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Leaving the Land of Woo eBook

Leaving the Land of Woo eBook

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Published by Bob Lloyd
The Land of Woo is the place where outlandish claims about health, food and religion are taken on trust, where business exploits general ignorance and credulity. Leaving the Land of Woo is all about self-help, getting back to the real world.
The Land of Woo is the place where outlandish claims about health, food and religion are taken on trust, where business exploits general ignorance and credulity. Leaving the Land of Woo is all about self-help, getting back to the real world.

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Published by: Bob Lloyd on Jul 23, 2010
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial No-derivs


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We have already referred to the dangerous practice of
bleeding patients. Not only did it not cure people, but in some
cases directly led to their death, as in the case of George
Washington, who had five pints of blood removed in an attempt
to treat pneumonia.
We can look back to how illnesses were treated in the past
and we now view some of those attempts as totally bizarre. But
why do they appear that way to us now? Surely there must
have been some reason why intelligent people supported them?
They couldn't be so unreasonable, surely? The reasons are

Medicine and mysticism 21

interesting and help us to understand the difference between
magic and science.
If a child complained of toothache nowadays, we would take
them to a dentist to have the tooth examined, perhaps X-rayed,
and any tooth decay treated. But in the absence of our
understanding of how tooth decay occurs, what the effect is on
the nerve in the tooth, what needs to be done to prevent the
decay spreading, and the technology that needs to be employed
to relieve the pain and repair the tooth, in the absence of all
that, we might have reasoned very differently.
We might have decided that the pain in the head is caused
by madness. Or we might have decided that it was a curse, put
on the person to prevent them telling further lies. Or we might
simply assume that the tooth was bad and had to be pulled out.
We would base our judgement on what we thought we knew.
And if we did not rely on evidence for our knowledge, in many
cases it would simply be wrong. Reasonable people believed
incorrect things because the foundation of their knowledge was
inadequate. They did not yet know how to test and confirm
their knowledge, to distinguish between theory and fact. They
lacked the investigative methods and tools needed to challenge
existing ideas.

At some stage, someone studied the growth of tooth decay,
identified the agents that caused it, and produced a theory based
on that knowledge. Because it was a testable theory, they could
predict that if those causes were absent, tooth decay would be
reduced. It may be that there were other as yet unidentified
causes, but reducing the known causes would have a noticeable
effect. The use of scientific study enabled us to gather
knowledge of how things actually work. The theories of old
came under scrutiny and better, testable theories were proposed,
then investigated.

That's what happened in the case of the treatment of
bleeding patients. If you bleed weak patients already suffering
from an illness, more of them will die. That was no longer
simply an opinion – it was based on observational clinical
evidence. And so the practice was dropped.

Medicine and mysticism 22

Magical thinking is attributing causes to supernatural
entities and forces. It often involves mistaking correlation for

When two events often occur together we say they are
correlated. For example, we could say that when ice cream
sales increase, so do the rates of drowning. That's not
causation, because ice cream does not cause drowning, but it is
correlation because they often occur together. When one event
inevitably brings about another, we use the term causation. For
example, removing seven pints of blood from a human being
causes death. To accept causation, we need not just the
correlation, but also a statement that if the cause was absent, the
consequence would not have occurred.
So, back to the magic. Magic relies on an unsubstantiated
assertion about the cause and there is no way to test the claim.
Anger from the gods, a curse from a witch, sin? No way of
testing these theories! But if any of them is believed, it will
lead to actions which may prejudice the health of the
individual. Science is altogether a safer option. If the theory is
wrong, then searching for contradictory evidence has a good
chance of exposing it. Scientific theories are forced to self-
correct because everyone is invited to disprove every theory.
Medicine is based on the idea of identifying causes and this is a
very effective way of understanding how to treat illness.
Identifying the symptoms and then isolating the causes
provides the basis for diagnosis and therefore points to possible
treatments. But if we fail to identify the relevant symptoms
and/or fail to identify the testable causes, we have no chance of
selecting an appropriate treatment. Therapies that do not have
an efficient, repeatable method for diagnosis will not identify
illness correctly and will therefore be unable to relate treatment
to the cause. In reality this means that each practitioner could
diagnose something different from the same set of symptoms,
each diagnosis being unrelated to the real cause.

Medicine and mysticism 23

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