Authoritarian Science and the Sickness Industry
Our medical system is a leading cause of death. Analysis of 994 hospitals in the US by the Nutrition Institute of America showed that there were 783,936 deaths caused by medical drugs, surgery, or wrong medical procedures in 2001. Over the same period, there were 699,697 deaths caused by heart disease and 553,251 deaths from cancer. (The Ecologist, 2004) 36% of hospital admissions are due to a previous medical treatment. (Weed, 1989)
What is going on? Let me start with a story.
A distraught woman came to see my dentist because her teeth and gums had been sore for months. She had visited at least two other dentists, who, in order to correct her bite, had ground her teeth down to about half their original height. Finally, one of them had told her they would have to operate on her jaw. She was hoping there might be some other way.
My dentist asked her whether she had any other health problems. She told him that her lower back had been sore for a while as well, so he suggested she go to a chiropractor before anything more was done to her mouth. The chiropractor discovered her hips and lower back were seriously out of alignment. After several weeks of treatment, her back was much better – and so was her mouth. This is not a promo for chiropractic, though it might be one for my dentist, who is pretty unusual. But he shouldn’t be.
Our medical system treats each part of the body like a separate cog in a machine, because the body is literally seen as a machine. This worldview is so engrained in us that we are oblivious to its costs, which are considerable. If the woman with the bite problem hadn’t seen my dentist, she would have been put through a needless but painful medical procedure costing thousands of dollars. In fact, a pattern has been found that links spending more money on “health care” to worse health. (Brownlee, 2003)
Why should this be the case? For one thing, hospital personnel (doctors, nurses, technicians) make mistakes. If the system’s treatment methods weren’t so intrusive – powerful drugs, surgery – mistakes wouldn’t be such a big deal. But the methods are intrusive. Mistakes in diagnosis and procedures, along with unnecessary drugs and surgery, bring the figure up to over 780,000, noted above.
There are many proximate reasons for this state of affairs – everything from practitioner fatigue, to bureaucratic mix ups, to downright incompetence. But investigating these factors would mask the main culprit, which is the worldview that informs not just the medical system but our whole lives and how we see physical reality: the mechanistic worldview that we’ve inherited from the so-called scientific revolution of the 17th century. This philosophy of science was not “discovered” the way the history books tell it. Mechanistic thinking was consciously developed and proselytized by a small group of philosophers, in cooperation with powerful elites whose positions were being threatened by the political and religious upheavals early in the century.
A Predictable and Ordered Society
These upheavals spawned thirty years of vicious fighting in England and on the continent. It is difficult to imagine such anarchy (South Vietnam had it for only 15 years). For a generation and a half, well off Europeans were afraid to leave their houses without a gun. Thomas Hobbes’ prescription for Leviathan was premised on just such a sense of personal insecurity. If people weren’t killed outright, millions of them were permanently scarred by unpredictable violence of the times, based primarily on religious loyalties. (Toulmin, 1992)
The nub of this new epistemology was a scientific method that sought to provide certainty in a profoundly uncertain world. This certainty could be achieved, argued the mechanists, by seeing nature as made up of small, lifeless particles that obeyed timeless laws established by God. A predictable and ordered nature, of course, mirrored a predictable and ordered human society. Newton and Galileo had shown that mathematical equations could predict the movement of planets and of falling bodies, why not the behavior of humans?
Seeking certainty through prediction separates the analytical mind from the object of study. We call this objectivity. This separation is necessary for the notion that the object (a plant, a human, another animal) can be controlled, since control is the exercise of power by one agent over another, different agent. Control makes no sense in a symbiotic relationship. The way to achieve control was to use the newly devised scientific method and human reason to discover laws that could predict the workings of the natural world, as well as laws that guaranteed civil security in the political system by controlling human behavior.
North America’s current medical system illustrates why both the science and the politics of the mechanistic worldview have got us into deep trouble. The system also illustrates how one’s view of the nature of physical reality is closely linked to one’s politics. Most important, I want to explain why ecological sensitivity – being aware of our seamless symbiosis with everything else on the planet – has profound significance for how we think about “sickness”, health, and the healing process.
Why Do We Get Sick?
One basic question to start with is why do we get sick, seemingly more so than other animals? Studies show that most people’s state of health can be explained or “predicted” by knowing their socio-economic status, their diet, their smoking habits, the amount of exercise they get, their work or family stress, and the degree of local ambient pollution. If we add other general factors such as working conditions and social support networks, we can explain a person’s health or sickness even better, over 80% of it, in fact. (Federal Advisory Committee, 1999) Unfortunately, as the figures at the start of this article show, the medical system is responsible for a significant amount of morbidity and even mortality every year as well.
It is crucial to understand that factors such as stress and socio-economic status are not easily isolated, direct “causes” of sickness. The following illustrates this fact well:
Why is Jason in the hospital?
Because he has a bad infection in his leg.
But why does he have an infection?
Because he has a cut on his leg and it got infected.
But why does he have a cut on his leg?
Because he was playing in the junk yard next to his apartment building and there was some sharp, jagged steel there that he fell on.
But why was he playing in a junk yard?
Because his neighborhood is kind of run down. A lot of kids play there and there is no one to supervise them.
But why does he live in that neighborhood?
Because his parents can’t afford a nicer place to live.
But why can’t his parents afford a nicer place to live?
Because his Dad is unemployed and his Mom is sick.
But why is his Dad unemployed?
Because he doesn’t have much education and he can’t find a job.
But why …?” (Federal Advisory Committee,1999, 174)
Most of us have noticed that we are more likely to get sick when we are tired or stressed. Pollution, diet, and the other factors all combine to produce illness. But followers of 17th century mechanistic science, looking for certainty, think in terms of specific germs or genes that cause disease and then develop a powerful systemic drug that kills the germ or modifies the genetic defect. In the case of the woman with the bite problem, the solution lies in a mechanical “adjustment” – i.e., surgery. Both of these treatments separate the part of the machine that is malfunctioning and seek control by killing the germ or by literally reshaping the part.
This is not to say that modern medicine hasn’t achieved astounding success with procedures such as hip replacement. But little research has been pursued to identify the factors that produce hip pain, thereby leading to a reduced need for such surgery. “Surgery for nearly all regional musculoskeletal pain has earned its place in the historical archives next to tonsillectomies … and other misguided empiricisms. Unfortunately, surgery for the regional musculoskeletal disorders has become an industry.” (Hadler, 2004, 111)
This pattern of control extends to the structure of the medical system, which is hierarchical in many ways. For instance, while health institutions are managed by professional health administrators, doctors have enormous authority in the day-to-day workings of those institutions. The political, moral, and technical power of physicians, both individually and collectively, is tremendous. They have authority over nurses, technicians, and secretaries. This authority is mirrored in the power that doctors wield over patients, who are sternly advised to do everything their doctors tell them. He or she is in control, as an expert who knows the best thing to do, even if she or he “doesn’t have all the answers.”
The professional association also keeps its members firmly in line and prosecutes – often persecutes – alternative practitioners who advocate more gentle and gradual measures than the mechanists. A majority of North Americans are now seeking out the services of these men and women, from midwives to nutritional therapists and naturopaths. However, dozens of them, often with better success rates than conventional physicians, have been hounded out of jobs and put on trial by their associations for practicing or supporting the practice of treatments that “lack acceptable scientific evidence.” (Ferrie, 2004, 165) Sometimes these people have been treated in ways that resemble tactics used by totalitarian states. One midwife in California had her home raided by six armed “investigators”, who called themselves “police” outside her door, and left with 38 boxes of her possessions, terrifying her and her children. (Robbins, 1998, 75) Thus, conventional mechanistic science – “acceptable” science – is still so respected that it is used to legitimate all sorts of questionable activity.
Science is the stick used to keep these people in line, yet rigorous studies have shown that mainstream medicine does far more damage to patients than alternative therapies.
“Acceptable” science is also used by drug companies to manufacture evidence about the efficacy of the tens of billions of dollars’ worth of drugs inflicted by doctors on their hapless patients, all too often with deadly results. Adverse drug reactions in hospitals alone account for over 100,000 deaths a year in the US, and these are medications that have been “properly” prescribed and administered. (Papp, 1998) The drug companies know that doctors have tremendous power as knowledgeable experts to dispense drugs, so the companies spend $10-20,000 on marketing per physician. This tactic pays off: there is a direct correlation between the amount of money spent courting a doctor and the likelihood of that doctor’s prescribing the marketed drug. (Spence, 2004)
A majority of studies on the efficacy of drugs are funded by the drug companies, in order to ensure favorable reports. These reports are reviewed by peers and printed in prestigious medical journals as if they were objective research. Thus does our much-praised “rigorous” science degenerate into junk science, in the search, not for truth or certainty, but for money (financial security?) Drug companies use control methods on doctors who don’t play along. When an independent researcher steps out of line – such as David Healy with Prozac or Nancy Olivieri with a drug called Deferiprone – they lose their jobs and get hate mail. (Spence, 2004; Ferrie, 2004) The system has its own, not very subtle forms of policing.
The sickness industry, then, is a true child of mechanistic science, not just epistemologically, but also politically, because of that industry’s panoply of authoritarian institutions that seek to control what others do.
A Green Health Policy
Anyone concerned about the health of the ecosystem should pay close attention to the science and politics of the sickness industry. Many of us are aware that a polluted environment can make us sick, but the connection goes far beyond that. To acknowledge that we cannot be separate from the flow of life is in a sense a declaration of freedom from mechanistic science’s culture of certainty and control. Symbiosis is not slavery but a mutual dance that expresses health as freedom from energy blockages. The healing process itself can be seen as a letting go of these blockages and “going with the flow,” as cheesy as that may sound.
I used to catch colds regularly, every three or four weeks. One day, feeling one coming on, I became aware that my whole face was all clenched up, completely tense. Noticing that enabled me to relax my face muscles, and I felt a sudden surge of relief and energy. My shoulders, which were somewhere up around my ears, dropped. I stopped sneezing, and I did not “catch” a cold. Most of us don’t know that we have millions of cold viruses in our nasal passages all the time. They “cause” a cold only when other “causes” such as stress and fatigue help them to create the symptoms of a cold. Then we suppress those symptoms with antihistamines and painkillers that induce us to sleep – which is what our body was telling us to do in the first place.
Mechanistic scientists looking for the basic elements of matter and biologists looking for explanations of how different organisms survive have come face-to-face with the reality that nature is a constant flow of energy interactions. Elementary particles have turned out to be not hard little balls but extremely stable patterns of energy. Ecosystems and their constituent organisms are exchanging cells and other forms of matter continually.
For instance, since you started reading this article, millions of your cells have died and millions of others have been created to replace them. Over the course of a year, 98% of our cells, including those in our bones, have been replaced. (Chopra, 1990) In addition, there are millions of bacteria and other organisms in our bodies that are not “us” in the sense that they have their own genome. These organisms colonize our eyebrows, skin, and intestines. In the last location, they are absolutely essential to our digestive processes – we are as dependent on them as they on us. All of these organisms come and go in a smooth flow that we don’t even notice. (Talbot, 1988)
It’s no wonder that the overall health of a society is little improved by a medical system based on mechanistic science. (Lewontin, 1991) This system spends more time seeking treatments for symptoms than studying how our health – or ill health – is connected to the rest of ecosystem.
This perspective on the health of our bodies harmonizes with Green philosophy. The message has been put forward eloquently by hundreds of writers: human health and the Earth’s health are intimately and reciprocally related. Our 6 or 7 millennia history with agriculturally based civilization has shown again and again that we ignore the most basic rule of sustainable economics, and over and over cultures have collapsed because of this ignorance, this willful ignorance. The very last tree on Easter Island was cut down to roll yet another stone sculpture into place. (Wright, 2004)
Our mechanistic culture is only the latest manifestation of this sort of insensitivity to our place in the ecosphere. What this culture has done, in fact, is to codify humans’ imagined separation from the rest of nature. That is, we have literally developed a system of laws (which are human constructs) that purport to predict how nature works. Even more significant, we have developed a “scientific” method, which claims to be the only legitimate route to discovering those laws. This method specifically rejects any other source of knowledge about the workings of nature, making mechanistic science an extremely intolerant and narrow epistemology. It insulates our sensitivities still more securely from the rest of nature.
This separation is its own sort of pathology. Surely part of being healthy is the feeling of connectedness, to all humans and to nature in general. Other than that, health can be seen simply as a supple adaptability to change. Susun Weed (1989) tells us that – contrary to the mental habits of mainstream science – there are no rules, no diseases, no healers, no eternal truths, for wholeness is always changing. Sickness can be seen as a teacher and a friend, a message from the flow of nature that we are blocking energy. Greens have been trying to show that our unsustainable practices ignore our reliance on this flow and thereby threaten the health of our environment. An ecological approach to human health and health policy has a similar view about our bodies, which are inescapably part of nature’s energy flow.
Shannon Brownlee, “The Overtreated American,” Dartmouth Alumni Magazine, Nov./Dec 2003, 40-45
Deepak Chopra, Quantum Healing: Exploring the Frontiers of Mind/Body Medicine (New York: Bantam, 1990)
The Ecologist, July/August 2004
Federal, Provincial, and Territorial Advisory Committee on Population Health, Second Report on the Health of Canadians (Minister of Public Works and Government Services, 1999) 174
Helke Ferrie, Dispatches: From the War zone of Environmental Health (KOS Publishing, Alton, ON: 2004)
Nortin M. Hadler, The Last Well Person: How to Stay Well Despite the Health-Care System (Montreal, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2004)
Richard Lewontin, Biology as Ideology (Toronto: House of Anansi, 1991)
Gary Null, Carolyn Dean, Martin Feldman, Debora Rasio, and Dorothy Smith, “Death by Medicine,” Nexus August/September 2004, 17-24
Leslie Papp, “Adverse drug reactions high on death list,” The Toronto Star April 15, 1998, A4
John Robbins, Reclaiming Our Health (H. J. Kramer, Tiburon, CA: 1996, 1998)
Des Spence, MD, “Prescription Addiction,” The Ecologist, Nov. 2004
Michael Talbot, Beyond the Quantum (New York: Bantam, 1988)
Stephen Toulmin, Cosmospolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992)
Susun Weed, Wise Woman Herbal (Woodstock, NY: Ash Tree Publishing, 1989)
Ronald Wright, A Brief History of Progress (Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2004)
“The sickness industry is a true child of mechanistic science.”
“Sickness can be seen as a teacher and a friend.”
“Sometimes [alternative practitioners] have been treated in ways that resemble tactics used by totalitarian states.”
“There were 783,936 deaths caused by medical drugs, surgery, or wrong medical procedures in the US in 2001.”
“Health can be seen simply as a supple adaptability to change.”
“Authoritarian Science and the Sickness Industry,” Green Horizon Quarterly, Winter 2005, 13-16