Be careful what you rationalize

The first few thousand years of “medicine” were pretty bad. We did figure out a few things–an herb that’ll make you defecate faster here, something to staunch bleeding there–but overall, we were idiots. Doctors used to stick leeches on people to make them bleed, because they were convinced that “too much blood” was a problem. A primitive form of CPR invented in the 1700s involved blowing tobacco smoke up a drowned person’s rectum (it didn’t work.) And, of course, people have periodically taken it into their heads that consuming mercury is a good idea.

Did pre-modern (ie, before 1900 or so) doctors even benefit their patients, on net? Consider this account of ancient Egyptian medicine:

The ancient Egyptians had a remarkably well-organized medical system, complete with doctors who specialized in healing specific ailments. Nevertheless, the cures they prescribed weren’t always up to snuff. Lizard blood, dead mice, mud and moldy bread were all used as topical ointments and dressings, and women were sometimes dosed with horse saliva as a cure for an impaired libido.

Most disgusting of all, Egyptian physicians used human and animal excrement as a cure-all remedy for diseases and injuries. According to 1500 B.C.’s Ebers Papyrus, donkey, dog, gazelle and fly dung were all celebrated for their healing properties and their ability to ward off bad spirits. While these repugnant remedies may have occasionally led to tetanus and other infections, they probably weren’t entirely ineffective—research shows the microflora found in some types of animal dung contain antibiotic substances.

Bed rest, nurturing care, a bowl of hot soup–these are obviously beneficial. Dog feces, not so much.

Very ancient medicine and primitive shamanism seem inherently linked–early medicine can probably be divided into “secret knowledge” (ie, useful herbs); magical rites like painting a patient suffering from yellow fever with yellow paint and then washing it off to “wash away” the disease; and outright charlatanry.

It’s amazing that medicine persisted as a profession for centuries despite its terrible track record; you’d think disgruntled patients–or their relatives–would have put a quick and violent end to physicians bleeding patients.

The Christian Scientists got their start when a sickly young woman observed that she felt better when she didn’t go to the doctor than when she did, because this was the 1800s and medicine in those days did more harm than good. Yet the Christian Scientists were (and remain) an exception. Society at large never (to my knowledge) revolted against the “expertise” of supposed doctors.

Our desire for answers in the face of the unknown, our desire to do something when the optimal course is actually doing nothing and just hoping you don’t die, has overwhelmed medicine’s terrible track record for centuries.

Modern medicine is remarkably good. We can set bones, cure bubonic plague, prevent smallpox, and transplant hearts. There are still lots of things we can’t do–we can’t cure the common cold, for example–but modern medicine is, on the whole, positive. So this post is not about modern medicine.

But our tendency to trust too much, to trust the guy who offers answers and solutions over the guy who says “We don’t know, we can’t know, you’re probably best off doing nothing and hoping for the best,” is still with us. It’s probably a cognitive bias, and very hard to combat without purposefully setting out to do so.

So be careful what you rationalize.