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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Bad Science in the Renaissance: Ambroise Pare and the Quacks

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

The annual post-Christmas guilt about our excessive consumption has, as usual, been accompanied by advertisements promising miraculous diet plans and detox solutions. But this period been made more interesting this year because the scientists (spoilsports that they are) have been fighting back. The Sense About Science organisation recently launched a Detox Dossier exposing the fraudulent claims of Detox quacks. Appearing on the Today programme to discuss detox plans, Ben Goldacre of Bad Science launched a highly effective condemnation of the claims of one organisation, Detoxinabox. He showed that they could not even spell that nasty chemical "cadminum" (i.e. cadmium) correctly, and that the managing director did not even know the contents of the spurious claims made on her own website when she responded to these allegations in interview.

This miniature tussle was symptomatic of a far wider battle going on between science and alternative therapies. At one level, this battle is purely commercial. There is a quick buck to be made by selling detox products to a public desperate for some easy way to fix their Christmas excesses. It does not matter that scientists have shown the ludicrous evidence base behind their clever sounding jargon, since by the time the products are exposed, they will have sold in sufficient quantities and can hibernate from view until the next festive period. At another level, though, detox products are part of a broader milieu in which evidence-based medicine is (at best) not well-understood, and (at worst) perceived to be no better way of dealing with pathological problems than any other.

Now as a literary academic I am not well-placed to deconstruct the claims made for detox or other quack products. However, what I can do is to offer some relief to the pain of those scientists who are fed up by the way in whichthey must go to great lengths to get a new drug to market (double-blind clinical trials etc.), whilst the public is prepared to swallow made-up advertising hokum of detox products. How can I help the suffering scientists? Well, by at least pointing out that such a struggle between authentic practitioners and pseudo-scientists has a long heritage.

Let us go back to the sixteenth century, and the French royal court. Here we find the physician, Ambroise Paré, chief surgeon to Henry II, Francis II, Charles IX and Henry III, and arguably the most prominent and well-known medical man of his era (a sort of Renaissance Robert Winston). Paré published on medical instruments, military injuries, childbirth and physiognomy. However, his most enduring and quirky work is On Monsters and Marvels, dating from around 1573. Here, Paré offers a compilation of his own and second-hand accounts of birth defects, sea and land monsters, and grotesque injuries.

Now Paré is by no means a modern clinician. Although his use of detailed anatomical drawings is forward-looking, for the most part he relies on the two age-old authorities - Aristotle and Hippocrates - to explain how foetuses are created and may develop abnormally, and how abherrations come about. However, what is interesting about Paré is that he nevertheless feels his science is grounded on something more than superstitious belief. He invokes Augustine to argue that nothing in God's universe is intrinsically monstrous or the work of demons, it is just that we have not looked closely enough and understood what those monsters are intended by God to signify. When reading Paré, it is important to understand that - in his own time - the best scientific practices as then defined were not incompatible with believing that ultimately science (or, if you prefer, "science") would show the brilliance of God's creation.

In the modern period, in an age of wars between science and religion, we tend to place people in the camps of either empiricism, or of supersitition. If one believes in God, for example, why does one not believe in ghosts, angels, or demons? There seems to be no logical explanation for why some one who believes in God should think ghosts cannot possibly exist. Conversely, if one pursues the empirical method, it should be quite clear that miracles breach the laws of science. Anyone who holds religious and scientific values concurrently is either self-deluded or forced to fudge two fundamentally contradictory positions, as indicated most prominently in the Intelligent Design movement which reconciles God with evolution.

As a child of the sixteenth century, however, Paré thinks differently. It is taken for granted that God exists, but that is not to say that every possible superstitious belief should be entertained, regardless of evidence to the contrary. The most prominent evidence of this in On Monsters is that Paré argues that demons or the Devil do not actually possess real power to create monsters. If they did, this would imply that God was not omnipotent (all-powerful). Rather, Paré argues that demons operate by illusion. They only seem to create monsters or hideous forms by implanting false ideas in the minds of the witnesses; they can never actually make monsters, contrary to God's perfect wishes.

In the history of science, it is ironic that Paré stakes a claim for science out of this religious conviction. Rather than religion and science being antithetical, as they seem to be today, religion lends the scientist his authority to explain the world better than a different, untrained person. Paré puts himself up as the best, most scientifically rigorous of medical practitioners, so far as "science" was construed at the time. He argues against quack practitioners, who are in league with the devil:

Now just exactly as the Devil, chief and sworn enemy of man, often (yet through God's permission) afflicts us with great and diverse maladies, so do sorcerers, tricksters, and wicked men - through ruses and diabolical tricks - torture and abuse countless men; some invoke and adjure heaven knows what spirits, through whispers, exorcisms, imprecations, enchantments, and bewitchments; others tie around the neck - or else carry on them in some other way - certain writings, certain characters, certain rings, certain pictures, and other such claptrap; others use certain harmonious chants and dances. Sometimes they use certain potions, or, rather, poisons, suffimigations, perfumes, charms, and enchantments. Some are found who, having contrived the image and likeness of some absent party, pierce it with certain instruments, and boast of afflicting - with any such illness as pleases them - the one whose likeness they are piercing, even though he may be far away from them; and they say that this is done by virtue of the stars and of certain words that they hum while piercing such an image or likeness made of wax. There are, in addition, an infinity of such villainies which have been invented by these rascals to afflict and torment men, but it would weary me to say any more about it.
Irreligiousity (in the form of doing the Devil's work) and quackery are one and the same thing. Paré continues in defence of his profession:
I would never have been finished if I'd wanted to amuse myself by stringing together thousands upon thousands of [examples of] such superstitious gibberish and I would not have gone on about it so long, except in order to give warning to a lot [of persons], who are mistaken about it, not to believe in it any longer, and to beg them to reject all such foolishness, and to stop at what is assured, and [this] by so many skillful and worthy gentlemen [who are] confirmed and certified in Medicine; which doing, an infinite good will be brought about for the public; all the more because next to the honour of God, there is nothing that should be more precious to man than his health.
Any medical scientist reading this should feel a fellow hand reaching across the centuries in sympathy at the pressure they were placed under by fraudulent peddlers of quick pannaceas. True, Paré's own scientific discoveries and methods have been superseded today; but one can well-imagine that, had he been born four-hundred years later, Paré would have been happily stalking the corridors of the École Polytechnique. On the other hand, many modern scientists would like to pretend that the Enlightenment world has seen science and religion kept totally apart. However, Paré shows that the roots of the scientific revolution run earlier than the seventeenth century and the foundation of the Royal Society, and that the heritage of scientific authority is invested within a religious framework, not apart from it. Science emerged not against, but out of, religiously focused enquiries into the nature of the world, in this case Paré's desire to show that monsters are not intrinsically nasty but part of God's fecundly wondrous creation.

Indeed, the ultimate detox solution of all time has to have been the Catholic indulgences which promised absolution for all your sins (moral, as well as dietary). As part of this commercial conspiracy, Catholic priests might travel from town to town performing exorcisms, expunging the devil from a daemoniac, whose tortured body and troubled mind offered onlookers a foretaste of the purgatory to come - unless, of course, they were to buy an indulgence out of it.

Ambroise Paré, however, rebels against quackery like this, by denying that the Devil actually does physical work. It was, in part, only once demons were understood as illusions that the world became open to empirical testing. After all, if the Devil was at large in the world, how could one know that the world being tested was not the result of some diabolical hoax?

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