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Eye of Newt

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By William Deresiewicz


 

I have a friend whose family doctor is a witch. (I should probably mention that I live in Portland, Oregon.) I don’t mean that he and his wife go—and take their three children—to an M.D. who also happens to be a practitioner of Wicca. I mean that she’s a witch, period. That’s her major qualification for the treatment of disease as well as the provision of career advice and spiritual counsel. Though actually, “witch” is my friend’s word. The woman, who is part Native American and is also an herbalist, describes herself as an oracle or medium. The way it works is, she contacts your spirit guides—one of whom, in my friend’s case, is a sumo wrestler—and talks things over with them. I guess you could call them a health care team.

Like a lot of people these days, my friend is skeptical of Western medicine. He prefers herbs and spirit guides; for others, it’s homeopathy, acupuncture, Ayurveda, Qigong, or Reiki. Chinese medicine, Indian medicine: anything but Western medicine.

The problem is, there’s no such thing as Western medicine. There’s scientific medicine, and then there’s everything else. Scientific medicine isn’t Western, because science isn’t Western. Science transcends culture. It is the same everywhere, because the nature it describes and the logic that governs it are the same everywhere: organs, enzymes, DNA, and beneath them all, the mathematics upon which science is based. Is there such a thing as Western math? Modern science started in the West, but unlike products of the human mind that are culturally specific (just about everything else), it is equally open to the contributions, and the understanding, of all. That itself is one of its wonders. The bacteriologist in China, the cosmologist in South Africa, the geochemist in Brazil: they work with the same information and the same conceptual tools, and express themselves in the same vocabulary, as their colleagues in Palo Alto or Geneva. The community of scientists is a truly global community—perhaps the truly global community.

No, scientific medicine is not perfect. Yes, it may be insufficiently attentive to issues like nutrition or the effect of mental states on disease. But if it’s going to be corrected, it will be corrected within the framework of scientific medicine itself. No other valid form of medicine exists. There is only one science, just as there is only one nature. By the same token, if there is anything of value in traditional forms of medicine, it must prove its validity in scientific terms—at which point it will become a part of science. I go to a chiropractor myself. I look at the charts on the wall and think, This is complete nonsense. The thing is, whatever it is she thinks she’s doing, it works. She pushes my vertebrae around, and my neck feels better. I’d call that empirical evidence; science really should look into it.

The argument against “Western” medicine strikes me as a compound of liberal self-hatred, misdirected feminism, and the resentment of laypeople against an expert elite. It’s interesting that you never hear anyone talk about traditional European medicine. You know: leeches, bleeding, the theory of the humors—though herbs are okay, presumably because they were (or are believed to have been) the province of women. It’s also often said that people understand these things better in Europe (that herbal remedies are common there, and so forth), though Europe was where all things Western started, so I’m not sure why they have more credibility than we do—perhaps because they’re no longer as powerful, and therefore more virtuous.

Meanwhile, cases of measles in the United States quadrupled last year, to over 200, because a lot of people have decided not to vaccinate their children. In Europe, which seems to be the major source of our anti-vaccination craze, as well as our measles, the number was over 26,000, three times higher than in 2007. (This while vaccination reduced global deaths from the disease by 74 percent from 2000-2010.) That is what comes from the application of feeling to the domain of reason.

William Deresiewicz is an essayist and critic. His book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, which will be published in August, is based in part on his essays “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” and “Solitude and Leadership.” To read all the posts from his weekly blog, “All Points,” click here.


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