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John Taylor

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January 23rd, 2007

(no subject) [Jan. 23rd, 2007|02:54 am]
John Taylor
[mood |The dragging of feet]
[music |Inuyasha theme song from the television]

Somebody recently posted a statement that all traditional and alternative medicines are purely bogus and there is absolutely no proof or scientific research to back up the propositions of such systems, and that most traditional systems are completely incompatible with the laws of chemistry and physics.

Speaking as someone studying medicine from a biochemical level, someone studying Western medicine towards a surgical field, and as someone studying Traditional Chinese Medicine directly, there *are* measurable effects, there *are* measurable studies that have been, and can be done repeatedly in trials and case studies. The reason it's called alternative medicine in the first place is because it's seen as an *alternative* to Western medicine. Western medicine has a very long history of using herbal systems of medicine up until about the 1930s and 40s, when allopathic medicine (direct extracts and synthesizations of pharmaceutical drugs) began dominating the health care industry (understandably, given the perception of the miraculous properties of substances like penicillin). My knowledge is mostly within the scope of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) because TCM has such a long and unbroken history of documentation. The Western traditional system of Europe was broken and fragmented by the constant warring and destruction of literary archives; the Native American system was passed down orally and was decimated by the advent of Western invaders, both bacteriologically and militarily; South American systems followed in the same footsteps or have gone largely undiscovered or unpublicized. African systems were scattered and were never united under a single system or doctrine. Hence, Chinese medicine is the easiest to speak about because the most documentation still exists.

Did you know - the conditions and symptoms of multiple sclerosis were unknown in China until the advent of industrialized processes. A lot of nasty chemicals started entering the environment in a lot greater quantities than simple cottage industries could produce. A lot of nasty conditions started arising in the population that were previously unknown. That's not to say they were untreatable, but they were new problems that took a long time to get a handle on and properly address; some conditions are still untreatable and some treatments are still less than effective. But medicine in these fields is still progressing and does not remain static by any means.

Now, do remember that it was common to use substances like mercury to treat certain diseases (notably, genital STDs), and some treatments were downright poisonous. The advantage of modern chemistry, physiology, anatomy, and kinesiology have helped understand the mechanisms of the body and have ruled out some of the more harmful treatments. Please note, these harmful treatments are the exception, not the rule, otherwise the system of medicine would have died out long ago. Modern science has only served to increase the effectiveness of using the natural world to the advantage of humans. Understanding sanitation is a wonderful means of studying disease, but that is not to say that ancient peoples did not understand some of the dynamics of healing and disease prevention. Russians have used garlic for centuries as an antibiotic - it's folk tradition to rub a raw clove of fresh garlic on a wound to kill off the bacteria that would fester in the wound. Modern chemistry reveals that garlic is chock full of antimicrobials, antivirals, and and antibacterials - it took well into the 20th century to realize that, whilst people had an understanding of the properties of the plant for thousands of years without the need for microscopes or modern germ theory. (Anthrax is another interesting example; a naturally occurring spore, as you know. Anthrax can taint individual animals and whole herds and render their meats and milks useless and poisonous to the people that consume them - with poverty levels being what they are, Africans actually developed an herbal means of cooking and preparing meat so as to render the anthrax spores harmless, a mechanism still not fully understood by Western chemistry.)

It is important to note that Chinese medicine kept the life expectancy of the average citizen between 70 and 100 years of age - roughly the same, if not better than today's health standards in America. A key difference is that by that age in life, the body isn't nearly as burned out as the modern Western body is. Alzheimer's is all but unknown. The elders in systems of traditional systems stay functional in society almost literally until the day they die. I've met elders in Kenya that were 90 years old and still hunting and skinning their own prey. The systems of traditional health are a lot more integrative, including and extending to diet, exercise, mental attitude, stress management, maintenance of a healthy lifestyle, *and* herbal systems and traditional practices. Health is a lifestyle, not something to think about only when it breaks.

Herbal systems are indeed pharmacological in nature, but there is a certain understanding of the nature of such herbs that is lacking in modern medicine. Plants contain dozens, hundreds of substances that go hand in hand with their active ingredients that serve purposes beyond simple plant growth. Modern medicine isolates useful substances from herbs and uses them in a medical manner - salicylates for example, extracted from willow bark, are used for a variety of reasons, chiefly known to the common public as aspirin. However, the salicylates isolated to concentrate the effects are incredibly harsh on the digestive lining when unbuffered - when in pure and *isolated* form. This is true of most pharmaceutical drugs - codeine, ibuprofens, and phenobarbitals are very damaging to the liver, tylenol can cause permanent damage to the kidneys, and so on. Plant systems naturally contain a variety of other substances that work synergetically with the active ingredients; chemicals that help to buffer toxicities, augment effictiveness, and increase versatility of the plant, especially when used in conjection with other plants in a formula. Isolation removes the active ingredients from their chemical context and uses them in the human body in what you might refer to as an unnatural dosage and exposure. I challenge you to find me an isolated pharmaceutical drug without side effects.

Western medicine is an absolutely wonderful means of directly attacking a problem with a direct physical link - removing cancerous growths, working with bipolar disorders, killing off viral and bacteriological infections, etc. But what Western medicine lacks is the ability to keep the body running properly on its own, to stimulate the body to fight its own battles. Western medicine solves the body's problems for it, but doesn't properly help the system to recover - it eliminates the immediate problem and lets the body heal itself. If the body is too abused by the treatment or the course of the disease, the body takes longer to recover, if it recovers at all. One advantage of the potentially more subtle approach of TCM is that it can bolster the body's defenses in the process of recovery.

Western medicine labels conditions and diseases that they don't have a chemical to combat as untreatable. This is not true of other forms of medicine - things like diabetes are things that can be fought and cured over time; the degeneration caused by multiple sclerosis can be halted and reversed; chronic fatigue can be resolved, and even conditions like asthma can be undone. Chinese medicine has always been about bringing the body back up to speed (and maintaining that status) until the body can work through the problems of its own accord. TCM has its own miracle-treatments for 'hopeless' cases. Although case studies are still limited and not widely recognized, there have been some pretty amazing results by combining the best of Western medicine with the best of Eastern medicine - Western medicine can remove cancers from the body and TCM can strengthen the body's defenses to keep the cancers from taking hold again elsewhere in the body. It's not typically cancer that kills the body, it's the chemotherapy used afterwards in the process of recovery. For AIDS sufferers, the drug cocktails given to patients are harsh enough on the body's organs that they no longer have the strength to ward off infection and disease later in life. It often delays the inevitable, rather than actively rebuilds.

Both sides have their pros and cons. Eastern medicine is perfect for keeping the body in balance - during the times when it falls chronically out of balance to the point that disease or affliction strikes and the body is unable to defend itself, Western medicine can buy the body enough time to reach a homeostatic equilibrium again, until it is strong enough to maintain the balance on its own. Western medicine is forceful and effective, but lacks the subtle touch of healing over the long-term. Some of the mechanisms of traditional medicines have yet to be studied and understood by science, but that does not mean that they are without effect. The gaps are bridging, slowly but surely. Western science has much to learn and benefit from by studying the thousands of years of human observation, just as alternative medicine stands to greatly strengthen its own approach by utilizing the knowledge produced by scientific analysis. Health is not a thing for which one answer or path exists in recovering; it is instead a puzzle with many solutions. Use what works.
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A Reconciliation, Part I [Jan. 23rd, 2007|03:37 am]
John Taylor
[mood |The dusk of wisdom]
[music |Basshunter - DotA]

I've been meaning to address this issue for a while - a very good friend of mine has been struggling with this issue for a long time, and I hope to offer some reconciliation for the subject.

There is magic in this world. This is a world of angels and demons, of spirits and miracles, of visions and omens. There are things indescribable by man that live on the edge of dreams and exist in flashes visible only out of the corner of the eye.

There is science in this world. This is a world of laws and explanations and patterns. There are things describable with mathematics and predictable with formulae and algorithms. There are certainties that can be depended and relied upon.

There is a gap between the two, a gap that is seemingly incapable of being bridged. When no union is visibly evident, the only (seemingly) viable solution is to choose one side and discard the other. One side must be right and the other side must be wrong. In this case however, both are in the right.

Science is a means of studying the physical world and describing its observations as stable, repeatable patterns, applicable to any similar system. Science builds models that can be distributed to and understood by other scientists, regardless of their language, nationality, religious beliefs, or even age. Science is a means, a protocol that human beings can follow and achieve similar understandings of the same phenomena found in the physical world. The concept of cellular mitosis is a model that is repeated and reaffirmed through observation and scientific study - cells can reliably be predicted to undergo roughly the same process whenever they replicate. Patterns are likely to repeat, with a probability that borders on almost absolute certainty, that a cell will accomplish X using Y as its means. But remember - science builds models only. Science studies phenomena to understand the mechanisms by which a process occurs, but that understanding is mirroring the actual process. The process has already occurred, independently of science! Science did not create the phenomena; science studied it! When asked which is right: the scientific models we have created, or the evidence we have that does not necessarily fall within those theories, we seem to err on the side of the theories.

Science tends to study in aggregates - take gases for example. When dealing with gas laws, we work with molar units and treat gases as scalable units, because they have a high tendency to follow certain repeatable and testable patterns. We can predict that a volume of gas will exhibit particular properties and tendencies; a unit of gas will exert a proportional degree of pressure, or maintain a particular temperature. But any scientist can tell you that it is impossible to account for all of the atoms in a volume of gas - even if we could simply count them, we could not possibly study all of the ongoing interactions, collisions, and energy transfers occurring between the individual atoms. No, it is far easier to deal with something as a single thing, as a total estimation. Herein lies the fault of science - there is so much data, so many of these individual interactions going, that no model will ever be able to fully take into consideration everything that is occurring in reality.

Legend tells of a group of mapmakers who wanted to create a map accurate down to the last detail of every inch of earth - to create it, they had to use a surface the size of the earth. This is largely analogous to science - it is accurate up to a certain point, but it must deal in estimations and rough guesses and rounded decimals if it is to be useful.

Science is notoriously bad at understanding mechanism. Why? Because it has the great task of having to reverse-engineer the universe. Mathematics are slow to understand the perfect 'form' that the universe is trying to accomplish, so we approximate as best we can. A ball thrown in the air will accelerate and decelerate according to a perfect mathematical parabola, but no mathematical formula can account in real-time for the varying densities of air pockets, particular air resistance on the atomic level, curve and spin of the ball, or the infinite number of other factors that account for reality happening in precisely the way it does.

Science is enormously useful - we've used it to create powerful drugs and unlock the secrets of nuclear reactions. Using the models we've created, we can build skyscrapers and govern and feed large populations. We've made tools useful to our daily survival and created things purely for leisure. In this day and age, science has the upper hand in the popular mind. Science is exploring its nearly unlimited potential to observe the physical world and to apply its models towards further adaptation of the environment and produce technology that works off of and within the limits of those models.

What science cannot account for is things outside of its observation. At the turn of the century, nobody had a concrete idea of what the electromagnetic spectrum was. Electricity was a very poorly understood term, radiation even more so. Science experimented and prodded and eventually yielded theories that most could agree upon. But exceptions exist to every rule, even modern ones. Theories must be tweaked and modified on a regular basis. Electrical theory could not initially account for the migration of electrons outside of their paths of induction - one needed to study this phenomena and modify the theory to include the tendency of electrons to move in these newfound and unexpected ways. One scientific field that serves as a shining example of the constant tweaking of theory, almost as a blow to arrogance of the human mind, is in the arena of theories concerning quantum mechanics. Here is a realm that science can observe (to an extent) and manipulate (to some degree) and understand (a little). Nature has ensured a kind of uncertainty that should be the grain of salt to take any scientific theory with. We don't have a clear understanding of how things work on a subatomic level - why then does it scale up to produce the reality we see and live in? Reality is doing all the work in being real; science can only attempt to understand it, to the best of its abilities.

It is not the right of science to say how reality can and cannot be. It is the right of reality, and reality alone, to determine how its existence will be. Science models itself and sums up the works of reality, but it produces a summarized version that the human race can understand. It's as though one were to take the works of Shakespeare and confine each work to a maximum of three hundred words. So much is lost in the process that one can only gain a vague notion of what was trying to be conveyed if one were to read only the summaries. One must go to the source if one would seek understanding.
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