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Science, Scientism, Healing and Medicine

Today I had a mooch around Waterstone’s. I meandered past the section on religion, where the first book I noticed looked something like an anti-religious polemic; part of the blurb was an endorsement by Richard Dawkins, warning any religious apologist not to risk getting into a debate with the author, who would presumably run rings around their pathetic and irrational arguments. I wandered on to the science section, replete with several titles by the aforesaid Professor Dawkins, but nothing I noticed along the lines of an anti-scientific polemic. Science gets all the good PR these days.

Now I’ve got a physics degree and a healthy respect for the scientific method. But working as I do now in healthcare, I’m not altogether sold on the ability of modern science to make life better and people healthier. In their book ‘Why Do People Get Ill?’ Darian Leader and David Corfield suggest that doctors would be better prepared for their profession if they did an arts degree, rather than a science degree. What leads them to this radical suggestion is their belief, which their book aims to substantiate, that key factors in what make people get ill lie in their emotional life, and thus a good doctor is one who can meet the patient on this emotional level, with understanding, empathy, humanity. (Of course, one might want to question whether people graduating from arts courses have any more humanity than their scientific colleagues!)

In other words, healing is as much art as science. People cannot be understood if they are just understood as a set of numbers, a set of data. Can illness really be fully understood by science? (It is a sad fact that the word ‘clinical’ connotes a kind of cold rationality.) Of course you want a doctor, a healer, to be able to think clearly: this is no apology for the worst kind of woolly minded alternative therapists. But you also want them to have humanity, even compassion. Not just because it makes the treatment experience more bearable, more civilised, but because it is an essential part of that treatment.

Good medical treatment isn’t entirely reducible to numbers. In traditional acupuncture, for instance, a lot of emphasis is placed on the Qi of the acupuncturist. The Chinese word Qi is impossible to translate accurately into English – it is something like the vital energy of the individual, which in a healthy person is free-flowing and abundant. The Qi of the acupuncturist includes such things as the quality of the attention of that acupuncturist, their freedom from distraction and sense of presence. Included here is the rapport between the acupuncturist and the patient. Included here is the ability to find the exact right spot to insert the needle, the exact right depth for it, and the ability to sense what lies at the end of the needle, how the needle interacts with the patient’s own Qi. (Of course there are guidelines about where to put the needle and so on, but the fine tuning relies on the Qi of the acupuncturist.) These things are not measured in most scientific trials of acupuncture, probably because they are not so easy to measure, but there is a world of difference between having an acupuncture needle inserted by someone who has been on a few courses and is thinking about what they are going to have for their dinner, and by, say, a serious traditional acupuncturist who practises Chi Kung (a traditional Chinese form of meditative exercise and health preservation) for two hours every morning, and is able to focus his entire attention on what he is doing. Medical treatments of this kind are very complex interactions between two very complex entities: human beings.

One can distinguish between science and scientism. Scientism is the belief that science is the only valid form of knowledge, the reduction of all forms of knowledge to that which is measurable. My fear is that scientism is invading the world of medicine and healing, so that any form or aspect of treatment which is not measurable (or perhaps not easily or cheaply measurable) is disregarded or downplayed, when in fact it is an essential part of that treatment.

I remember reading an article by a surgeon who described how he had postponed an operation by a day for no other reason than he had an intuitive sense that it would be better to wait 24 hours. Personally, if a good surgeon told me he had a gut instinct that we should wait an extra day before my operation, I would be glad to go with that. Some of the most important things that happen in a healing context are not measurable by scientific means. Science, therefore, should know its place! In its place it is fantastic, but it is not the be all and end all of medical treatment.

Written by Vimalaprabha


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