Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Bad Science, Quackery and the Ancient World.

During my jaunt to Scotland I picked up a copy of Ben Goldacre's Bad Science, which I thoroughly recommend. The book attacks pseudo-science, and the practitioners of it (although not with any malice), and midway through he says "there have always been health gurus selling magic potions", and I thought - without doubt, the classical world was full of them.

From Pliny through Martial, excerpts from the Greek Anthology and Quintus Gagilius Martialis (and maybe Plutarch, but despite the prevalence of a certain quote on the internet, I can find no reference for it - any help would be appreciated), we hear of so called quacks plying their trade.

Given the unprofessional nature of ancient medicine (becoming a doctor was as simple as calling yourself one), it goes without saying that there were a fair share of opportunists around. Potions and miracle cures were all around - no doubt at great expense.

Goldacre's book makes the point that people are often duped by "professionals" who are indeed unqualified, money-grabbing quacks (he mentions many, many in his book). If it's this easy in the modern world - how easy was it in the ancient one? It must have been a piece of cake to sell some distinctive tasting water and label it a miracle cure.

Like many "educated" professions, a large number of the practitioners in the Roman world were Greeks. I wonder if the public distrust of doctors we hear about can be conflated with the general distrust of Greeks (even if they bring gifts etc)? I think it's possible.

Ancient medicine was not, of course, all quackery. Some of it's practitioners would be doing ground breaking work, and care deeply about the welfare of their patients - but that positive aspect is not my focus here.

I just wonder how many people died in the classical world as a result of quackery, because it seems the numbers that still do today are astonishingly high. All in all, it seems people haven't changed that much - some of them are still peddling their wares on the desperate and needy.

I apologise for the brevity of this post. I have some more material, so I'm sure there will be a Part Deux sometime.

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