2012-01-17

Traditional medicine

People involved in recent discussion of traditional eastern medicine, have asked me, why do I choose a scientific approach. Me, personally. Is it because it is the only thing I know of? Not really. Is it because it was taught to me in school? No I don't care for what a system may impose on me. Is it because it's what the president recommends on television? No, I hate both of those things. Is it because I was poisoned with it from a young age? No, actually I was taught about traditional medicine before I started going to school.

What proponents of traditional eastern medicine perhaps do not realize, is that even us Westerners have traditional medicine of our own, which is passed down by generations trough our grandparents and taught to us before we are old enough to think of questioning it. Chamomile tea anyone? And yet when really in need, we first think to choose modern medicine. Why?

I will try to tell a story -- a true one, which may be easiest to relate to, because it seemed completely reasonable to a 12 year-old without much prior knowledge to make him biased towards a certain philosophy.

When I was young I was growing up with my grandmother, who was as all typical grandmothers a master of herbalism, botany and gossip. Every day she would teach me something new and interesting about plants, herbs and medicinal plants that I didn't know to think of before.

As I grew older I learned that sometimes, my grandmother would come by conclusions regarding what plants, herbs and medicinal plants do, based on inconsistent situations -- I would begin to see where she had concluded unreasonably, because she drew a pattern between two inconsistent situations. As I tried out things the way she had come by the conclusions, I upgraded her methodology to one which was more self-consistent: I would make sure that when I preformed an experiment I would only change one parameter at a time to see how it influenced the result. This, I later learned, was called the scientific method.

I have this excellent example of a favored plant: Sempervivum Tectorum, which is traditionally known to cure ear infections and ward off lightning, as taught by my grandmother. I had always loved the plant due to it's ease of cultivation. Coincidentally a neighbor was doing a thesis on the plant and determined that the plant sometimes lives in symbiosis with a fungi in it's leaves, which produces an antibiotic -- no doubt useful against ear infections; however this fungi while clearly visible by the length of the plant's leaves, was not necessarily present. Traditional medicine knew nothing of this distinction and the plant was no doubt used for ear infection even when it had no chance of being helpful. (As for it's lightning warding properties, it turns out that historically this was only applicable to straw roofs, where it is severely unlikely that the plant's presence would in any way influence a straw roof's combustibility or resistance to lightning, there is presently no way to test that as there are no more straw roofs to be found in the country.)

As time got by my grandmother, the master of gossip that she was, saw that my conclusions were as worthy of consideration as the other gossip that she had come by and grew to depend on it. Then one day, I remember, I had learned that my conclusion that because the runoff from potted plants was chemically unhealthy for humans, that it was thus also unhealthy for plants was backwards, as the nutrients contained in the runoff are beneficial to the plant and thus my recommendation to my grandmother had to be changed. My grandmother asked me if hadn't I previously stated the opposite? I answered: "I was wrong." As I learn more I find that: I was wrong. I openly admit that, yet does that mean that my recommendation is unreliable? She never stated what she thought of it, but she did continue to rely on my conclusions. And although I can be wrong, if I take everything I do know into account via a scientific method, and provide a recommendation based on that, it's still the best one we have.

As I look back I had hoped that I had converted my grandmother's witchcraft into science... Only to find later in my life that the process of developing new drugs is also known as witchcraft in the industry, due to the point that nobody really knows how to come by a cure that hasn't been invented yet, and they simply mix ingredients until they come up with something that cures the disease and doesn't kill the patient (of course it is a bit more sophisticated than that, my understanding is on the level of a research reactor control software developer, I am not a chemist).

I understand that the 15 year long process for drug development enforced by the system has been developed trough some sort of bloody trial and error in an attempt to leave behind as few dead as possible. A process that I understand is quite tedious to a researcher who is sure he had come up with a cure to a deadly disease and is being asked to hold onto it for 15 years until they can figure out if it's safe (and somehow pull out of the sky the funding for the equipment required to get it trough the process? Researchers are not normally good at funding issues). And a process which is called "short" by proponents of traditional medicine which had supposedly evolved over hundreds of years. Yet their request that skipping this particular process for whatever they come up with is somehow better for everybody is hardly convincing?! Don't you agree?

Why don't we play it safe in both cases? Why can't we have self-consistent methodology for traditional medicine as well? Why can't we see that sometimes traditional medicine is wrong? How is just believing the gossip, that produced traditional medicine blindly, reasonable? Is it because if we did the right thing with traditional medicine, what we would end up with is modern medicine? Like I did?

Think about that.

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