IIf I had yesterday’s post back, I would rephrase the bit about serpent worship, which seems to be the chief magnet for complaints that I am some sort of racist missionary zealot. The point was that people who try to justify unproven medications on the grounds that an indigenous culture used them thousands of years ago are no more persuasive than claims that we should bring back human sacrifice because the Maya practiced it, slavery because the Americans did, or the four-humors theory because it was the bedrock of European medicine. I’m sorry I drew an analogy that irked people. I’m not sorry I made the point in the first place.
First of all, this has nothing to do with race. I thought I made that clear by referring to homeopathy, which is European – and even worse than ayahuasca, because while ayahuasca is simply an unproven quantity, homeopathy is clearly and definitively bunk. This debate involves white Canadians who are appropriating ayahuasca for their own purposes. It’s not about which culture was more primitive in the distant past. Want to talk about what passed for European medicine a thousand years ago? It won’t be a very pretty discussion. The real racists are the suburban morons who think ayahuasca can put them in touch with Quetzalcoatl.
Second, one commenter, a highly respected progressive blogger, told me flat out that I was the one with the problem: “the problem for you to wrestle with is that ayahuasca works.” Oh? Well, what does it work at, exactly? Does it cure cancer, like this deceased professor says, or maybe this one? Does it heal addictions, like Gabor Maté claims? Does it cure “anything you have,” as one shaman claims? Or is it, as another researcher writes, a “teaching plant” which can reveal to the attentive shaman “distant galaxies and planetns, the wellbeing of distant relatives [and] the location of lost objects”?
The answer is, I don’t, and I suspect that nobody really does. Here’s how skeptical thinking works, and you are welcome to apply it to any facet of life. First, the burden of proof is on the person making the claim. By default, assume that nothing is true. Then, build from there. The more compatible a new claim is with older claims that have been demonstrated to be true, the more willing we should be to accept it. Much more importantly, though, the more evidence can be assembled affirming the claim, the more readily it should be accepted.
In medicine, researchers apply this method through clinical trials. Dr. Maté perhaps should have assisted in setting one of these up. He didn’t. That’s where the present problem originated. Ayahuasca is a hallucinogenic drug, and it is illegal in Canada. So it can’t be prescribed as a medicine without persuading the government that they need to make an exception. If someone can offer a reasonable argument as to whether the drug works, or even why it should work in theory, that’s the first step.
Now, the Globe & Mail isn’t really the right place to have that preliminary discussion, and I’m not a credible expert in the forum where it should take place (i.e. advanced medical research journals). But they failed to mention any such research, and their unpersuasive anecdotal claim was that “several” of a couple of hundred patients taking ayahuasca had managed to beat an addiction. I kind of doubt such trials are taking place, but maybe they are.Tweet