When “Western” woo invades the East

In case you hadn’t guessed, because of the holiday weekend, blogging’s been rather slow. This is in general a good thing, a chance to rest and rethink, but occasionally, even while chilling out, I see things that I can’t resist mentioning briefly. Things like this.

If there’s one thing about “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) that has always puzzled me, it’s that, at least here in the “West,” there seems to be an inordinate fascination with ancient “Eastern” medical systems. These include, of course, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and Indian Ayruvedic medicine, both of which are somehow viewed as “superior” to “Western” reductionistic medicine. Of course, some things that are often lumped together with TCM (for instance, reiki) are neither Chinese (reiki was invented by a Japanese man) nor ancient or traditional (although it’s existed for centuries, acupuncture as we know now it evolved into its present form mostly in the 20th century, and reiki was first publicized in 1922). Be that as it may, this fetishism of all things “Eastern” by many in the CAM movement leads me to considerable amusement when I see a story like this one, which somehow I missed when it first appeared about a week ago, entitled Japan’s medical authorities slam ‘absurd’ homeopathy:

The physician to Japanese Emperor Akihito and top scientists have slammed homeopathy as an “absurd” medicine, urging health workers to stay clear of the alternative treatment as it grows in popularity.

“I cannot help but feel strong bewilderment” over the recent rise in homeopathy’s use as a treatment in Japan, said Ichiro Kanazawa, who chairs the prestigious Science Council of Japan.

“The reason is that it ignores science,” Kanazawa, who is also the medical supervisor for Japan’s Imperial Household Agency, said in a statement.

The controversy has been fuelled by reports that a two-month-old baby girl died last year of a cerebral haemorrhage in Japan after she was given a homeopathic remedy instead of the normal treatment of vitamin K.

Ichiro Kanazawa is, of course, correct. He’s making exactly the same arguments about homeopathy that we in the “West” have been making for two centuries because, well, these arguments are valid no matter whether they come from the East or the West. After all, there is no “Eastern” or “Western” science. There is only science.

Japanese homeopaths responded in much the same brain dead way that “Western” homeopaths respond when science pushes back:

The Japan Homeopathic Medical Association, grouping more than 500 occupational homeopaths, launched a counter-offensive by citing studies on the medicine’s positive effects.

“The stance of judging that it has no effect because it cannot be explained by conventional theories is unscientific and we are taken aback,” the association said in an email message to AFP.

Ah, yes, the “our woo can’t be studied by science” argument beloved of quacks everywhere. I don’t know whether it’s reassuring or depressing to see that this argument apparently crosses many cultural boundaries. European or American, Chinese or Japanese, African or Indian, it doesn’t matter. Whenever a woo-meister is challenged with science, he will often retreat to the claim that “science can’t study my therapy.”

So let me see. Here we have an ancient Western medical system that isn’t really so ancient (homeopathy, which was invented by Samuel Hahnemann in the late 1700s/early 1800s) invading a modern Eastern nation that is highly technically advanced. One thing I will say, though. The Japanese have us beaten in one area. At least government officials, the Japan Medical Association, and the Japanese Association of Medical Sciences are all willing to speak out unequivocally and state that homeopathy is unscientific quackery. Would that our “Western” medical organizations had the intestinal fortitude to speak out so plainly and forthrightly.

In the meantime, given how prescientific “Eastern” medicine is invading “Western” countries in the form of TCM and Ayruvedic medicine, one wonders if perhaps more ancient “Western” medicine will be invading the East. After all, I can see how balancing the four humors would fit in quite nicely with trying to unblock the flow of qi.