Seven is a magic number because only it can make a week, and it was given this particular power in 321 A.D. by the Roman emperor Constantine, who officially reduced the week from eight days to seven. The problem isn’t that Constantine’s week was arbitrary — units of time are often arbitrary, which is why the Soviets adopted the five-day week before they adopted the six-day week, and the French adopted the 10-day week before they adopted the 60-day vacation.
The problem is that Constantine didn’t know a thing about bacteria, and yet modern doctors continue to honor his edict. If patients are typically told that every 24 hours (24 being the magic number that corresponds to the rotation of the earth) they should take three pills (three being the magic number that divides any time period into a beginning, middle and end) and that they should do this for seven days, they will end up taking 21 pills.
If even one of those pills is unnecessary — that is, if people who take 20 pills get just as healthy just as fast as people who take 21 — then millions of people are taking at least 5 percent more medication than they actually need. This overdose contributes not only to the punishing costs of health care, but also to the evolution of the antibiotic-resistant strains of “superbugs” that may someday decimate our species. All of which seems like a rather high price to pay for fealty to ancient Rome.
Thursday, October 21, 2010
Anything Daniel Gilbert writes is worth reading, and in that spirit I pass on this Op-Ed bon-bon that asks why a full course of antibiotics usually takes seven days, with stern instructions not to terminate the pills earlier. "Why not six, eight or nine and a half? Does the number seven correspond to some biological fact about the human digestive tract or the life cycle of bacteria?" The answer of course is no....