Ancient means wise

"Manufacturers are reaping the benefits of natural remedies. It’s not
surprising really, as they’re tried and tested ingredients dating back thousands
of years."
Spirit and Destiny magazine, February 2003

The next time you suffer from an inflammation, why not try a little blood letting?
This "tried and tested" method dates back to the fifth century BCE
and probably owes its origins to Hippocrates. The principle behind blood-letting
is simple: the human body needs to maintain a balance between its four "humours":
blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. Inflammation is caused by excess
of blood, so losing a bit of it should help restore the natural balance of your
body and make you feel a whole lot better.

Why not indeed? How about because it is ineffective, potentially dangerous
and based on a false understanding of human physiology? But against these considerations,
you have to balance the fact that it is an ancient form of therapy, practised
for many centuries and thus "tried and tested".

In weighing up these reasons for and against blood letting I would hope you
would see there is no contest. Blood-letting is hokum, bad medicine based on
bad science. The fact that it is ancient should not count as any reason to think
it is good. Like many horrific medical practices of old, it has rightly been
consigned to medicine’s hall of shame, not before its misguided application
killed off George Washington, among others.

However, in many other cases, people are impressed by the sheer age of a medical
practice, especially if they seem to involve "natural" processes.
Flick through Spirit and Destiny, for example, and you’ll find frequent mention
of the ancient origins of the various forms of nonsense on offer. Chinese astrology
has been "practised for thousands of years." We learn that "Neanderthal
man used yarrow." Well, yes, and he also killed animals with clubs. One
range of beauty products uses "recipes dating back to the Elizabethan era."
Just remember that was an age of bubonic plague and poor hygiene when you slap
on your make-up.

More respectable publications are not immune from this folly. Guardian Weekend
magazine points out that "Melissa has been used in Tibetan medicine for
more than 3,000 years." In this and most other cases it is not explicitly
claimed that this is evidence that the remedies work, but it is clear that the
mention of their longevity is supposed to attach a kind of seal of approval
to them.

It should be enough just to point out that "it’s been done for centuries,
therefore it must be good" is a simple non sequitor. If anything,
the old age of a treatment is reason to suspicious of it, since such treatments
were formulated when there was little or no understanding of how the human body
worked and when people routinely died from what are now seen as minor illnesses.
It would be quite incredible if such biologically and medically undeveloped
cultures were the source of many effective remedies.

So what is it about "ancient wisdom" that makes it so attractive?
When it comes to Eastern practices, one reason is surely the mythologising about
the East that is common in western society. Places like China, Tibet and India
are seen as very "spiritual" places, as though the people there were
not human beings like the Americans, French and British.

A better reason is that the basic idea of something being "tried and tested"
is a good one. The problem is simply that, if you look at many of these ancient
remedies, they have never been properly tested. The fact that they survive shows
at best that most are probably harmless. But we know from our observations of
the way superstitions persist, for example, that ideas can persist even though
they have no basis in fact, and would fail any proper tests applied to them.

Some ancient wisdom is genuine. For instance, there is a lot to learn from
the philosophers of Greek antiquity. But this is because they knew almost as
much about their subject matter – human nature and how to live well – as we
do today. In the fields of science and medicine, however, we have come a long
way since then. This is why Aristotle’s ethics is still worth reading while
his biology is only of historic interest. And it is also why an Elizabethan
recipe for a cake might be worth trying out, but a contemporary remedy for inflammation
is best avoided.

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