Off the pedestal, Western medicine

hubris

Western medicine can be a smug son-of-a-bitch. Seriously.

Now, it would be unfair to lump this attitude on all practitioners of Western medicine, but I haven’t the time to survey all of its adherents and gauge individual opinions so that I can name names of those who are the smug bastards and those who believe in thoughtful open-minded consideration.

To provide some context, I have a B.Sc. in molecular biology and a M.Sc. in medical genetics, and have written about the latest biotechnical and biomedical advances for about 15 years. I have also written about Western medicine for about 7 years.

Given this background, it may seem odd to some that I am writing a complaint about the attitudes of Western medicine, but what may not be as obvious about that background is the amount of hubris and self-satisfaction I have seen in questionable practices with limited benefits.

Old wisdom isn't useless because it is old

Old wisdom isn’t useless because it is old

Recently, there was an article in New Scientist magazine that described the rediscovery of a possible treatment against superbugs (e.g., MRSA), a therapy chronicled in an Anglo-Saxon era manuscript. The roughly 1000-year-old remedy is being studied in a modern lab and early results suggest that it may prove effective against the bugs that threaten modern lives on a weekly basis.

(BTW, there is a thousand miles between early results and coming to a pharmacy near you.)

But what struck me most was the response to the findings in various media, which bordered on shock and awe that something relevant to today could come from such an ancient source. Even CBC’s The National (Canada’s national news broadcast) commented that the discovery came from an era when leaches were considered good medicine.

Which leads me to scream:

Science wasn’t invented in 20th century, people.

The grand assumption seems to be that anything that happened in medicine before the First World War was complete voodoo and not worthy of consideration in an era of rational thought.

Everyone involved in health remedies before the modern medical era was either a charlatan or a moron, and either way was dangerous to the people around them. The human capacity for sober scientific enquiry did not occur until shortly after the invention of the Erlenmeyer flask, the spectrometer and the harnessing of the X-ray.

I call bullshit.

If you can grind it or infuse it, you can medicate with it

If you can grind it or infuse it, you can medicate with it

Folkloric medicines are based on scientific inquiry by people without test tubes and spectrometers. The approach may have been less statistical in nature, but everyone from apothecaries to shamans (shamen?) ran clinical trials the old-fashioned way.

Take this. Do you feel better? Great. It’s a keeper. Did you die? Yes. Nuts, try something else on the next guy.

Having actually looked at modern clinical trials, the only differences between then and now are the test patient population size and the accounting of the results. And I don’t know that we can say definitively that these parameters have improved things.

I am not advocating that we discard modern medicine—it has merit—but rather than it must get off its high-horse and approach historical medicine with an open mind so that more rediscoveries like this latest one can happen and be tested.

TCM has worked for millennia

TCM has worked for millennia

China has about 20% of the planet’s population, so there might be something to Traditional Chinese Medicines (TCMs). The same goes for India and folkloric Indian medicines (FIMs). Or Anglo-Saxons or Sumerians or the indigenous peoples of the Americas. These people were not morons.

Our ignorance and outright hubris is a hangover of the Age of Reason as we dismiss everything that came before because it was often presented in raiments of spirits and ritual.

Modern does not guarantee success

Modern does not guarantee success

We should not let our fascination with the instrumentational bells and whistles of the modern scientific method blind us to the wonders of the not-so-modern scientific method, which lacked in instrumentation but not in knowledge and understanding.

Before you blithely dismiss something as troglodyte quackery, perhaps you should ask yourself:

What would Hippocrates do?

And as to the CBC’s comment about the era of leeches, both leeches and maggots have a long history up to this day of facilitating health in people (see Leeches and Maggots).

3 thoughts on “Off the pedestal, Western medicine

    • Thanks for your comments, Helen.

      Please understand, I wasn’t meaning to call Hippocrates a quack, but merely imply he didn’t have the “luxury” of modern pharmaceutical industry or medical instrumentation.

      Again, thanks for joining the conversation.

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