Here’s a short story.
Once upon a time people used to get sick a lot. Everything would be fine one day, then bang, the next day you were dying. Young kids mainly. They were lucky to still be alive at age five. Every now and then a big plague would roll through and randomly take lots of people away. A small wound could fester and kill you. Life wasn’t easy.
Doctors weren’t much help. They had this idea that sickness had something to do with too much blood. Often, their treatments were a lot like torture. And no painkillers either. Back then, people rightfully believed that if the sickness didn’t kill you, the doctors most certainly would.
Then, a doctor noticed something odd: something to do with not washing hands. People with dirty hands tended to make other people sick. Another doctor discovered that a small dose of good pox tended to ward away smallpox, that in its day, killed millions. Another man discovered that vitamin C could prevent scurvy. Another man came across a way to reduce pain during surgery. Small, incredible steps, but still lots of kids were dying. Nobody had an answer for it.
Tiny little creatures, smaller than you could imagine. They turned out to be a big part of the problem. Kill them and you could ward off hundreds of diseases. It took a while, but finally doctors found effective remedies. We call them antibiotics. Because of them, we don’t see so much TB or cholera these days. They used to kill lots of people too.
We discovered that our immune system had evolved to find the tiniest of invaders and destroy them. Prime it properly with tiny doses and you could prevent many diseases before they took hold. In this way, vaccines were invented to control deadly diseases such as measles and polio and whooping cough.
Other drugs were found and refined. Drugs that could treat some cancers. Drugs that gave greater pain relief and a better quality of life. And not just drugs, but therapies, health advice, early warning indicators, surgical procedures, and lots more.
And you know what? The number of children dying has been slashed. People don’t often die from simple cuts. Cancer is not the death sentence it once was. We are living longer, healthier lives with fewer bedridden days, choked up in pain.
This progress was achieved, not so much by some great idea, but because of many smaller ones, and something else: the learning that came from lots and lots of mistakes. Too much, too little, saw it too late, hit the wrong thing, gave up too soon. All these hard lessons helped doctors find better ways, to refine their techniques. That’s what medicine is: the sum total of what we know, through experiment, failure and hard experience, about what approaches work best when our health is at risk. Not perfect, but compared to 200 years ago, utterly amazing. It’s possibly the greatest achievement of our species since we started walking on this planet.
So why is it, that so many people want to ignore all this, or pretend it doesn’t matter? Why do they hark back to these earlier times, when so many people died? Perhaps it’s because medicine has been too successful, so it’s taken for granted? Perhaps it’s too technical, too elite, therefore creating suspicion? Perhaps there’s a longing for simplicity and simple solutions: a Donald Trump approach, as it were? Perhaps the complexity and messiness of medicine is too much for some? Perhaps it’s a demand for perfection; we cannot abide not knowing? Or maybe it’s all about show and celebrity and charisma these days, and not so much the pedestrian advice of your family GP?
All this is just conceit: at the core is a celebration of ignorance over hard earned knowledge – that our opinions, no matter how poorly thought out, are just as deserving of respect. It’s a voice of privilege, a voice from the comfort zone, ignorant of a time when knowledge, any knowledge, would have been a blessing. We live in strange times.
If we listen too much to the charlatans and ideologues and the crafted media voices, a time may well come where these wrongheaded beliefs take primacy over empirical knowledge. In which case, life could quickly regress to being nasty, brutal and short. With outbreaks of old diseases from communities that refuse to accept modern healthcare, we’re already seeing it. Hopefully it’s not a signpost to the future.