The Real Dr Skeptic

Hypochondriac's NightmareOh dear PZ… you keep sinking lower.

Dr Skeptic is sitting in his office when a Mr Myers bursts in and tells him on behalf of an anonymous ‘friend’ that they caught leprosy from someone at a business conference. While rare this is within the bounds of possibility, but Dr Skeptic can’t do anything to confirm or refute this self-diagnosis without examining the patient. The claim is sufficient to investigate, but not sufficient – especially without the actual patient – to assume it to be true. Even though leprosy is a serious disease and a more infectious version would be big trouble.

To diagnose the patient Dr Skeptic will need to see them, examine their symptoms and come to a conclusion based on what they can see. The anonymous friend dropping by with a feasible but unlikely scenario isn’t going to do that.

Let us also say, for arguments sake, that Mr Myers – and this alleged leprosy victim – are also members of a self-help group for hypochondriacs and that members of this group have repeatedly turned up at Dr Skeptic’s door insisting they have brain cancer after having spent all night on WebMD entering their symptoms. Might – an established pattern of behaviour having emerged – Dr Skeptic not be somewhat justified in treating the leprosy claim with a pinch or two of salt?

Of course, they might really have leprosy, but if – for years – you’ve had Ms Watson coming to the clinic and claiming her skull is infested with scorpions just because she got a slight headache that went away when she took some ibuprofen, a reluctance to take it seriously isn’t that hard to understand.

Claims made, without evidence, should not be taken as true whether they’re medical, legal, scientific or otherwise. The claim is the basis for an examination, not evidence in and of itself and not an excuse to call the CDC, start a witch hunt or blow the national budget on cold fusion.

An insistence on evidence and on ‘innocent until proven guilty’ is not an assault on women or ‘going to the defense of powerful men’, it’s being consistent in the application of logic, reason and evidence.

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