How many times have you heard:
"They've been doing this in China for thousands of years"
"My healer is trained in Ancient Medicine"
"This have been practiced by millions of people for thousands of years"
This is the exact sort of thing you hear with respect to CAM (Complementary and Alternative Medicine), astrology, homeopathy and so forth. Yes, its an appeal to ancient ways. But when discussing health its so much more than some fallacious arguement, its bad for the health of a society as a whole, never mind being bad for the individual. Let me explain.
It is true that Dawkins addressed this a little bit in his "Enemies of Reason" series. but I wanted to address on little bit of evidence that I dont think he made quite clear and didn't emphasise enough.
Both China and India are credited with the development of most of CAM. Acupuncture, Ayurvedic Healing, and a number of other "ancient medicines". Panda Bear M.D. has already posted some great info about homeopathy. Some folks have also include shamanistic indian rituals, drug use, and a number of other practices.
More recently, people have been simply justifying these practices by pretending to understand quantum mechanics, and saying that is the reason it works.
None of this is new or original. I really have nothing to add to the specifics of each piece of CAM, just something more general. My question when I hear a statement like those I started out this post with is:
Why would you do something that has already been shown to only allow you to live 1/2 as long?
Here is what I mean.
I took life expectancy data from the US from 1900 to 2004 and plotted it against what I could find for that same year range for China and India.(1,2,3,4)
Some notes about this:
By 1900, our lifespan doubled that of China and India. by this time we had worked out vaccinations, germ theory, hand washing, among a variety of other things.
By 1940 we had worked out the use of pennicillin, which lead to a variety of other, more broad spectrum antibiotics.
1950's we were learning to make and use pacemakers. In the '60s we were learning to transplant hearts and spinning up our abilities to fight viruses. In the 70s we started learning IVF and other fertilization techniques. I dont think I can even summarize our progress in the last 3 decades in imagining, genetics, artificial organs , etc.
An interesting overview of the introduction of western medicine into china is presented here. There we find strong resistance to the influx of western medicine in spite of various places where the western medicine was recognized as superior. Even the smallpox vaccine was still making rounds in the twentieth century.
in 1881 the very first school was made to teach western style medicine. It was quickly run down during the Boxer Rebellion, so once again western medicine was prevented from becoming pervasive in China. Even western sanitation (which goes hand in hand with medicine) was looked down upon.
Around the turn of the century there were a group of Chinese who did acknowledge that China was crumbling and needed modernization badly.
Only around 1920 did China start to require medical licenses, however both traditional Chinese medicine and western medicine were still practiced, with traditional medicine still being favored. enforcement was severely lacking.
It was not until near 1940 did western medicine start to truly penetrate Chinese society, with the obvious benefits seen in the graph.
Folks, science is supposed to change what we know. When it changes it is becoming more accurate, more informative, and a better predictor. It does this by testing hypotheses, keeping the good ones and throwing away the bad ones. Ayurvedic medicine, acupuncture, and other 'medical' treatments that have not changed in 2000 years should be viewed with intense skepticism. Anything claiming to be a science that has not changed in decades, much less centuries or millenia is bad, and not something to admire.
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