Are you teaching me not to be an African?

The dean of an African medical school tells a story that fascinates and disturbs me.

Two medical students from deep in rural Africa were sent to him because they had behavioural problems. One was the son of traditional healer. When the dean talked to the students it emerged that they were suffering a crisis about what they were being taught. They were being taught about evidence and questioning claims made to them. It was leading them to question much of their African beliefs, including whether the father who was a traditional healer might be doing more harm than good.

“Are you teaching me not to be an African?” asked one of the students, a deeply disturbing question.

Things, it seems, came right in that the students manage to combine being Africans with learning concepts that seemed at first alien.

It makes me think of an African friend, a doctor, who is a creationist but teaches evidence based medicine. Those two things feel incompatible to me, but that perhaps reflects my narrowness. There are many leading scientists who are also deeply religious.

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2 thoughts on “Are you teaching me not to be an African?

  1. It is a difficult dilemma, when one tries to hold two or more discordant beliefs. Evidence-based medicine as currently construed has caused us to discard some anecdotally highly effective therapies. When I was a country doctor in Saskatchewan in the early 1950’s I successfully used cupping, and alcohol based placebos, because I saw them work effectively to relieve a variety of painful conditions. I would not dare to use them today, as they would be fakery; but there is really nothing to replace them that works nearly as well. We have thrown out the baby with the bathwater. It may be that the traditional healer did much more good than harm, with the tools that were available to him.

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    • We know that placebos have a powerful effect in all trials. Somebody suggested in the BMJ that somebody should market a drug called placebo: there’s masses of evidence for its effectiveness, and it has few if any side effects.

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