Daryl Ilbury

Archive for October, 2012|Monthly archive page

Don’t knock traditional healers and their sick notes

In Eish!, Fools, Science on October 24, 2012 at 1:00 pm

“Geez, doc, can’t I just take a couple of pills instead?”

I’ve shocked a number of people who have contacted me for comment on what has been dubbed ‘The Sangoma Sick Note Saga’ because I have come out in support for traditional healers…sort of.

I’ve been taught ‘content is king, context is King Kong’, so here’s a quick scene-set for non-South African readers of this blog:

The Labour Appeal Court in South Africa has upheld a decision by the CCMA (Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration) that a labourer who was fired for presenting a sick note from a sangoma (a South African traditional healer), be reinstated. If you want to read a bit more about the court’s decision, you can read the SAPA release as carried in The Sowetan newspaper. What has made the story somewhat juicy is that the labourer was employed at Kievits Kroon Country Estate – an upmarket conference venue, hotel and spa resort just outside Pretoria, and a popular destination for business people and the generally well-heeled (one would hope that after a visit to the spa they’d also be well-healed…but I digress).

It’s important to understand that in South Africa traditional healers are not some whimsical artefact of African folklore, they are still very much an integral part of modern African culture. They are officially referred to as ‘traditional health practitioners’ and their right to practise is protected by the constitution. They are also governed by a specific law, and they are represented up to the very highest office: traditional medicine enjoys similar aknowledgement as modern medicine by the national Department of Health.

But that doesn’t explain why I – a Western-schooled science journalist who embraces the rigours of evidence-based scientific enquiry – would seem to support a decision that endorses traditional healing.

The reason has, in fact, two parts: one is wrapped in the way I see science and medicine, and the other is sewn into my passion for jabbing a spear into the side of convention (and, it seems, my inclination for mixing metaphors).

To explain the way I see science and medicine I need to cite the sagacious Dr Toby Murcott, a former lecturer of mine and the author of the fascinating The Whole Story: Alternative Medicine on Trial?. Now, if there’s one thing Toby taught me it’s that to critically examine medicine you need an open mind, a healthy dose of scepticism, and to be prepared to employ an exhaustive search for evidence.

Now back to our sangoma story (and if you wish to get some context of what’s involved in consulting a sangoma, here’s a quick explanation)…

Firstly, the science journalist in me rejects outright the central assertion by sangomas that illness is caused by ‘spirits’ and elements of witchcraft. An open mind is one thing, having one so cavernous it sucks in all manner of ideological flotsam is another. However, the same science journalist in me has to acknowledge that the muti (traditional medicine) that is often prescribed to ‘patients’ may contain plant extracts that have the same active ingredients as certain ‘modern’ medicines.

Furthermore, I am also aware that the power of suggestion, appeal to authority, and the ceremony of intervention that are behind the ‘magic’ of a sangoma, are also recognised by science as still-active components of modern medicine. A doctor showing deep empathy for a patient and then subscribing a course of branded medication with the assurance that it will remove the symptoms and heal the malady may lack all the colour of a sangoma throwing bones and burning ‘impepho’ (a sacred herb burnt to call the ancestors), but the effect on the patient is very similar.

And finally, here’s the jabbing of the spear in the side of convention: How silly is a note from a traditional healer claiming a woman is sick because she has to appease her ancestors’ spirits, when Christian faith healers claim they can cure the sick by invoking the power of the holy spirit?

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Science under siege…again

In Eish!, Fools, Politics, Science on October 23, 2012 at 12:45 pm

The authorities hoped the Italian scientist was getting the point

I certainly wasn’t going to let this one slide by, especially after the fight I had with my family.

Last night while my family was watching ‘The Good Wife’ on TV, I (sick and tired of the plethora of formulaic American cop/lawyer/doctor angst TV programming) consigned myself to scouring the news feeds from science sites for stories of what was happening in the reality of the modern world. Little did I expect to uncover a news story fresh from the Dark Ages.

You’ll possibly know of the story by now. If not, here it is in brief:

Six Italian scientists and a government official have been sentenced to six years in jail on charges of multiple manslaughter in a watershed ruling that found them guilty of underestimating the risks of a killer earthquake that struck the town of L’Aquila in 2009.
I know what you’re thinking: “Huh?” Welcome to the team.
I had been following the story on and off since the trial began, all the time knowing that a conviction would be ludicrous; after all, even given all the data available, no seismologist would be able to give a wholly accurate prediction of the possibility of an earthquake. Mother Earth has her own agenda. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: science doesn’t know everything; if it did, it would stop. More importantly, it knows it doesn’t know everything, so it tends to err on the side of caution and tempers its language appropriately.
The real shock came not when I read the report of the sentencing, but in the reaction of my family when I told them: they supported the notion that the scientists were at fault and therefore should be held liable. These are no intellectual slouches: they have multiple degrees and are students of philosophy and politics, and yet I battled to get them to understand that even if the scientists had said there was only a small chance of an earthquake, the threat of an earthquake still existed; and therefore, even if a major earthquake occurred the very next day, it would still fall within the mathematical parameters presented by the scientists.
So where’s the problem? For a clue, we have to turn to radio. Now  if there’s one thing I’ve learnt in over 20 years in commercial radio, it is this: listeners…don’t. What this means is that listeners only hear what they want to hear.
In this particular case, the fault lies in human nature and its selective interpretation of science. If scientists (whom people feel can be trusted) say “there’s only a small chance of a major earthquake”, people instead hear, “…so you don’t have to go to any cost or bother to protect yourself against a major earthquake, because it’s not going to happen.”
My sketchy knowledge of Italian precludes me from understanding the specifics of the judge’s findings, but if what I read in the reports of the more reliable news services is correct, then the convictions against the Italian scientists invoke images of medieval paranoia and aggression towards science.
Combine this with the upswell of religious fundamentalism in the Middle East and the United States, and science is under siege…again.

More on fact versus faith…

In Eish!, Politics, Science on October 4, 2012 at 9:01 am

I believe passionately in giving credit where credit is due.

After I had published my last post, I remembered an excellent cartoon I stumbled across recently. It’s by a cartoonist called James MacLeod. He is in fact a Professor of History at the University of Evansville – a small, private university in Evansville in Indiana. When he’s not inspiring young minds and contributing to the study of war memorials, he draws cartoons for the Evansville Courier and Press, as well as for the BostonDirtDogs site at the Boston Globe. For someone who follows the only real man’s sport – rugby – I can’t understand most of the latter. However, every now and then he digs around in my neck of the woods: science and society.

Here he does what every great cartoonist somehow manages to do – present a topical and controversial issue in a clear and innovative way. Show him your support by checking him out. He has a blog, a Facebook page and a Twitter profile.

Fact versus faith and US politics

In Eish!, Politics, Science on October 3, 2012 at 9:07 am

The little thing getting in the way of fact-based decision-making

I am often at loggerheads with people who are strong of faith and who dismiss science as incapable of explaining everything. They often use this fact (and it is a fact) as evidence for the justification for their faith. However, where they always seem to flounder is when I present my simple explanation of the difference between fact and faith. And here it is:

A new mother rests with her baby daughter in her bed on the 3rd floor of a hospital. She looks down at her beautiful child, and says a quiet prayer. She honestly, truly believes that God will look after her daughter. She smiles serenely, absolutely unshakeable in her belief. This is faith. Suddenly a nurse comes into the room, picks up the baby, opens the window, and dangles the baby outside. How does the mother react? She screams, and leaps towards the nurse to protect her child; because she knows that if the nurse lets go, her baby will fall to the ground and possibly die. This is fact.

Scientific fact and religious faith are, in many respects, irreconcilable, because one relies on knowledge through proof, and the other on belief through interpretation. This wouldn’t be an issue if critical decisions affecting social, political and economic policy were made based on the former, and decisions affecting personal lifestyle were made on the latter.

Unfortunately, this is not the case; and as the US Presidential elections enter their final phase, this discrepancy is about to have global repercussions.