In this blogpost I will reveal something about myself, which I never shared anywhere in my long life on the Internet. It’s rather personal and I don’t like to share a lot on that online. The more because of what the great data aggregators nowadays do with that. But to tell this story, I need to explain what happened to me and how that changed things. Also, I’m fine, really. I do 100+ km bike rides now and this week I rode 60 kms with an average speed of 33.5 km/hr, so that hopefully proves I am currently pretty healthy.
Never grow up!
Stories like this always start by saying that when I grew up I was in every aspect a normal kid. But I’m actually not sure :). Anyway at age 11 my parents noticed that I was not growing very much. This fact was underscored by the fact that my 4 year younger brother was getting taller than me: I was about 120 cm (4 feet) at the time. My mother decided this needed to be checked out by a doctor. And before I knew it, I was dragged to a local medical facility where a nurse drew some blood. I can honestly say I hated people poking needles in my arm very much.
A while later the results came back. There was indeed something wrong. A couple of things that should have been in my blood seemed to be almost absent. Stuff like growth hormone, cortisone and thyroxine. I was checked in the hospital for 4 weeks for further investigation. There I learned the art of coping with people wanting to stick needles in my arm. At a certain point I was able to disregard the stabs they did every day.
The doctors learned that my pituitary gland was not working. The pituitary gland is a small organ at the base of the brain that secretes hormones. Growth hormone is one of them. So mystery solved. How my pituitary gland came to be like that, is not exactly clear. Although I was told my birth was rather eventful. During it the doctor even broke my arm.
Anyway, it was clear what had to be done: I needed hormone replacement therapy. Which means: add the stuff that is lacking in my blood, so I could grow and live a fairly normal life. I’ll never forget that the doctor back then asked me how tall I wanted to become. They actually needed to know that. The upper limit would be my father’s length. I said 1.85 meters (about 6 feet) would be fine. (I’m 1.90 meters tall now. They overshot a little.)
A little pseudoscience on the side
My parents were understandably worried about me. And they spared no effort to allow me a life as healthy as possible. Not all attempts to do this were scientific. But you do what you can, right? So we drank pyramid water. What’s that you say? Well, the Egyptian pyramids have magical qualities and if you create a small pyramid in the same dimensions and aim one site precisely to the north, you can put water underneath it and it will have healthy benefits. Or so the hypothesis went.
There was foot reflexology and a medium on tv called Jomanda who would send her benefical rays through the telly. She was later uncovered as a fraud (don’t you hate when that happens?). Underneath our beds we had a file (the mechanical tool, not the thing you find with ls or Windows Explorer), because this would prevent backpain. Don’t have backpain? See? It works!
And at a certain point we visited a homeopath. He did some kind of electrical acupuncture on me and I got homeopathic medicine. These were little brown flasks with what seemed just water and you had to put droplets from it in a glass of water and that would be medicine somehow.
Of course we discussed the medical treatment I was receiving from the regular doctors. At some point my hydrocortisone pills must have come up. At which our homeopath told us that this was “horrible stuff”. He advised us that I would not take those pills anymore and it would be replaced by his homeopathic remedy. (Which is bonkers! Whatever you think of alternative medicine, practitioners of it should NOT advise you to stop taking your regular meds!)
A life without hydrocortisone
Your body needs cortisone in case of stress. Physical stress mostly. Think about repair after exercise, but also when you get sick. That’s probably why I ended up in the ICU for a week when I got the flu.
I don’t recall when I stopped taking hydrocortisone. My best estimate is that it started before 1990. But I know that in the first part of 1995 I still did not take it. Two years ago I asked my current endocrinologist if I could have a look in my medical dossier he is keeping. I was curious when I started using my medication again. His dossier went back to only 1995. He showed me my cortisone levels that year and I should probably have written this down. But what I remember is that the levels were incredibly low compared to healthy human beings. “Very dangerous”, according to him.
And I was feeling and living it. In sports I was very unfit. My brother would outcompete me in every field of sports. When I went into the sun for long, I got horribly sunburned. Not the regular kind. The purple kind. At some point I got migraines with light auras. Which scared the hell out of me. For 30 minutes all kinds of light patterns are dancing before your eyes, after which the headache begins.
For some reason I did not connect the dots. The homeopath said hydrocortisone was bad and I believed him.
At that time I was following a higher professional education in laboratory and chemical plant automation. The study results went down the drain, more so at a time that I would ride 34 kms every day to get to the educational institute. That’s a lot really, even for Dutch students. But we lived rather far from public transport.
Now I had never been quite an exemplary student, but also not a bad one. Sure, this could have had all kinds of reasons. I was an obsessive PC gamer back then. I could not stop gaming, because computer games at least would give me that job well done feeling that my study results just would rarely give me. Anyway, I barely managed to get enough study points to remain in the course of my study.
Only recently I learned that lack of cortisone also has effects on ones mental state. Like depression (one of the rogues mentioned this on the Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast). I’m not going to pretend I can do a good analysis my own mental state back then. But I can summarize by saying: it wasn’t good. These were the worst years of my life.
In 1995 I got a new endocrinologist and he advised me to start taking hydrocortisone again. I remember only saying “okay”. That was all. It was not a very conscious decision. But within months my study results started taking off with very little effort. It almost felt like playing a game in god-mode. I was thinking “let’s see how far I can take this”. Suddenly I was able to score very high marks. Studying was a worthwhile thing to do again. In the sense that efforts in doing for the first time in years actually paid off.
I asked my current endocrinologist if such a low concentration of cortisone could have affected my study results. His answer was the 60+ year old version of “well, duh!”.
A life without alternative medicine
After all this I still used alternative medicine from time to time. Not from that homeopath. I didn’t go there anymore. But drugstores still sell the stuff as well.
I was vaguely aware that alternative medicine was not firmly rooted in science, but my attitude towards it changed when I saw this video from James Randi. In this Ted talk he swallows a bottle of sleeping pills. Only they are homeopathic sleeping pills. And they do exactly nothing.
In the video Randi does something very interesting: he explains what homeopathy is. I had always assumed it was something with natural things and medicinal herbs something something. That was basically a summary of my understanding of it.
But it is not. The original idea of homeopathy is that you take a substance and dilute it repeatedly until the concentration is something like 1 part in a trillion water molecules. That would keep the “essence” of the substance. Especially with my chemical background I should have known that a dilution like that does exactly zero for your health. Homeopathic beer anyone?
And this is a theme that comes up a lot with alternative medicine: when you go to the history of a particular practice, you find ridiculous foundations. Want to know where traditional Chinese medicine comes from? The use of these herbs are 1000 of years old, right? Wrong. China’s Communist party came up with it when they had no money for good medical care in rural villages. Basically all they had was money for was a placebo. The theory of chiropractic? Came to the inventor Daniel David Palmer during a scéance.
And often many of these alternative treatments at one point just fall out of favour. Like that pyramid water we were drinking. The foot reflexology I got. The anti-cancer diet du jour. One moment it’s there, and then everybody forgets. It’s not because the field has been advancing. It’s not that pyramid water theoreticians discovered that a trapezoid actually achieved even better results. It’s just that everyone went on to the next thing. Now cupping and cryotherapy, that’s really getting results.
Okay, by now I must have pissed a lot people off by raining on their particular favourite treatment. As scepticism seems to do.
So why am I telling all this? Because it makes a point that I (or we as a family when I was a kid) have not been thinking critically. We never learned how (none in my direct family had followed anything close to an education at a university). But for me that was actually changing during my education.
Don’t jump to conclusions
Critical thinking actually came to me from different angles. When you’re studying laboratory technology for chemistry (analytical, organic and clinical) and microbiology, as I did, you learn quickly that science is a rigorous process. One of the first things I learned was that people don’t accept your lab report because you’re a nice person. They accept it if it meticulously describes the findings of you experiments and you explain exactly how you got them. Early in my education this was a frustrating process. What did they want of me?
It took me a while to understand. There were lots of things, like: write down the measurements exactly as you’ve found them. Don’t do interpretations you’re not qualified to do. “I determined the bacteria to be a mycobacterium tuberculosis” instead of “the patient has tuberculosis”. There’s a subtle difference. As a lab analyst I do not see the whole picture. This is not about knowing my place. This is about not jumping to conclusions. There might be other, more important things going on. This might be just one of the results the doctor is getting.
Later, when I entered the field of IT and operations what I learned here gave me kind of a leading edge, because I still kept to that rigor of documentation. In a field that was generally bad at documenting things, I managed to impress people sometimes. I have been senior long enough that I do the diagnosis of problems now. But not jumping to conclusions is still an important trait.
Wanting it to be real so bad you can taste it
In 2005 I started writing for an astronomy and space news site. It was just hobby, but I liked to write about new findings in the universe. At some point I met the other writers at one of their homes. It was a lot of fun sharing the enthusiasm for things going on in space.
At one point we were discussing the kind of content we wanted on this space news site. Should we write about crop circles (remember those?), the moon landing hoax and aliens visiting the Earth? “It attracts a lot of visitors”, one of the writers said. Sure, but then again it was not like we were raking in the money. It was more of an ego thing.
I was not for it. It’s not that I do not like aliens visiting the Earth. Actually, I would like very much to live in a time that we get in contact with alien civilizations. My reaction would be much like Fraser Cain in a recent Weekly Space Hangout: “Can we take a trip now? Can I fly? Can we go? Let’s go right now! Let’s go to the spacecraft! Can I meet the alien?”
Unfortunately aliens always seem of the blurry kind. Even in a time that everyone has phones with three kinds of cameras, all of them with more than 15 megapixels and optimized for night photography, in their pocket we still don’t get crisp, clear pictures of alien spacecraft in 4K.
But we want aliens visiting the Earth so bad that we incline to take even the vaguest of videos as evidence. And therein lies the problem. A lot of bad science is basically a form of working towards the desired outcome. “I’m not saying it’s aliens, but it’s aliens”.
And this works even stronger in health. Because when it concerns your health or that of your family, of course you want infinitely diluted medicine make you better. And our brain even helps a bit by invoking the placebo effect. This makes determining whether a medicine really works really hard. Or you can get away by selling droplets of water, because it is bound to help a little.
And this is why science is a matter of discipline. The discipline of not getting fooled by what you want to believe. To quote the physicist Richard Feynman: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.”
An interesting example of that discipline is what happened at the two gravitational wave detectors called LIGO in 2015. Before that none had ever detected a gravitational wave. They had actually just started their first run with the two LIGO observatories. And suddenly it was there: the detection of a merger of two black holes.
Did they bring out the champagne? No actually quite the opposite. This detection was a bit too convenient, so quickly after the start of the run. The first thing they did (after disbelief), was checking all the ways this signal could have been faked. Who knows? Maybe a scientist who’s career depended on this, could have placed a device near the detector that created a small bump in the signal. They first made absolutely sure their findings were real.
Which is different from what lot of people think how science works. They think a scientist does some kind of finding, confirms his or her beliefs and then ..
That is actually how many arguments about scientific topics in the media and on the Interwebs go. “I don’t like this pandemic (which is something we can all agree on). I’m going to prove virusses don’t exist. And I’m going to do ‘my own research’ (ignoring the existing body of evidence or the scientific consensus, because f&ck those guys). I’m finding some evidence of anomalous work (not understanding the science usually helps with that). Krijgsman! KRIJGSMAN!! GOAAAAAAAAAAALLL!”
Just for assumption’s sake, you or I are NOT the next Galileo. We are probably NOT disregarded by the scientific community because they are a-holes and paid by large corporations. More likely our work lacks the rigor that science requires. Distrust anyone who is very sure of him/herself and thinks they are smarter than everyone.
Really finding out how reality works (which is what science is about), requires the humility to know that you don’t know everything. That you could have fooled yourself. That’s the fact (social) media don’t want you to know (yes, had to put some clickbait in here). Because if you stay humble and not get on the barricades for your cause, to tell those losers that you could easily stay COVID-19-free by clean eating (whatever that is), you don’t keep logging in on Facebook/Twitter/LinkedIn quite as often. (Oh and if you did get COVID-19 anyway despite your clean eating, your eating probably still wasn’t clean enough. Shame that. How long did you stay at the ICU you say?)
How to learn critical thinking
I really would like to create a video series “Critical thinking for beginners” some day. But until then, there are many interesting sources. There are many books on the topic, like:
The Skeptics Guide to the Universe by Dr. Steven Novella with his podcast team.
The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan
There are tv programs like Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series and the later follow-ups by Neil deGrasse-Tyson.
There are many podcasts. These are ones I support financially:
Skeptics Guide to the Universe (Just a great podcast)
Skeptoid (Has a laaarge body of knowledge on pseudoscience)
SciBabe (“Come for the science, stay for the dirty jokes”)
Geologic Podcast (Love George’s rants and monologues)
The European Skeptics Podcast (What’s happening on scepticism in the neighbourhood)
Big Picture Science (Specifically their Skeptic Editon)
In Dutch: Kritisch Denken
Critical thinking at work
So after all that, you might ask why this is actually mentioned on my work related blog. I wasn’t sure anyone would like to read about scepticism and critical thinking here. But I got finally motivated, amongst other things, by a blogpost by Tim Hall. I know Tim’s work from my Oracle days. Tim’s blogpost is called The Death of Critical Thinking. “If he can write about critical thinking on his work related blog”, I thought, “then maybe so can I”.
Critical thinking certainly has its place at work. I think I managed to solve a lot of problems by not jumping to conclusions, by checking myself not going for the answer I most like and with a little humility.
I’m not so sure critical thinking is dead, but as a society as a whole we’re are really crap at it. And we need to recognise that. Critical thinking is hard. It requires awareness, accountability and discipline. And we need to keep trying.
Because if you don’t you might end up like a younger me: drinking infinitely diluted water with nothing to show for it but a massive headache.
I would like to thank the people who have proofreaded this story: Laramie Wall, James Goeke and John Ellis (via the Skeptoid community). Also my brother and my father, who found out some things I never told them before.