Science and the supposed validity of holism

Science And The Supposed Validity Issue

Of Holism In Healing

by Dr. Keith Scott-Mumby MD, PhD

Science is often used to create resistance and false attitudes. In its purest sense science means truth and nothing more; it has no pretentions to the high ground and therefore cannot be validly used to make judgements about others. Especially science needs to knock of the intellectual conceit that what it says is true is true and all else is delusion or fraud. This is to ignore the narrowness and limitations of the scientific method.

As I remarked in my book Virtual Medicine, it is only a couple of decades ago that science considered there was ample proof that the human energetic “aura” was a folly that existed only in the minds of primitive peoples or gullible believers in the occult. Since then the aura has been clearly demonstrated to exist, using a SQUID magnetometers. This instrument (super-conducting quantum interference device) is so sensitive it can detect the electro-magnetic energy field produced by a single growing human hair!

But for those who cling ardently to the belief that esoteric knowledge is somehow superior and will remain inviolate, I issued a stern warning: that modern science as it advances will gradually invade more and more of what was once thought magical or paranormal and show it to be fact.

For instance I explained how many seemingly occult healing phenomena could in fact be explained by the very scientific principle that gave rise to the MRI scanner, namely cyclotron resonance. I even showed how delivering the electro-magnetic energy “signature” of a substance such as lithium could sedate experimental animals, without any of the physical substance being present.

Even more bizarrely such encoded information could be sent across the Internet and produce a pharmacological effect at the other end (VIRTUAL MEDICINE, Thorsons, London, 1999, pp. 130- 131). Suddenly complaints about hocus-pocus have started to look more like the medical profession’s intransigent ignorance of advanced physics.

Much is made of lack of any scientific approach in complementary therapies; in fact it could be argued that this is what makes a discipline “alternative”. There are hard-line cynics who believe that those practises which have not been subjected to peer approved verification methods ought not to be allowed at all.

While there is something in this admirable caution, it is important to bear in mind two important qualifiers. Firstly, many orthodox treatment methods have not been subjected to proper scientific verification! When critics say to me “You’re not being scientific” my stock reply is “Oh, you mean like thalidomide?”

This tragic episode is often regarded as nothing more than an unfortunate mistake. Yet it should be made widely known that thalidomide was thoroughly tested and scientifically- proven to be safe for pregnant women before its release. Incidentally, thalidomide is on sale again in many countries and many more deformed babies are being born than during the original 1960s scandal; but since these are largely black-skinned tragedies, science doesn’t see a problem.

I may sound heavy-handed with my cynicism. But if you have any mistaken certainty that orthodox approved medical techniques are bound to be the best, it is worth quoting a contemporary account of the “best” treatment of the day administered to King Charles II as he lay dying: “Sixteen ounces of blood were removed from a vein in his right arm with im­mediate good effect.

As was the approved practice at this time, the King was allowed to remain in the chair in which the convulsions seized him; his teeth were held forcibly open to prevent him biting his tongue; the regimen was, as Roger North pithily describes it, ‘first to get him to wake, and then to keep him from sleeping’.

Urgent messages had been dispatched to the King’s numerous personal physicians, who quickly came flocking to his assistance: they were summoned regardless of distinctions of creed and politics, and they came. They ordered cupping-glasses to be applied to his shoulders forthwith, and deep scarification to be carried out, by which they succeeded in removing another eight ounces of blood.

A strong antimonial emetic was administered, but as the King could be got to swallow only a small portion of it, they determined to render assurance doubly sure by a full dose of Sulphate of Zinc. Strong purgatives were given, and supplemented by a succes­sion of clysters. The hair was shorn close and pungent blistering agents were ap­plied all over his head; and as though this were not enough, the red-hot cautery was requisitioned as well.

So severe were the convulsions that the physicians at first despaired of his life, but in some two hours consciousness was completely restored.” Unfortunately, that was only the beginning: no less than thirteen doctors were soon in consultation, suggesting fresh remedies, until the patient died.” (The Last Days of King Charles Raymond Crawford)

No Snake Oil Here

That said, it is true that scientific proof for many alternative therapies is seriously lacking. For a time, the pioneer excuse was valid; namely, that these were early days and clinical enthusiasm was justified, until better research was carried out. However the years keep dragging by. One could be forgiven for thinking that those who administer much vaunted holistic methods are often extremely reticent to have their pet beliefs challenged in any way and are guilty of as much dogma and rigidity as those they seek to criticize or depose.

Mervyn Werbach, himself a qualified doctor and avid writer in the field of revolutionary medicine, is also cautious about blanket acceptance of alternatives and has this to say:

“While the basic concepts of holistic health are as wholesome as motherhood and apple pie, they are far too inclusive ever to be adequately defined in operational terms, and far too inclusive to be adequately critical of the vast field it encompasses. An amalgam of popular fads and starry-eyed idealism, combined with a pinch of science derived from the leading edge of medical research, the movement lacks any meaningful attempt at achieving integration within itself.”

He goes on to add: “The emphasis is upon unvalidated procedures as if their rejection by the medical establishment somehow makes them better than conventional procedures.”

These sound like harsh criticisms but he is arguing passionately for the subject he believes in and doesn’t want to see it go on tarnishing itself with what often amounts to cupidity and dissembling in the snake oil tradition.

As Werbach says, “The question is whether holistic health is really a forward move towards a more sophisticated, scientific and ecological system of medicine or whether it is a step back towards the era of patent medicines and nostrums promoted for every illness a century ago.” Indeed. I don’t suppose he means to be all-inclusive but is thinking more of the excessive claims and the silly rhetoric of the wilder fringes.

There are methodological difficulties, it is true, in delivering full scientific credibility to newer and alternative treatments. Many unorthodox practitioners are rightly concerned that subjecting their particular therapy to randomized controlled trials (RTCs) will distort the true purpose of what is intended and disguise or negate the efficacy of what they are doing. When it comes to non-drug treatments, such as psychotherapy, reflexology and acupuncture it becomes impossible to follow the dogmatic protocol of RTC.

Subjectivity Of Holistic Healing

One of the main problems is that complementary therapies tend to be idiosyncratic, meaning tailored for a particular individual in a particular situation. There are few “standard” treatments to investigate, only lines of approach. Homeopathy, for example, is founded on the precept of treating each patient differently, no matter the complaint (several patients with the same disease process might get different remedies).

Controls are held to be the sine qua non of objectivity. Whatever you are trying to test must be compared with something which is “worthless”. But this can be very difficult in alternative disciplines.

To give some idea of the problem, a number of controlled trials have been carried out to evaluate acupuncture. Results obtained by placing needles in the classically prescribed acupuncture points were compared with placing needles in what were supposed to be “inert” places on the skin.

But confusion came about when it was discovered that even the wrongly placed needles gave a better outcome than a mere placebo. In other words, acupuncture at non-classical sites cannot be assumed to be a placebo! This fundamental problem has bedevilled the majority of supposedly controlled trials of acupuncture and has, according to one writer, set research back by a decade

(Vincent CA, Acupuncture as a treatment for chronic pain. In: Lewith G, Aldrige D, eds. Clinical Research Methodology for Complementary Therapies. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1993:289- 308)

But there is also clear evidence that even when subjected to scientific scrutiny and found valid, there is a tendency to nevertheless dismiss alternative methods as bunk, based on no more than prejudice. This was demonstrated in a major study published in which two versions of a scientific report were subject to peer review; version A related to an orthodox treatment, version B recommended an unconventional treatment. In all other respects the papers were identical. Yet when sent to 398 reviewers, who were unaware they were part of an investigation, there was a clear bias against the paper dealing with unorthodox subject matter. (Resch K I, Ernst E and Garrow J, A randomized controlled study of peer review bias against an unconventional therapy, J R Soc Medicine;93:164-167)

No wonder medicine is in such disarray, with pseudo-science abounding, opinions and attitudes flying in the face of truth and knowledge, from both sides of the fence defining orthodoxy. It is a sorry situation for those who are sick to have to face. If we are to attain to any semblance of the SUPER HEALING dimensions I refer to often on the Alternative-Doctor pages, it is essential that we start by getting the house in order. Love and harmony cannot preside in a domain torn by dissent and strife.

In the words of a popular TV program “X-Files”, the truth is out there. We only have to find it. But I believe it will only be within the framework of a much larger perspective, such as the one I am proposing with this book. Otherwise narrowness of vision, wrangling, monopolism, status and complicated self-serving interests stand all too readily in the way of the march of progress, as this brief history shows.

Copyright © 2002 Keith Scott-Mumby ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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