Point of Departure - Summer 2012

Eye of Newt

By William Deresiewicz | June 1, 2012


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? Science began 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.


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