As I sit here this morning, though, and debate whether to take the free sample of Rhinocort, an inhaled nasal steroid (budesonide), that I got yesterday, I can't help but remark the massive discrepancy between the sporting world's attitude towards steroid treatment and that of the medical community.
I know, you're saying, there's a huge difference between steroids taken to bulk up and steroids taken to mitigate a health condition. Doctors assure us that inhaled steroids for asthma or allergy-related congestion aren't absorbed the same way into the bloodstream. And so on.
Well, I can tell you from past experience, back when I had pneumonia, that the sort you take for respiratory distress can have mood-altering qualities. Ask Kim, who had to deal with me at the time.
And I just researched Rhinocort and learned that, in fact, it is not 0% of the steroid that is absorbed into the bloodstream when you inhale it through the nose, but 20%. That's a lot less then 80%, of course, but still a lot more than nothing.
Not to mention that it appears to fail the pregnant woman test: similar steroids have apparently caused birth defects in experiments on our animal friends.
On the other hand, almost everything has side effects. As my mother used to tell me, "eating too many carrots can kill you."
The broader issue that interests me, though, is the democratic ethic that seems to permeate the discussion of substances like steroids. It's alright to take them if you are infirm, below the abstract standard for respiratory function, nasal congestion etc. But if you are already demonstrably more fit than someone who meets that standard, steroids suddenly become a dimly regarded example of "performance enhancement."
Making those who are already really good at what they do even better through artificial means is one of the most negatively viewed sins of our age.
I mean, Canadian sprinter Ben Jonson was already one of the two fastest men in the world before the 1988 Seoul Olympics. But when he ran a record-shattering 9.79 in the 100 Meters and later tested positive for steroids, he became the poster boy for everything that's wrong with modern sporting. The fact is, however, that he actually ran that time. It's just that his performance was enhanced by a banned substance.
On another note, why is it that "performance enhancement" is alright in the realm of art? Movie actors are always getting their performance enhanced through technological means these days.
I guess the crucial distinction is that we want to believe that sporting events fall into the category of "non-fiction."
But as someone who is reading and writing about texts that hopelessly blur the line between "fiction" and "non-fiction," I have a hard time believing that the distinction still works.
BTW, Steven -- see the link to his blog on the right -- posted a link to an article about the problem with adopting a "postmodern," relativist attitude towards science recently. It's relevant to everything I'm talking about here, though I have a hard time agreeing wholly with Steven's position. I do agree that we need to believe that there are scientific facts in order to get anything done.
I wrote about this general problem a long time ago, in my piece Belief and the Left, one that Steven was quick to critique at the time:
Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein is one of many twentieth-century thinkers to ponder this question. Although he was raised in the same pro-science, anti-belief context as many intellectuals who have sought to move beyond belief, he ultimately reached different conclusions about its nature and function. In his posthumously published notebook On Certainty, composed in 1950 and 1951, he undermines the notion that judgements can be made with pure objectivity. Indvidual decisions, he argues, are always made in reference to a general understanding of the way the world works. Echoing William James' description of religious belief as human beings' "total reaction" to the world they live in, Wittgenstein calls this background of assumptions a "picture of the world." However much we would like to believe that this picture of the world is the product of rigorous experimentation, it is not something we ever test as a whole. He writes, "I did not get my picture of the world by satisfying myself of its correctness; nor do I have it because I am satisfied of its correctness." Rather, "it is the inherited background against which I distinguish between true and false." An individual's picture of the world comprises a background of assumptions that underpin decisions or actions in the foreground of conscious life.
Wittgenstein explicitly links this background of assumptions to religious belief, suggesting that the individual propositions that comprise our picture of the world can be likened to "a kind of mythology." When we state a conviction about something, that conviction is not "consciously arrived at" but rather "anchored in all my questions and answers, so anchored that I cannot touch it." An individual's picture of the world forms the system within which all decisions are made. This system is something children assimilate as they grow up, As Wittgenstein puts it, "the child learns to believe a host of things...to act according to those beliefs. Bit by bit there forms a system of what is believed, and in that system some things stand unshakeably fast and some are liable to shift." He adds that "what stands fast does so, not because it is intrinsically obvious or convincing; it is rather held fast by what lies around it." Moreover, "the child learns by believing the adult. Doubt comes after belief" and only makes sense in reference to belief.
My position, then and now, is that scientific fact should be a key component, perhaps the key component, in the system children are brought up to believe in.
At the same time, though, when the time comes, they also need to learn about the contradictions and complications, such as that the wave theory of light and the particle theory of light are mutually exclusive, but equally necessary, since each one allows us to understand and predict phenomena that the other obscures.
Anyway, I'm still undecided on the whole nasal steroid question. Would I be more stupid to cling to the conviction that regular treatment with something as powerful as steroids should be avoided until absolutely necessary for health reasons or to give in to the current medical opinion and start altering my everyday body chemistry like one of those Prozac people?