Saturday, 9 August 2008

Alternative Flight and our Gappy Friend.

In a recent QuackCast, Dr Mark Crislip put together a rather amusing satire on the topic of "alternative flight", taken largely from his earlier blog post at Science-Based Medicine. The jist of it is that we should be introducing more alternative modalities into aeronautics just as they have been introduced to medicine; if there's a problem with the plane, don't necessarily just call the engineers - get some Reiki Masters and Tarot readers in there. Crislip's actual satire is far more involved and entertaining than that brief summary, but you get the idea.

Now I do hope I'll be forgiven if I'm wrong in this assessment, but I got the impression that the general point of the satire was to say "you wouldn't apply these crazy unscientific methods to something like aeronautical engineering, so why would you do so with medicine and the science of human biology? It's a fair question up to a point: if the scientific method is good enough for flight, why do people go elsewhere when it comes to their own bodies?

It is a fair question, but the analogy is limited in its scope; a cursory probing will actually adequately answer the question it poses. We created aircraft; the science of aeronautics is pretty complete - we (or at least, those qualified in the necessary fields) know how every last bit of an aircraft works, because we came up with the damned things and have been developing them for over a century now. The same can hardly be said of the human body; we certainly didn't design them ourselves and had only an "ignition" role to play in their actual creation. As for the expertise, even the most qualified and knowledgeable in the medical profession don't know everything there is to know about the function of the human body - certainly not to the extent that aeronautical engineers understand that of aircraft.

This isn't to say either a) that we never will or b) that there is any other way to get the answers than the tried-and-true scientific method. But it does explain why people are far more willing to look into "alternatives" in medicine than in aeronautics: there are far more unknowns. SCAMs are just another God of the Gaps.

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