If it’d been a snake it woulda bit ya.”
Traditional Appalachian adage
As we have discussed, in the Medieval authority was everything, and people were actively discouraged from independent thought. In medicine, one of the undisputed – and indisputable – authorities was the Greek physician, Galen of Pergamon.1)He was also the first recorded sports physician, treating the Roman gladiators. Galen by himself produced almost half of all surviving ancient Greek texts; it is believed that he employed as many as 20 scribes simultaneously to record his investigations and opinions, and that he authored over 10M published words, the equivalent of about 100-200 modern books.
In the Renaissance, as physicians began dissections on human cadavers,2)When I was in a summer program at the University of Montpellier in France, we were told that Montpellier was the first medical school to officially perform human dissection. They gained the distinction when rumor reached the school that the University of Bologna had begun the practice. Montpellier raced to catch up, only to later discover that the rumor had been false. I have never verified that story, but it suggests that Renaissance physicians were feeling a growing need to investigate the true structure of the body. the standard reference on human anatomy was Galen’s De Anatomicis Administrationibus. That caused a problem; Galen never dissected human cadavers. His work focused on the dissection of apes, which he pointed out were similar enough to understand general principles.
So the modern reader will be surprised to find that when, in the 16th century, Andreas Vesalius started pointing out that the human cadavers really didn’t match Galen’s texts all that well, there was a furious academic outcry and a vicious backlash. Not against Galen, mind you.
Thousands of university students and faculty were dissecting cadavers, and they were all reading Galen. So why was it that only one person among them actually looked with his own eyes, and actually thought about the reality right in front of him?
And why did almost everyone attack him?
Not long after Vesalius fought his battles, William Harvey presented demonstrations and wrote a treatise proposing that – huge spoiler alert – the heart moves blood. Harvey was attacked from all quarters for reporting what every soldier and butcher could see. The problem was, Galen had also written about the heart and the blood, and claimed that blood was static. There was an entire theory of blood-letting at that time, specifying where and how much a patient should be bled, all of which depended on Galen’s opinion that the blood did not move.
Again, out of all of the many thousands of physicians who had been working on the human body, why did only one of them point out the obvious?
And why was he so roundly and soundly attacked?
It may seem that these problems are limited to quaint antiquity, but right now there is someone out there telling pediatricians that teething does not cause fever, runny noses and diarrhea. Meanwhile, every parent and ER doc just scratch our heads when the pediatricians tell us that. Every doctor can tell you of many such ‘proven’ concepts that fly in the face of common experience, or that even change perennially. Or at least some doctors can; the rest of them dismiss all objections as foolishness, unable to distinguish heresy from hemlines.
We see this in scientific fundamentalism, where practitioners under one paradigm refuse new theories, even when the evidence is right in front of them, if it confounds what they prefer to believe.
And we see it in the political arena. We insist that our party’s elected officials have never done anything wrong, and that those on the other side have never done anything right. Snake blindness is epidemic in the Beltway right now.
Here’s what should give us pause: if all of these major thinkers miss the obvious right in front of them, if the professors, pundits and politicians are subject to snake-blindness, then why should we expect that we are any different? We need to seriously consider that we suffer from snake-blindness, too.
Because we all do. And as a result, we often make bad decisions. We won’t look, we won’t listen, we won’t think. As we angrily and excitedly buy the snake oil, we miss deadly snakes right in front of us.
And then we are puzzled and angry as we keep getting bitten.
Red Sided Garter Snake courtesy of Ximena Ramillete on Pinterest.
Footnotes [ + ]
|1.||↑||He was also the first recorded sports physician, treating the Roman gladiators.|
|2.||↑||When I was in a summer program at the University of Montpellier in France, we were told that Montpellier was the first medical school to officially perform human dissection. They gained the distinction when rumor reached the school that the University of Bologna had begun the practice. Montpellier raced to catch up, only to later discover that the rumor had been false. I have never verified that story, but it suggests that Renaissance physicians were feeling a growing need to investigate the true structure of the body.|