Thursday, February 28, 2008

Scence is blind - Botswana Guardian

Saying something out loud doesn't make it true. Writing something in a newspaper doesn't make it true. Even just believing something doesn't mean what you believe is true. In the past people were taught, and genuinely believed, that the world was flat. They believed that the stars were gods, that the Sun rotated around the Earth and that illness was caused by evil spirits. But we moved on. We embraced knowledge rather than superstition and we put behind us beliefs that had no foundation.

Or did we?

Last week the astonishing South African Minister of Health, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, stated that traditional healers, whose work is soon to be integrated into the conventional health system would not have to prove that their remedies actually worked. Specifically she said that traditional medicine should not be "bogged down in clinical trials". According to the BBC she said that "We cannot use Western models of protocols for research and development".

Yet again she has missed the point. There is no such thing as a "Western protocol for research". There is no such thing as “Western research”. In fact there is no such thing as "Western medicine" any more than there is "Western sunshine". Medicine is medicine and the only real distinctions we should make are between medicines that work and those that do not, between ideas that are useful and those that are not, between things that actually help humanity and those that do not.

The scientific method, the approach that genuine medicine really uses, is based on one key thing. It's based on predictions that can be falsified. Not things that can be proved but things that can be falsified and that's what the clinical trials that Manto complains about are really all about. They are about really testing a theory that something works and testing it rigorously. What she presumably fears, along with homeopaths, reflexologists and herbal medicine sellers is the dreaded "double-blind, controlled trial". You get two groups, one gets the medicine you are testing and the other gets something that looks and feels like the medicine but is really often no more than a sugar pill or a glass of water. The key thing is that neither the people taking the medicine nor the doctors or nurses who actually give it to them know which is which until the end of the trial. Only then are the details taken out of a sealed envelope and the results properly analysed. That way can you remove the effect of people’s expectations. That way you can rule out the placebo effect, which is what happens when people believe they are getting a medicine when in fact they are not but they get slightly better anyway, just because they believe something is happening. The placebo effect is a powerful effect and it’s only by “blinding” both the patients and the doctors in a trial that you can rule out it’s effect.

In that sort of trial we could see whether so-called traditional medicines work. Hopefully some of them would. Maybe we really would find something marvelous that can really help humanity. Maybe science and tradition could come together and we could see through the medieval distortions and ignorance surrounding us

True science is a genuinely wonderful thing. Like justice it is blind. Blind to untruth, blind to expectations and blind to prejudice. Like all truth it is blind to prejudice, blind to ignorance and blind to lies.

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