Sunday, 15 June 2008

Fictional Sceptics #2: House, M.D.

House is one of my favourite shows of all time, one of those rare instances of greatness on the otherwise-wearying Box of Blight. I won't bother giving you a thorough synopsis of the general idea behind the show - I'm sure you're skilled enough at the intertubes to track down the information if you require it. Suffice it to say that my entry today regards the eponymous character, Doctor Gregory House - flawlessly played by fellow sceptic Hugh Laurie.

It's hard to know where to begin with House; there is so much about him that simply screams "sceptic". He is a champion of deductive reasoning and the scientific method, a great critic of religion and anything remotely false or non-evidence based. Perhaps, as with my examination of Lisa Simpson, it would be best to take a look at a typically illustrative episode as an example.

Season 2, Episode 19: House vs. God. A young preacher is brought in after collapsing during a faith healing session (itself a great scene, he asks for a doctor after praising the healing power of Jesus). God apparently talks to this particular teenager, prompting House to consider psychosis as a possible symptom. "If you talk to God, you're religious; God talks to you and you're psychotic."

The kid's first trick is claiming that God had spoken to him of a female physician harbouring vengeful thoughts about a co-worker. This is true of Doctor Cameron, and both she and Doctor Foreman (the co-worker in question) are somewhat impressed by this. House is not, as he could see for himself the body language the boy had picked up on. It's a classic trick of psychics and the like, and though a useful thing to bring attention to it's hardly difficult to debunk.

Slightly more impressive at first glance is when Boyd, the patient, tells House that God wants him to invite Doctor Wilson to his poker game. House's first reaction is to tell Wilson to stop talking to his patient, but Wilson denies having done so. It remains a mystery until it is revealed that Boyd has been talking to Grace, Wilson's liver cancer patient; Wilson has been seeing her socially for a short while and has kept it a secret. Nevertheless, it is she who has passed on the information about House's poker game.

The big mystery, however, is the "miracle" that takes place in this episode. Boyd was wandering the halls in a daze after a complex partial seizure, and came across Grace. He told her not to worry, and asked God to make her whole again. Nothing much is thought of this, until Wilson scans her liver and finds that the tumour is shrinking. The team gets to work trying to diagnose some medical reason for this, but get nowhere.

Until, that is, House reaches one of his trademark epiphanies. All Boyd's symptoms are explained by the virus herpes encephalitis, which he transmitted to Grace when he "healed" her. The virus attacked her tumour first, shrinking it temporarily. Rare, yes, but not unheard of. This is the traditional medical fare of the show. As House asserts, "There is nothing in the universe that can't be explained - eventually."

This is not to say that House is the perfect sceptic, of course - a man with so many problems is hardly a candidate for being the perfect anything. While he always makes diagnoses based on the evidence available, he is reckless and will often skip over further testing and move straight onto treatment - or trust his instincts rather more than a doctor probably should. He will also make assumptions based on his less-than-generous view of human nature; while this often works in his favour, it does sometimes obstruct the diagnosis process.

He is, after all, and like us real sceptics, a flawed human being. But he remains a great example of rational thought and critical thinking on television.


Asclepius said...

The character is a construct of pure genius and I would love to shake the hand of the man/woman/people who created it. However I'm fairly sure a large part of the success of the show and the portrayal of the character is down to what Hugh Laurie brings to the role.

A particularly monumental dialog for me occurred in the first episode -

Cuddy: "How is it that you always assume you're right?"
House: "I don't, I just find it hard to operate on the opposite assumption"

Asclepius said...

Also I'd like to mention how incredible it is that specific virii attack specific tumours. Its only in the last few years that that such treatments have been developed. The idea isnt to completely eliminate the tumour but to kill off enough of it to dramatically minimise the risks of surgery or chemo. You just expose the tumour to the virus until its ridiculously small, then you dont have to excise as much potentially healthy tissue.

Its an incredible idea and suggests that virii have a potentially symbiotic place with humans in nature.