Complementary and alternative medicine Integrative medicine Medicine Science Skepticism/critical thinking

Science versus “ancient ways of knowing”

Science is the most effective means of determining medical treatments that work and whose benefits outweigh their risks. Those who promote pseudoscientific or prescientific medicine, however, frequently appeal to other ways of knowing, often ancient ways of knowing from other cultures, and pointing out deficiencies in SBM to justify promoting their treatments. Do their justifications hold water?

Because so much of what is being “integrated” into medicine as “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM), “integrative medicine,” “integrative health,” or whatever the next nom du jour will be is either unproven, a distortion of existing SBM, or outright quackery, proponents of integrating pseudoscience into medicine—of course, that is not how they would characterize themselves—can’t win on the science, at least not when it is accurately represented. So instead they use other techniques, and one of the most common tropes to which they resort is the appeal to other ways of knowing. As they say in law, if you have the facts on your side, hammer the facts. If you have the law on your side, hammer the law. If you have neither the facts nor the law, hammer the table. It’s a little different in medicine, where, if you have science on your side, you hammer the science, but if you don’t you hammer anecdotes, sow doubt, or appeal to other ways of knowing, particularly ancient ways of knowing.

Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with this particular tactic. We’ve seen it used by all manner of quacks, cranks, and charlatans, ranging from homeopaths to Dr. Oz to Deepak Chopra. Basically, when science doesn’t support your argument, an appeal to other ways of knowing takes the form of dismissing the science that refutes your argument by saying something along the lines of “Science doesn’t know everything” (which is, of course, true, but irrelevant) and then appealing to a different “way of knowing” that doesn’t involve rigorous science. The appeal to other ways of knowing is basically a form of special pleading, in which it is claimed that your belief should be exempt from rigorous scientific evaluation.

Unfortunately, there is one form of this special pleading that is gaining some currency, and that’s basically carving out an exception to the requirement for rigorous science for “traditional medicine,” be it Ayurveda, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), aboriginal medicine, or folk medicine practiced around the world. A while back, I discussed how the World Health Organization (WHO) has included a section of ICD (International Classification of Diseases) codes in the new ICD-11 system for TCM codes. Some of these codes included diagnoses like the bladder meridian pattern, triple energizer meridian pattern, liver qi stagnation pattern, and other “diagnoses” derived from the prescientific vitalistic ideas upon which TCM is based. Of note, ICD-10 (the current version) is the standard that the whole world uses to classify diseases. Government health agencies use it, as do private insurers to determine reimbursement for services. The TCM section (International Classification of Traditional Medicine, or ICTM) in ICD-11 will be optional at first, but I predict that it won’t be too long before it becomes mandatory. In a similar vein, the Chinese government recently passed a law designed to promote the use of TCM and facilitate the export of TCM remedies, in effect lowering the scientific bar for ideology and profit.

Last week, Steve Novella took note of this phenomenon, which was referred to as “Indigenous ways of knowing” (IWK), taking note of a recent article by Josh Dehaas, which is highly critical. I had come across the article as well, but I had also come across a couple of others, one by former MD turned philosopher Paul Biegler (which was a lot more wishy-washy than Dehaas’ article bordering on being an apologia for indigenous ways of knowing), and an article in a CAM journal advocating different standards for regulating TCM and other traditional medicines.

Colonialism as a justification for accepting other ways of knowing about medicine?

Of course, as both articles point out, there is history here. Many of the cultures whose medicine is being promoted have a long history of having suffered predation and oppression under the colonialism of European and American powers. This cannot be denied and is a powerful force making claims for IWK sound more compelling. How? Well, let’s look at what Nadine Ijaz and Heather Boon write in justifying differing standards for regulating TCM. I’ll note that we’ve met Heather Boon before. She’s the Dean for the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy, University of Toronto, where she’s supported a clinical trial of homeopathy, mischaracterized Steve’s and my position with respect to clinical trials of CAM, and generally shown herself to be a true believer in unscientific alternative medicine. In any event, Ijaz and Boon write:

An important issue that frequently goes unaddressed in scholarly discussions of T&CM [traditional and complementary medicine] pertains to the historical and ongoing impacts of European colonization on traditional medicine systems and practices across the globe. As documented and discussed elsewhere,6–9 traditional medicine treatments and practices have long been subjugated, devalued, co-opted, and in some cases decimated across the globe within the context of European colonization. Still today, many indigenous healthcare systems remain under threat due to colonization’s impacts.10

Biomedicine’s globalized dominance, as Hollenberg and Muzzin have elaborated, is far less the result of biomedical science’s evidenced efficacy than it is a feature of the ongoing sociopolitical subordination of precolonial indigenous knowledge systems and related healthcare practices.11 Traditional medicine continues to be in widespread use, and in many jurisdictions (particularly in the global South) represents the “mainstay of healthcare delivery.”1 However, considerable political, research, economic, and institutional capital continues to sustain biomedicine’s pre-eminence in state healthcare systems worldwide.11,12 Regardless, indigenous systems of medical knowledge remain important resources not only within their specific cultural contexts but also as “critical alternative models for resolving health crises on a global scale where biomedical and technological solutions fall increasingly short.”2

The study and reframing of traditional medicine approaches using biomedical conceptual frameworks and language have been used, for many decades, arguably as a strategy to increase their perceived legitimacy within biomedically dominant healthcare systems.12 This has included the increased adoption of biomedical subject areas in the curricula of institutionalized training programs for codified traditional medicine systems such as Chinese medicine, Ayurveda, and Unani, as well as an increasing body of biomedical-style research conducted on particular traditional medicine therapies.

This is the basic narrative of IWK: “Western” biomedical science is a cultural construct whose dominance is due not to its success in diagnosing, treating, and, in some cases, eradicating disease but rather to past imperialism and colonization by European powers. A corollary to the above claim is that attempts by practitioners and proponents of traditional medicine to achieve scientific legitimacy are not because science is better, but because the biomedical model predominates because of the prior subjugation (and, in some cases, the continued oppression) of indigenous peoples. Add to that an appeal to popularity, namely that many millions of people still use traditional medicine as their primary form of health care, and you have an argument that can seem powerful, both to indigenous people using traditional medicines and to some “Western” scientists or physicians—like Heather Boon.

Indeed, Boon goes even further. First, she points out that nearly a quarter of all modern medicines are derived from natural products, many of which were first used in traditional medicine. While I suspect she exaggerates a bit regarding just how many of these natural products were discovered by traditional practitioners, it is true that some were. Of course, the story is not always that simple, as when TCM advocates claimed that the awarding of the Nobel Prize in medicine to Youyou Tu for her discovery of the anti-malaria compound Artemisinin, which was used in TCM. It turns out that considerable “biomedical science” had to go into isolating and validating the active component. This is the sort of thing that Ijaz and Boon complain about, namely how most traditional herbal medicines have undergone “considerable recomposition en route to pharmaceutical usage,” which they describe as a process that “privileges biomedical epistemology while erasing/negating the remedies’ indigenous cultural origins and epistemic underpinnings.”

See what I mean? By this appeal to IWK, “Western” scientists are damned if they do, damned if they don’t. Science is portrayed as being just another way of knowing whose preeminence in medicine is due more to cultural and national hegemony than to actual effectiveness, and if that “Western” science actually tries to use traditional medicines its application of science to testing and formulating them into safe and reliable forms ends up “erasing” the cultural origins and epistemological basis for their use, or, as Ijaz and Boon characterize one problem with regulating traditional medicine, the “historical circumstances (and resulting evidentiary tensions) that surround traditional medicine’s political subjugation to Western biomedical knowledge systems.”

Biegler, unfortunately, appears to be sympathetic to, if not entirely buying, these sorts of arguments:

Few dispute that traditional cultures should be protected and knowledge preserved. But that is a long way from saying that cultural longevity confers legitimacy on a health treatment. By turning the torch on colonialism are the authors sidestepping the awkward fact that the real threat to traditional medicine comes from science, a discipline that bridges the global North and South?

The back-story is that practitioners of traditional medicine (Ijaz is a medical herbalist and shiatsu therapist) have good reason to see the randomised clinical trial (RCT) as a threat. One criterion of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for approving medicines is that they been shown superior to placebo on two RCTs. It’s a standard that could ring the death knell on some TCM practices, should they be compelled to conform to it.

Which, of course, plays to the authors’ point that the Western model threatens to extinguish many venerable and ancient therapies.

Remember, though, that plenty of Western medicines fall at the very same hurdle. An infamous recent example was researcher Irving Kirsch’s use of Freedom of Information to unearth 47 failed antidepressant trials from the FDA, trials subsequently buried by the parent pharmaceutical companies.

If Western medicine is predatory, then, it also eats its own.

Of course, I can’t help but note that more recent evidence clearly supports the efficacy of antidepressants, although the effect size appears to be smaller than previously thought. I also can’t help but note that, in general, science is self-correcting, while fully conceding that the process of self-correction is often quite messy and takes longer than we wish it would. All those traditional medicines have been used for centuries or millennia based on anecdotal evidence passed down through the generations and are basically never abandoned as ineffective. That’s a big difference. “Western medicine” is indeed predatory, and it does eat its own when later evidence shows a treatment to be ineffective or carry more risk than the severity of the condition being treated warrants taking.

“Subjective” knowledge

Dehaas describes quite well what IWK really means, illustrating it by quoting a professor at UT who teaches a course on IWK, which is, alarmingly, being increasingly infused into the curricula of universities in Canada:

In an introductory IWK lecture, Paul Restoule, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), starts off by telling his class that “knowledges” are subjective. He also claims that the mere act of defining IWK is “problematic,” since any definitions would use “Western knowledge” as a frame of reference. This is not unusual. I’ve been writing about higher education for a decade, and have investigated the issue of IWK on different campuses. Invariably, my attempts to determine the exact parameters of IWK always meet with this somewhat gauzy, defensive response. Oddly, the most zealous proponents of IWK also are the ones who are the most reluctant to describe what it is.

Restoule claims that, for Indigenous people, “the senses can know more deeply and concretely than knowledge gained through reading and being told.” He asserts that “knowledge is sometimes revealed through dreams, visions and intuitions.” And he offers a Venn diagram with a circle for “Western science”—“limited to evidence and explanation within [the] physical world” and “skepticism,”—overlapping somewhat with a circle for “Indigenous knowledge,” which is described as “holistic,” involving a “metaphysical world linked to moral code” and “trust for inherited wisdom.”

This is, of course, correct. Basically, what IWK, at least with respect to traditional medicines, appears to boil down to is to trust that one’s forbearers got it right all those centuries or millennia ago. It is also based on prescientific, mystical, and/or religious beliefs, as Frances Widdowson, a professor of political science at Mount Royal University in Calgary, is quoted as saying:

Whenever proponents are asked to define IWK, “at some point in the conversation, postmodern relativism begins to enter into it,” she says. When asked to explain the unique “ways of knowing” exhibited by Indigenous peoples, advocates tend to describe either folk knowledge or spiritual beliefs, she adds. These may indeed be described as “alternative” ways of knowing. But their alternative character originates in the fact that they present themselves as exempt from the expectation of rigorous scrutiny that typically is applied to claims made by academics.

Precisely. “Western” scientists who promote IWK are, in essence, saying that we should trust “ancient knowledge” and that such ancient knowledge is just “another way of knowing” that is no worse or better than science, just different, even if the knowledge is based on tradition, religion, and prescientific understanding of how the body functions. I should, however, point out that I prefer the term “other ways of knowing” over “indigenous ways of knowing,” given that it is a more general term that encompasses much more of the special pleading that CAM apologists indulge in to claim their treatments are equivalent to science-based medicine without being so specific to a culture or potentially loaded with the baggage that comes with the long and violent history of colonialism and imperialism. Also, I can’t help but note that two of the most popular traditional medicines, TCM and Ayurveda, came from highly advanced civilizations, which is not captured in a term like “IWK.”

There’s also more than a little bit of a racist tendency that has been called the “cult of the noble savage,” wherein indigenous peoples are romanticized as being “purer,” more in tune with nature. Uncorrupted by modern civilization, the noble savage is good and can possess hidden knowledge that we “civilized” (and therefore corrupted) people do not. It’s a not uncommon trope in literature and the arts. (Think the Lakota tribe in Dances With Wolves or, in a science fiction context, the The Na’vi in Avatar.) Not coincidentally, it’s also a variant of the story of the fall of man in Genesis. Indeed, if you want to know why I use scare quotes when referring to “Western” medicine or science, it’s because dividing science into “Western” (cold, rational, reductionist) as compared to “Eastern” or cultures other than European (which includes nations like the US that started out as European colonies) as more “naturalistic,” mystical, and in tune with nature and ancient knowledge is just a variant of the racist noble savage myth.

Sadly, it’s also an attitude that, thanks to postmodern-like relativism, often infects CAM proponents.

Worse, accepting such IWK with respect to medicine can result in real harm:

Widdowson recounts the story of an Inuit man in northern Quebec who got frostbite so severe that his boots froze to his feet. Instead of going to a doctor or warming up his feet, he turned to an elder, who suggested he pack them in wet snow. Eventually, he was coaxed by the RCMP to a hospital where doctors informed him that his reliance on traditional treatment methods might have cost him his feet.

I also can’t help but recount the case of a First Nations girl in Ontario who suffered from leukemia whose mother wanted to choose “aboriginal medicine” (although in reality what she was choosing was the quackery of a white con man who preyed upon Canadian aboriginal people). The results were tragic. It doesn’t even have to be a different race, either. I’ve recounted the story of an Amish girl with cancer whose parents decided to abandon SBM and treat her with traditional Amish medicines. The concept is the same. The “simple” people know things that we modern people do not.

Distrust of “Western science,” ancient ways of knowing, and the role of the shaman-healer

Of course, it’s understandable why many indigenous people are distrustful of their former colonial rulers. As I discussed when considering the case of the First Nations child with cancer, Canada has a horrible history of placing children of indigenous people in residential schools, whose express purpose was to remove the children from their own culture and assimilate them into Canadian culture. There, many aboriginal children suffered physical and sexual abuse, and it is estimated that 6,000 died over the 100+ year history of the schools. It’s not surprising that there still exists in Canadian aboriginal communities a great deal of distrust of the government and the medical system that facilitated such cultural imperialism, the same as the native peoples in the US very much distrust the government that drove them off their ancestral lands and onto reservations and as other indigenous peoples distrust their former (and, all too often, continuing) oppressors. It’s very easy for them to view “Western” science as just another tool of oppression that delegitimizes their traditional medicine.

But why do “Western” scientists buy into it? I think it’s far too flippant of Dehaas to say that “most of those who sign on are simply afraid of being called racists,” although there could well be element of that. Another motivation for embracing other ways of knowing related to traditional medicine almost certainly includes an element of a longing to be the shaman-healer, something that no less a personage in the world of CAM than Dr. Mehmet Oz himself has expressed in an interview:

“I would take us all back a thousand years, when our ancestors lived in small villages and there was always a healer in that village—and his job wasn’t to give you heart surgery or medication but to help find a safe place for conversation.”

Oz went on, “Western medicine has a firm belief that studying human beings is like studying bacteria in petri dishes. Doctors do not want questions from their patients; it’s easier to tell them what to do than to listen to what they say. But people are on a serpentine path through life, and that is the way it is supposed to be. All I am trying to do is put a couple of road signs out there. I sit on that set every day, and that is what I am focussing on. The road signs.”

It’s that role, that some doctors crave (and, to some extent, understandably so), that of the healer. It’s a large part of why most doctors went into medicine in the first place. Why? I suspect it’s part of reclaiming something that many perceive as having been lost over the last couple of decades, the physician-patient interaction. As the financial pressures of practicing medicine have grown and patient face time has declined, it’s understandable that some physicians would like to reclaim “the way it was,” whether it ever really was that way or not. They yearn for the days when doctors were “healers” and shamans, the way medicine was for hundreds and hundreds of years before science intruded. Indeed, I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen rhetoric from practitioners of “integrative” medicine that basically says just this, usually with the implication that to attain that hallowed role of healer requires the embrace of various prescientific treatments.

Indeed, there still exists in the collective consciousness a concept of the physician along the lines of Dr. Marcus Welby and Dr. James Kildare, kindly, benign figures whose influence and good intent were unquestioned by patients, doctors who in essence functioned as modern day shaman-healers. Doctors also long for a perceived time when the will of the physician was generally unquestioned, and patients did what they were told. Of course it’s all romanticized. Certainly shamans were respected and could have empathetic relations with those whom they treated, but they couldn’t really do much else, given the limited their ability to actually treat serious disease and injury was.

I also can’t help but point out that embracing other ways of knowing about medicine has become a business opportunity:

We also should remember that, however warm and fuzzy the principles of IWK may sound, it also has become a business opportunity. In recent years, the demand for more IWK in curricula has created a niche for those who present themselves as an expert in this vaguely defined area. As with other efforts to expand the influence of other cultures in schools and businesses, IWK draws in educators, consultants and administrators whose job is to help these institutions match action to words. These programs also are sometimes accompanied by demands that those who teach the subject be allowed to do so without the normally required credentials, as is recommended in a recent report prepared for Ryerson University.

Also, in the case of TCM, appealing to other ways of knowing has become an even bigger business, promoted and protected by the power of the Chinese government. Indeed, China’s TCM industry grosses $116 billion a year and represents nearly 30% of China’s entire pharmaceutical industry.

Science, culture, and other ways of knowing

Unlike Steve, I’m not going to say that science necessarily transcends culture, at least not today. It can, however, transcend culture, and Steve is correct that a goal of science is to develop a way of knowing and methods that can work for everyone everywhere, regardless of culture, to investigate how nature works and use that knowledge for the betterment of humankind. There is also no doubt that, in medicine, science has produced the goods, saving more lives and preventing more deaths than any “way of knowing” that came before. No one, least of all I, should claim that science is perfect. Obviously it’s not. Advocates of applying other ways of knowing to medicine (like Boon) might love to trot out examples of SBM’s failures or imperfections as a justification for embracing prescientific methods of treatment, but until the traditional medicine they embrace can do what SBM has done and still does, pointing out SBM’s imperfections does not justify abandoning science and retreating to the past. Yet, that’s what advocates of traditional medicine ask us to do.

None of this is to say that indigenous knowledge should be ignored. As scholars have pointed out, the local knowledge of indigenous peoples can be valuable in studying climate and ecological change. The example of the Nobel Prize for Artemisinin shows that some traditional medicines can be turned into highly effective medicines, although it’s hard not to note that the experience of screening natural products for medicinal properties (i.e. pharmacognosy) suggests a high wheat-to-chaff ratio. Respect for cultural knowledge, however, does not justify exempting ancient claims about medicine from scientific scrutiny or using a lower bar of evidence to use and regulate traditional medicines than we do for SBM.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

111 replies on “Science versus “ancient ways of knowing””

This is the basic narrative of IWK: “Western” biomedical science is a cultural construct whose dominance is due not to its success in diagnosing, treating, and, in some cases, eradicating disease but rather to past imperialism and colonization by European powers.


Science is portrayed as being just another way of knowing whose preeminence in medicine is due more to cultural and national hegemony than to actual effectiveness…

I’m going to state something that I suspect will get twisted, but here goes.
The narrative has got it arse about face. Science isn’t dominant because the Western Powers pushed it. The Western Powers achieved dominance because they adopted science early on.

Alternatively, the “Western Powers” “achieved” dominance because they had no qualms about using genocide, slavery, etc., to amass a huge hoard of wealth, resources, land and subjugated peoples. I don’t see what science has to do with that, other than the use of “scientific racism” as a justification for it all.

Well, The ancient Romans were successful for a lot of reasons, but one of those reasons was that they were able to bring clean drinking water into their cities. That prevents periodic mass outbreaks of water borne diseases. That meant the Roman government had a bigger population to draw on for commerce and war, which made them more successful than their neighbors.

You don’t get aqueducts through warm and fuzzy feelings, you get them through math and basic physics.

The Romans were also very good at war, slavery (though a different kind) and general viciousness which also made them very successful. These things feed into each other.

Right, silly me, God forbid I mention the idea that 500+ years of brutal European colonialism on a scale the world had never seen might have some sort of effect on modern geopolitics and could possibly explain the dominance “achieved” by Europe.

“But ancient empires in the past did bad things too!” is basically saying, “but he’s doing it too!” which is like something my five-year-old nephew would say.

You read more in what I say, than I want to say.
History is full of violence and abuse, and it’s basicly a human feature. That doesn’t make it right, just like the Armenian genocide doesn’t make the holocaust right, or at least less wrong. With conquering always comes some form of oppression and it is often the people who are considered not belonging to the dominant group, that are about to suffer.
I just want to say that nasty behaviour, like slavery, violence, oppression are not limited to the western world. Yes, they may have to do something with western dominance, just like those behaviours have something to do with the dominance of other groups in past times and other parts of the world.

But those are only part of the story. The use of scientific methods also has something to do with the current dominance. And yes, some of that science is also used for war, just like it always has. But if we leave out the use of science for warfare, scientific methods also brought healthcare at a higher level. And brought us all kinds of other things to make our lives more comfortable.

JP, you completely missed my point.
I was not denying that colonialism, imperialism and the slave trade had contributed to Western preeminence, nor that these had deleterious effects that persist to today.
I was arguing that the claim that science is dominant because the West is dominant got it backwards. The Western Powers gained dominance because due to a confluence of events, they were the first to adopt science.

No, Europeans didn’t invent brutality and oppression or even imperialism and colonialism, but we did it on a much larger scale and much more recently than anybody else, creating the current world order that humanity is either enjoying or enduring.

But we didn’t invent science or learning either. (And yes, obviously science is great.) Ever tried doing calculus with Roman numerals? European science owes a huge debt to the Islamic world, and it’s not like the rest of the world was just sitting around farting in the sand for millennia, either.

And hey, I mean, it’s awfully hard to focus on science when you’re being enslaved and displaced and slaughtered by the millions…

I just find an immediate reaction of “other people did bad things too!” at the very mention of European colonialism to be a distasteful and suspicious reaction. It’s possible to just admit that it was (and is) incredibly awful without looking for a smart, educated, oh-so-rational salve for the conscience. Even better than admitting it is trying to find ways to rectify the injustice.

It is also hard to focus on science if your relegion, or philosphy limits you, by just looking at the past.

India was a huge center of incredibly sharp and insightful philosophy, including a strain of atheistic, materialist philosophy. The Islamic world explosions of science and art and philosophy. Europe went through many hundreds of years of religious orthodoxy and repression. Let’s not pretend that we’re something special.

I don’t pretend we are something special, but why has the dominance of other groups more or less stopped, while the western world, whether you like it or not, still is more or less dominant. I think this has a lot to do with questioning authority and being open for new ideas and not just dwelling on the past.

I can remember an interview with the author of a book on the history of science, which was basicly just about this subject, stating that for instance the devellopments in China and the Islamic world grinded to a halt.

The “grinding to a halt” of advances in China and the Islamic world has everything to do with Western imperialism and not some inherent decline or inferiority of those peoples. And the “decline” in China wasn’t even a thing.

Wahhabism in the Islamic world is directly related to the humiliation of European imperialism.


The “grinding to a halt” of advances in China and the Islamic world has everything to do with Western

This is false. The fall of the Islamic World had a lot to do with pressure from the Mongols. The Mongols also threatened the Chinese. The bottom line is, by the 19th Century, both Islam and China had become insular and inward looking.
While it is true that Western Imperialism caused a lot of harm to the rest of the World, your claim that it caused the fall of Islam and China is demonstrably untrue.

Sorry shoved that tangent. I’ve been reading about the Plague of Justinian and the Roman/Byzantine empire (empires) and I guess I was distracted by that.

Isn’t all this the premise behind “Guns, Germs, and Steel”? I haven’t managed to read past the introduction because my dad took notes all over everything and they’re distracting.


With the caveat that I read it a long time ago, yes. It was an interesting read, but I find that the author downplays human agency far too much, placing so much emphasis on geography and so on that he gives the sense that Europe just sort of accidentally took over the world, that it was some sort of inevitable thing that Europeans didn’t really, as people, have anything to do with.

Sorry for another post, but I just discovered the “academics incredibly frustrated with Jared Diamond” general and it is a delight. A bit from my favorite one so far, entitled simple F**K Jared Diamond.

Jared Diamond is back at it, once again trading in the familiar determinist tropes that earned him a Pulitzer Prize for his 1999 book Guns, Germs and Steel. That dull book was chockfull of the bad and the worse, the random and the racist. At best it is just silly, as when he offers unsupported, and unsupportable, assertions such as his get-off-my-lawn grouse that children today are not as smart as in the recent past and television is to blame. At worst, it develops an argument about human inequality based on a determinist logic that reduces social relations such as poverty, state violence, and persistent social domination, to inexorable outcomes of geography and environment. Arguments such as these have made him a darling of bourgeois intellectuals, who have grown tired of looking meanspirited and self-serving when they make their transparently desperate efforts to displace histories of imperialism back on its victims. They need a pseudointellectual explanation for inequality in order to sustain the bourgeois social order that guarantees their privilege. This they found in Guns, Germs and Steel.

Sure, the Crusades and Opium Wars and imperialism had nothing at all to do with anything, chalk it all up to Mongols.

JP, stop twisting my words.
I never said that they had no effect. In fact, you could argue that the Crusades had the effect of uniting the Islamic World against a common enemy. As for the Opium Wars, they occurred in the 19th Century, by which time China had already become insular.

Sure, Wang Zhengyi never existed and China was cloaked in ignorance for ages and delivered from it by Europeans.

What are you talking about? The fact that I won’t adhere to your statement that nobody outside of Europe, including notable scientists, made contributions to science during the “Enlightenment” period makes me a troll?

Look, you keep saying things like “China had become insular” (and therefore wasn’t contributing to science, as far as I can figure) and that the Islamic world somehow deteriorated because of a long-ago and pretty brief occupation by the Mongols, when it continued to be pretty lively (although not as much as during the Golden Age) for a long time. And yes, the Crusades and later European imperialism has a large effect on the culture, which you admitted yourself in claiming that it unitied the Islamic world against European invaders. Why wouldn’t it, and why shouldn’t it?

The very fact that you felt the need to say “oh, my words will be ‘twisted’” when you said that Europe “achieved” dominance because they embraced science is like a preemptive whine about censorship. Instead of pre-emptively whining, you could have clarified your position or stated it as something more like “the ‘Western Powers’ (whatever that is supposed to mean) had more advanced science than most of the world when theit conquered it” or something.

The initial wording and what came off as a complaint against “political correctness” came off not well.

No, I was raising the fact that I suspected that someone would raise straw man arguments about what I said. And lo and behold, you straw manned what I said, and have been doing so to the point of trolling and beyond.

You could have elaborated on what you actually meant rather than pre-emptively complaining that your vague and provocative words would be “twisted”, which is pretty much the same thing as whining about “political correctness.”

When what the elders say can start to approach the effectiveness of the scientific method for accuracy of knowledge of reality, I’ll give it credence. Until then, I’ll relegate it to the same level as religion and tabloid publications. Good for a laugh, but not to be used for anything serious.

In an effort to pay for our stupid decisions in the past (reconciliation), Canada has started using “traditional knowledge” from the local indigenous groups as a large part of our wildlife management strategies. So the noble savage fallacy is now governmental policy.

In my field, we already partner with Indigenous groups using their input (knowledge) to develop research and monitoring priorities. Some of this was mandated by land-claim agreements and some by mutual ad-hoc cooperation. With reconciliation, we are now looking to make these collaborations more business as usual. Indigenous knowledge is like any other experiential knowledge, it is grist to the science mill but it can’t trump the outcomes of research. We see that alot with fishing groups, they know they are right and we don’t know anything (sound familiar?) if they don’t like the results.
I think the point that IK or IWK is poorly defined is right on. The promoters have trouble keeping the knowledge part separate from the values part. IK can generate testable hypotheses and interesting directions for research, that is the science-y good stuff. How to manage a resource, how to manage risk, what is a sustainable exploitation rate, etc – those are all societal values and choices.

I still don’t get what homeopathy has to do with traditional medicine and colonisation. Homeopathy comes from Germany, not really a country that has been colonised.
Besides several non-western countries did conquer other countries. Like the Turks in parts of Europe and the Moors in Spain. Or how about Djengis Kahn and the Mongols? Japan also occupied parts of China, Korea and other countries on the Asian mainland.

But please don’t talk about ancient knowledge being superior. Those old wise men, often just look old and are just older than their peers.

Indeed: the Roman empire; the Carthaginians; the Persian empire; the various Chinese dynasties; the various Egyptian dynasties; the Inca; and…and…

Or does the long and war-like history of human squabbling, killing and conquering prior to more recent colonisation by European nations and city states not count? ‘Cos it’s somehow “different”?

“Japan also occupied parts of China, Korea and other countries on the Asian mainland.” And when did Japan do this? After the West forced them to open to foreign trade, launching the Meiji Era, in which the ruling elite of Japan sought to emulate the West. They made many changes, and most pertinent to those events were their turning to industrialization, building an army on the Prussian model, and emulating the British navy. Eventually they did this well enough to conquer and nearly to hold on to vast areas of Asia, Oceania, and the Pacific.
The technology they took from America and Europe. The conviction of their divinely ordained racial superiority was their own.

““Japan also occupied parts of China, Korea and other countries on the Asian mainland.” And when did Japan do this? After the West forced them to open to foreign trade, launching the Meiji Era,”

Actually Japan had long harbored designs for conquering parts of the Japanese mainland. While they never had any degree of success until after the Meiji Restoration, the first major attempt that I’m aware of is Totoyomi Hideyoshi’s invasion of Korea in the late 1500s. And Korea wasn’t even the main goal, it was merely supposed to be a stepping stone into an invasion of China… it just never happened because while the Japanese dominated on land, the Koreans had the near legendary Admiral Yi.

The conviction of their divinely ordained racial superiority was their own.

Are you so sure about that?


blockquote>Racial discrimination against other Asians was habitual in Imperial Japan, having begun with the start of Japanese colonialism.[62] The Meiji era Japanese showed a contempt for other Asians. This was exemplified in an editorial titled Datsu-A Ron, which advocated that Japan treat other Asians as other western empires treat them. The Shōwa regime preached racial superiority and racialist theories, based on nature of Yamato-damashii. According to historian Kurakichi Shiratori, one of Emperor Hirohito’s teachers: “Therefore nothing in the world compares to the divine nature (shinsei) of the imperial house and likewise the majesty of our national polity (kokutai). Here is one great reason for Japan’s superiority.”[63]

ha ha mr orac bet the ribbon in the type writer is worn out after that mouthfull..ha ha …yes wonderfull……try cure for life or ushealthmacz…… utube yep medical world is upside down…u have fires on all fronts ….the pen is not mighter than the social media as it is now old school stuff is being challenged by the masses & others & the right will be seen by all in the end… cheers from oz happy bob ..8.

Please stay away from the computer when you are smoking pot. Or at least, don’t try to respond on a subject you don’t have any coherent thoughts on.

Yes, dear, I’m sure you’re right, dear, whatever it was you actually said, dear. As my late aunt would say to her husband…

This style of writing is eerily familiar. Did you ever send a letter to a London newspaper starting with “dear boss”?

Let’s not flatter the man, he might figure out your reference and do something awful. Like watch that horrible show on the History Channel that posited that HH Holmes was also Jack the Ripper. (It was so, so bad. I can’t believe that they stretched out that thin gruel for a whole season, and that I watched most of it.)

Justatech, I had the letters confused. The “Dear Boss” letter is far more coherent. I actually had the “from hell” letter in mind.

Whether or not there are differing ways of knowing, there are certainly many ways to be wrong. What methods do advocates of “traditional knowledge” propose to use to detect and correct errors? Unless you are a god you will make mistakes. You must be able to make corrections….. Don’t say this to a post-modernist, who will tell you that all knowledge is subjective, or a social convention (except for what they say, which of course is always right).

Among the many problems with postmodernism: If you are going to tell me that all concepts of knowledge are socially constructed, then what incentive do I have to accept any of your definitions that might differ from mine? That way lies madness. Like the French philosopher (Lacan, IIRC) who equated his fifth limb to the square root of -1–I’ll let your inner 12-year-old math nerd finish that joke.

There might be cases where adopting a postmodernist attitude might make sense, but the natural sciences are not among them, because certain things will turn out to be true for all observers. Alan Sokal famously invited anyone who thought that gravity was a social construct to transgress that convention from his (twenty-first floor) apartment window. I am not about to dissuade any of these so-called thinkers from taking up Sokal’s invitation.

And there’s also a great example of when “other ways of knowing” and science coincide. Just because Newton wrote down the equation for gravity doesn’t mean that most people through history haven’t figured out that jumping out a window is a bad idea.
“If I drop this apple, it falls.” “If I drop this apple it falls, and here is the equation to describe it.”

Lacan knew he was a charlatan, and a lot of the time he was spouting preposterous gibberish just to see if there was a limit to what his acolytes would swallow.
That is my theory and I am sticking to it.

Newton didn’t merely observe that the apple fell and conjecture that the Earth drew the apple to it. Others had done that. He also reasoned that the apple pulled on the Earth, and that that same force was not merely local but universal. When he quit literally did the math, it was a better fit.

IWK has its uses. That’s how a pre-literate society remembers its history, and how it identifies places that are likely to have valuable resources (food, water, material to trade with neighboring societies, etc.). But it is no substitute for science. At its best, it can tell the scientists where to look. Maybe they will find something, as with quinine and artemisinin. Maybe it turns out to be a placebo. Either way, the constraint on their search space can be helpful.

I think Julian is on the right track. Science is the most efficient means ever devised for separating what works and what doesn’t. Societies that embrace this method tend to become dominant, and it is a historical accident/coincidence that almost all of these societies have been in the West. Even within the West, societies that turn away from science tend to lose out to others that don’t; e.g., Spain in the 17th and 18th centuries, or Germany, 1920-1945, or the USSR.

Has anyone out there stopped to think that the “Western” mode of “knowing” through science became dominant because it actually works? Western civilisation became dominant precisely because it was the one which adopted the scientific worldview with the least resistance. That it was Europeans that managed this is purely an accident of history. If the Mongols hadn’t so devastated the Islamic world in the 13th century, it might have been the them who would have gone on to develop the ideas underlying modern science instead of the Europeans. Of course, Islam would have had in the interim to also have undergone a Reformation-style event analogous to Christianity’s, and the most common practices of Islam in this alternate world might well be rather different. Might be an interesting exercise in alternate history, not sure if someone’s tried to do it.

renate…murmur…beckyfisseux…u little petals& treasures god bless u …from oz cheers happy bob .8

Nitpick: Islam would have had to through a period analogous to enlightenment (with hopefully lasting effects). This distinction is kind of important as they are having their reformation pretty much now – it’s generally known as Wahabism/Salafism.

“I would take us all back a thousand years, when our ancestors lived in small villages and there was always a healer in that village” – Oz, the Great and Powerful

So, he regrets ever becoming a heart surgeon, and wants to go and live in a hut to give people a comfortable space? Well, then, why doesn’t he do just that thing?

@ Ellie:

I’m sure that Dr Oz’s innermost archaic spirit would just love living in a simple hut but he has incredible monthly upkeep expenses on his massive palace on the Cliffs overlooking the Bridge and the Skyline as well as his new place near Mar a Lago.
So he can’t move just yet.

I have also heard “lay midwives” (i.e. non-CNM/untrained midwives) use the ‘other ways of knowing’ argument. “Don’t trust what your doctor tells you” is especially dangerous when the life of your baby hangs in the balance.

critical alternative models for resolving health crises on a global scale where biomedical and technological solutions fall increasingly short.
And can Dr Boon provide evidence – any evidence? – that her ‘alternative models’ can actually resolve a global-scale health crisis? Or is this a case of crickets, all the way down?

The alternative, indigenous-way-of-knowing model for resolving health crises has traditionally been “sacrifice to the gods until the plague runs its course and most of the population has died”. That’s a form of crisis resolution.

There is “science as a way of knowing” (i.e. the general cyclic methodology of observing, asking questions, making hypotheses, testing them, falsifying wrong theories, realising what observations to make and what to look for); and there is “science as what is currently known” (general relativity; organic chemistry, genetics, cell biology, and so on).

The people who talk about Indigenous Ways of Knowing don’t make that distinction. Really they’re talking about “what is known”, i.e. “indigenous belief systems” (creation myths, genealogies, technology, pharmagnostics). Some of which (as Eric Lund said) may be reliable. But to the extent that there is an Indigenous Way of Knowing, comparable to scientific methodology, it’s obedience, conformity, acceptance of what the elders say.

@ Smut Clyde:

re obedience, conformity, acceptance of what the elders say

Funny that’s exactly what some alties say about SBM:
following hallowed tradition, unquestioned obedience to authority, a worshipful cult of believers without a shred of originality or insight
AND they even call us ORTHODOX!**

I swear! It’s all there at***

** and I always thought that Orac was merely a lapsed Catholic

*** but of course they’re loons

“Science versus “ancient ways of knowing””

You are comparing apples and oranges.

You should be comparing CORRUPTED science (a.k.a mainstream medicine) vs. “ancient ways of knowing”.

“You should be comparing CORRUPTED science (a.k.a mainstream medicine) vs. “ancient ways of knowing””, AKA “One Thousand and One Medicinal Uses of Cow Urine”.”

And when “ancient ways of knowing” tell me to innoculate against smallpox, is that a good thing or a bad thing?
Did you know “ancient ways of knowing” invented the concept of vaccination?

Wanna tell me how “ancient ways of knowing” will deal with dilated left ventricular cardiomyopathy?

“Corrupted” science and mainstream meds are doing a good job so far.

“Biomedicine’s globalized dominance, as Hollenberg and Muzzin have elaborated, is far less the result of biomedical science’s evidenced efficacy than it is a feature of the ongoing sociopolitical subordination of precolonial indigenous knowledge systems and related healthcare practices.”

Yeah, right. Sure…that was the probably the mantra of all the WHO medical workers worked so hard to eradicate smallpox in the middle part of the last century.

Yup. And of course the people who say things like that don’t seem to know or care that variolation (the precursor to vaccination for smallpox) was not developed in Europe but rather in China. I got your “precolonial indigenous knowledge systems and related healthcare practices” right here!

“Ancient ways of knowing” is a smokescreen term. The methods being promoted are ancient ways of GUESSING. To know something, you need actual evidence, i.e., science.

The methods being promoted are ancient ways of GUESSING.

The I Ching has its uses, but a synchronicity condenser ain’t medicine.

Those who promote ‘ancient ways of knowing’ probably do so cos they know ‘modern ways of knowing’ produces measurable and repeatable effects, unlike CAM or TCM, Science is threat to (their bottom line) so bringing in IWK as being just as valid is just another front in the alternative facts war.

I’ll bet that the proponents here in the “West” cherrypick the traditional ways of knowing they propound, or else they must accept murdering people accused of witchcraft, slaughtering endangered species wholesale, and killing and dismembering albinos to use their body parts to make charms to defend against the abovementioned witches.

To save anyone else having to read that: what Vinu has done is link to his own open access response to a real BMJ article about dietary patterns and chronic disease prevention.

Are we getting to the point with vinu’s idee fixee that he’s up for auto-moderation on that subject? ‘Cause even I’m getting bored with it.

As I said last time, glass of milk have trillion times more milk proteins than than a vaccine shot. So stop deferring dietary patterns.
And, of course, any theory of autism must explain the gender pattern.

That is why instead of preventing disease, we are manufacturing numerous new diseases every day.
Perhaps you could supply some actual scientific evidence – you know, real published data – in support of that claim?

Vinu, it’s time to put up or shut up. You are making the claim. You must be the one to provide the proof.

@jp Mexicans have a saying “Indians did conquista and Spanish did liberation”. Colonizers had lots of local allies.
As per India, Clive actually stole Bengal , he did not conquer it. And he hit after Mogul Empire had collapsed. Indian classic era was before muslim conquest. Do this dimish value of Arab numerals ?
As per China, colonizers hit when Xing was weakened. And Japanese were very much colonizers here, too. Is Rape of Nanking reason to reject shiatsu or saying that Seki Kowa was a bad mathematican ?
Sokal did ask anthropologists, is it a narrative, or a fact, that conquista resulted death of million Indians. He did not get any answer. Can you answer him ?

Mexicans have a saying “Indians did conquista and Spanish did liberation”.

Really? Funny, a lot of my friends and family are Mexican and I’ve never heard it. I mean, hey, it’s a big and very diverse country, it might be a saying among some social strata in some part of the country, but I’ve never once heard it.

Colonizers had lots of local allies.

Yeah, there were a few groups who made alliances with the colonizers. Pretty smart, considering that sometimes it granted them a couple hundred years of relatively unmolested existence in the face of a brutal onslaught. This proves that … human beings are strategic about the survival of themselves and their kin groups and cultures? Do you have a point?

Sokal did ask anthropologists, is it a narrative, or a fact, that conquista resulted death of million Indians. He did not get any answer. Can you answer him ?

He did? Why? I mean, as a question, it makes absolutely no sense. I mean, the trivial answer is that it’s obviously a well-documented historical fact and that it’s … also part of many historical narratives. Okay, so? Is the point of the question just to, like, somehow prove that anthropology is a “postmodern neo-Marxist” pseudoscience or something? That’s the sense I get. In any case, if Sokal really did ask the question, it doesn’t raise my estimation of him at al.

As to the rest, at least what I can understand of it, it’s mainly just the same “whataboutism” and oddly insistent deflection that I’ve addressed many times in this thread. Yes, Japan went on a brief imperialist spree. My personal theory is that they were trying to be Western, and you know what’s really super Western? Conquering stuff. And nobody’s saying that they didn’t do atrocious things. I’m well aware of those facts; I don’t see just more iterations of “bad things other guys did” is supposed to refute the fact that Europe engaged in brutal colonialism for hundreds of years and totally screwed a lot of places over and they’re still dealing with it and we aren’t really helping. (In fact, we think they’re in debt! To us! Ha!)

And the answer to “why did Europe dominate the world” is because Europe decided to. It was a decision. China could have colonized Africa, they made it there. They certainly had the military technology to do it. But they didn’t. They weren’t interested. But Europe was definitely like, “Oh yeah, gonna go rape and pillage some sh!t and get real rich.” (Incidentally, the motivation, besides pure power, and in the case of a lot of people who seem to just be absolute sociopaths, desire to brutalize people, was largely monetary. In other words, y’know, capitalism.)

It’s not that China wasn’t interested in conquest. They did quite a lot of it of their neighbors. They withdrew from exploration after the stunning voyages of Zheng He, in part because of war with the Mongols, and in part from a conviction that the world had nothing to teach them, but the opposite. Eventually they let the navy and the naval shipyards fall into *desuetude.

*I’ve been waiting a long time to somehow use that word.

Cortez had maximum 3000 men, his ally Tlaxcala maximum 300000. So it is literally true that “Indians did conquista”.
Sokal simply wanted antropologists to admit that there are trivial facts. If you admit that there are, then you would admit that vaccination eradicated smallpox, for instance.
My purpose was similar: there are no colonial medicine and medicine of oppressed. History is much softer science than medicine.
As for capitalism, almost every newly independent country tried socialism in one country. It did not work.

What does the Postal Service have to do with anything discussed in this post? I mean, there’s off topic and then there’s off topic.

Vinu, genuinely and seriously, are you OK?

“But the USPS is still delivering mail.”
Well, of course they are. That’s what they’re here for.
“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night,” nor vaccination, “stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”

But vicious wild turkeys, those will stop the mail. I’m sure it’s happened more than once; the incident I remember was a street in a Boston suburb (inner-burb). The postal worker needed stitches after one attack, so until the turkey could be removed by Fish and Wildlife the people on that street had to go to the post office.

Vinu apparently wants us to utilize pre-vaccine ancient ways of knowing how to deal with illness – like bleeding, balancing of humors and trephination.

The ancients who benefited from those therapies fortunately tended to die long before they had to cope with allergies and degenerative diseases of old age.

If we accept “ancient ways of knowing” for medicine, why not accept ancient ways of knowing other things. Astronomy – the stars control our lives and they are the campfires of distant tribes, and the sun is drawn across the sky by a god in a chariot. Geology – the fire that comes out of the ground is the fire of Hell. and Hell can be approached by bribing a boatman to carry you across an underground river. Physics – matter is made of atoms that hold themselves to each other by little hooks. Cosmology – turtles all the way down. Agronomy – crops fail unless we sacrifice produce/livestock/our neighbors.

I’ll toss this in here.

It is often said that the perfect is the enemy of the good.

But, when it comes to ancient ways of knowing, I think good enough is the enemy of better.

In the area of medicine, the problem isn’t that there is nothing there that works. It is that the people who espouse these methods don’t want to ask hard questions like “how can we tell if this really works?” or “how does it actually work?” or “can we change anything to make it work better?”

For instance, there is a popular Chinese herbal medicine consisting of 3 herbs. But I haven’t heard of any studies done to perform a simple A-B-C test to see which herb or combination has a medical effect, much less trying to identify the chemical(s) that do so. And given the vagueness of traditional Chinese diagnoses, would they even be able to see a difference?

Cortez had maximum 3000 men, his ally Tlaxcala maximum 300000. So it is literally true that “Indians did conquista”

Do you know how the Tlaxcala came to be allies of the Spanish? They fought them long and hard, actually, but when it was clear that they were going to lose and be decimated, enslaved, who knows, they gave up and allied with the Spanish. Also, yeah, they didn’t like the Aztecs. In any case, the fall of Tenochtitlan was one event in a long, brutal, and very far reaching conquest. “Indians did conquista” is about as true and moral a statement as “Africans enslaved themselves.”

Sokal simply wanted antropologists to admit that there are trivial facts.

…What? Why? I’ve never met an anthropologist who didn’t admit that there as such things as facts, and I know a lot of anthropologists. If they didn’t answer his question, it’s not because they “couldn’t”, it’s probably because they found it bizarre and insulting. Also it shows a real lack of what the world “narrative” means. Similarly, a lot of people really seem to have no idea what a “social construct” actually is.

If you admit that there are, then you would admit that vaccination eradicated smallpox, for instance.

… Yeah. No sh!t. As a matter of fact, did you know that Europeans got the idea of inoculation from the Islamic world via Turkey? Interesting historical fact.

My purpose was similar: there are no colonial medicine and medicine of oppressed.

I mean, if we’re being literal, there is. Colonized people (and people living under neo-colonialism) practiced/practice medicine. Oppressed people in general also practice medicine and have contributed to it. I’m talking medicine, like, medicine that works, not alternative or folk medicine. Europe and Euro-America had a whole bunch of bunk medicine too, until very recently. Well, I mean, they still do, and a lot of people still buy it.

History is much softer science than medicine.

And? Biology is squishier than physics, but it’s no less important or challenging. I mean, history is generally actually considered to be one of the humanities, which get even less respect from hard science bros, but whatever.

As for capitalism, almost every newly independent country tried socialism in one country. It did not work.

I’m not even going to start. I have a deadline coming up.

I spoke in context of Mexico. And do you really believe that army of 3000 decimated army of 300000 ? “Indians did conquista” just means that tlaxcalans did not have a crystal ball and wanted to solve their immediate problem, aztecs.
I guess that things you said about colonialism are not “narrative” or “social construction”. So perhaps you can give an example of a narrative, outside fiction.
Actually, Europe get idea of inoculation through Turkey. Vaccination is very different thing.
Oppressed people do have medicine that works. Medicine does not work just because if comes from oppressed peoples.
When I said that history is softer I meant that every document is written for a purpose. You can argue that every Spanish document about conquista is written to justify it. If you do clinical trials this way, you are a fraud.
I agree that this not proper place for economical discussions.

And do you really believe that army of 3000 decimated army of 300000 ?

Do you have a reading comprehension problem? What I quite clearly said is that the Spanish attacked the Tlaxcala, repeatedly defeated them (this is historical fact) and that then the Tlaxcala decided to ally with the Spanish, rather than face being decimated or annihilated or enslaved. I didn’t say they did decimate them, but they definitely could have, and the Tlaxcala weren’t stupid.

Anyway, let’s talk about “social constructions.” Do you have any idea what a social construction is? I mean, hey, Google exists. But in any case, let me do my best to briefly elucidate using one example. Money is a social construction; this is inarguable. It doesn’t exist outside of social relations, it’s literally socially constructed by humans. You aren’t going to learn anything about money qua money by looking at paper currency under a microscope or investigating the chemical properties of gold.

That doesn’t mean that money isn’t real. The limits placed on us by our finances can be just as limiting as those placed on us by the laws of gravity. Something’s being a social construct doesn’t mean it isn’t real.

So perhaps you can give an example of a narrative, outside fiction.


Okay. “America was founded in 1776. We have the first [actually second] modern democratic constitution in the world. We’re the good guys! We fought against the Nazis.” That’s a narrative that contains some facts and a sort of nationalistic statement/assumption. It also leaves a hell of a lot out. When I was in junior high, we had a Pacific Northwest History class. The general thrust was that white people were brave explorers (Lewis and Clark) and that we settled the area in such and such areas and such and such dates, various scuffles with Canada, and on and on. Settlement was pretty much presented as a good. Again, it’s based on facts, but it’s a very specific narrative. I recently read that over half of Brits are proud of the colonial history of the British Empire. I’m guessing they’ve involved some kind of heavily biased, weird, colonialist historical narrative.

Narratives aren’t inherently bad, though. A lot of historians write historical narratives. They’re nice to read. I mean, look, a narrative is just a story. We all tell ourselves stories and we tell each other stories. It’s a human thing. Some narratives are pure fantasy/fiction, some contain facts but tell a very biased story, some are much more, well, true, and some are downright lies. They’re all narratives.

Did you think this was some sort of “gotcha” question?

Actually, Europe get idea of inoculation through Turkey.

That’s what I said.

Medicine does not work just because if comes from oppressed peoples.

I didn’t frigging say it does.

When I said that history is softer I meant that every document is written for a purpose. You can argue that every Spanish document about conquista is written to justify it. If you do clinical trials this way, you are a fraud.

You’re making an incoherent and meaningless statement about two incommensurate things, totally different disciplines and lines of inquiry. You can’t use the experimental method when it comes to history, it doesn’t work that way. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a valid discipline or doesn’t have its own methods. It’s comparative.

I agree that this not proper place for economical discussions.

I’m perfectly happy to debunk bullsh!t arguments against and complete misunderstandings of socialism, and talk about the history of capitalism and how it’s utterly entangled with colonialism and slavery, but right at the moment I’ve been busting my @ss all day (I need to pay my mom’s car payment due to various things), I’m a couple drinks in, and I need to wake up early-ish for an appointment in the morning.

It is not more believable to say that 3000 men forced 300000 to alliance. Tlaxcalans did not unify against Spanish, they made alliance with them.
Problem is not do social constructs exist. Is science social construct, or it is not ?
I noticed that if you agree something, it is historical fact, and you disagree, it is narrative. And you should call patriotic propaganda patriotic propaganda, not narrative.
You seem to believe that inoculation is synonym to vaccination. It is not. Inoculation used live, and inattentuated, smallpox viruses. Jenner used cowpox viruses, a much safer method.
History is full of holes. Lack of evidence is not evidence of lack. You cannot say this in the case
of clinical trials.
So we do start economic discussion. So check Sekou Toure, Mengistu Haile Mariam or any other afrosocialist tyrant. Check what Kaunda and Nyerere really delivered. In India Nehru called dams modern temples and wanted to produce lots of steel, rather uneatable commodity. Planners produced lots of unsellable tractors, but when Borlaug suggested fertilizers, they said that there are not enough money for it. And Borlaug suggested, that if farmers get fair price, they would produce more. It worked as we know.

Jesus fcking Christ. I shouldn’t be bothering, but I’m awake, I can’t sleep, probably due to being hypomanic and also the fact that I live in a country that’s separating refugee children from their parents, at this point for many of them permanently, and rounding them up into fcking concentration camps.

It is not more believable to say that 3000 men forced 300000 to alliance.

How many Americans did it take to kill a million Iraqis?

Is science social construct, or it is not ?

Yes. Of course it is. It’s an academic discipline. Do you suppose that that’s something that just exists outside of human social relations? What, in some kind of ur-realm like Plato’s ideal cup?

I noticed that if you agree something, it is historical fact, and you disagree, it is narrative.

What in the entire f*ck are you talking about? You asked me for an example of a narrative that isn’t fiction, in a condescending and weird way, and I provided an example, and then quite simply, I think, described what a narrative is. A narrative is a story. The Epic of Gilgamesh is a narrative. A People’s History of the United States is a narrative. See Spot Run is a frigging narrative. If I sat down and went through the events of my day, it would be a narrative.

There are a lot of different types of narratives, and I briefly gave some examples of different types of them and how they can be used. Apparently, though, you can’t f*cking read. I specifically said that narratives are not in any way inherently bad.

And you should call patriotic propaganda patriotic propaganda, not narrative.

It’s both things. A thing can be described by more than one term. A thing can be part of another thing.

You seem to believe that inoculation is synonym to vaccination. It is not.

I know the f*cking difference, you bizarrely comprehension impaired condescending prat. Like, I specifically emphasized that I said inoculation, not vaccination. Jesus Christ, it was a brief and interesting historical fact that I mentioned as an aside, just sort of generally, I guess, in the vein of “non-Europeans contributed to medicine and science in various ways.”

So we do start economic discussion.

No, sorry. You’re condescending, you’re … I don’t even know what to say except I think that you literally can’t read and, I mean, we’re not even talking about a strawman here, we’re talking about something more extreme and just bizarre.

@jp I notice that a you go a bit overboard, when critized. Calm down, please.
How many bombers did Cortez have ?
University is a social construct, but that does not mean that science is. Your example was money. Money works because people believes that it is money. Does medication work because people believes it is medication ? There is placebo control for that. And I of course do not believe platonic truth. Multiple centred, placebo controlled, double blinded is not platonic concept.
I indeed asked an example of narrative and your example was something you disagree with. Your statements about conquista were always historical facts. Thats why I made my conclusion.
Something can indeed both narrative and ,propanganda. But propaganda is more specific, and thus preferable.
I am happy that you understand difference between inoculation and vaccination, and that you do not want to do economics.

I notice that a you go a bit overboard, when critized.

I get rather incensed when people ask ridiculous questions that amount to “I am smart science man and you are stupid,” which is exactly what that alleged question of Sokal’s was doing. I still can’t find any record of that question, which definitely leads me to doubt that it was ever asked. I mean, his whole “if you think that gravity is a mere social convention, jump out my window” bit was an absurd strawman and all it did, to somebody who has any understanding of social sciences or the humanities, is prove that he doesn’t know what a social construct is (he thinks it amounts to “mere social convention,” which it doesn’t) and that he thinks people who are in other disciplines are idiots. There is a very real sense in which one can say that, yes, the law of gravity is a social construct. The brute fact of gravity exists whether or not we understand it or come up with equations about it, I have literally never encountered a single person who doesn’t understand that, but you can certainly say that the law of gravity is socially constructed. Most people don’t go around doing it because it isn’t a very interesting thing to investigate in that way on its own as a singular thing.

You asked if science is a social construct. The answer is yes and it’s not even controversial, nor does it have anything to do with postmodernism as either an academic theory or a bogeyman. It’s a human enterprise that is absolutely the result of human social interactions. It has established standards and methods that are the result of people working together to come up with them. That doesn’t mean it isn’t real or it doesn’t work or it isn’t great or valuable. It’s just a plain statement of fact. But posing some kind of “gotcha” question of “Tell me, is science a social construct or is it not?” is another instance of the kind of question I took issue with above.

Does medication work because people believes it is medication ?

A medication is a product of applied science. It’s a thing in itself. Science is how it was produced and how we can tell if it works. “A medication” is not “science.” It’s like somebody who, a while back, was incensed about the notion that science is a social construct saying that “I sure am grateful for all the science that digests my food and distributes the energy throughout my body!” All you can really do is kind of stare in shock and then try to patiently explain that no, it is not science that digests your food, it is various internal organs. You would digest food perfectly well had science never existed.

And I of course do not believe platonic truth.

Okay. Then I don’t really see how you could claim science is anything other than a social construct.

Multiple centred, placebo controlled, double blinded is not platonic concept.

No, it’s a method that people came up with and agreed to use. Socially. You know, a social construct.
A good one.

How many bombers did Cortez have ?

None. But the Spanish indisputably had military technology that the Natives did not. They weren’t the only ones to have it, which is why I argued elsewhere is why “Europeans embraced science first” (they weren’t the first anyway) is not a good causal explanation for why they dominated the rest of the world. It doesn’t mean that it didn’t enable them to take over the American continent (well, along with a few other advantages), it just doesn’t explain why.

Look, the fact that you find it “hard to believe” that 3000 Spaniards repeatedly defeated the Tlaxclala who outnumbered them doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen. What is this, “feels over reals”? I thought your type hated that kind of thing. (I mean, it’s actually a perfectly fine philosophical position, just ask David Hume. “Reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions.”)

I indeed asked an example of narrative and your example was something you disagree with.

You asked “can you provide an example of something that is a narrative that isn’t fiction” and I did. It was a random-@ss choice. I then gave multiple other examples of things that are narratives, including a work of history that takes a left-wing slant (the author is explicit about this) that I actually do happen to agree with (though there are many valid criticisms of A People’s History that can be and have been made.) I don’t really see, if you were reading in any sort of attentive way and not skimming smugly, that you could miss the whole “A narrative is a story, we all tell ourselves stories and tell each other stories, it is a human thing,” and the “narratives are not inherently bad, many historians write in a narrative fashion” bit.

But propaganda is more specific, and thus preferable.

I don’t care what you think is preferable. I gave you an example of a narrative in what was honestly a pretty generous answer to a condescending question.

Oh, by the way:

Calm down, please.

Knock it off.

Have you noticed that scientists do experiments ? Is result of an experiment social construct ? Experiment that gives results that you want, is a bad experiment. Your collegues notice it, if you do not.
Not being platonic does not mean that you must accept that everything is social construct. Every
science has its rules of evidence, based experience and /or common sense. Neither are basic and applied science so different that you think. Generation of blood vessels is an important basic science problem. It promises cure of cancer, too.
Placebo control is because, among other things, body indeed does heal itself. This is rule based on experience, and “social construct” just express a very trivial fact that there are humans involved.
Double blinded takes, among other things, social ambition of the investigator, who want to show himself right. So it is commonsensical to double blind.
Multi centered takes directly a social construct, a lead investigator running a bit to tight ship.,
I have no issues with historians doing things they can do, like doing political science. Problem is when they try to do science history. They find it so boring, and to grab attention, they say most ridiculous things.
In battle Isandlwana, Zulus had about 20000 men, British 1837. They were routed, even though they have better weapons than Cortez.
So you admit Peoples History is a narrative. What about examples of historical fact ? If you really care something, it must be historical fact, must it not ?
I do know history of science. When historians do it, results are comical.

You’re arrogant and condescending to the point of absurdity, you dismiss entire disciplines and fields of study, either you engage in bad faith or you really just have a reading comprehension problem.

I have doubts that you even really understand science as an academic discipline or the basic philosophy underpinning it.

I am not interested in continuing an exchange with somebody who refuses to learn or think and argues with positions that don’t exist.

Then you don’t know a thing about history, Aarno. Not a thing.

You can disbelieve the numbers of military actions if you so choose, but you can’t ignore the results. There’s a reason the Zulu’s are not the power they once were.

You might also consider that the conquest of the Aztecs didn’t happen overnight, didn’t happen with just one battle, and involved the Conquistadors making political alliances with factions within the Aztec Empire at a time the Empire was continuing to expand (possibly over extending itself).

Honestly, it’s almost as if you’re claiming ancient aliens came down and did the work of these historical events.

Seriously: read JP’s link on the historical method. It will explain why historians come to the conclusions they do.

Aarno, your mention of the battle of Isandlwana is specious. First, not all the troops of the expeditionary force were British or Boers. Native troops were the bulk of the force. Second, they made serious mistakes. Among other things, they failed to bring crowbars to open their ammunition boxes. Soldiers died hacking at the boxes with bayonets and rifle butts.
The battle of Rorke’s Drift followed on Isandlwana. Welsh Fusiliers and a few Boers totaling about 140, held off 4000 Zulu for a day and a night; the Zulu retreated because the loss of so many young men was too much for their leaders to stomach. The defenders had the same rifles as the force at Isandlwana were behind improvised defense works made from tipped-over ox carts and sacks of yams.They were led by an engineering officer who had never been in battle and was hard of hearing. The Zulu force actually had more rifles than the Welshmen; many taken at Isandlwana, and they outgunned the defenders. The Zulu warriors were also fit and hardy in the extreme.
Another example is the Anabasis. Xenophon, a junior officer was left to command ten thousand Greek soldiers after the more senior officers were treacherously poisoned at a Persian banquet.They were a thousand miles/1600 km inside the Persian empire, badly outnumbered, and their commander was roughly equivalent to a modern first lieutenant, Still, the huge and powerful Persian forces were afraid to meet them in open combat.They had to fight for every mile against not only Persians, but they had to fight their way across Kurdistan, which has never been an easy task.
History is full of such examples. Logistics, training, and motivation can be what the Pentagon calls “force multipliers.”
As George Washington said, “Discipline is the soul of an army. It makes small numbers formidable; procures
success to the weak, and esteem to all.”
And this from Euripides: “Ten soldiers wisely led will beat a hundred without a head.”

@Old Rockin’ Dave:

I just noticed your comment about about China. All I really have the energy to say about it right now is that I’ll let the Chinese deal with their own history. (Okay, one thing: as far as China feeling pretty self-satisfied with itself when it came to learning, it had reason to; Europe really didn’t measure up to, let alone surpass China in that regard until well into the 18th century.)

Anyway, I mainly came here because a friend posted an article by a colleague of his that says a lot of what I’ve been trying to say.



We also concede the notion that this continuous and identifiable “West” developed primarily through its own powers, with only marginal influence from the “non-Western” peoples. This myth of self-generated vitality is an old one, traceable back to the Athenian myth of the first Athenians springing from the soil of Attica, and finding new and horrifying life in the Third Reich’s foundational myth of Germanic aboriginality. But it is well known that European civilization has always engaged in trade and exchange with non-European peoples, and that those peoples have sometimes exercised profound influence on large segments of culture. This is not even something that takes careful exegesis to discover. Throughout medieval scholastic philosophy, for example, the commentaries on Aristotle by the Andalusian Muslim polymath Ibn-Rushd are explicitly quoted either to confirm a point or as an authority sufficiently eminent to demand specific refutation. The whole shape of this most stereotypically European period of thought depends on that influx of Arabic philosophy. Even the very Christianity held so dear by so many avowedly secular rightwing intellectuals is the product of contact between a heretical Jewish sect and the Hellenistic culture that pervaded the Mediterranean in that era. There simply isn’t any way to imagine modern Europe without the foundational influence of these and many other distinctly non-European voices.

Of course, acknowledging Euro-American cultural and intellectual debts is not sufficient. A focus on the cultural integrity of “the West” also elides the ways in which so many European countries built their wealth and cultural production through colonial exploitation and enslavement of non-European people. This cannot be pushed to the periphery. It was foundational to Euro-American modernity as we know it, and any serious attempt to understand European and American societies must confront it. In a very real sense, focusing on an integrated “West” minimizes and obscures that historical atrocity. It says that the development of European and North American nations came about through the actions and ideas of people unequivocally on the cultural “inside,” and relegates the ideas and actions of exploited and enslaved peoples to a footnote. This is the very same “history as therapy” of which the right so often accuses fields like Afro-American Studies and Gender Studies. It tells its intended audience that only the actions of people like them really matter, and that any historical crimes weren’t really so bad as to affect the foundations of their culture.

As it happens, I am not at all an opponent of “history as therapy.” Quite the contrary, I think that finding our individual and collective selves through the study of history is one of the most rewarding uses of leisure, and that everyone should have the time and resources to do so. But good therapy requires honesty, as any qualified therapist will tell you. Far from being a process of constant affirmation, an effective course of therapy often forces us to confront the parts of ourselves we least want to acknowledge, and to abandon the comfortable illusions that allow us to ignore the harm we do to others and to ourselves.

Of course, China did have contact with the non-Han world, having in various eras subject nations in Indochina, India, Burma, and Korea. They traded with Japan and were at one end of the Silk Road. There Chinese Jews, Muslims, and people of other religions. They maintained maritime trade as far as Africa, but their curiosity and expeditions of exploration did taper off.
A worthwhile read is Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs, and Steel”. He wrote it after being challenged by a friend in Papua Niugini who asked him why the whites had all the “cargo”, meaning material goods, technology, and so forth.Much of the answers goes to accidents of geography, fortuitous discoveries and innovations, and the natural history of epidemic and endemic disease.


I’ve read Guns, Germs, and Steel. It’s not actually a very good book, and was rather scathingly panned by actual historians and anthropologists, of which Jared Diamond is neither. (He was trained as a physiologist.)

You can scroll up this thread to see some of my more favorite impassioned critiques.

Oh, re: Yali’s question, there’s actually a book I want to read about that, which I was hipped to by this post.

Frederick Errington and Deborah Gewertz elaborate in their article “Excusing the Haves and Blaming the Have-Nots in the Telling of History.” As they do in their book, Yali’s Question: Sugar, Culture, and History, Errington and Gewertz assert a fundamental misunderstanding. Diamond did not really understand Yali’s Question, the starting premise for Guns, Germs, and Steel. Yali’s question was not actually about getting more stuff. Yali wanted to be recognized as fully human, to be treated with dignity and respect: “Yali and many other Papua New Guineans became preoccupied with the reluctance, if not refusal, of many whites to recognize their full humanness–to make blacks and whites equal players in the same history” (2010:335).

Yali was a cargo cultist, a belief system actually based on getting material goods by supernatural means; it is materialistic by nature.
But that doesn’t matter in the context of the question. Rephrased, it can be expressed as “What are the reasons that Europeans and their offshoots have achieved such material wealth and power?”
Diamond, to his credit, took on the immense task in his book. I’m not myself an anthropologist or trained in any closely related discipline, so I may be wrong, but I can’t recall anyone else publishing anything as ambitious on the topic.

@jp Where did I say that entire fields does not exist ? What statement of yours I did not understand ? There are lots of bad science history books, and problem usually starts with authors not accepting experiments having something to do with establishing scientific facts.
Meanwhile, an example of bad anthropologist (I do not claim that every anthropologist is this bad.) 1996.,
Belgium was rocked by child murder case and by police ineptitude. The issue was did a policeman send a key file to a judge. The policeman said that he did, the juadge said he did. An anthropologist of communications, Winkin, opined that because every social group has its own truth, judge’s and policeman’s truths are different, and both are telling truth (this is from Sokal & Bricmont, Fashionable Nonsense).

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