Faith and Echinacea

"The only cure is bed rest. Anything else I give you would only be a placebo." - Dr. Hibbert (speaking to mob)

"Where do we get these placebos!?" -Crazy mob woman
- The Simpsons, "Marge in Chains"
Once again Science has rigorously proved something that no one is going to take notice of - that the herb Echinacea has absolutely no effect at all upon people who suffer from colds or 'flu. The study, which was reported in The New York Times, was apparently rigorous and completely unbiased. Like all pharaceutical trials, half of the subjects were given a placebo while the other half were given the drug in question.

It seems obvious that the only reason why people took the herb for their colds is based on that wonderful Latin phrase post hoc ergo propter hoc - literally, "after this, therefore because of this". Remember the story of the guy who spread elephant powder around his house? Well, no elephants came around so it obviously worked! It's the same logical fallacy. We catch a cold, we take some echinacea and we get better. The problem is, of course, that this study proves that we would have gotten better anyway, without any echinacea.

If we were a society that took notice of the hard work done by testable scientific study, we would put the echinacea industry deservedly out of business. But we're not such a society. Most of us don't actually live in a reality-based community, but one in which faith plays an important part. The problem is, of course, what the definition of faith actually is.

It is a peculiarity of America that faith is expressed as some form of reality-altering "force" that people have the power to use in order to change their lives and their surroundings. It's the sort of faith that you hear expounded by motivational speakers like Tony Robbins - you know, the believe-in-yourself-and-you-can-do-anything attitude. It is also prevalent in the message of many popular modern Christian preachers, like Joel Osteen.

From this definition of faith, we can therefore understand that people who live in the "faith-based" community are the proactive ones - the ones who are actively changing their lives and the world through their acts of faith. Those of us who reside in the reality-based community, well, we're there to study what they've been achieving, forever consigned to observer status.

There is only one problem with this - it doesn't work. How do we know? Echinacea.

The recent study into echinacea shows that personal faith in something may not bring about any changes at all - no matter how strong that faith may be. We may believe very strongly that our sickness can be treated by this herb, but, in reality, it makes no difference whatsoever because rigorous study proves it does not work.

But people will not believe scientific study. It's too hard. It's much easier to buy the book from the self-help guru who spends the entire book telling you how wonderful you are and how you can change your own life.

In fact, people can get so irrational that they may see scientific study as undermining their system of beliefs. Science then becomes the enemy - or at least, the reliance upon the scientific method. It's this sort of activity that leads people to give up their medical treatments, stop seeing their doctor and go on an all-banana diet or some similar quackery.

But this is not what faith is about. There is no dichotomy between the so called "reality" and "faith" based communities. All we have is varying degrees of stupidity.

Faith and reality are not mutually exclusive. The classical and historical definition of faith is unrecognisable from the one that is pandered today by its salesmen. This definition of faith is more akin to the word "trust". I have faith that my chair will hold me up. But it is not my faith that keeps me from falling to the ground, but the chair. The strength of a person's faith, therefore, is not as important as what that faith is in.

One of the more noticeable "faith-based communities" are evangelical Christians - of which I am one. The problem is that many evangelicals have fallen for the modern definition of faith. As a result, walking into a modern evangelical church can often not be dissimilar to walking into a self-help seminar.

The problem is that the Bible's definition of faith is one of trust - the classical and historical definition. This means that many evangelical churches and popular preachers are actually misinterpreting the Bible. So when the Bible speaks of faith, it does not speak of the strength of faith but what that faith is directed towards - Jesus Christ. Yet so many preachers today have forgotten this. I once heard a person preach on faith without mentioning Christ once.

Evangelical Christians, though, are merely part of the world that we live in. Sadly, they too have imbibed the lie that we can determine our own reality. In this, evangelicals are being swept along by the very forces that they are trying to avoid.

So what are we to do? We need to investigate. We need to engage in critical study. Science itself is not immune from the subjective, so it is always good to question how certain tests and studies are done. The Nazis convinced us of that one.

We cannot afford to live in a society that is governed entirely by an individual's right to determine what is real and true. That is why we have traffic lights. Moreover, we all need the right to be be proven wrong. Truthful and reliable information is a basic human right because our belief system always determines our course of action.

How do we achieve this? Simple: When you catch a cold, save your money and don't buy echinacea. Everything else will follow.

From the Department of "Wha Happnin?"

© 2005 Neil McKenzie Cameron, http://one-salient-oversight.blogspot.com/

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