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Skeptimedia is a commentary on mass media treatment of issues concerning science, the paranormal, and the supernatural.

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Ancient Wisdom

August 26, 2008. Two wise women were talking about acupuncture and the wisdom of the ancients. They are intelligent, highly educated women, with more than 125 years of experience between them. There must be something to it, they agreed, something beyond the psychological power of suggestion. It would not have lasted this long, if there were nothing to it, they insisted.

Yes, I said. There are many satisfied customers of acupuncturists, homeopaths, astrologers, and dowsers, for that matter. Yes, there is something to all these things and that something is indeed more than just the power of suggestion.

Let's keep it simple, though. We'll forget about not keeping records, selective thinking, and confirmation bias: remembering the successes and forgetting the failures. We'll forget about centuries of communal reinforcement. We'll forget about the problems with anecdotal evidence and why scientists do randomized, controlled experiments whenever possible. We'll forget about the pragmatic fallacy, the post hoc fallacy, wishful thinking, the expectancy effect, and the power of suggestion. We'll forget about subjective validation. We'll forget about misdiagnosis and belief that one has been cured when there was nothing wrong in the first place. We'll forget about confusing a mood change for the better with being healed. We'll forget about the fact that many of our strongest beliefs are irrational and that our natural inclination is toward magical, not critical, thinking.

Even if we forget all those things, common sense tells us that there is something real about acupuncture, the wise women said.

Yes, there is something real about it, but common sense can be misleading. Think about it. There are only a few possibilities for the course of any ailment, disorder, or disease. It can kill you. It can bother you for the rest of your life, without interruption. It can bother you for a while, then go away. It can come and go for a year, a decade, or a lifetime. Most of the things we seek treatment for do not kill us. Almost every ailment we've ever had went away. In fact, the vast majority of our ailments go away without intervention. Treatment may hasten their departure, but treatment is unnecessary. Every alternative practitioner knows what every medical doctor knows: the body heals itself in the vast majority of cases. Unless you specialize in treating incurable cancers or some other high-risk endeavor, if you do not harm your patient, your patient will recover. If you play your cards right, you and your medicine will get credit for many cures that you had next-to-nothing to do with.

If your ailment doesn't kill you or go away forever, the chances are that it will go away, at least for some time, after you seek treatment. This is so because you are likely to seek treatment when your ailment is near its worst point and there is only one way to go from there and that is back toward relief of some sort. Not understanding the regressive nature of chronic disorders, like lower back pain, is a main contributor to the myth that healers actually heal. I love my friends who go to chiropractors on a regular basis. They tell me how much better they feel after going. Of course, they only go when the pain is at its worst and there is no way to go except up. When the pain returns and gets unbearable, they return to the chiropractor. I have two intelligent and experienced friends who have been doing this for decades and they continue to believe that the chiropractor is healing them.

One other thing all healers have going for them is classical conditioning. Here we know that there are physiological changes that can be brought about by the equivalent of Pavlov's ringing a bell to induce salivation in dogs that have been conditioned to expect food when the bell rings. These physiological changes might range from lowering blood pressure to a feeling of elation from the release of endorphins.

If your healer doesn't kill you, she and her craft will usually get credit for curing you. Even if she does kill you, she'll rarely  get blamed. Humans are generous that way. We give credit where credit isn't due and misplace blame with regularity. Sometimes it is faith that tells us to do so, as when our son is nearly killed in a car accident and we thank God for sparing him. Sometimes, common sense tells us to do so. Would we pay good money for treatments if they weren't effective? Of course not. To do so would be stupid. Anyway, we know from personal experience and millions of stories from satisfied customers that these modalities work. Could billions of people be wrong? No way. Who better to evaluate the efficacy of a treatment than the ones doing the treating and the ones being treated? They're bound to be objective and unbiased, right? Why wouldn't practices that developed before there was any knowledge of physiology or anatomy be a better choice than practices developed with the benefit of modern science? Only a cynic would prefer modern science to the age-old, time-tested art of magical thinking. Sympathetic magic is obviously a wiser path than double-blind experiments by bigots in white coats who are in the pockets of Big Pharma.

Come on, people. Use your common sense! In your gut, you know I'm right. Anyone who doubts the wisdom of the ancients need only look to the world's great religious traditions. Who can deny that the ancient practices of stoning people to death for adultery or persecuting those who charge interest on loans are far superior to letting people freely choose how to live their lives? The ancients knew how to treat homosexuals and would never have considered same-sex marriage as acceptable. The ancients didn't need science. As Ben Stein said: "love of God...leads you to a glorious place. Science leads you to killing people." In your gut, you know he's right.

Religion leads you to healing people with a simple touch. We don't need no stinking medicine! We can cure all illnesses with our thoughts and a few magic words or motions. We don't need science to lead us to a better world in the future. We have religions and other so-called superstitions that worked well enough for our ancestors. They understood and knew firsthand such things as souls, demons, and miracles. Modern science, with all its technology and so-called advancement, can't even detect these things with its instruments. How lame is that?

Science can tell us that we have a natural dislike of cheaters and that we have a natural desire to see cheaters punished. Science can even show us that we actually do have rules against cheating and that we do try to catch and punish cheats. But science can't prove that we ought to dislike or punish cheaters. For that we need the ancient wisdom that comes from religion. (I know there are some cynics who think that some of the ancients were dumb clucks who didn't even have rules against such things as stealing or lying in court until their god told them that they shouldn't do these things. Such people don't understand the true nature of ancient wisdom. What can I say that hasn't already been said? It's all explained in the Kabbalah.)

The ancients had true wisdom. We've got science and the misguided belief that knowledge and understanding of ourselves and nature is a good thing. Defenders of science believe in the value of rationality and logic, qualities the ancients knew were worthless compared to gut feelings, instincts, common sense, and revelations from the spirit world.

Anyone who tells you otherwise is a liar.

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