The real appeal to ancient wisdom

As many who take an interest in this subject know, one of the most common arguments that advocates of various medical woo often make is the appeal to ancient wisdom. They seem to think that if a treatment is old (homeopathy, acupuncture, various “energy healing” methods), there must be something to it because otherwise it wouldn’t have persisted. (Never mind that belief in ghosts and evil spirits, for example, has persisted for many thousands of years.)

Here is an explicit description of just what some of this “ancient medical wisdom” is, straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, namely the ancient Romans and Greeks.


  1. #1 BB
    May 29, 2008

    “They” used to think the earth was flat and that spontaneous generation was real too.

  2. #2 Jeff Chamberlain
    May 29, 2008

    Romans and Greeks. Dead Western white males. Everyone knows that it only counts if it’s “Eastern.”

  3. #3 Koray
    May 29, 2008

    I’ve always thought that the appeal of ancient practices was not due to being time tested, but by being something of a lost, mystic art, perhaps not even re-discoverable in our time.

  4. #4 J-Dog
    May 29, 2008

    Some of these remedies are still too experimental for my HMO…

  5. #5 DLC
    May 29, 2008

    Are your humors balanced?
    Physicians quit using bloodletting quite some time ago, and I don’t recall seeing anyone advocating it today.

  6. #6 Gary
    May 29, 2008

    I agree that much of ancient medicine is not supported by evidence, and is often useless and based on incorrect knowledge of the human body. But is there nothing we can learn from this ancient knowledge? Surely some of the claims of these ancient texts can be tested scientifically, for example, if an ancient medical text says that a certain plant can be used to treat some illness, then maybe that claim could be tested, and the active chemical(s) studied. This could be a source of useful, previously unknown medications. Of course, they would have to be tested for efficacy, but I see no reason to simply discard a claim about a medically useful substance or technique simply because it comes from an ancient source. Remember, aspirin used to be made from willow bark.

  7. #7 wfjag
    May 29, 2008

    The reason that the US Constitution specified a minimum age for the President of 35 is that the Founding Fathers wanted to ensure that the men elected were much older than the general population, and so it was believed that they would have more wisdom and be more circumspect due to the rapidly approaching chance to meet their maker and answer on Judgment Day.

    In classical times, the average age was less than 35.

    If “ancient medicine” was so good, why are people living so much longer when subjected to this trashy modern, scientific based stuff? It must be a conspiracy to keep me alive longer so I continue seeing my physician and paying her so she can help pay for her grandchildren to go to medical school. (sarcasm off).

  8. #8 Bronze Dog
    May 29, 2008

    You’re turning the whole point on its head, Gary.

    We aren’t dismissing it because it’s ancient: We’re dismissing the idea that ancient is proof of quality.

    It’s entirely possible that some herb once used by the ancients could be found to have a useful active ingredient. I’m pretty sure it’s happened already. If someone comes along and goes on about chemical receptors the active ingredient would fit into, or whatever method of coming up with plausibility they do to get tests rolling, we’d be fine with it. If they appended, “That might be why the ancient ______ people used it and found some signs of efficacy.” I’d be perfectly fine with it.

    If a person told me we should do a study on an herb simply because some culture used to use it for a condition with no other justification, I don’t see why I should take them seriously.

    This post isn’t saying “ancient equals bad”, it’s saying that “ancient does not equal good.”

  9. #9 Clare
    May 29, 2008

    My reading of the seductiveness of “ancient lore” is that it is thought to be intuitive and mystical, and somehow superior to knowledge that comes from proposing hypotheses, designing experiments, a lot of careful and critical thinking, and so on (and certainly without divine intervention or other woo-ish phenomena). This is, of course, a ridiculous and utterly unfair way to look at modern science. But it’s hardly fair to the ancients either. There was a lot they didn’t know, which shouldn’t exactly surprise us. Then again, there were things they did know (I always find the technological ingenuity of early civilizations impressive, for example). The knowledge they had they got not because of a closer connection to the earth, to the gods, to their inner something-or-other, but through careful observation of nature, the accumulated lessons of experience, trial and error, and then some well thought-out ways to convey that knowledge from generation to generation — traditions, in other words. Lacking a rigorous method to distinguish what truly worked in a tradition versus what didn’t meant that knowledge wasn’t as streamlined or as specific as it might have been, but that’s history for you. There’s certainly no reason to think they were inherently superior in their beliefs than contemporary people, or particularly worse, given the circumstances they were living in.

  10. #10 chris
    May 29, 2008

    No, no, Orac, you’re getting it arse backwards. You’re quoting lore from when it was _new_ lore, before it acquired the ancient patina of two thousand years (at the time of Celsus, the ancient lore probably specified that the remedy for stomach pains was to burn your neighbour as a witch:
    The oldfangled ways are a moveable date, always set some hundreds of years before the present).
    If you wanted to be extra fair, you’d say that the test of the oldfangled wasn’t its particular date but evidence of its having persisted for a long time. What Celsus thought hardly counts, but if people had found it worth while to do what Celsus suggested for another 1800 years after he died then that may add weight to the hypothesis that he was on to something.

  11. #11 D. C. Sessions
    May 30, 2008

    Of course the old ways are superior to the new ways — that’s how religious epistemology works. The ancients were closer to Creation, the Original Revelation, etc. than each succeeding generation.

    One might hope that there’s nothing shocking about those with a religious mindset and a religious approach to health also using a religious (sectarian, if you will) epistemological system.

  12. #12 Esther
    May 30, 2008

    Not to mention that a some of the therapies people claim are ancient lore simply aren’t – for example, homeopathy is about as old as vaccination (both Jenner and Hahnemann were active in the late 18th century, though I think the Turks had been inoculating against smallpox with a method similar to Jenner’s even earlier), and Therapeutic Touch was invented in the 1970s.

  13. #13 chris y
    May 30, 2008

    Or, as Francis Bacon (who else?) put it, “The age of antiquity is the youth of the world”.

  14. #14 Dunc
    May 30, 2008

    Romans and Greeks. Dead Western white males. Everyone knows that it only counts if it’s “Eastern.”

    I’ve been saying for a while that I expect to see a resurgence in Gallenic medicine in India or China sooner or later…

  15. #15 BB
    May 30, 2008

    @Esther, the Turks practiced variolation, actual inoculation with smallpox virus. Jenner noted that milkmaids tended to escape smallpox though they got cowpox from the cattle, a much milder disease and a non-scarring one. Thus he intuited that cowpox exposure could protect against smallpox and invented the technique now called vaccination.
    @BronzeDog, look up quinine, aspirin, digitalis. Pharmacognosy is alive and well and definitely not woo.

  16. #16 SM
    May 30, 2008

    DLC: Actually, I have a friend who has an inherited condition where his blood has too much iron in it (his father has it too.) The recommended therapy is… regular blood donation.

    Actually, his father’s got to the point where they can’t use his blood in other people, so they just dispose of it. So in his case, the therapy is literally bloodletting. 🙂

    Sorry. Had to say it. And wait… what’s that… a jar of leeches? In a clinic? Hmmm…


  17. #17 Marcus Ranum
    May 30, 2008

    Re: bloodletting – a drunken redneck I used to know stuck his head through a windshield when he ditched his pickup truck. Something about the injuries he suffered in that process caused a lot of swelling in his head and doctors — well – I don’t know the modern terms but they trepanned him and bled him to keep the pressure from causing brain damage. He still managed to come out the other side with an IQ of about 50, but the doctors did thier best and it’s probably a miracle he survived at all.

  18. #18 David Harmon
    May 30, 2008

    The real power of modern medicine isn’t that we can find new therapies or drugs — it’s that we can test those therapies and drugs, to find out, not just “do they work”, but when they work… and when they don’t.

    So these days, we can tell the difference between, say, deficiencies in iron or in B12 (different anemias) and know which supplement to give. Or figure out if the swelling is sprain, gout, infection, etc. and respond to the cause rather than the symptom. Woo intrinsically trends to magical responses, directed at symptoms rather than illnesses.

    Even leeches are still in occasional use, but for very specific situations, notably where their anticoagulant saliva comes in handy.

  19. #19 Tsu Dho Nimh
    May 30, 2008

    Feng Shui has interesting bits of ancient wisdom, cloaked in a lot of mysterious language, as shamans are prome to do. If you look at their suggestions for siting a house, they get it out of the flood plains, in the best location for gardening, in the least erosion-prone areas, and out of the danger zone for landslides during earthquakes.

    The recommendation to keep the latrine or feces collection point away from the kitchen should get no arguments from the medical folk.

    The rest is hogwash, and some of it modern hogwash.

  20. #20 Esther
    May 31, 2008

    BB- Thanks for the info. I remembered the Turkish method had an insanely high death rate, but didn’t recall the variolation vs. vaccination issue.

  21. #21 Graculus
    May 31, 2008

    In classical times, the average age was less than 35.

    That has got to be one of the most useless facts ever.

  22. #22 Militant Agnostic
    June 1, 2008

    Tsu Dho Nimh has discovered Murhpy’s Law of ancient wisdom.
    The common sense components are forgotten and the woo components persist.

    People build houses on flood plains, at the base of or on the brow of unstable slopes etc. but they make sure that evil spirits can’t get through the front door.

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