So I owe Ben Parzybok an apology. As Nathan and Eric noted below, I over-read what he meant as hyperbole as a statement of world view. His measured rebuttal to my rather pissy tone makes me think that he’s someone I could have a beer and a good conversation with, rather than being, as I suspected, a rabid post-structuralist. I’m leaving this essay up below because I’m a firm believer in allowing your mistakes to air out in public, and when I’m a shithead I admit it – and Ben I was a shithead, and I apologize for calling you an idiot, and more so for lumping you in with the post-structuralists, because that is the greater insult in my book. (Maybe not in yours, but I’m apologizing for my intent here).
Eric surmises that my hair-trigger is due to peculiarities of my background, and indeed it is, although not for the reasons he cited (he’d be surprised how little of the non-juveniles of RAH I can stomach based on RAH’s poor grasp of economics – my second graduate degree is economics-related, and RAH can make me twitch rather fast in that regard). I was a double major in grad school Russian Literature and Physical Chemistry. I left the study of literature because of the ascendancy in the late 80s and early 90s, of the anti-rational post-modernist and post-structuralist elements. (Eric, I know you’re going to take exception to that characterization, but you’re just going to have to wait for that debate until NaNo is over – the post is coming).
Ben’s hyperbole in “The Big Idea” almost exactly matches rhetoric that is used to offer false hope (via “native” traditions) to patients via post-structuralist arguments. In some cases, patients buy these arguments and forgo Western treatment altogether. Eric makes the comment that:
To take such an argument seriously would be gobsmackingly stupid.
Argument" in my case being that someone in the West would seriously argue about the superiority of non-Western medicine from an academic perspective. Unfortunately, that is not the case:
"The philosophical work of Deleuze and Guattari proves to be useful in showing how health sciences are colonised (territorialised) by an all-encompassing scientific research paradigm – that of post-positivism – but also and foremost in showing the process by which a dominant ideology comes to exclude alternative forms of knowledge, therefore acting as a fascist structure."
This is an actual quote from an actual peer-reviewed piece of literature in Nursing, which is the scientific discipline most infected by the disease of post-structuralism. It’s used to make the argument that pre-modern medicine is just as valid, or in some cases more valid, than Western medicine. Ben – this is close enough to your statement about Western thought not seeing the picture, plus your mention of medicine, that it led me to misidentify you. I have met people - “educated” people – who espouse the ideas in your “Big Idea” for real. Those were not strawman arguments I was making, I've heard people at MLA meetings actually claim that modern medicine has suppressed known cures from native traditions. The fact that this kind of woo has infiltrated Nursing hurts patients.
I run into this shit professionally all the time, in fact I can’t get to work in Manhattan some days without running into a cult that claims this kind of mystical medical woo while maintaining that my kids are part of an alien plot. So yeah, my intellectual shotgun is sawed-off and the sear’s been filed down to give me a hair trigger. Point taken, I’ve kept my finger in the trigger guard since the Wagner thing, and now I’ll engage the safety.
And Jeri – no, given the real world consequences of actual freaking nurses suggesting that patients try alternative therapy first, it’s not cruel to go after the intellectual justification for that dangerous attitude wherever I see it. In fact it's a dereliction of intellectual duty not to. It's not the novel I went after, it actually sounds like a fun read, if taken in the spirit it's intended. What I went after was, what looked like to me, promotion of an anti-rationalist worldview. But, as Eric and Nathan pointed out, I’ve got to make sure my targets are properly identified.
--End of Update - Hyperbolic misinterpretation to follow:
I promised Nathan I'd have a piece about stupid on the Net that needs refuting. Well, here it is. My tolerance for stupid after the Wagner affair is still zero. Hence the pissy tone below.
I am a civilizational patriot. Unfortunately, a large swath of Western Civilization’s intellectuals seems to have no idea just what exactly has brought about the modern world they see around them. The anti-rational (as opposed to anti-intellectual, because what I’m talking about is part of a larger anti-rational movement that is alive and well in intellectual circles) movement in society disturbs me because it is indicative of the failure of our educational system to inculcate the values and ideas that brought Western Civilization out of the muck of the Dark Ages.
I’m talking about dreck like this from new author Benjamin Parzybok:
However, during the writing of the book I moved to South America. The magic of the place was deeply infectious. Walk from your apartment to the grocery store and you’ve tread over a bedrock of forgotten civilizations. The town in which I lived was built on top of an Incan town, the Incans built over the top of the Cañaris, the Cañaris conquered and built over those that had been there before. Who knew how many mysterious layers lay below that?
All of this was lost knowledge. Which of these civilizations had a cure for cancer? Which had surmised the essential building blocks of the universe or spoken in a language that allowed access to an entirely different part of the brain?
What. The. Hell? Cure for cancer? Surmise the building blocks of the universe? And did we discover a third hemisphere of the brain? The stupid, it does burn.
How does Parzybok think that the wonders of modern life got to be that way? Magic? Take the history of even one small advance that I’ve written about before. In 1856 a young graduate student was messing about with coal tar derivatives, systematically, if empirically, and hit upon the world’s first synthetic dye. This pushed even more attention to the young field of Organic Chemistry, and a very bright German scientist hit upon a theory that gave synthesis a firm theoretical underpinning:
It was not long after Perkin's original feat that Kekule and his structural formulas supplied organic chemists with a map of the territory, so to speak. Using that map, they could work out logical schemes of reactions, reasonable methods for altering a structural formula bit by bit in order to convert one molecule into another. It became possible to synthesize new organic chemicals not by accident, as in Perkin's triumph, but with deliberation.
From that work, Paul Ehrlich used derivatives of Mauvine to selectively stain microorganisms for identification in the microscope, and he developed the first stain that selectively identified TB, and he later went on to develop some of the first good theories of immune function based on that same work. In fact, he is considered one of the fathers of immunology.
A few years later, in 1909 he and his student Sachihiro Hata, using a derivative of one of those same dyes, cured syphilis:
Ehrlich began an exhaustive search for an arsenic compound that would be a "magic bullet:" kill the microbe but not the person with the disease. In 1909, after testing over 900 different compounds on mice, Ehrlich's new colleague Sahachiro Hata went back to #606. It didn't do much for the sleeping sickness microbe, but it seemed to kill another (recently discovered) microbe, the one which causes syphilis. At that time, syphilis was a disabling and prevalent -- though little talked about -- disease. Ehrlich and Hata tested 606 over and over on mice, guinea pigs, and then rabbits with syphilis. They achieved complete cures within three weeks, with no dead animals. In 1910 the drug was released, called Salvarsan, or sometimes just 606. It was an almost immediate success and was sold all over the world. It spurred Germany to become a leader in chemical and drug production. And it made syphilis a curable disease.
The cure for syphilis did not come from some human-sacrificing, superstitious pre-moderns experimenting with herbs. To say nothing of a cure for cancer. Just how many pre-modern civilizations recognized the commonality of the disease we call cancer, rather than looking at it as a disease of various organs? Exactly ... zero.
If pre-moderns had medicine at all, it was based on plants, and, well, let’s look at the oldest such tradition in the world, China. If anything is “there” to be found in pre-modern medicine, odds are it would be in that ancient tradition, older and more advanced than any society in South America. Chinese skeptics don't seem to think so:
The argument from antiquity in favor of TCM usually goes like this: it’s been around N-thousand years (replace N with your favorite integer between 1 and 5) and so it must have worked well! The truth of the matter is that TCM has no scientific basis and has been developed over the years on a foundation of very flawed understanding of the human anatomy and physiology. Historically, the pathetically low cure-rate of diseases plaguing the Chinese population with access only to TCM resulted in the evolution of a hyper-superstitious culture bent on seeing ghosts and goblins around every corner and behind every bush, too ready to take another life away. The inefficacy of their medical treatments throughout history, in my opinion, is responsible for the Chinese culture’s obsession with superstitions associated with maintaining good health and longevity. The list of superstitious do’s and don’ts are especially long when it came to childbirth, prenatal and postnatal care.
Stopped-clock-right-twice-a-day rules of thumb are pretty much all any pre-modern society ever achieved. Almost all pre-modern cultures emphasized social harmony over material progress. At most, like the Arabs, they kept freethinkers as pets of the aristocracy, but the networked link of researchers with a widespread challenge of received wisdom is a uniquely Western phenomenon, and it is why successful modern non-Western cultures such as Japan and China take on something of a Western character, even while preserving something of their own. Despite its advanced organizational features, Chinese “scientific” thinking suffered from the same malaise that all pre-modern “scientific” thought suffered from:
However, I may point out here already one of the characteristic traits of the history of ideas in Chinese medicine. Whenever antagonistic sub-paradigms emerged within one of the major paradigms, the resulting contradictions appear to have been solved only rarely, if ever, in a manner familiar to the historian of medicine and science in the West. Although we may witness, in the literature, sufficient traces of heated argumentations between schools propagating opposing views, after a while the issue was resolved neither in the dialectical sense in that a more advanced synthesis was created out of thesis and antithesis nor in a (Kuhnian) revolutionary sense in that a more recent paradigm achieved prevalence and dominated a subsequent era of “normal science” until it was replaced by the next paradigm. The unique feature of the Chinese situation – and this should receive more attention form historians and philosophers of science – is the continuous tendency toward a syncretism of all ideas that exist (within accepted limits). Somehow a way was always found in China to reconcile opposing views and to build bridges – fragile as they may appear to the outside observer – permitting thinkers and practitioners to employ liberally all the concepts available, as long as they were not regarded as destructive to society.
One of the basic difficulties in interpreting traditional Chinese medical terms and concepts today in a Western language results directly from this syncretistic trait of Chinese medical history. Identical terms were often used to denote very different concepts, and at no time was a standardization attempted which might have led to a dominating or stringent interpretation of even the core concepts by a majority of dogmatists and practitioners.
The confrontational nature of Western society is a good thing. It roots out bad ideas faster (not immediately, but faster than in any other known culture). The most successful non-western cultures copy this. It’s a feature, not a bug.
Idiots such as Parzybok who repudiate the best of Western culture in our intelligentsia are ingrates. The 30 million or so Chinese mothers making their kids study Western classical piano have none of the white-guilt problems that cause overeducated fools in the West to repudiate what’s good about their heritage – they know what works when they see it.
And I do see someone making a gobsmackingly stupid remark such as “Which of these civilizations had a cure for cancer?” as repudiating the best of Western Culture. How exactly, does Parzybok think that the anti-biotics that took syphilis from being a life-threatening STD to a curable annoyance came about? People like me do not sit in the lab talking about the fundamental interconnectedness of things and how if we found just the right plant from some aborigine, all illness would disappear. Cures come from cold, hard, logical study of the world around us.
No other culture managed to inculcate the ideals of skepticism in such a wide swath of its citizens (alas, not wide enough, but still…) that was necessary to incubate the philosophy that became the modern scientific method. This shows that Parzybok, in all of his taxpayer-funded “education” has not absorbed enough information in class, or had enough sense to absorb it on his own, in order to be able to outline exactly how the modern world came about, or how (and why) we know what we know. His knowledge of science is no different from a knowledge borne of religion – taking information on authority – and once he takes it into his head that the authority is to be questioned, he has no idea how to determine a reliable authority from a huge crock of cow manure:
It was here that I arrived at another ‘big idea’ - that myth is a word modern society makes up because the reality seems incomprehensible within a western-minded framework of civilization. Modern society essentially negates the possibility of the real story. Through this new lens I began to question all of history and mythology, trying to sort out the what ifs if certain parts were inverted.
Uh, no. Not at all. If by “real story” Parzybok means the superstitious mis-mash that Chan Yau-man was talking about in his essay on TCM, well, not just no, but hell no. We scientists are fighting the same fight against the Creationists as we do the purveyors of non-Western woo. There is rational thought based on evidence, and there is superstition in the Demon-Haunted World. There is no in-between.
Parzybok lives in the tradition of Rousseau, and falls prey to the same idealizations that gloss over the nasty, brutish and short lives of the pre-modern.
It was during this time that myself and a few friends took a trek deep into the Andes accompanied by a mule to a place the locals warned we’d be killed, a moonshining, smuggler’s village accessible only by a two day journey on foot. There were no roads, no electricity, no cultural invasion, and that separation from ‘civilization’ seemed to enable a special kind of reality there. It was a truly idyllic place, where fish were kept in water holes in your front yard, where weather seemed to crash in in every incarnation, all at once (the village elevation was 12,000 feet), where you kept hundred gallon barrels of moonshine in your bedroom and started off the day siphoning a plug or two. There was a healer. There was a deaf girl who’d invented her own signs to communicate with others in the village. There were sheep in the hills and the men spoke to their horses. Legend and history were inseparable.
Yeah, a “special kind of reality”. One where polio and tuberculosis were deadly, rather than historical curiosities. I wonder how much good that “healer” was in the face of cancer? Not very? I guess evil old Spanish had erased that healer’s connection to the ancients who did know how to cure cancer.
Parzybok is a mental adolescent of the type Lileks was talking about here:
One of the dumbest lines in cinema is one of the most famous: asked what he’s rebelling against, Marlin Brando’s character in the “The Wild Ones” says “Whaddya got?”
Oh, I don’t know. The Pure Food Act, antibiotics, an industrial infrastructure that makes it possible for you to ride your bikes around, paved roads, a foreseeable successful conclusion to rural electrification, sewers, the ability to walk into any small café and order a Coke and know you won’t be squitting your guts out 12 hours later into a hole in the ground alive with squishy invertebrates. Little things.
The fact that there are so many Parzyboks running around today is part of what the Chinese call the third generation problem. The third generation in a rich family, or a rich society, forgets where it came from. Asians recognize this instinctively because their historical (but not modern) view of time is cyclical, rather than linear:
When a man is bringing up a household he has to be capable enough himself, and work hard. This is true in business or any other activity. Whereas the father starts from scratch, the second generation doesn’t have to work so hard or have to face such travails. Still the son knows how hard the father struggled, and is able to carry on the business. Then comes the third generation boy, with no recollection of the difficult life of his father or grandfather. The grandson is very well educated, extremely cultured and sophisticated. He is superb in calligraphy and uses it to paint a sign: “House for rent”
—- Alvin Coox interview with Colonel Sumi in Nomonhan p.61
The infiltration of “woo” into Western thought is pernicious, and especially dangerous in the sphere of medicine. While I fully realize that Parzybok has written a book using magic realism, his musings when asked about the underlying philosophy of his book reveal a huge ignorance about the culture that created enough material wealth for him to aspire to be a paid teller of tales that denounce that very culture. It smacks of ingratitude. And in my book, ingratitude ought to be one of the seven deadly sins.