Is Alternative Medicine a Symptom of American Decadence?

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Despite a doctor's argument that the U.S. is like the Roman Empire, interest in homeopathy isn't a sign of American decline

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David Colquhoun, Ph.D., F.R.S., throws the book at us Americans—in fact, all six volumes of Gibbon—in the final paragraph of his post against alternative medicine studies:

Senator Tom Harkin's promotion of NCCAM has done for the U.S. reputation in medicine what Dick Cheney did for the U.S. reputation in torture. It is hard to look at the USA from outside without thinking of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.

Dr. Colquhoun seems to consider this coda a harmless provocation, irrelevant to his main points. But it's offensive. We Americans have been comparing ourselves to decadent Romans at least since the 1830s, but just because we use the d-word ourselves doesn't mean we like hearing others do so.

Fix or Fraud? 

It's also absurd to somehow link the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine with waterboarding. Homeopathy in particular has a long history of liberal ties, especially to the early women's rights movement. Of course, that doesn't make it effective or ineffective. Dr. Colquhoun has every right to call it bad science, but not to associate it with Dick Cheney, who appears to be a experienced and satisfied patient of mainstream cardiology.

Nor is American interest in alternative medicine some weird global outlier, as Dr. Colquhoun implies. Polls show 70 percent of Germans believe in it, according to a Science journal website. Or would Dr. Colquhoun reply the numbers demonstrate they're all crypto-Nazis at heart?


Image: Wikimedia Commons

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center and holds a Ph.D in European history. More

Edward Tenner is an independent writer and speaker on the history of technology and the unintended consequences of innovation. He holds a Ph.D. in European history from the University of Chicago and was executive editor for physical science and history at Princeton University Press. A former member of the Harvard Society of Fellows and John Simon Guggenheim fellow, he has been a visiting lecturer at Princeton and has held visiting research positions at the Institute for Advanced Study, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and the Princeton Center for Information Technology Policy. He is now an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy of Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center, where he remains a senior research associate.

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