Alternative health: Longing for a past that never existed

glorious nature

There once was a time when all food was organic and no pesticides were used. Health problems were treated with folk wisdom and natural remedies. There was no obesity, and people got lots of exercise. And in that time gone by, the average lifespan was … 35!

That’s right. For most of human existence, according to fossil and anthropological data, the average human lifespan was 35 years. As recently as 1900, American average lifespan was only 48. Today, advocates of alternative health bemoan the current state of American health, the increasing numbers of obese people, the lack of exercise, the use of medications, the medicalization of childbirth. Yet lifespan has never been longer, currently 77.7 in the US.

Advocates of alternative health have a romanticized and completely unrealistic notion of purported benefits of a “natural” lifestyle. Far from being a paradise, it was hell. The difference between an average lifespan of 48 and one of 77.7 can be accounted for by modern medicine and increased agricultural production brought about by industrial farming methods (including pesticides). Nothing fundamental has changed about human beings. They are still prey to the same illnesses and accidents, but now they can be effectively treated. Indeed, some diseases can be completely prevented by vaccination.

So why are advocates of alternative health complaining? They are complaining because they long for an imagined past that literally never existed. In that sense, alternative health represents a form of fundamentalism. Obviously, fundamentalism is about religion and the analogy can only go so far, but there are several important characteristics of religious fundamentalism that are shared by alternative health advocacy. These include:

The desire to return to a “better” lifestyle of the past.
The longing for a mythical past that never actual existed.
An opposition to modernism (in daily life and in medicine).
And the belief that anything produced by evolution (or God, if you prefer) is surely going to be good.

Advocates of alternative health bemoan the incidence of diseases like cancer and heart disease without considering that they are primarily diseases of old age. That both cancer and heart disease are among the primary causes of death today represents a victory, not a defeat. Diseases of old age can become primary causes of death only when diseases of infancy and childhood are vanquished, and that is precisely what has happened.

Alternative health as a form of fundamentalism also makes sense in that it has an almost religious fervor. It is not about scientific evidence. Indeed, it usually ignores scientific evidence entirely. All the existing scientific evidence shows that all of the myriad claims of alternative health are flat out false. None of it works, absolutely none of it. That’s not surprising when you consider that it never worked in times past; advocates of alternative health merely pretend that it did, without any regard for historical reality.

Alternative health is a belief system, a form of fundamentalism, and like most fundamentalisms, it longs for a past never existed. It is not science; it has nothing to do with science; and it merely reflects wishful thinking about the past while ignoring reality.

  • John

    Try a balanced approach to your argument, one like … http://www.columbia.edu/cu/21stC/issue-3.4/walker.html

    “The reason why alternative medicine is dismissed is because our scientific culture, and medicine in particular, has a 400- or 500-year-old world view predicated on disproving the dominant religious paradigm of medicine, physics, and physiology that existed when the church was the dominant institution: vitalism, spiritualism, and animism,” says Dr. Joseph Loizzo, director of the Center for Meditation and Healing at Columbia-Presbyterian and health care project director at Columbia’s Dharam Hinduja Indic Research Center, where he studies Tibetan and Ayurvedic medicines. “The mechanistic models are all designed to show there’s nothing but the mechanism. From the point of view of the history of science, what they’re really showing is that the church was wrong when they said there was a spirit or vital principle. But the problem is, we’re not just like machines.

    “So all of our science is based on this somewhat archaic war over who’s right, the church or the mechanists. If you say anything that sounds remotely like ‘the mind has an effect; there’s something subtle that isn’t like a machine influencing what’s happening,’ Western physicians are all trained to dismiss it as a superstition, but our mechanism has now become the counter-religion. It’s a paradigm that derives from modern Newtonian physics, and that’s no longer the sole paradigm even in physics. Quantum mechanics and wave mechanics leave a lot more room for subtle things to influence concrete things.”

    • Young CC Prof

      The fallacy of the mean: That if two people express an opinion, the truth must be somewhere in between.

      Feelings matter. The mind matters. There are many valid approaches to ethics and philosophy, or to deciding what matters most in life. There is only one best way to discover the natural world: by observation and rigorous experimentation. Ancient cultures got some parts of medicine right, and we’ve been able to figure out which they are and use them systematically.

  • John

    “All the existing scientific evidence shows that all of the myriad claims of alternative health are flat out false. None of it works, absolutely none of it. That’s not surprising when you consider that it never worked in times past” Oh really, Dr. Tuteur?? Never, ever worked in the past???

    EXAMPLE #1 > ASPIRIN — based on salicylin, a chemical found in the bark of the willow tree. The therapeutic properties of willow tree bark have been known for at least 2,400 years, with Hippocrates prescribing it for headaches. Bark containing salicin was used by the Romans and American Indians to treat cold, flu, aches, pains and infections. Salicylic acid, the active ingredient of aspirin, was first discovered from the bark of the willow tree in 1763 by Edward Stone of Wadham College, University of Oxford. Felix Hoffmann, a chemist with the German company Bayer, is credited with the synthesis of aspirin in 1897, though whether this was of his own initiative or under the direction of Arthur Eichengrün is controversial. Many historians believe Arthur Eichengrün to be the true inventor. Aspirin is one of the most widely used medications in the world, with an estimated 40,000 tonnes of it being consumed each year.[15] In countries where “Aspirin” is a registered trademark owned by Bayer, the generic term is acetylsalicylic acid (ASA). It is on the WHO Model List of Essential Medicines, the most important medications needed in a basic health system.

    • SporkParade

      Exactly. It worked so it became part of conventional medicine. Whereas the bits that didn’t actually work are now being branded as “alternative” medicine.

      • Roadstergal

        I don’t think we can drag it out often enough – “What do you call alternative medicine that’s been proven to work? Medicine.”
        If you can’t come up with robust data in favor of your treatment, if you can’t isolate the active ingredient in your herb and show it works, it’s not medicine. If it doesn’t work better than placebo (I’m looking at you, acupuncture), it’s not medicine. Deal with it.

        • John

          “The reason why alternative medicine is dismissed is because our scientific culture, and medicine in particular, has a 400- or 500-year-old world view predicated on disproving the dominant religious paradigm of medicine, physics, and physiology that existed when the church was the dominant institution: vitalism, spiritualism, and animism,” says Dr. Joseph Loizzo, director of the Center for Meditation and Healing at Columbia-Presbyterian and health care project director at Columbia’s Dharam Hinduja Indic Research Center, where he studies Tibetan and Ayurvedic medicines. “The mechanistic models are all designed to show there’s nothing but the mechanism. From the point of view of the history of science, what they’re really showing is that the church was wrong when they said there was a spirit or vital principle. But the problem is, we’re not just like machines.

          • John

            The system is automatically rigged and biased toward “scientific methodology”. So, when A) those individuals “spontaneously” go into remission from a cancer/tumor, when doctors are dumbfounded that exploratory surgery turns up nil where X-Rays showed a growth; or, the antithesis, b) when the rare 1 – 5% of the population is KILLED by modern medicine, BECAUSE that is within the “acceptable statistical variance” predicted for said medicine
            ~ a) alternative medicine and naturopathy is NOT the cause,
            yet b) modern medicine IS the cause ???

          • Young CC Prof

            Please provide three well-documented cases of spontaneously disappearing cancer after positive biopsy, within the last 50 years.

          • Roadstergal

            “But the problem is, we’re not just like machines.”

            We are. Incredibly complicated machines that were not designed in any proper sense. The more we understand, the better our preventive methods and treatments are.

            “Alternative” systems often see the human body as a ridiculously oversimplified machine. The humours, and all of the ‘eastern’ versions of the same, eg. Bloodletting (and its child woo, acupuncture) was designed to balance the humours. Very mechanistic, just based on an incorrect mechanism.

  • TsuDhoNimh

    Where is the data showing that life in the 1800s was bucolic and healthy, even if you died of TB at 40, or had a permanent heart defect from scarlet fever, or permanent skeletal deformities from rickets and rheumatic fever?

  • Steve Bakewell

    I believe people in past were also miserable given how they knew that they won’t make it past 30.

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