After my post on the MMR vaccine I had this reply from the originator of the thread:
You are an academic Phil, to be blunt you have been brainwashed. I was fortunate enough to escape that. Do you see the difference a decision can make? A feeling as opposed to a statistic of someone else’s reckoning?
I know this man: a musician of rare talent. Musicians get huge respect from me but we’re now in the arena of left-brain thinking, not chord progressions. Statistics of someone else’s reckoning do have greater weight here, unless misused or the products of flawed methodologies. Feelings by contrast, even those of right-brain intuitives, are often poor guides to reality.
In other correspondence my friend went on to say:
Increase awareness of sewage and cleanliness, and non pollution of basic water and hygiene accounted for lower mortality rates. The medical profession, as it is called, killed all the witches and made everyone stop taking herbs, replacing them with chemicals, though they legally have to warn that you may get toxic side effects.
He is onto something here but a few things need unpacking. Public sanitation did improve as the nineteenth century progressed; a fact whose explanation serves to contrast materialist views of history on the one hand, idealism of either altruist or conspiracist stripe on the other. I attribute better sanitation – Factory and Food Acts too – to ‘enlightened capital’, aka the State, securing the future supply of labour power, the one commodity whose production can’t be left to market forces.* I could write screeds on unregulated capitalism, intrinsically unsustainable, having to be saved from itself. Here though I want simply to agree that better sanitation did do more to bring mortality rates down than medical advances did. That’s not surprising given that TB, cholera and other air or water borne diseases had topped so long a list of killers .
But real world phenomena may have multiple causes. To say that sewage systems and cleaner water saved more lives than did medical advances is not to say the latter were trivial. (That I even need spell this out shows both the prevalence of thinking devoid of all nuance, and that smart people can hold daft views.) A breakthrough like Jenner’s smallpox vaccine – he didn’t discover the principle of innoculation but made it less random; less lethal – was a massive leap forward which, directly and indirectly, saved untold numbers from death and disfigurement by diseases that once ravaged without let or hindrance.
We see also in the second comment an oft repeated baby-boomer trope, the natural/unnatural dichotomy: in this case witch’s herbs (Good) v medic’s chemicals (Very Bad). Again, bad thinking is part hidden by fair comment – this time with a blow for feminism thrown in at no extra cost. Witches did do good in their day, offering what was for many the only affordable health care – not that more expensive care was any better, or even necessarily as good. And they did know a great deal about the healing properties of plants. What they did not know, however, was how to control the dosage. Take digitalis. They knew foxglove could alleviate heart ailments. Trouble is, too many died of overdose because the concentration of digitalis would vary from one plant to another and one year to the next. By isolating and purifying the active constituents of plants, measurement was made precise.
(We should not of course dismiss out of hand the possibility that refinement introduces its own toxicity, but that too is a question for science and a data based response. What do controlled studies tell us of the relative efficacies of penicillin and the mould from which it is extracted? What do they tell us of relative side effects and general safety? Answers to such questions lie in big data – bigger the better – rigorously analysed to form conclusions pored over by nit-picking peers not known for passing up on the chance to boost their careers by finding fault in others’ work. What we may not (validly!) do is make blanket assertions about herbs being better than chemicals, on no other ground than that the former are ‘natural’ while the latter are not.)
Lastly, did you spot the hidden and anachronistic variable in that second comment? Safe herbs dispensed by witches are contrasted with chemicals so dangerous their vendors are obliged by law to warn us of possible side effects. But while my friend thinks he’s comparing two healing philosophies, he’s actually comparing two legal systems centuries apart. Witches under the Tudors and Stuarts were not much troubled by fears of being sued for malpractise. Other fates threatened, against which no prior disclaimer could offer protection.