A common justification given for various forms of alternative medicine is that they are based on old or ancient concepts. Such claims have been made, for example, for homeopathy, acupuncture, Ayurvedic and traditional Chinese medicine, to name but a few.
But why is old considered good in alternative medicine? We don’t consider a Model T Ford a better transport option compared to a modern car, or an early flying boat better than a modern Boeing 747. Nor do most of us still embrace old cultural beliefs such as slavery, or that women are inferior to men. And most intelligent people would be wary of any “scientist” who listed the chemical elements as earth, fire, air and water and claimed to be able to transmute lead into gold.
Perhaps it is because many of us have a overly romantic view of the past – when life was supposedly simpler. And also shorter and harder. While today the average life expectancy is around 67 years, it was around 28 in ancient Greece, 30 in Medieval Britain and around 31 at the beginning of the 20th century. Furthermore, up until around 100 years ago, lice, syphilis and other joyous freeloaders accompanied many of our ancestors.
For almost 2000 years physicians believed that disease came from an imbalance of the four humours (blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile) in the body. This belief resulted in some dangerous treatments including bloodletting and the use of dangerous and complex herbal remedies. It wasn’t until the 19th century that an understanding of microbes lead to the development of antibiotics which vastly improved the chances of surviving an infection or the 20th century when we developed a better understanding of how various environmental contaminants could affect our health.
Modern conventional medicine has provided cures and treatments for many diseases that would have devastated previous eras. For those diseases we do not have cures for yet, it makes far more sense to expect the answers will come from future research, rather than by looking into the past.