free debate

December 7, 2009

Ancient Practices in Modern Medicine

Whenever I debate people on unscientific medical practices like acupuncture or homeopathy, it seems that people will inevitably cite ancient wisdom as proof that it works. This is actually a logical fallacy, the appeal to age or tradition. Pointing out logical fallacies in informal debates, however, rarely helps (which is a topic for another post). Normally, people rationalize it by saying things like "Well, only the good cures stuck around." Unfortunately, in debates like this, I get branded as the one who thinks that the ancients couldn't get anything right. So, I want to set the record straight as to what the role of ancient wisdom is in science-based medicine.

In the ancient world, medicine was rudimentary at best. In many cases, you were better off receiving no medical intervention then if you went to a "doctor". Ideas for the cause of illness ranged from witches to unbalanced humors. "Cures" included everything from leaches to exorcism, and a little more recently, radioactive water. It is practices like this that I will speak out against, because they are not supported by evidence. However, we can't just say that all ancient cures are bunk.

Willow bark was a well-know pain reliever to ancient peoples. Willow bark was also quick to enter the scientific literature. As early as 1763, research was being done on the benefits of willow bark for fevers and pain relief. After observing its therapeutic effects, scientists found the active ingredient (salicylic acid) in the bark and isolated it. Now we know this as aspirin. Science did not ignore the effect of the natural cure (willow bark), but instead figured out how to refine its to make it even more safe and effective.

Science does not ignore ancient cures; in fact, it does the opposite. Particularly as it was getting its footing, science-based medicine has looked at traditional cures to see which ones work. Some like homeopathy and acupuncture have fallen by the wayside, while aspirin and the Indian Neti pot have be completely validated. We should look for plausibility and evidence for every medical intervention. Science doesn't assume that just because people still do it, it works. Neither should we.

Image Credit: Bruce Marlin