeopathy can help all psychiatric problems except ADHD and schizophrenia. However, it works exceptionally well for anxiety disorders (panic attacks, social anxiety, specific phobias, PTSD and OCD), bulimia, sex and love addiction, and anger. It’s also very helpful for personality disorders and unusual problems that defy easy diagnosis.
My immediate reaction was, "And you're lecturing other people about disregarding science?"

Now, please note that the immediate loss of scientific credibility that this engenders doesn't mean that Dr. Gogek's original argument was entirely wrong (any more than a Ph.D. means a person is always right).  But it does tell me one thing; he has a serious difficulty with looking at a body of evidence, and concluding correctly whether that body of evidence supports a particular conclusion.  There have been hundreds, perhaps thousands, of controlled, double-blind experiments testing homeopathy, and not one has produced any clinically relevant results.  Not one.  The fact that he is unaware of this, or perhaps ignoring it or rationalizing it away, makes me look at other conclusions he draws with a wry eye.

Now, as far as the legalization of marijuana, please understand; I don't have a dog in this race.  I'm not a user, and have no intent to become one.  I do find it curious that tobacco, which is clearly a more dangerous drug, is not only legal, but federally subsidized, while marijuana possession can land you in jail in most states; but that isn't the only weird internal contradiction in our legal code.  What I do want to make abundantly clear, however, is that when something appears in print -- even in The New York Times -- it is always worthwhile to check source credibility.  Things, as Buttercup points out in H.M.S. Pinafore, are seldom what they seem.

1 comment:

  1. In states where medical marijuana is legal, if you want some just for entertainment, the easiest and least risky way to get high-quality product is to fake chronic pain. Since a lot of people do want it for entertainment, I don't doubt that that's a very common strategy.

    However, I don't see how this is a logical argument against full legalization. If prohibition is wrong, then working around it is completely justified. If prohibition is right, then people trying to evade it doesn't make it any more right. Unless he's arguing that the fact that people want it proves it's addictive, in which case we should outlaw iPads.

    Watching television lowers cognitive function, and I don't see any moves to outlaw that.