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Health And Medicine: Scientific Or Miraculous?

I was recently listening to an audiobook about diet, written and read by a “famous” doctor who gets people healthy through dietary changes.

Since my podcast pushes me a little into the mainstream (more than this blog does), I thought it would be good to hear what the “average” person is reading about health. Plus, I am not exactly the most compliant patient when it comes to diet, so I thought I could possibly get something out of it personally.

I did my best to listen with an open mind, ignoring what I thought were gimmicks and trying to glean the valuable information from what this doctor was saying.

I had to stop, however, before finishing the book. It wasn’t the content so much that gave me cause to feel the desire to smash my iPod, it was the hype. The author was constantly using words like “amazing,” “magical,” and “miraculous.” 

The problem was that he was simultaneously trying to show how “scientific” his advice was, even bragging at the start of the book about how many citations to scientific studies the book makes, while pitching his view as one that gave “miraculous” results.

So what is it: “Scientific” or “miraculous?”

Do the results of this diet make perfect sense, or are they beyond expectation?  It seemed to me that he was trying to live in both worlds: one that promised weight loss, less cancer, and more energy without ever being hungry, and one that claimed to be gimmick-free, instead being based on sound scientific principles. What it really seemed was that he was using the perception that science holds the keys to miracles –- a belief rooted in the modern thought that technology will be our savior.

While I am distressed by the obvious ploy to either fool readers into thinking science is miraculous or that non-scientific things are actually scientific, I am more distressed by the fact that this book is a bestseller. Walking away from this book I was more confused than enlightened –- due in large part to the mixing of miracles with science.

But this is what is selling in our culture, borrowing from the classic Dr. Pepper oxymoron: “I’m part of an original crowd.” People are drawn to contradictions like this, wanting to simultaneously be intelligent while not wanting to be reduced to dry facts.  Heck, I was listening to this book with hopes of finding some new information that would finally get me eating healthier. I know the facts, and so was hoping for a little magic.

This ubiquitous contradiction is present throughout our culture, and there is nowhere it is more manifest than in the field of medicine. People come to me as a doctor with the hope that I can use my science and technology to work a little magic in their lives. They hope I can prescribe a drug that will make them lose weight, get energy, and get their kids to obey them.

They come to find out if they have a “chemical imbalance” that I can somehow, using the wonders of science, fix to make them feel better. They want to live a long life without growing old. They want to be physically fit without exercising. They want to grow strong without any pain. (When I say “they,” I am only speaking in my role as physician, not as one who doesn’t also fall for the promise of miracles.)

Copyright 2006 by Sidney Harris

So is it all bad that we long for more than the rational? Is it wrong for the person with cancer to dream of a Lance Armstrong outcome? Is it wrong for the desperate parent to come to me with the question: “how can I get my kids to obey me?” as if I somehow know the answer to this question? Should we all accept the bleak assessment, “Life sucks and then you die”?  And are we really so bold as to say that there are no miracles out there?

You couldn’t tell me that there are no miracles when I held my newborn son in my arms. Music, visual beauty, and love are able to transport us beyond a state of wonder (which is a rational appreciation of the exceptional) and to a state of rapture (which is to be consumed by emotion).  As much as reductionist thought and rationalist thinkers try to convince us that we are simply a bunch of complex chemical and subatomic forces at work, we measure our lives by the immeasurable.

Yet neither do we want to be seen as being “irrational” or “crazy.” The desire for the miraculous can move us to the heights, but it can also make us vulnerable for being taken advantage of. Madison avenue is well aware of our desire for the magic, as are faith healers and politicians. We scorn those who leverage the credulity of others for their own personal gain. So what do we want, only legitimate miracles?

I have a lot of religious patients, and I personally have a strong religious background. Given the nature of my work, the issue of miracles comes up quite often in the exam room. In this realm I stand on the razor’s edge, not wanting to discredit the hope for the unexpected but also not wanting to lead people to false hope. I am a human who hopes for miracles, but I am also a physician who relies on science. Is it possible to live in both worlds without ending up as disingenuous as the author of my audiobook?

There’s a thing I say to people in this situation that seems to help: When God brings rain, He generally does it by using clouds. I don’t think it would be beyond God’s ability to bring rain out of a blue sky, but he seems to like the way this world works and so uses natural means to accomplish the miraculous. In the same way, I can use my science and what I have learned in relationships to help a person beyond their expectation. Is it miraculous?  Sometimes it seems that way, despite the fact that it can be explained scientifically.

My biggest personal experience with the miraculous is in the area of relationship. When I am loved, when I hold my child, when I laugh with my siblings, and when I experience forgiveness I feel a sense of the miraculous. The father of the prodigal son who runs out to embrace him instead of scolding or disowning him is to me a story of the miraculous.

This is the way that the doctor-patient relationship straddles the line between the rational and miraculous. Yes, it is a consumer-provider relationship where the patient is paying the doctor for the commodity of care. Yes, it is a scientific process where the doctor takes science and applies it to the symptoms the patient gives. But it is also a relationship between two people. It is a place where barriers are dropped and where physical touch occurs. It is a place where people are known and where long-term relationships happen on a very deep level. I know my patients and their families, and they look on me much differently than they do their auto mechanic or grocer.

And I have no shame in calling THAT miraculous.

*This blog post was originally published at Musings of a Distractible Mind*

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