As I sit in my (very narrow) seat on a DC-9 heading for North Carolina, one thing in particular strikes me: I’m really, really pleased that there is no such thing as “alternative engineering”. It’s not that “allopathic” or “mainstream” engineers never make mistakes—bridges collapse, cars break, computers die—but most of the time, our buildings, tools, and machines work. In fact, they work so well that we rarely think about all the work that has gone into creating them. Still, even when our houses fall down or our toys break, we don’t go running for a “new kind” of engineering. We send professionals back to the drawing board and, using an understanding of the physical world, they try to redesign things in a better way. Planes have crashed due to ice accumulation. This morning, they de-iced my plane, and I’m not complaining about the delay. Engineers learn from bad outcomes.
Medicine is a somewhat softer science than engineering, at least in some ways. You can’t, for example, subject people to conditions that push the tolerance of the human machine to its limit in order to see what it takes to break one. There are ethics governing the study of human medicine that are largely irrelevant in engineering.
Complicating the study of medicine further is an odd phenomenon. We feel we have some sort of “special knowledge” of the human machine—we each own one, and are intimately associated with it (if you’ll excuse the dualist phrasing). Despite the fact that the human body is immensely complex, it is tempting to think that as the owner of one, we understand its workings better than we do. There is an intimacy that we simply can’t replicate with, for example, a highway overpass.
These two facts are the good friends of quacks, charlatans, and other clowns. Perhaps because of the special relationship we have with the human machine, people tend to think that intuition is a guide to its function in a way they would never presume to assert when, say, building a bridge. For some reason, we tend to think that with human health, there are “other ways of knowing” than science (or more properly, perhaps, methodological naturalism). A good deal of this is due to our naturally dualist tendencies. We often tend to think of “self” as being something separate from the sack of meat that comprises all we are. Since in a dualist view, no one can point to a “self”, no one can measure it or manipulate it physically, we are left with superstition rather than science when trying to describe it.
Now, I’m obviously not advocating this view; I’m simply describing it. When we get back to the fact that “self” or “soul” is an epiphenomenon of brain, things are a bit simpler, but also more constrained (i.e., by natural laws). Being a mind-body dualist allows one to dispense with all sorts of pesky natural constraints. Since airplanes don’t have souls, I don’t need an “alternative engineer”. Since people do have souls (sic), well, call in the clowns.
Are you a little scared of clowns? You should be. There are clowns who approach the science of human medicine differently than other sciences, and basically make it up as they go along. Once you accept mind-body dualism, you can accept mysterious body energy fields, water memory, and subluxations. We don’t let engineers abandon science in favor of intuition. Why should we let doctors?