tirsdag 19. februar 2008

ILN - February 15, 1908: Charlatans and Quacks

A bit late due to a pleasent familiy celebration on Saturday. Still after a hundred years, what are a few days among friends?

Chesterton this Satuday writes on the difference between Charlatans and Quacks. And as always he has serious fun in showing that this is different than commonly presumed.

The truth is there are two kind of charlatans: the man who is called a charlatan, and the man who really is one. The first is the quack who cures you, and the second is the highly qualified person who doesn't.

In Chesterton's time, the Medical Profession was not quite what is is today. This was before the discovery of antibiotica, and just two generations after Semmelweis had started to tell physicians to wash their hands after attending to each patient, in 1847.

Semmelweis' increasingly rather less than diplomatic letters (a classic case of a scientific genius attacking the establishment, even if he may have been less arrogant and had more proof than Galilei) on the matter to prominent European obstetricians was not received with gratitude, and even his wife believed he was losing his mind. Semmelweis was committed to a mental institution in 1865 and possible beaten to death by guards some weeks later.

People are still washing their hands over any responsibility.

In 1908, stories of bad doctors not curing people, while various "wise women" sometimes did, were more than faint memories.

The really equitable doctrine of what we owe to doctors and what to old women in villages has yet to be stated.
The arguments used by professional men of science that what they call quack remedies are superstitions is really an argument in a circle. It amounts to this, that the herbs used by an old women is untrustworthy because se is superstitious; and she is superstitious because she believes in such herbs. Her method is bad because she is stupid; but the main proof of her stupidity is that she pursues her own method. To put it shortly, the doctor does not believe in the old woman upon the ultimate ground that she does not believe in the doctor.

Chesterton uses this debate to show how much it really is about arguing in a circle.

The people of the East believe in miracles because they are ignorant. How do you know they are ignorant? Because they believe in miracles. Thomas Aquinas believed in Catholicism because he lived in a darkened age. Why was it a darkened age? It was darkened by Catholicism.

And as always it ends with Jones and logic.

Jones tells me that he saw the ghost of his uncle last Tuesday. But, of course, you wouldn't believe a liar like that - a man brazen enough to say that he saw a ghost last Tuesday. In short, the elephant stands on the tortoise and the tortoise stands - on the elephant. By such mental processes it is possible to escape from the narrow methods of deductive logic.

Chesterton's point here is not to say that trained and licenced medical practioners per definition are quacks. He is not slamming science. He is callling attention to something different. It is about the arrogance of professionals when confronted with amateurs. It is about the condescending views of many an academic when meeting the common man.

Today, Medicine is lightyears beyond 1908, not to mention 1865. Even if it now is rather vindicated, the pretense of the profession seems not that different to innocent bystanders. The wise women may not be so wise these days (at least the ones I have met at New Age gatherings are not). Still, it is good advice for skeptics like me, not to mention public figures like Damian Thompson or Michael Shermer, to step down from any arrogant platform.

Jones is still more interested in practice than in pretense.

Next week: Socialism and First Principles