THE 21ST CENTURY SHAMAN                          Alternate Medicines and the Scientific Method

                    by  Norman Spinrad
          Written  over a decade ago as a proposal for a book that never got written  but all too pertinent to the era of the coronavirus 
There are many medical systems on this planet, some of them ancient, some of them new, more of them that not based on metaphorical systems. Only “Western” or “alliopathic” medicine is based on rigorous science.  But many of the traditional non-western systems cure some conditions cure some conditions but not others.

Many of these cures work in practice, but not in theory. That is they do work, but not for the reasons the theory behind them contends, metaphoric shamanic systems that over centuries evolved them over trial and error, and some of these belief-based cures can do real harm.  With the ones that do work, the shamans know they work, but are mistaken as to how.

So what is needed in the 21st century when all of these systems are competing for patients who can find practioners easily enough via the Internet, some of which are snake-oil frauds, others which really do have something to offer, are what we might call Scientific Shamans, at least generally knowledgable about the full spectrum.

The point of view the Scientific Shaman is that all medical systems and their prescriptions should be taken seriously, but everything in them should be passed through the filter of best current scientific knowledge. 

Scientific Shaman are “Wholistic,” but not because the “believe” in anything or everything, but because they regard all of it equally with the same analytical eye.  Scientific Shamans don’t just want to know what works, they want to know why.  No magic.  No mumbo jumbo. No metaphoric thinking.  No faith-based “beliefs.”

For examples:

Vedic medicine successfully used the leaf of the rauwolfia plant to treat heart conditions, but for the wrong reason, because that the leaf was shaped like a heart.  Molecular biology much later revealed that it worked because it contained digitalis.

Chinese acupuncture works very well indeed, in many cases better than alliopathic medicine, and while its chart of the flow of chi used to place the pins may be metaphorical, it’s older than science’s ability to chart the actual nervous system, but it pretty much parallels it, having evolved via trial and error over centuries rather than via instrumentation.

But Russian acupuncturists began ask why it worked, and via scientific method, related the acupuncture points to a fairly accurate layout of the nervous system, discovered that the Chinese system was generating microelectric impulses across nervous synapses, and began putting mini-charges across the needles to improve results.
  Western alliopathic medicine (what MDs are pleased to call simpy “medicine)” also evolved over slow centuries of trial and error and developed specific potions for specific disorders long before it had any knowledge of the existence of bacteria and viruses or of anything going on at the molecular level.

   They don’t call it the “practice” of medicine for nothing.

Shamans in Africa, Latin America, Siberia, and so forth likewise evolved their cures over the centuries by trial and error, with all kinds of erronious metaphorical fantasies to explain why their cures worked.

Darwinian evolution, even in this realm, eventually weeds out what doesn’t work from what does, without the need to know how.  It always works in practice given enough time, and needs no correct scientific theory to do so.

So the Scientific Shaman will use anything from any medical tradition that demonstrably works, without buying into any marketing myths purporting to explain why in terms of gods, demons, vapors, ley line vibrations, Mother Gai’s little helpers.  If it works, it works, but the line of bullshit that the snake-oil salesman uses to promote it should neither sell the Scientific Shaman on it or discredit it. 

The Scientific Shaman wants to know why something works, on the biochemical level, on the molecular level, on the bioelectronic level, at the very least, and maybe as it may turn out, even on the quantum level.


For one answer, walk into a health food store or a major vitamin shop, and you’ll see why on the shelves, crammed full of useless or even dangerous marketing nostroms, New Age potions, and “natural steroids” endorsed by Mark McGuire and Barry Bonds, buried within which are also the real and explicable deal.

Melatonin, for example, and it’s employment agains jet lag and insomnia.  The biochemistry of this is well researched and nailed down as to dosages and timing, and not by vibrating ladies or slick pills pushers, but by Phd. biologists in the lab.  It’s a hormone whose place in the biochemical soup of consciousness, sleep, and time-sense is well understood.  It’s dirt cheap, and it’s in the public domain.  Or you can buy patented proprietary molecules that mimic melatonin for mucho dinero and the enhancement of the drug companies’ balance sheets.

Vitamin C, for another. 

Alliopathic doctors are prescribing synthetic interferon as a viricide against things like herpes and hepatitus, with mixed success, unpleasant side effects, and great expense to the patient and profit to the drug industry.

Vitamin C, straight ascorbic acid, costs next to nothing as long as you don’t go for rose hip extract or other such add-ons, and it catalzyes the body’s own production of interferon. Which is why in massive doses over short times, it can abort the common cold, and over longer time periods, suppress retroviruses, among other possible things.  This is not anecdotal supported only by razzmataz, how it works on a molecular level was laid out by a Nobel Prize biochemist, Linus Pauling..

The Scientific Shaman has to know things like this, but also knows all too well that there are Great Pretenders out there in all medical traditions, and these days marketing cults for them too, high colonics and live forever potions, recreational drugs pretending to be cure-alls, guru diets and tv adds for drugs that cure diseases that had to be invented to sell them. 

What works, works, and what works can come from the most disreputable systems or sources as well as the modern alliopathic medical machinery, as can things that fail to work or work disastrously.

So the only way for the Scientific Shaman to make completist, non-ideological, non-marketing, non-monocultural sense of it all, is to subject all of it to the same two tests:

Does it work?
Are there statistical studies at least that say so? 

Or has the Scientific Shaman applied it and seen it work himself?

How does it work?

Statistical studies admittedly can be faked and individual successes could be lucky streaks, but it’s obvious that if you know how a chemical or a technique works on at least a molecular level you can be reasonably confident that it will work the next tim.  Scientific elucidation can prove the positive as nothing else can.

The scientific method and only the examination of would-be shamanic cures can separate what works in each of them from what doesn’t by learning why what works works and what doesn’t doesn’t by learning why what works works on at least biomolecular level.  

Scientific Shamans may not always be able to reach that level of explanation but long before they get to the biomolecular level understanding of what does work, they will have eliminated what really doesn’t, and know why it can’t.

There are things that work in all medical traditions, the millenial as well as the latest developments in cutting edge molecular biology, and there are things that don’t, or worse, and cultural turf defending, guruhood, religious beliefs, just plain fraud, all to often confuse the ill with smoke and mirrors.

But asking science why any of it works or doesn’t enables the utilization of the whole keyboard because scientific elucidation relies not upon belief or suppositions but demonstrations and proofs.  Mendelian  garden genetics and Darwin’s theory of evolution were correct on a descriptive level in the macrocosm, and later ratified by being explained on finer and finer levels by the understanding of  DNA, genes, sequenced genomes.

Science is a method, not a belief system, and rather that being an enemy of what truths maybe buried in all systems of medicine, it is the only real means for separating the wheat from the chaff.

“It works in practice, but will it work in theory?”

This is a sardonic put down of the French intellectual mind by the French intellectual mind, or usually meant as such.  But from the point of view of the Scientific Shaman, there’s something to it.

To be confident that you understand how it works in theory is to know that it does work, to understand why it can’t work, is to know that it doesn’t.


  1. Hello!

    Congrats and thanks for that.

    "a sardonic put down of the French intellectual mind by the French intellectual mind"? Who are you referring to, Norman?
    Hope you feel better and better and better,


    Helene C.

  2. It's an old sort of joke I've heard French "intellectuals" tell on each other, but it makes a point, that a certain kind of intellectual values theory over observed reality. I think it's been printed here and there too.

  3. very nicely said! Nobody has yet been able to prove that homeopathy has an curing effect even if it works fairly well on animals (horses, cats and chickens for example)... A cartesian spirit only believes what he could put in equations. Is he the French intellectual mind you are quoting?.

  4. More modern the way I heard it, and ironic, which was not Des Cartes' forte, though it could have originated with him in some manner.

    "He was a believer in Cartesian dualism, and therefore not to be trusted."
    --Gregory Benford


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