New Zealand has one of the highest rates of asthma in the world, and a good deal of research has been done locally to find out why.
Recently it appeared that tests run on asthmatics and non-asthmatics show much the same response to specific inflammatory markers, therefore asthma can’t be due to allergy and must be psychological. Yup, apparently everybody who spends their lives struggling to breathe around privet hedges, dust, pollen and so forth can rest assured: SCIENCE has proven it’s their own fault for choosing to be psychologically weak and not having strength of character.
Setting aside the likelihood of the tests being based on a false premise – they’re not testing the actual causes – the main problem, as always, is the philosophy. To me, one of the flaws in medical thinking in general is an inability to capture a complex raft of factors, fuelled in part by the ‘recency effect’ that makes new discoveries loom as sole explanations. When mixed at the sharp end with the subculture of the medical profession – in which many specialists seem to validate their personal worth by their perceived ability to diagnose – any puzzling question leads, usually, to the patient being blamed. And the easiest point of blame is, of course, their personality.
This isn’t new. Back when I was a kid I had a friend with chronic asthma who huffed, puffed and chuffed through every day. Pharmacy-loads of pills and powders did nothing. His mother even took him to Rudolf Steiner ‘colour treatment’, involving coloured lights being shone at him. Apparently if Steiner doesn’t work, it’s because you’re not intelligent enough to understand Steiner’s advanced science. So there the kid was in their damp house with its privet hedges, gasping and wheezing for no reason other than his own supposed bad attitude.
We refer to some immune responses as ‘allergies’, but immune system reactions – often, themselves, symptomatic of innate imbalance that is no choice or fault of the patient – can provoke all sorts of symptoms. Most look like – but are not – symptoms of other conditions. For instance, immune imbalances can raise the uric acid content of the blood, which then looks like – but is not – emblematic of a self-indulgent diet filled with rich foods and alcoholic excess. And that, of course, becomes the first standby of a specialist who doesn’t know about the deeper causes. Yup – it’s really the patient’s fault for being so mentally weak they gobble down all these indulgences, and if they protest that they’re not eating those things – well, of course they’d deny it, wouldn’t they, and the first step to a cure is for the patient to confess how weak and wrong they are.
One of the weirdest outcomes I’ve heard of involves lupus, a complex and serious immune disorder characterised by elevated Th2 factor, which provokes responses that lead to women who have lupus reading mildly positive for a pregnancy test, even when they are not.
Asthma, too, is implicated in Th2 elevation. Mix in the Th1, Th3 and Th17 factors – all of which have their own outcomes, and things get more complex. And this is only the beginning. I’ve looked into it, in some detail, and – trust me – Einstein’s theories of relativity are kids’ play by comparison, partly because the human immune parameters aren’t yet fully defined.
Perhaps the main problem is that medical professionals – specialists, particularly – view symptoms as isolated, whereas the human body is an integrated system. Combine that with the normal medical standby of blaming the patient if the specialist can’t explain something, and the fact that many specialists are very skilled in asserting passive-aggressive power over their patients, and the result can be dire:
Patient: The car won’t move. It has a flat tyre.
Specialist: I’ve checked the fuel tank and it’s full, so the car can move.
Patient: But the tyre’s flat.
Specialist: Nonetheless, the fuel tank is full. You must be imagining a problem.
Patient: What about the flat tyre?
Specialist: You just have to accept that I’m right. Um… Perhaps you should see a psychologist. That will be $400 please.
I once had this style of conversation with a specialist who was so personally abusive I wondered if he was trying to provoke a punch-up. I certainly left feeling as if I’d been in a bar brawl. I asked the Medical Association to check his registration as a first step to a complaint, but then declined to take it further even though it turned out he wasn’t registered for what he was doing. The guy was a nasty, egotistic little asshole whose first priority was gratifying his ego – not supporting the well-being of others – and I’m sure the first response would be to have his lawyer threaten and intimidate me.
As for New Zealand’s problems with asthma, I’m sure the reasons will be found – and they’ll be complex and differ between individuals. However, if science veers towards blaming the patient and labelling it ‘psychological’, I’ll be disappointed. ‘Psychology’ isn’t science and never has been. By its very nature, it’s a device for ‘psychologists’ to validate themselves by invalidating the self-worth of the vulnerable people who come to them for help – in short, ‘psychology’ is an easy mechanism for bullying.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2017