Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Folly in Culture

Originally posted on January 1, 2012

A recent article in Wired magazine addressed tendencies in the field of medicine to perhaps over-reach itself, and to not-entirely-rationally support whatever seems new or fashionable. As an amateur historian of medicine, I found this wonderful. Several articles from many sources have explored the tenuous nature of modern medical "knowledge."  However, lest we get all “let’s dump on the rich and powerful” as we imagine the pharmaceutical industry and the medical establishment to be, the phenomenon here overlaps with David Deutch’s recent book , The Beginning of Infinity, that deals with the innate tendency to create explanations.

I think this is a human trend that operates also in the realm of politics and other fields. Economics? Art?  Desperate and greedy people create fashions, bubbles. Irrationality has a blurry edge of partial rationality, and some of this feeds also on word-of-mouth and epidemics of mass hysteria of various types, from fashionable slang to the mass murders in Rwanda 20 years ago. The power of belief and devotion? I’m reminded of a saying of Friedrich Nietzsche that went something like “My mind tells me this cannot be so; my heart says it MUST be so; eventually my mind gives in.”

This essay also evokes not just humility, but also a conservative attitude. This is a funny predicament: I think of it this way:  Maybe 40% of the tried-and-true is indeed obsolete and foolish, but then 80% of the cockeyed ideas of this or that enthusiast or cult turn out to be illusory, so what to do?

The answer, by the way, is the idea of the laboratory: One tries out new things in a relatively fail-safe way, so that if it turns out wrong, not much real harm is done. However, as the article notes, this scientific method is often unbelievably costly. But it’s better than what goes on with many alternative medicines—some people just start selling it and it could turn out to be terribly toxic, or just a worthless rip-off.

The problem of becoming more critical in our thinking is that we have to remain relatively dispassionate. Getting all turned on at discovering that the powerful, or the parental generation, are foolish and human just like the rest of us is itself kind of adolescent.

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