About that article in Elle...

8/07/2013 09:48:00 PM
Caitlin Shetterly has a post in Elle about the horrors of genetically modified foods (GMOs). Slate retorts with a useful reminder, once again, that all the science says GMOs are perfectly safe and healthy (safer, at least, than traditional hybrids). As I was reading, a few things about her story stood out:
"She was plagued for years by a variety of debilitating symptoms from headaches to fatigue to hands frozen into claws by pain."
Ok, so all the symptoms are somatic, rather than physiological.
"She went from one doctor to another, but no cause was identified and no cure found"
Ok, she went to several doctors, who all ran tests for a physiological cause, and found none.
"she went to see Maine allergist Paris Mansmann. Shetterly showed symptoms, he concluded, of eosinophilic disorder—a multisystemic condition in which white blood cells overproduce in response to allergens."
Huh? Back up. Testing for white blood cell counts is standard procedure at any hospital. It's a routine test, relatively easy to do, and doesn't make mistakes. The point is, this isn't something you need to see an allergist to get done--any hole-in-the-wall clinic can order a white blood cell count, and any reasonable doctor would have done that, probably more than once, for Shetterly's case. Yet, in Shetterly's own words:
"All of my tests came back normal."
Oh, and by the way, though Mansmann apparently said Shetterly "showed symptoms" of eosinophilic disorder, it does not actually say that Mansmann found an abnormally high white blood cell count--from the article it appears he didn't do any lab tests at all!

Here's my point: if Shetterly had an elevated white blood cell count, the other doctors would each have been able to tell her that. The fact that they apparently didn't means she did not have an abnormal white blood cell count. As a result, I'm forced to conclude that Dr. Mansmann told a fib. The whole allergic-to-GMO-corn was a placebo treatment for what is clearly a psychosomatic disorder. And it apparently worked, except he didn't expect to find his little white lie splashed across the pages of a national publication.

Placebos are a legitimate medical treatment for psychosomatic disorders. Austin Frakt reports on a study of UK doctors' use of placebos:
"Twelve percent of respondents reported using pure placebos, and 97% reported using impure placebos at least once in their career. Many placebos were used frequently by over half the respondents, and most general practitioners felt there were circumstances in which impure and pure placebos were ethically acceptable. Half of the practitioners who use placebos informed their patients that this intervention has helped other patients without specifically telling them that they were prescribing a placebo."
Worldwide, looking at 12 different countries, they found most doctors think that placebos are appropriate and ethical in some situations, with the fraction of doctors prescribing "pure placebos" ranging between 12 percent and 80 percent. I'm not sure whether prescribing a GMO-free diet is counts as a "pure placebo"--meaning it is completely inert, like a sugar pill--or an "impure placebo" consisting of a real treatment used in a context where it has no medical benefit, like prescribing advil for depression.

Actually, the placebo effect isn't the only explanation for Shetterly's recovery. Compare her statement pre-diagnosis:
"[I] tried everything they threw at me: antidepressants; painkillers; elimination diets (including a long eight months when I went without any of the major allergens, such as gluten, nuts, dairy, soy, and nightshades); herbal supplements; iodine pills; steroid shots; hormone treatments; Chinese teas; acupuncture; energy healing; a meditation class—you name it, I did it. Nothing worked. After I maxed out the available rheumatologists, endocrinologists, nutritionists, gastroenterologists, Lyme disease specialists, acupuncturists, and alternative-medicine practitioners in the Portland metropolitan area, I was sent to neurologists in Boston"
to this action taken after diagnosis:
"I stopped taking every medicine or supplement with corn in it (which was most of them)." 
This calls to mind a the possibility iatrogenesis--the symptoms could have been caused by the batteries of tests, pills, and treatments themselves.

To be fair it is possible she really did have an eosinophilic disorder. If it is limited to certain areas of the body, sometimes it won't show up in a white blood cell count. Heck, maybe she actually was allergic specifically to Monsanto's breed of corn. But lets get one thing straight: the fact that this was an allergic reaction to a specific breed of crop would be ample reason to think that there is no cause for concern whatsoever over the safety of GMOs. After all, I still like peanuts, even if my neighbor can't have any.