Racism and Historical Biases in Medicine: The Ethnocentrism of Western Medicine

For those unfamiliar, I have been in school at NESA (New England School of Acupuncture) at MCPHS (Massachusetts College of Pharmacy) for the past few months working towards a degree and licensure in Acupuncture and Herbal Medicine. Our whole class already has learned a ton and seen many effects of this medicine firsthand. Because so many of our schools faculty are active practitioners and researchers, we’ve been integrated into the field in quite a short time. I love our program but I need to vent on what I’ll call internalized medical prejudice I see in our field.

A lot of acupuncture research in the U.S. has been focused on getting accepted by mainstream society and western medicine, instead of looking at its effectiveness in its own right. Even the studies coming from acupuncture institutions. For example, many studies are on “pain management” (from a western definition of what pain is and why it comes about), and treatment of diseases diagnosed by western doctors in the western disease lexicon (i.e. how effectively can acupuncture treat disease xyz, without first letting acupuncture diagnose it from its own perspective, which is completely different). I am not the first person to raise this question of why can’t acupuncture and herbs be evaluated on their own terms; many others have and continue to, and some researchers are now more willing to study acupuncture on its own terms. However, many of the most celebrated research studies both on campus and in the academic community revolve around finding recognition for acupuncture’s effects on western medicine’s terms. For example, a great study that came out recently showed acupuncture’s effects on carpal tunnel syndrome, showing effects on both the symptoms, physiology, and brain. This study allowed the acupuncturists to use eastern diagnostics and healed with a 95% success rate. However, the piece of the study that is getting the most publicity is its effects on the brain, as studied by fMRI, as this is most interesting to western doctors. I would have thought that non invasively fixing a problem that western medicine often cuts people open and still doesn’t heal them for would be more interesting, but apparently the more interesting thing is that acupuncture is actually real medicine, as if this were still in question.

If we understand modern history, this attitude of “if I don’t recognize it it must not be real” can be better understood. When Christopher Columbus, hopefully-soon-to-be-formerly celebrated murderer/explorer came to America, he came home announcing that the locals (“Indians,” he said, having no idea where the heck he was at the time) had no language and no religion. In fact, as it were, every tribe of indigenous people in America had religion and language. Columbus simply did not recognize it because it looked so different — he couldn’t understand their language, so he stated that they did not have one, and their religious traditions were not the ones from his homeland, so he denied their existence and looked down upon them. He essentially justified a brutal genocide that still continues today because he did not understand another culture’s traditions and inherent intelligence.

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The same thing happens today. The modern scientific method’s perspective on medicine and the world has become so predominant in our culture that we recognize it to be completely “true,” forgetting that it is subject to the same human error that everything else that we could possibly create is. Thousands of years ago, there were many cultures that believed that everything that happened was due to the work of the gods/spirits/other higher beings, and so everything that happened was seen from that perspective and taken for granted. Our culture’s over reliance our visual perceptions, simplified models, and logic are a big reason for the popularity of western medicine. Think about the arguments frequently made about acupuncture’s effectiveness: you can’t see qi or meridians, and it doesn’t make sense within a western medical context. Imagine going back to 1,000 B.C. with a modern western medical understanding: doctors would likely be completely dismissed because their form of logic and the tools that they used would have been completely foreign to people back then and their entrenched culture and logic. If it weren’t ignored, it would only be because the doctor performed some work of healing that was effective. Honestly, that’s probably what a medicine’s legitimacy should be based upon, right? Knowing that we as humans generally believe what we do based on our cultural lense and our flawed logic, and seeing how it was only a half century ago that American medicine was sterilizing folks based on IQ scores (eugenics) and giving deadly STI’s to black men (Tuskeegee) in the name of science, shouldn’t we focus more on effectiveness than what “should” or “shouldn’t” work?

We get so lost in this grand myth of “progress” that we forget a couple things about human history. Firstly, we forget that the same mistakes our ancestors made in giving barbaric, ineffective medical treatments still goes on today. I’m not saying that all western medicine is bad, far from it. I’ve benefitted greatly, so have many people. However, the current best practice for treating our culture’s second leading cause of death (cancer) is to poison the sh*t out of someone and hope that the cancer cells inside them die before the whole person does. You really think, a few generations from now, our descendants won’t look back on us and think we’re complete idiots?? Even the guy who invented chemotherapy had serious misgivings about researching it because he was killing so many sick people.

Secondly, our ancestors, with completely different values and culture than modern western society, were still able to in many cases live long and fruitful lives. I did some reading on the Ohlone Native Americans of the modern San Francisco Bay Area this summer and learned that they had actually altered their environment so as to provide themselves with a ridiculous abundance of food. Westerners came to this area and thought the indigenous were lazy because they didn’t have to work very hard and enjoyed many leisure games and activities because their land was so fruitful. The western hunters did not realize until after they screwed up the fragile ecosystem that the indigenous were tending to the natural environment so that it was as attractive and fertile as possible to their food sources. This is another case of westerners coming in, not knowing what they didn’t know, evaluating someone else’s work based on their unfounded knowledge and thereby not only not learning from the people there, but also destroying their way of life and the valuable contributions that they could have made to the westerners’ lives. Even today modern society cannot quite figure out how to sustainably create enough food for our people; I imagine that this is probably karma for blindly harming (and continuing, even today, to oppress) people that did.

So, long ranting short, I am not trying to demonize western culture and medicine. I am very much a part of it and have benefitted from it my whole life. However, do I think that it is the pinnacle of society/medicine that all others should be evaluated by? Heck no! Western medicine is still Christopher Columbus-style evaluating and demeaning everyone else’s way of being without reflecting on its own shortcomings and flaws. Not that other cultures are flawless, or that western medicine is not good or helpful. However to have a better grip on the true human condition one should be able to learn from all types of medicines and the cultures that they stem from, looking at them all as sources of information, not as lesser, alternative medicine, or other arrogant terms that western medicine often uses for things that they do not understand.

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