Does Alternative Medicine Need a Scientific Explanation?

When it comes to complementary wellness, most of us will try the odd herbal tea or supplement, but would you drink the blood of a living turtle? Stephen T. Asma, a professor of philosophy at Columbia College Chicago and the author of Against Fairness, details, ‘A few years ago, while visiting Beijing, I caught a cold. My wife, who is Chinese, and wanted me to feel better, took me to a local restaurant. After we sat down, she ordered a live turtle…I was startled as the waiter unceremoniously cut the turtle’s throat, then poured its blood into a glass. To this frightening prospect, they added a shot of baijiu, very strong grain alcohol…I winced, found the courage, and drank up.’


Asma’s story – which, by the way, did end with him feeling better – is an example of the fact that we are, as he puts it, ‘living in the vast grey area between leech-bleeding and antibiotics.’ While you may scoff – and be slightly upset – at the very idea that turtle blood could have medicinal effects, you might still attempt to quaff a tree-bark tincture or put on an aubergine compress recommended by Dr. Oz to treat skin cancer. According to Asma, ‘Alternative medicine has exploded in recent years,’ but this has reawakened a philosophical problem that epistemologists call the “demarcation problem.”


‘The demarcation problem is primarily the challenge of distinguishing real science from pseudoscience,’ Asma explains. ‘It often gets trotted out in the fight between evolutionists and creation scientists. In that tired debate, creationism is usually dismissed on the grounds that its claims cannot be falsified (evidence cannot prove or disprove its natural theology beliefs). This criterion of “falsifiability”…seems like a good one — it nicely rules out the spooky claims of pseudoscientists and snake oil salesmen. Or does it? The contemporary philosopher of science Larry Laudan claims that philosophers have failed to give credible criteria for demarcating science from pseudoscience. Even falsifiability, the benchmark for positivist science, rules out many of the legitimate theoretical claims of cutting-edge physics, and rules in many wacky claims, like astrology — if the proponents are clever about which observations corroborate their predictions.’


But where does complementary wellness come into play? Asma asserts, ‘The issue of alternative medicine, especially Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), brings fresh passion to the demarcation problem. Americans are gravitating to acupuncture and herbal medicines (less so the zoological pharmacology, like my turtle blood), but we crave some scientific validation for these ancient practices…The general facts of feng shui (literally “wind and water”) strike many of us as relatively indisputable. Simply put, if you arrange your furniture in certain patterns and directions, it feels to most people psychologically better than certain other patterns. But the metaphysical “causal theory” behind these facts is more controversial. Chinese medicine holds that energy meridians mark the flow of a force called “qi” and this force is streaming throughout nature and our bodies — causing harmony and health or disharmony and illness (depending on the degree to which it is blocked or unblocked).’


The question remains, however; do you really need this “causal theory” for your wellbeing to benefit from TCM? ‘I certainly don’t need this theory to be true to explain why I feel less agitated when my office desk faces the doorway than I do when my back is to the door,’ Asma concludes. ‘And I don’t think I need it to explain the sense of peace I get from looking out my window at Suzhou Creek. Perhaps the metaphysical qi theory of feng shui will eventually give way to one that aligns with our understanding of sensory perception or psychology…Ultimately, one can be skeptical of both qi and a sacrosanct scientific method, but still be a devotee of fallible pragmatic truth. In the end, most of us are gamblers about health treatments. We play as many options as we can; a little acupuncture, a little ibuprofen, a little turtle’s blood.’

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