I recently got into a heated debate with someone. ‘How can you be a scientist and believe in hippie-granola things like astrology, the Tarot and divination?’ they wanted to know. This question arose when I threw out the idea of having a fun shmorgesburg-type event in our local park with vendors offering these kind of services in addition to healthy snacks and herbal teas.
Now, I’m normally a very level-headed person, some may even think I’m apathetic. But boy, did that question get my blood boiling.
Yes, having a PharmD (doctor of pharmacy) degree definitely gives me the background of a scientist, and yes I believe in the scientific method. This method consists of asking “how” some phenomenon works, gives a hypothesis, and then does a series of experiments and/or observations to prove or disprove the hypothesis.
So what does this mean when it comes to the more esoteric subjects that I dabble in, such as herbalism or astrology? Well, the scientific method can certainly be applied to any of these schools of thought. For instance, we can study how a specific plant works for a specific use by identifying its chemical composition, or by tracking it’s constituents’ path in the human body. We have the modern technology to do these tests in order to validify a plant’s repertoire.
However, these experiments cost both time and money, and most often the clinical trials performed today come with an agenda. Although most published studies have to be peer-reviewed and disclose potential biases, there almost always is an inherent bias in the funding. The funders most likely have something to gain from the findings of the study, if they are positive. For instance, a pharmaceutical company can aim to synthesize an analogue to the ‘active constituent’ of a plant to make a new drug with that being the ‘active ingredient.’ Similarly, a nutraceutical company can replicate a constituent and market the herbal ‘standardized extract’ formulation of it.
Needless to say, these studies do little to educate on the traditional uses of the plant in question. Plants have so many constituents that it would be practically impossible to identify them all, and to emulate a formulation that comes close to the way nature itself designed it. And if it already exists in nature, why would you even want to perfect it? Does it even need perfecting?
I remember vividly the conversation I had with my pharmacology professor in pharmacy school. I went to his office hours to discuss privately my interest in natural medicine, and was practically chastised by the man! He said that as a proponent of science and the scientific method, he doesn’t understand how someone can ‘trust’ natural plants to be medicinal. “If there is something medicinal indeed in the plant, I want to extract it, isolate it, purify it, and multiply it for maximal therapeutic effect,” he said. I was a little taken aback at the vehemence and righteousness with which he said it. I knew that many professors in my university did exactly that: test random plant material and/or models of molecular structure for possible effect on diseased tissue, which is part of the first step in drug design. I didn’t know then what I can possibly say to defend my intuitive feeling that there is value in whole plant medicine. Then again, I didn’t know then what I know now.
What I know now is that although there is definite validity to the scientific method, there are also limitations. I know that the scientific literature usually lags behind common practice and knowledge. Just because something is scientifically not demonstrated (yet), doesn’t mean it doesn’t work. Nor is the converse true: just because some experimental or observational data supports a certain theory, doesn’t mean another set of data won’t disprove it tomorrow. Our ‘scientific’ knowledge is limited by many inherent biases and confounding variables. I think it’s noble to find out how and why something works, but it’s even more important to establish if something is effective. Historical and traditional uses can be this window of insight to elucidate effectiveness.
If we follow the method and time of harvesting, the part of the plant used, the method of preparation and the dose typically taken by our ancestors, we are likely to find remedies both safe and effective. Even without scientific data to back up therapeutic claims, there is much to be said for thousands of years of oral and written records of phytotherapy. Often, when certain constituents are isolated and concentrated, the therapeutic window narrows. Without the entire protective array of other constituents in the whole plant form, the minimum toxic dose becomes much easier to accumulate. There is inherent wisdom in the natural expression of constituents in a plant, and we err when taking matters out of context and into our own ambitious human hands. There’s something to be said for the synergy that happens when nature runs its course, and indeed the following saying rings true: “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
Of course, there are limitations to the traditional uses of plants as well. There are many factors that affect the expression of the most therapeutic plant compounds. Here are some questions to consider: do the constituents depend on place they are grown in, the quality of the soil and environment (i.e. pesticide use, pollution, etc.), and even the way you behave towards them (the way you sing, or harvest with gratitude)? Yes to all! Plants, whether as a food or medicine, retain the most vibrant constituents to nourish and heal us when grown locally under clean ecological conditions, tended to with love and consumed as soon as possible after harvest. Plants that travel thousands of miles to get to us lose their freshness and vitality, as well as take a toll out of the weary commute.
I haven’t even touched on the even more esoteric topics, of either healing, alchemy or divination – and who is to say which is the most therapeutic for us humans, with a soul and a body? The following are healing modalities that are considered to work on a more subtle vibrational level rather than a directly physiological one: homeopathy, flower essences, essences of various metals (alchemy), moxibustion, magnet therapy. Not to mention – all the manual manipulation techniques such as acupuncture, acupressure, shiatsu, craniosacral therapy and much more.
To summarize, there are plenty of good uses of the scientific method, but it is not the ‘be-all and end-all.’ Science does not always jump on board with traditional wisdom or esoteric subjects, but it often catches up eventually. As long as something works for you and/or makes you feel better, you don’t need to have scientific proof to continue to thrive. Keep following your bliss, and you may just be validated later.