The Skeptics Society & Skeptic magazine

Wisdom of the SkepDoc:
Harriet Hall, MD (1945–2023)

All of us at Skeptic magazine—along with those in the larger skeptical and scientific communities—are sad to announce the passing of Harriet Hall, MD, widely known as the SkepDoc. Since 2006 she has penned the SkepDoc column for Skeptic, and produced numerous medical explainers, such as the Top 10 Things You Should Know About Alternative Medicine. For the James Randi Educational Foundation Dr. Hall produced a 10-part video series on “Science-Based Medicine” along with a 26-page downloadable course guide. Dr. Hall was also a contributing editor for Skeptical Inquirer magazine, an advisor to the Quackwatch network, one of the founders of the Science-Based Medicine blog and online resource, an editorial review board member for the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database, and built her own following with her regular newsletter, dealing with all manner of medical quackery.

Her husband, Kirk Hall, provided this brief biographical description of Harriet’s long and productive life:

Harriet Anne Hall was born to Albert L Hoag and Edna (Barnes) Hoag in St. Louis, Missouri on 2 July 1945. She was the eldest of four children (the twins Steven & Stephanie and the youngest Andrea). Harriet attended the University of Washington as an undergraduate, where her father taught and graduated with her medical degree from there in 1970. She was commissioned First Lieutenant in the US Air Force on 13 June 1970 and completed her Rotating Internship at the David Grant USAF Medical Center in 1971. In her early AF career, she was a General Medical Officer and was stationed in Spain for seven years. After her return to the US Harriet attended the Aerospace Medicine Primary Course to become a Flight Surgeon, graduating in 1979. In the same year Harriet became Certified by the American Board of Family Practice. She was assigned to Francis E. Warren AFB where she met and married Kirk Albert Hall, Jr. Harriet retired as a Full Colonel at McChord AFB, WA. She lived in Puyallup, Washington until her death on 11 Jan 2023. Harriet and Kirk had two daughters: Kristin Ann born at F. E. Warren AFB and Kimberly Alexandra born at Plattsburgh, NY.

Harriet Hall (photo by David Patton)

Dr. Hall penned two books. Her autobiographical Women Aren’t Supposed to Fly: The Memoirs of a Female Flight Surgeon, recounts her experiences as a woman in a mostly-male career path. Her illustrated children’s book, There’s No Such Thing as the Tooth Fairy! teaches young readers how to think like a scientist and skeptic.

I always looked forward to editing Harriet’s SkepDoc column, not only because she was such a lucid writer and critical thinker who required very little editing, but because I learned so much from her about pressing medical issues I was personally interested in, such as cholesterol and statins, diet and nutrition, supplements and vitamins, exercise and health, aging and longevity, and what science can and cannot tell us about how to live a good life. Harriet Hall had a wonderful life that touched so many other lives, and her passing has left an awful hole that cannot be filled. We remember her in words (from her Skeptic columns) and images (from The Amazing Meeting, photographs by David Patton). END

Harriet Hall on Psychotherapy

Some psychotherapeutic interventions have been shown to be no better than talking with a friend. Pilot programs in underserved areas are showing that brief training can enable laymen and non-specialist health workers to provide effective psychotherapy. The bottom line: psychotherapy works to help some patients, but we have no idea why. It is not based on science and there is no rational basis for choosing a therapy or a therapist. —in Skeptic 28.1, her last column

On Determining Causality in Medicine

I keep having to say the same things over and over: correlation is not causation, and personal anecdotes and testimonials don’t count as evidence. —in Skeptic 27.4

On Fads

Why do people fall for these fads? The answer is complex. For one thing, people’s brains evolved to be naturally more impressed by testimonials from their friends than by scientific studies, which they may not understand and often distrust. They may want to rebel against authority. They may mistake correlation for causation. They may feel empowered by taking action to improve their own health. They may want to become part of a special club. They may have been bamboozled by misinformation. They are not stupid, but they have not been trained in science and critical thinking skills. —in Skeptic 27.3

On Abortion

Anti-abortion activists are happy to frighten women with the alleged risks of abortion, but they are careful not to divulge this crucial information: whatever the risks of getting an abortion, it’s far riskier not to get an abortion. Pregnancy is known to be hazardous to health, and the risks of continued pregnancy and childbirth are well documented. —in Skeptic 27.2

On Trans Controversies

The science supporting transgender diagnosis and treatment is far from settled, especially for adolescent girls. Unanswered questions remain that can only be answered through good science. If experts could predict which individuals are likely to regret gender transition, irreversible damage might be avoided. —in Skeptic 27.1

Harriet Hall (photo by David Patton)
On Complementary and Alternative Medicine

Purveyors of so-called complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) don’t have any credible scientific evidence. If they did, their treatments would not be called “alternative” but would have been accepted into mainstream practice and would just be called “medicine” (as in the old joke, “Do you know what you call alternative medicine with evidence? Medicine”). They tend not to appreciate science or even to understand it. They don’t need or want scientific evidence. For them, testimonials are all-powerful and are all the evidence they ask for. —in Skeptic 26.4

On Dietary Supplements

Dietary supplements and deception are constant companions. Taking a supplement is a gamble. Skepticism and vigilance are advised. Caveat emptor. —in Skeptic 26.3

On Gwyneth Paltrow and Her Goop Company

Gwyneth Paltrow was ridiculed for recommending vaginal steaming, which involves squatting over a basin of hot water and herbs for 30 minutes or so. She thinks it can relieve menstrual cramps, cleanse the vagina and uterus, boost fertility, and even relieve headaches. Gynecologists quickly protested, saying that it had no health benefits and was dangerous, potentially causing burns and infections. —in Skeptic 25.4

On Coconut Oil

The evidence that coconut oil is a health hazard is stronger than the evidence that it is a health food. Remember “the dose makes the poison” and “moderation in all things.” If you like the taste, I don’t see any reason a moderate amount of coconut oil couldn’t be part of a healthy diet. —in Skeptic 24.3

On Scientific Studies

Early studies are often superseded by later studies with the opposite findings. We should never trust a single study; we must look at the total weight of all published findings. Most published research findings turn out to be false. That might sound discouraging, but it shouldn’t be. Science is a self-correcting endeavor. —in Skeptic 22.4

On Functional Medicine

Language keeps changing. We used to call questionable remedies “folk medicine,” “fringe medicine,” or “quackery.” In the 1970s, the term “alternative medicine” was coined, an umbrella term for all treatments that were not supported by good enough evidence to have earned them a place in mainstream medicine. Then came “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM), and later, “integrative medicine.” Now there’s a new kid on the block, “functional medicine (FM)” which is really just the latest flavor of integrative medicine. These are all marketing terms, Trojan horses designed to sneak non-science-based medicine into conventional medical practice. —in Skeptic 22.1

On Religion and Health

Religion can impact health in good ways, but often it has a bad impact on the health of the believer and also on the health of others. I fully support the right of people to follow any religion or any belief system, but I don’t acknowledge their right to impose their beliefs on others. I draw the line when their beliefs cause harm or the deaths of innocent children or when they endanger public health. —in Skeptic 19.1

SkepDoc’s Rule

The single most important thing you can do is remember the SkepDoc’s Rule: before you accept any claim, try to find out who disagrees with it and why. There is always disagreement, even about whether vaccines cause autism and whether men landed on the moon. Once you have located the opposing arguments you can evaluate which side has the most credible evidence and the fewest logical fallacies. It’s usually easy to spot the winner. —in Skeptic 18.2

This article was published on January 18, 2023.

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