Economics, Literature and Scepticism

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I am a PhD student in Economics. I am originally from South Africa and plan to return there after my PhD. I completed my M. Comm in Economics and my MA In Creative Writing (Poetry) at the University of Cape Town, where I worked as a lecturer before starting my PhD.

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Monday, September 22, 2008

Herbal Mixtures and Traditional Healers

Posted by Simon Halliday | Monday, September 22, 2008 | Category: |

I know that this blog traditionally deals with economics, but I felt I needed to comment on this subject. In the South African news today there are reports of a herbal medicine mixed by a trainee traditional healer resulting in the deaths of the trainee healer's entire family. My condolences go out to the family and friends of those who have passed away.

However, this opens up one of the many areas in which progress needs to occur in South Africa. I understand and respect the fact that there are cultural differences between groups and individuals. I acknowledge too that there should be autonomous choices made when individuals engage in cultural practices. However, taking 'herbal mixtures' that could result in the deaths of the individuals involved does no seem, to me, to be a 'good' outcome of such cultural practices.

The skeptic in me rears its head and says, "What would happen if these people did not believe that these herbal mixtures were necessary as part of some religious ritual?" Well, my pat answer is that they wouldn't be dead. They could also be ostracised from their communities, thought of as wrongheaded or counter-cultural on account of having chosen to reject their religion, or their 'cultural practice' (what you will), they could be spending their time doing something else. They could, too, have chosen to join some other religious group and have other, hopefully less lethal, religious or cultural practices.

Ultimately, what it comes down to for me is the fact that, once more, lack of belief in science, belief in witchcraft, or the supernatural, or something entirely not based in science which should have been based on science (being a medicinal herbal mixture, i.e. with visible outcomes). Instead they were based on 'cultural' practices that are, by their nature, not allowed to be touched by scientific practices because of the fact that they are meant to be thought of as 'autonomous', that the 'paternalism' of science will 'damage' the experience of practices that allow scientific intervention or verification of outcomes. This is downright silly. But such silliness seems endemic to supernatural belief, especially supernatural beliefs that claim authority that is independent of scientific verification. As such, people will end up dead. It is a great pity. My condolences go out to the families once more. I am sad that their relatives have passed away, sadder still that it was as a consequence of herbalism

Currently have 4 comments:

  1. Good stuff, thanks. This is (1) deeply sad, (2) an utter travesty and (3) an excellent illustration of why "Western" (better known as "science-based") medicine was invented in the first place. Herbs are drugs. Drugs can be dangerous.

  2. (so regulation is good...)

  3. This is all so true, and so incredibly sad. I feel strongly that the protection of cultural identity and freedom should not extend to anything that could do physical harm (like the ingestion of herbal mixtures), but unfortunately our constitution confuses "liberal" with "everybody's point of view is equally valid".

    Case in point is the much-disputed Mpumalanga Witchcraft Suppression Bill that (however flawed), attempted to bring some order and regulation to the activities of traditional healers. But what happened? The bloody Pagans (tarot-reading astrology woo-woos) felt that it violated their right to freedom of religion, because they call their particular flavour of woo 'witchcraft'. And so, on constitutional grounds, the Bill was shelved and forgotten about. That type of well-meaning but misguided interpretation of the law will continue to prevent the spread of reason to the places where it can actually save lives.

  4. I couldn't agree more. While I understand that cultural practices are sacred to many individuals, in order for them to be sacred in the first place the individuals need to be alive.

    Hence, yes, I agree we require regulation of a sort that does NOT get blocked by lame people claiming that it infringes on their right to practice tarot.