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Why I Stopped Looking for Miracles and Started Reading Science

Shannon Harvey

On Saturday I’ll be joining thousands of others in a march through the streets of Sydney. Around the world, we’ll be joined by millions more. We won’t be marching to celebrate a sporting achievement or in protest of a war. We won’t be advocating a change in marriage laws or in support of refugees. We’ll be marching to bolster the case for science.

The fact that I, of all people, am marching for science will come as some surprise to people who knew me in my youth. I was a teenager who’s room was adorned in candles, lava lamps and crystals. I was a follower of the “Celestine Prophecy” and a believer in spirit guides and past lives. When people questioned my youthful enthusiasm for fortune telling and star signs, I explained earnestly that just because “the mystical” couldn’t be explained by science, it didn’t make it untrue.  

It wasn’t until I was in my 20s, after I’d been sick with an autoimmune disease for a number of years and had spent tens of thousands of dollars on alternative therapy, that I finally started to learn about the importance of scientific thinking. After one particularly unscrupulous company used pseudoscience to sell me a fake cure, I realised I needed to apply the critical thinking skills that I’d learned as a journalist to my health. I learned how to read academic papers, to go to the source of the science, and to never trust an “expert” who was unwilling to elaborate enthusiastically on what their cure couldn’t do.

Scientific evidence is information gathered from research, which takes a lot of time, effort and patience to conduct. When it comes to health, a treatment becomes “evidence-based” when it is backed up by objective data that proves it is effective. Because we can’t trust anecdote or even “the wisdom of the ages,” real-world scientific testing verifies that a treatment causes the outcome we think we see.

This approach to healthcare was born out of necessity. For 2000 years until the late 19th century, everyone in Europe believed that bloodletting was effective in treating diseases by balancing “the humors.” But in the early 1820s, a French physician named Pierre Louis started questioning the dogma. He compared the health outcomes for patients treated by bloodletting with those treated without it and demonstrated that the bleeding practice was actually harmful to patients. Thankfully, it is no longer accepted and Louis became the father of what is now known as the “clinical trial.” It is because of him and his scientifically minded successors, that we now take an evidence-based approach to medicine.

By learning to read and understand scientific papers, I discovered that there is in fact a profound connection between our mind, body, and health but that science doesn’t explain it as having bad karma, bad spirits or the wrong birth stone. I learned that a vast body of evidence points to the way we live our modern lives as being the root obstacle preventing our victory in the fight against chronic disease. I learned that I should prioritise sleeping more, sitting down less, and exercising. I learned that I needed to reduce my chronic stress, to regulate my emotions, and to eat unprocessed food and abundant fresh fruit and vegetables. I also learned about the human evolutionary need for nurturing relationships and the critical importance of planning to ensure that my lifestyle changes would last and that my unconscious habits didn’t override all my good intentions.

Truthfully, it would be much easier to still believe that all I need do is pay someone to clear my bad juju in order to make me well instead of doing all the hard work and reprogramming my well-established life-long behavioural patterns. But when I started learning to read science, I began to see that there are no mysterious forces or even conspiracies driving the chronic illness epidemic and there is no miracle diet, online course, or alternative therapy that will make my ailment disappear.

Although on the whole, I am well and I no longer need medication for my illness, when I do have an arthritic flare up, instead of clearing bad energy, I work on clearing my my stress levels. I redouble my efforts to go to bed on time, to stick to my exercise routine, and tend to my emotions. I am well today because of my own hard work, commitment and substantial lifestyle changes, which are all based on the extensive evidence I’ve read.

There are those reading this who may take offence to my words and think that I’m criticising complimentary and alternative medicine. I want to make it clear that my intention is not to insult those who do good work alongside conventional healthcare. The deeper I go into all this, the more I realise that the scientific and alternative approach to health and wellness is often not as divided as we think. A new-ager might believe that bad Feng Shui is causing their sickness, whereas a scientist might point to the vast evidence pointing to the influence our environment has on our health. A spiritual person might say that a healer’s “universal life force energy” is transferred during an appointment, a placebo researcher would call it the belief in the therapeutic encounter that triggers the body’s own natural healing mechanisms, and a stress researcher might attribute the same healing effects to the relaxation response.

I also fully recognise that science is flawed. Science is complex. Science often gets it wrong. Science is ever-evolving. And, yes, there's a replication crisis. Yes, scientists face enormous pressure to publish positive results and bury the negative. Yes, often the popular media distorts findings and oversells questionable conclusions. But as John Oliver so beautifully said in his piece for The Daily Show, “Science is by its nature, imperfect. But it is hugely important and it deserves better than to be twisted out of proportion and turned into morning show gossip.”



My point is that in an age plagued by an epidemic of chronic disease, in which two in three people will be diagnosed with a long-term illness; and at a time when people who are sick are forced into a healthcare system in which the allocated five minute medical appointments cannot possibly convey the complexity of our scientific understanding of mind-body-health interactions; in this day and age we, the sick, are left feeling hopeless and desperate and we are vulnerable to shonky practices and pseudoscientific quackery that offer the all-important hope we seek.

There has never been a greater need to advocate for the pursuit of science, to fight for evidence-based medicine, and to ensure the message is effectively communicated to those who need it most. This is why on Saturday afternoon I will dust off the tie-died skirt and green velvet Dr. Marten boots of my youth and once again march for a cause I believe in. I will stride proudly in support of science.

You can sign up here if you’d like to join me.

 

** Photo by rawpixel.com on Unsplash

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