What’s true? What’s not true? What’s fake news? What’s real?
It’s not just politics. Politics is at least comprehensible. We may err, misunderstand and misjudge, but politics speaks our language and invites our participation. Not so medicine. Healthy, we want nothing to do with it. Ill, we turn to it with blind, ignorant, sometimes desperate faith.
What else can we do? Our bodies are strangers to us — sometimes hostile strangers. We wouldn’t recognize our internal organs if we saw them. When a politician says, “Trust me,” we instinctively do the opposite. When a doctor says “Trust me,” we put ourselves and our organs in his or her hands — the sicker we are, the more eagerly.
Imagine yourself, about to undergo surgery, chancing upon a headline like the following, which graced a Shukan Gendai magazine report in June: “This is How Dangerous Hospitals Are” — with harrowing episodes to follow.
You reassure yourself to that effect, only then to encounter a book titled, “Medical Common Sense is Full of Lies.” It’s advertised in newspapers periodically as a perennial bestseller since its publication in 1997. The cover says it has sold 250,000 copies. The author is Iwao Mitsuishi. He’s not a doctor but a physicist with an educated interest in molecular biology. Add to these qualifications one more: He lived to age 95, skiing every winter and apparently in excellent health — despite, not because of, doctors, he insists — until his sudden death in 1997.
“Lies,” “nonsense” — Mitsuishi doesn’t mince words. His chapter headings assault one accepted verity after another. “The lie that too much salt causes high blood pressure”; “The lie that large quantities of food fibers are good for you”; “The lie that animal fat is bad for you”; “The lie that butter and lard are bad for you”; “The lie that eggs are a source of cholesterol” — is this possible? Is all conventional wisdom nonsense?
In 1961, aged 60, Mitsuishi developed cataracts. He would be blind in three years, his optician told him; his case was incurable. So went the conventional wisdom. “Nonsense,” he thought. “I’ll cure myself.”
He wasn’t a doctor but he was a scientist, all science his playground. His research uncovered data suggesting a link between cataracts and a vitamin C deficiency. It was worth trying. He dosed himself with vitamin C. The cataracts retreated.
“Doctors don’t study enough,” he writes. Medicine they study very hard, he acknowledges — which is good and bad; bad because it leaves them no time or energy to study other fields that might jar them into thinking outside the box. In the box, he writes, it’s “medicine by the manual.”
“Once a particular treatment becomes established as ‘common sense,'” he writes, “there’s no questioning it.”
Medical common sense, for instance, damns “the three whites” — white rice, salt and sugar. Molecular biology, however — if doctors only knew it — suggests otherwise, Mitsuishi argues. All three items, he insists, are essential — sugar, second perhaps only to tobacco in villainous associations, particularly so.
“For the brain to work well,” he writes, “it’s indispensable.”
Sugar is brain food. Fear of sugar starves the brain. Why do we fear sugar? Not for medical reasons, says Mitsuishi.
Here politics rears its ugly head. “Fake news” — the concept, if not the name — predates our quarrelsome century. Wikipedia traces it back to the 13th century B.C. For our purposes, 1962 is far enough back. The Cuban missile crisis simmered. Cuba was the enemy. Sugar was Cuba’s economic mainstay. Demonize sugar, Cuba’s economy withers.
The United States under President John Kennedy got to work. Medical research at the time didn’t have much to say against sugar, says Mitsuishi, but whatever point you want to make, there’s always something to support it. When big tobacco needed science to show its product only minimally harmful, it duly found the science, or what looked like science.
Kennedy’s minions found their evidence and hatched their myth.
Speaking of tobacco — here’s another “lie.” Mitsuishi would not encourage nonsmokers to smoke, but the anti-tobacco drive in his view is much ado about nothing. The harm done by the stress of quitting, he says, may well outweigh the benefits of forced abstinence. Moreover, he says, smokers, for reasons not well understood, seem less vulnerable to certain diseases — Alzheimer’s among them.
There is much to be said, he maintains, for people simply following their inclinations, regardless of medical science. He cites a Finnish study involving 1,200 subjects, half of whom were kept to a strict health regime (no smoking, no drinking, a “healthy” balanced diet and so on), while the other half were left to smoke, drink and eat as they pleased.
The two groups were compared 15 years later. You’d think the first group would come out way ahead in terms of health and longevity. You’d be wrong. Life is full of surprises — the unacknowledged medical benefits of freedom from medical intervention, perhaps, being one of them.
The Japanese are among the most medically cared-for people on Earth. Japan has more hospitals than any other developed nation, says Shukan Gendai, quoting research by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development. A tendency among Japanese doctors to overprescribe is an old allegation — the American news magazine Time mentioned it in 1983. Shukan Gendai echoes it and adds other alleged excesses — an over-reliance on X-rays and CT scans, for example, which provokes Mitsuishi’s ire, too. CT and MRI scans are too “scientific,” he says. Hyperscience, he fears, stifles intuition. He came of age at a time when intuition was a doctor’s chief asset. Now it’s technology.
Technology is hard to argue with. It generates numbers, data, facts — “truth.” Mitsuishi charges the medical establishment with “lies” and “nonsense.” Shukan Gendai charges it with venality, instancing overprescription. Everyone knows, the publication says (“Oh really!” we imagine Mitsuishi retorting) that high blood pressure is a lifestyle disease. Why not, therefore, instead of writing prescriptions, warn patients to exercise more and eat more sensibly? Because, it answers, there’s no money in that.
Medicine stands accused, but not convicted. Japan’s remarkable longevity — unbelievable, it would have been called a generation ago — makes a strong case for the defense. The debate goes on, and we’re back to square one: What’s true? What’s not true?
Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations. Michael Hoffman’s latest book is an essay collection titled “Fuji, Sinai, Olympos.”