Is Medicine A Religion?

[BPSDB] In a Natural News article Larry Malerba DO, DHt argues that conventional doctors are guilty of scientism and are practitioners of a system of religious belief. Let us examine the claims.

In the first paragraph he says:

Repair of the physical body is erroneously equated with healing. Never mind whether it is capable of true healing; it doesn’t even understand the meaning of the concept.

Well, mending a broken leg, easing an arthritic shoulder or freeing the urinary tract of a painful bacterial infection may not be “true healing” in Malerba’s mind but to my mind having these ailments treated by ‘materialistic Western’ doctors is far better than continuing to suffer them.

It is a closed belief system that does not allow innovation or new ideas.

In fact the whole history of evidence based medicine (EBM) is one of innovation and new ideas, else doctors would still be treating their patients with leeches, purgings and bloodletting.

Medical science takes a materialistic stand in opposition to the non-physical; it is predicated upon a denial of the relevance of spirit. The irony here is that the church of medicine assumes the authority and function of a religious system but refuses to account for the role that the spiritual dimension plays in human health.

It would appear that it is Malerba who is taking a religious viewpoint here and his accusation of materialism is saying that ‘Western’ medicine is antireligious.

Like any good faith, the church of medicine stands on the authority of its sacred texts. The randomized double-blinded placebo-controlled trial is the gold standard that assures the purity of church doctrine.

There are good reasons why modern medicine insists on randomised, double-blinded controlled trials. The first is that the human mind can have an effect on symptoms – particularly pain. The simple fact of receiving attention and medication – even if it is a useless sugar-pill – can result in symtoms easing. Hence the need for a control arm; some patients receive the medication being tested and some receive a placebo and the difference in performance between the two arms of the trial is that due to the medication under test. Incidently, placebos are used only when there is no current treatment. The usual practice is to use the best currently available treatment as a control.

Hence we see that medical trials take account of the effect of the mind on the body and hence are not the mechanistic affairs that Malerba claims.

All of us humans can fool ourselves and see what we want to see. Hence in medical trials, the people administering the medication do not know which patients are receiving the medication under test and which the control to eliminate concious or unconcious bias. Hence bouble-blinded. The researchers do not get to choose which patients go into which arm – unscrupulous researchers might be tempted to put those most likely to recover in the test arm and those least likely in the control arm to make the medication seem better than it really is. Instead, patients are assigned randomly by computer. Hence randomised.

This is why randomised double-blinded controlled trials are held up as the gold standard. Quite right too, I would not want Big Pharma or anyone using treatments that have not been subject to rigorous testing.

As with many effective religious systems, ritual and symbol are often employed to inspire belief and reinforce the faith of congregants. The medical church has its white coats, green scrubs, and stethoscopes, those ubiquitous symbols of the medical priesthood. And we mustn’t forget the ritual washing of hands to ward off evil germs in spite of what basic science teaches us, which is that excessively antiseptic practices contribute to the development of microbial mutations, which in turn lead to increasing resistance to antimicrobial drugs. Such practices don’t strike me as very rational — or scientific.

All I can say about the “ubiquitous symbols of the medical priesthood” is that many types, particularly homeopaths, are fond of imitating them. And is he seriously suggesting that surgeons should cease washing their hands before operating? It has been known since Joseph Lister’s time that dirty handed surgeons transferred infections between patients.

Lister also noticed that midwife-delivered babies had a lower mortality rate than surgeon-delivered babies, correctly attributing this difference to the fact that midwives tended to wash their hands more often than surgeons, and that surgeons often would go directly from one surgery, such as draining an abscess, to delivering a baby. He instructed surgeons under his responsibility to wear clean gloves and wash their hands before and after operations with 5% carbolic acid solutions. Instruments were also washed in the same solution and assistants sprayed the solution in the operating theatre. One of his additional suggestions was to stop using porous natural materials in manufacturing the handles of medical instruments

Since asepsis is based on the notion that conclusions should be tested by observation then I would say that it most certainly is scientific:

Initial Observations Mid-wife delivered babies have better survival rates than surgeon delivered babies. Mid-wives wash their hands more than do surgeons.

Hypothesis There is a causal link between hand-washing and improved mortality.

Test Make surgeons wash their hands before operating also.

Result Mortality rates of surgeon delivered babies improved

Conclusion Asepsis improves survival rates.

At this point, Lister’s conclusions were a purely empirical conclusion but Pasteur’s germ-theory of disease put them – and the practices he advocated – on a sound theoretical footing.

So much for the notion that medicine rejects new ideas and empirical results, and is unscientific. What about the allegation of ‘scientism’?

“Scientism” is a term that has been applied to Western science’s tendency to consider itself as the only valid way of describing reality and acquiring knowledge. Far from objective science, it is riddled with a self-imposed form of materialistic and mechanistic bias. When it inappropriately and clumsily attempts to impose its restricted worldview upon domains where it has no business meddling, it can no longer be considered legitimate science that is practiced with an awareness of its boundaries.

Whether or not scientific inquiry, ie testing ideas by experiment and/or observation, has limits as a tool for acquiring knowledge is a philosophical can of worms that I do not proposde to open now. It is, however, a perfectly valid means of deciding what medical treatments should be used. Certainly a damn sight better than just making shit up like Hahneman did – deciding that “like cures like” and diluting something made it stronger without a shred of evidence to support it.

If you want to see anger and resistance to criticism, incidently, go look at some of my older posts and see what homeopaths, scenar enthusiasts and xocai chocolate peddlers have to say when I have the temerity to examine their ideas and money-making schemes.

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9 Responses to “Is Medicine A Religion?”

  1. Al Capone Junior Says:

    Yes thank you for taking down mike adams bullshit once again.

  2. Prateek Buch Says:

    fantastic blogpost, really good to see a thorough pwning of the old ‘medicine is a religion’ chestnut…!

  3. Majestic Says:

    The reason Mike Adams gets so angry is because there is no such thing as randomised, double-blinded controlled trials.

    In fact, if you could look at the original trials (the report can no longer be found.. fair?) of the gardisal vaccine the placebo was aluminum. A placebo is supposed to be sugar water. Of course the placebo is going to make the actual vaccine look safer as both test groups will have side effects!!

    Medical Science is a great theory, but unfortunately with all of the billions at stake by drug companies it is a myth. I love the idea of vaccines, but the trials and history of vaccines makes me side with people like Mike Adams.

  4. F. Arseneau Says:

    I find this ‘skeptics’ movement quite interesting. Forgive my lack of big sounding expressions or grammar, english is not my first language. But the ‘skeptics’ movement is a religion in itself, with a scientific bias. It’s a bit like the Jehovas, where it tries to justify everything with ‘science’ papers. They believe that science is pure and incorruptible, so it exonerates the pharmaceutical-medical complex of any quackery. They totally ignore the history of their own origins, rampant with quackery, like the origin of vaccines and the continuation of this complete quackery. They will always side with warmonging and drug pushing industries because there are papers published in pubmed or Popular Mechanics or whatever site to make them feel safe about their beliefs.

    It is an outdated fascist way of thinking. A way to force a dogma or ridicule anything that is alternative to the scientific religion. Science is a whore, it serves the purpose of the highest bidder. Most of the papers published are designed to a specific outcome by the funding source. It costs a lot of money to do studies, so obviously you can’t fight billions of dollars of the cancer industry with the paltry revenues of the apricot seed industry. As an example. But no, the fact that big pharma is patenting cannabinols and cyanide releasing drugs after a massive propaganda campaign is totally ignored by the skeptics.

    But, while the skeptics die of ‘proven’ chemotherapies, the crazy natural health nuts are curring their cancers or other diseases with simple lifestyle changes and rejecting the allopathic system altogether.

    I read Mike Adams’ site daily. In this day and age, you need to be a bit of a fanatic to find the strength to resist the daily bombardment of PR and debunking that is trying to convince us that radiation, fluoride, mercury, processed foods and pharmaceutical drugs are good for us.

    And it’s too bad, cause you focus on trying to demonize people like Mike Adams or Mercola that only want to see humanity become a better place by helping one another. You could spent that bottled up emotion into positiveness.

    I apologize for the long post.

    Sincerely in health and freedom of choice.

  5. Renegade Says:

    Re Is Medicine a Religion?

    Some excerpts from: “Cultural Dwarfs and Junk Journalism: Ben Goldacre, Quackbusting and Corporate Science”

    Many who loudly advertise themselves as skeptics are actually disbelievers.
    Properly, a skeptic is a nonbeliever, a person who refuses to
    jump to conclusions based on inconclusive evidence. Adisbeliever, on
    the other hand, is characterized by an a priori belief that a certain idea
    is wrong and will not be swayed by any amount of empirical evidence
    to the contrary. Since disbelievers usually fancy themselves skeptics,
    I will follow Truzzi and call them pseudoskeptics, and their opinions

    [Pseudoskeptics] are fundamentalist materialists. They hold the
    non-existence of paranormal phenomena as an article of faith,
    and they cling to that belief just as fervently and irrationally as
    a devout catholic believes in the Virgin Mary.
    They are fighting a no holds barred war against belief in the
    paranormal, and they see genuine research into such matters
    as a mortal threat to their belief system.
    Since genuine scientific study has the danger that the
    desired outcome is not guaranteed, CSICOP wisely no longer conducts
    scientific research of its own (such would be a waste of time and
    money for an entity that already has all the answers), and instead
    largely relies on the misrepresentation or intentional omission of
    existing research and the ad-hominem – smear, slander and ridicule.

    “It is really quite amazing by what margins competent but conservative
    scientists and engineers can miss the mark, when they start with
    the preconceived idea that what they are investigating is impossible.
    When this happens, the most well-informed men become blinded by
    their prejudices and are unable to see what lies directly ahead of
    them.” – Arthur C. Clarke

    True skeptics appreciate that the principal flaw of human perception
    - seeing what one wants to see – can afflict conventional as well
    as unconventional scientists. Their opinions are moderated by the
    humbling realization that today’s scientific orthodoxy began as yesterday’s
    scientific heresy; as the December 2002 editorial of Scientific
    American puts it:

    All scientific knowledge is provisional. Everything that science
    “knows,” even the most mundane facts and long-established theories,
    is subject to re-examination as new information comes in.

    Pseudoskeptics like to claim that the assumptions underlying modern
    science are empirical facts that science has proved.

    False assumption:

    “Science has through many, many different experiments shown that
    when a drug works it’s always through the way the molecule interacts
    with the body and, so the discovery that there’s no molecules means
    absolutely there’s no effect.” – Walter Stewart

    But science has shown no such thing. That the functioning of biological
    organisms is reducible to the physical interaction of molecules
    is not the result of decades of bio-molecular research, it is the assumption
    underlying this research. The fact that homoeopathy confounds
    that assumption refutes the latter, not the former.

    “One would expect a lively interface between the Sourcebook
    Project and the several groups of skeptics, as typified by the
    Committee for the [Scientific] Investigation of Claims of the
    Paranormal (CSICOP).
    After all, my catalogs do challenge those paradigms
    the skeptics defend so ferociously. Actually, there has been no
    traffic whatsoever. While mainstream Nature has reviewed five of
    my books, the skeptics have shown no interest in evaluating any of
    the Sourcebook publications.
    The skeptics, it seems, are never skeptical of established paradigms,
    only those observations that threaten to disestablish them.”

    - William R. Corliss, author of The Sourcebook Project
    (a comprehensive collection of anomalies and unexplained
    phenomena reported in scientific journals) in:
    Journal of Scientific Exploration, Vol. 16, 3 p.446

    The skeptics’ verdict on ad hoc hypothesis:

    “An ad hoc hypothesis is one created to explain away facts that
    seem to refute one’s theory. Ad hoc hypotheses are common in paranormal
    research and in the work of pseudoscientists.”

    What Todd Caroll, the author of the Skeptic’s Dictionary does not
    see fit to share with his readers is that some of the most celebrated
    “discoveries” of mainstream science are mere ad hoc hypotheses
    designed to cover the failure of theories to agree with observational
    evidence. Some of these ad hoc hypotheses, such as the hypothesis
    that almost all of the matter and energy of the universe exists in a form
    undetectable by the instruments of science, that there is a particle that
    causes mass (the Higgs Boson), and that people who fail to improve
    on AIDS drugs must be infected with a resistant mutation of HIV, are
    then taken as facts, with the strongest evidence for the existence being
    that accepted theory requires them!

    And yet, you will search skeptical publications in vain for truly skeptical
    discussion of these subjects (as opposed to ones that agree with the
    mainstream consensus). “The Mainstream Consensus Is Always Right”
    seems to be the motto.

    The following is an anecdotal example of an ad-hoc theory in
    established science. In its June 2002 issue, Scientific American ran an
    article on AIDS that contained a chart titled “World AIDS Snapshot”

    Combining the absolute numbers of people who are HIV positive
    with population figures from the CIA world factbook, I found
    that in Australia/New Zealand, only one person in 1548 was HIV positive,
    while in North America (Mexico counts under Latin America,
    according to the UNAIDS web site), 1 person in 329 was.
    Given that the predominant strain of HIV is the same in both regions
    (clade B), how can the rate of infection be almost 5 times higher in North
    America than in Australia/New Zealand? Sexual (mis)- behavior in
    both regions is comparable, as evidenced by the fact that incidence
    rates for classical STDs are virtually identical (according to WHO figures
    for 1999): (Table omitted)

    I emailed Sciam staff writer Carol Ezzell and inquired what the
    cause of this discrepancy could be. I received the following reply:

    Our statistics come from the UNAIDS (see the web site at

    Australia/New Zealand has a 0.1 percent adult
    prevalence rate, whereas North America has a rate of 0.6 percent.
    Most of the cases of HIV infection in Australia/New Zealand occur in
    men who have sex with men. A key tipping point in the broadening of
    HIV infection occurs when the virus rages through IV drug abusers
    and then enters people (men and women) who have sex with those
    drug abusers. For whatever reason, this hasn’t happened in A./N.Z.

    Actually, the alleged broadening of HIV infection into a general
    epidemic that affects large numbers of heterosexuals has not happened
    anywhere in the developed world, even though it was widely predicted
    by experts in the 1980s.

    The claim that it somehow exists nonetheless, and, for some unknown
    reason, more so in North America than in Australia/New Zealand, is a
    perfect example of “a hypothesis created to explain away facts
    that seem to refute one’s theory”.

    Skepticism towards the prevailing view of “HIV/AIDS” seems to be
    called for, but you will find none in the pages of the Skeptical Inquirer
    and other “skeptical” publications.

    Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence ?

    Skeptics, both of the genuine and the pseudo variety, have elevated
    this double standard to a principle of science: extraordinary claims
    require extraordinary evidence! But this principle does not hold up to
    logical scrutiny, because a claim is only ordinary or extraordinary in
    relation to a theory.

    For the sake of making this point, let us assume a
    scenario in a hypothetical new science in which there are two pieces of
    evidence to be discovered, A and B, each equally credible, each one
    suggesting an obvious, but incorrect explanation (call them (1) and
    (2)). (1) and (2) are mutually incompatible, and a third, highly non
    obvious explanation (3) that accounts for both A and B is actually correct.

    As chance would have it, one of the two pieces of evidence A,B
    will be discovered first. Let A be that piece of evidence, and further
    suppose that the scientists working in that hypothetical field all subscribe
    to the principle of the double standard. After the discovery of
    A, they will adopt explanation (1) as the accepted theory of their field.
    At a later time, when B is discovered, it will be dismissed because it
    contradicts (1), and because A and B are equally credible, but A is
    ordinary relative to (1) and B is extraordinary.

    The end result is that our hypothetical science has failed to selfcorrect.
    The incorrect explanation (1) has been accepted, and the correct
    explanation (3) was never found, because B was rejected.

    I therefore submit that extraordinary claims require extraordinary
    evidence is not suitable as a guiding principle for sound scientific

    All evidence, whether it supports accepted theories or not, should be
    given the same level of critical scrutiny.


    Broken peer-review system and conflicts of interest invalidates corporate science:

    “Consistently ignoring and distorting data” is pervasive in
    physics, astronomy, biology, medicine, psychology, archeology and

    The “file drawer effect”, while not uncontrolled per
    se is therefore in practice an uncontrolled criticism.
    Due to the broken peer review system and massive
    conflicts of interest in commercial science,
    it applies to and invalidates much of accepted science.

    “Cultural Dwarfs and Junk Journalism: Ben Goldacre, Quackbusting and Corporate Science”

  6. Dorothy Says:

    “There are good reasons why modern medicine insists on randomised, double-blinded controlled trials. The first is that the human mind can have an effect on symptoms – particularly pain. The simple fact of receiving attention and medication – even if it is a useless sugar-pill – can result in symtoms easing” I would rather take the sugar-pill than anything a doctor would prescribe. This just goes to prove surely that there is much about the mind/body connection that doctors continue to ignore.

  7. Deflectig Criticism 2 – Ad Hom Attacks « Letting Off Steam Says:

    [...] the ad homs are not so much amusing as deeply unpleasant. ‘F. Arseneau’ claimed that scepticism is fascism. This seems to be because we favour ideas that are supported by evidence and do not favour those [...]

  8. Deflecting Criticism 2 – Ad Hom Attacks « Letting Off Steam Says:

    [...] the ad homs are not so much amusing as deeply unpleasant. ‘F. Arseneau’ claimed that scepticism is fascism. This seems to be because we favour ideas that are supported by evidence and do not favour those [...]

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