Believe it or not, there are podcasts out there that are even better than the one Jason and I did a couple of weeks ago (#sarcasm). Among the many fine choices out there, RadioLab is consistently excellent and intriguing; it is invariably at the top of my listening queue. Recently, RadioLab did a show on a patient who survived rabies, which until recently was 100% fatal- a death sentence with no chance of commutation or reprieve from the Governor. The story itself is amazing, and you should stop reading here, take a brief intermission and go listen to it. I’ll be here when you get back.
OK, back? Pretty good, huh? Though I was transfixed during the entire episode, do you know what little tidbit of information stuck with me more than anything else? The off the cuff factoid that back in medieval times, one of the treatments for rabies was to pluck the feathers from around a rooster’s anus, then apply said anus to the animal bite, ostensibly to “suck out” the infection. Makes sense, eh? I mean, I’m no rooster anus aficionado, but I can imagine that it might resemble a suction cup sort of thing. These are some pretty weird dots to connect to be sure, but I guess that when faced with a potentially fatal disease, physicians back then tried anything and everything hoping to find that magical cure, even if by luck or trial and error. Without the scientific method, that’s pretty much all they had.
Why, I can hear you ask, why would tincture of tush even continue as a recommended treatment after the first attempt or two? OK, I’ll give the doctor/barber/blacksmith the benefit of the doubt when thinking of it for the first time and giving it a go, but then after that? How could the doctor of yesteryear think this was a good idea? Did his success rate in treatment skyrocket after sphinctotherapy? How does one rationalize this?
Well, here’s how it went down, and the reason I’m bringing this up isn’t just because it’s a fun, quirky subject or that I have a thing about poultry and/or anuses. There are modern day applications of this same dysfunctional thought process, and the public must be made aware of these modern day purveyors of rooster anus therapies and their likes.
Suppose you’re this guy, the village doctor:
A frantic mother comes running into your office/stables with her 12 year old daughter in tow. The young girl has just been bitten by a mad dog and everyone knows what that means. Thinking quickly, you grab a rooster, pluck the feathers from around its anus (I’m sure there’s an insurance code for that), and apply buttsuction pressure to the wound stat. You then write a prescription to the mother like so:
After a week, you go and check up on the family; lo and behold! the girl is fine. No signs of rabies and the wound is healing well. When you get back to your office/stables, you look back over your notes and determine that your avian treatment protocol has roughly a 25% success rate. “That’s pretty good” you say. “If it weren’t for my quick thinking and medical acumen, they all would have died. This modern treatment of rabies is proof that we have truly made great advances in medical science. In my experience, rooster anus is the treatment of choice for rabies.”
So what is the reality here? Do sphincters possess medicative qualities? Was Yorick the doctor/barber/blacksmith on the right track?
No and no.
The reality is that while rabies is a horrible disease, it is only 100% (well, until recently at least) fatal once it has established a foothold in the host. Often, a person who is bitten by a wild animal doesn’t contract rabies at all. There are several possible explanations for this: 1. the animal didn’t have rabies to start with, 2. the bite didn’t break the skin, 3. the virus didn’t enter the bloodstream or other area where it could take up residence in the nerve tissue, or 4. the victim’s antibodies dispatched the viruses before they could cause harm.
There could be other explanations and scenarios, but you get the picture. While all rabies infections were 100% fatal, not all animal bites were. Dr. Yorick, of course, wasn’t aware of all the times a person was bit who subsequently remained healthy. His experimental group, as it were, consisted only of those who either had been bitten but not yet showed the signs of rabies or people with full-fledged rabies. The former group would naturally respond reasonably well to Rooster Anus Therapy®, not because of the rooster, but because that person stood a decent chance of remaining healthy anyway. Yorick naturally would take credit for the health of this subgroup. This fallacy in reasoning is called Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc, which is similar to Affirming the Consequent. The logical structure goes something like this: P occured before Q. Q resulted, therefore P caused Q. Translated, this reads “If I put a rooster’s anus onto an animal bite, the patient will not contract rabies. The patient did not contract rabies. Therefore, rooster anus is effective and prevented the rabies.” This is where Yorick went wrong and relied only upon his experience, but you can’t blame the chap.
You can, however, blame the frauds, quacks, and ignorant practitioners of woo out there who peddle their own version of rooster anuses to a gullible and unsuspecting public. From homeopathy to acupuncture, to just about every kind of “complementary” or “integrative” therapies, they all work on the same Affirming the Consequent principle. You pressed, poked, stabbed, or shocked some alleged point on your body and your knee pain felt better? You swallowed a supplement and you slept better last night? You pressed a rooster anus to your squirrel bite and you didn’t get rabies? The delusional practitioner will think “In my experience, ________ has worked well.” This is very dangerous thinking.
Modern day alt-med thinking and medieval rooster thinking is pretty much the same thing.
Most health care practitioners worth their salt know this; however, a vast number of lay people, as well as many other health care providers either don’t know it or choose to ignore it because of some bias or agenda. Or perhaps they are outright charletans. However, it is the responsibility of every science minded individual to fight this type of thinking and challenge these dysfunctional practices wherever they occur.