Sunday, September 27, 2009

Theoidiocy and other matters

"How religion poisons everything" was the subtitle of a recent Christopher Hitchens book on God. He could equally have said: "How religion turns everyone into idiots." Case in point: Andrew Sullivan, who is otherwise one of the most intelligent and lucid commentators on the blogosphere (and the MSM) today.

It seems to have started here. It continues here, here and here. Click only if you're a masochist -- or if the following excerpt (from here) makes any sense to you:

Yes, resilience is obviously built into our genetics, but my point was the unique ability to transcend suffering, not just endure it. That requires a mind that renders humans uniquely self-conscious, which has led to inquiries into ultimate meaning that, so far as we can tell, no animal experiences in the same way. Many survive suffering - most, in fact. The question is whether it is overcome, rather than endured. For that, something beyond mere physical processes are necessary. Which is where religion has its place.

On a related note, here's an entertaining guide to homoeopathy (thanks to Sunil). Homoeopathy has much in common with religion: rational arguments don't work with true believers, and in particular, it is impossible to answer the claim "but it worked for me!"

There are two caveats I would put, however. First, homoeopathy (and religion) may actually work if you're a believer. The best explanation of homoeopathy I've heard is the following (I previously posted it as a comment here): A colleague of mine claims the following is, roughly, an actual conversation he had with an actual practising (and believing) homoeopath. My friend expressed his skepticism on scientific grounds -- the dilution is so extreme that hardly a molecule or two would be expected to remain, if that. The homoeopath said, "Have you been to a homeopathic doctor?" My friend said yes. "What happened?" "The doctor asked lots of questions and then prescribed me a medicine." "How long did the questioning take?" "It took about 20 minutes and was very detailed." And, according to the homoeopath: "It is the 20 minutes of questioning that is the therapeutic part of homoeopathy. The pill is a placebo. It is just a sugar pill."

Now, placebos can have real effects (Skepdic has a good discussion), so it would not surprise me that homoeopathy (or praying) could help you with some conditions, if you believed in the first place that it could.

The second caveat is that not everything that passes for homoeopathy need actually be homoeopathic (that is, diluted according to Hahnemann's prescriptions). This is especially true in India, but there was also a recent case of a "homeopathic" cold medicine in the US that turned out to contain non-homoeopathic quantities of zinc, with a detrimental effect on the patients' sense of smell. "Alternative" therapies are poorly regulated, all over the world. Caveat emptor.


Sunil said...

Ooooh. I foresee Andrew Sullivan being the next "guest scriptwriter" for Jesus and Mo...

wildflower seed said...

Rahul : Your point about "belief" is well taken. I would say belief is predicated upon intention, and that's important, too.

Here is a point of view that puts all of this (what is sickness? what is healing?) in context.

Also, your post raises the profound question of whether or not modern medicine can integrate some of these alternative healing therapies. IMO, this is an imperative, not a choice. Attempts in this direction are already taking place. Recently, Johns Hopkins announced a new Psilocybin (psychoactive mushrooms) study for cancer patients. I do not expect a rapid assimilation of these alternative technologies into the orthodox canon, though. For one, consider that in many alternative traditions which work with psychoactive plants (which are the only traditions I am familiar with), the doctor takes the medicine with the patient, and "divines" the diagnosis and its cure. Whether or not you believe that this divination strategy works, this is a totally different ethic of medicine. Can modern medicine take what is useful from such traditions and leave behind the regressive (as, for example, in Mazatec ceremonies, one is surrounded by Christian paraphernalia)?

I am cautiously optimistic.

wildflower seed said...

That Mazatec reference at the end of my comment relates to Psilocybin ceremonies among the Mazatec Indians of northern Oaxaca, Mexico. While the Mazatecs and mushrooms have been around for centuries, the Christian iconography is a recent addition, thanks to the Spaniards.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

ws: I think self-healing, naturopathy, ayurveda, psychedelic mushrooms, etc all have their place and the good practitioners know their limits. You're not going to cure cancer or tuberculosis with these things. My wife and I have recently been going to a yoga place, and I was interested to see the guy who first "evaluated" me write down medical-sounding terms in his sheet (after making me do what looked like traditional yoga postures). One of them, "mild scoliosis", rung a bell: I looked up an old file and found that a "traditional" doctor had said exactly the same thing some years ago. As for my wife, they actually suggested she get a medical checkup. They don't claim to cure everything. And if any "alternative medicine" practitioner does claim to cure everything -- run away and don't go back.

Mind-healing? It may help with some conditions (for reasons similar to the placebo effect) but not with others.

Homeopathy? If real (ie, follows Hahnemann), it's bogus. At best a placebo, but there are better placebos available. It is water, or sugar, and will not do anything different from what you get in your tap and your supermarket. The danger is not in the medicine but in believing that it will cure all ills.

wildflower seed said...

"You're not going to cure cancer or tuberculosis with these things."

You mean, you're prepared to call the results of the JHU study even before it has happened? There are many dimensions to cancer - you should spend some time watching the video of the lady on that website.

I speak from personal experience. After a year of trying Zoloft (first 50 mg and then 100mg, daily), I was able to beat all symptoms of depression (18 months and counting) with psychoactive plants. The dosage is miniscule compared to the dosages of SSRIs that psychiatrists will prescribe. So I take a very different view.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

ws - ps. I took a look at Dr Miller's site and it looks like fluff to me. Whatever makes sense is already there in yoga, ayurveda, etc. For the diseases they talk about -- backache, stress -- it makes sense. Most doctors spend most of their time on other diseases -- pathogenic, autoimmune, genetic -- that aren't so easily treated.

There is great wisdom in ancient cultures, and also great foolishness. One has to evaluate everything. In a sense you are already doing that by taking the psychedelic mushrooms of the central Americans but not the human sacrifices. But I think alternative medicine practitioners have to be much more critical, of everything.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

ws - depression is one of the things where I would give alternative therapies a chance, and mistrust Zoloft.

wildflower seed said...

Rahul : Point taken. There is a kind of Golden Age fallacy and I want to make sure that I am not committing that.

km said...

Rahul, WS: Great links, great comments.

I assume you guys have read this article (link to on the increasing effectiveness of placebos?

Tabula Rasa said...

speaking of placebos, here's something from my field: Shiv Carmon Ariely JMR 2005 (pdf).

Rahul Siddharthan said...

km, tr - thanks for the links.

The conclusion I draw from both is that placebos can alter higher brain function. It doesn't surprise me that it helps with depression (km's link) or with puzzle-solving (tr's link) -- indeed, if I read tr's link right, they conclude that the improved performance is linked to improved expectations. As all sports coaches say, think positive. If an expensive drink makes you think more positive, you do better.

It does somewhat surprise me that placebos help with pain relief -- but not all that much, actually. It is pain relief, not pain removal -- probably it just makes the victim tolerate the pain better, by inducing a positive frame of mind. But placebos eliminating warts (the skepdic link above)? I find that extremely surprising.

wildflower seed said...

Rahul : "Wart-charming" (involving deep-trance hypnosis) is a well-documented phenomenon. A quick google-search reveals that it is particularly effective with children and described in leading medical textbooks, such as "Color Textbook of Pediatric Dermatology" by Weston, Lane & Morelli.