(Reprinted from Roots of Reconstruction [Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1991])
At the beginning of the 1950s, I had a very searching conversation with a treasured friend. Whenever I was in his area, I stayed at his home, and we talked until one or two in the morning. He was almost twice my age; he was a surgeon of national stature, and taught at the medical school of a major university. I guided Dr. G. C.'s theological reading; he guided me in far broader fields.
One evening I spoke with great interest of a popular writer on medicine, Paul de Kruif was his name, as I recall it, and of the medical miracles he was forecasting. I then commented on the apparently remarkable results a doctor one hundred miles away was getting with some of the newest wonder drugs. At first, G. smiled, but, finally, he opened up to me as a friend in need of correction. This other doctor was moving into quackery, he said flatly, and all the new wonder drugs which promised to revolutionize life in the post-World War II era were close to being quack medicines.
He asked me to recall the old-time medicine men and their quack medicines. One ad I recall seeing had a long list of ailments which it declared it could heal. The list included tuberculosis, female complaints, rheumatism, impotence, and many, many more things.
The difference between a quack doctor and a good one begins with a sense of limitation. A quack medicine and a quack doctor both promise too much. A sound medicine offers limited help for a limited and specific problem. It offers no miracles and works none. It cannot replace good hygiene, sound nutrition, and healthy habits. The wise doctor makes no large promises; he knows how limited his role is, and yet, within those limits, very important. The more we demand of a doctor or of medicine, the more likely we are to fall prey to quackery.
Dr. C. expressed both skepticism and fear concerning the new "wonder drugs." At best, he held, we have only the most preliminary and cursory of reports on their results, effects, and side effects. He was fearful that too great a trust in the new medicines, and too uncritical an attitude, would turn medical practice into the dangerous vagaries of quackery. To expect too much of doctors and medicine was to leave oneself wide open to trouble, and it was like preferring a Ponzi pyramid scheme to an old-fashioned, conservative bank.
Not too much later, another fine doctor and friend told me rather wearily one evening that he had all too many unnecessary patients. They come to him daily for "wonder drugs," when a little rest and/or aspirin would do them more good. If he did not prescribe one of the newest "miracle" drugs, they were annoyed, and they regarded him as a doctor who was not "up" on his medical practice.
I thought of these things very much of late, as I regard various accounts of the harm wrought by a variety of "miracle" drugs, of the ugly consequences of the IUDs, and the birth control pill, and then Christopher Norwood's article, "The Hormone Babies: A Condemned Generation?" (New York, Vol. 13, No. 20, May 19, 1980, 49-55). About ten million mothers-to-be were dosed over a period of years with human sex hormones, including DES (diethylstilbestrol). The girls born of such mothers are prone to a rare genital cancer, and the boys to genital abnormalities, including microphallus, according to Norwood and others.
The saddest fact of all is that this is but one "miracle" drug among many. Worse yet, the doctors are the sole "villains" in the story, and all doctors are equally condemned, the promiscuous "wonder" drug dosers and non-dosers alike. Even worse, the appetite is for much more quackery. On a recent trip, I sat in an airport waiting room, awaiting the announcement of my flight. Two women behind me were talking randomly and apparently drifted into a discussion of some loved one's illness. Then came a sentence which, of all the talk, alone interrupted my reading and caught my attention: "You'd think the doctors could come up with some medicine to take care of that!" People demand quacks and quackery, because of their own bad character.
As a result, we have quackery all around us, in the church, the school, and in politics. Quackery in the church is not limited to the cults; it is present wherever men offer something short of God's Word as the bread of life. In the state schools, we have educators promising us the best kind of education as their stock in trade, while turning out thirty million functional illiterates in America. Politics, of course, is our most fertile ground for quackery, because it is for most people the central area of life. No old-time medicine man promised as much as our quack politicians: cradle to grave security, health care for all, the abolition of unemployment, and almost anything and everything else one can think of. We live in the Golden Age of Quackery, and, instead of merely giving an Oscar to our top quacks, we have been giving them the White House with increasing frequency. Quackery is in great demand.
On a plane trip recently, I glanced through a few of the available magazines, after completing my planned reading. I encountered a hostile note concerning doctors, and a "news" report on expected breakthroughs with "wonder" drugs which would in a few years solve many problems and give us longer, healthier, problem-free lives. The two items go hand in hand. If you expect miracles from doctors, you will be disappointed, and you will demand quacks, not doctors.
Dr. David Ehrenfeld, professor of Biology at Rutgers University, has described much of modern humanistic and scientific thinking as not only arrogant but as "magical." Modern man is substituting the word magic for science in his thinking and identifying the two. (David Ehrenfeld, The Arrogance of Humanism [New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.]) As a result, he approaches every discipline with unreasonable demands and a belief in the possibilities of total control by man. I recall, shortly after the 1971 earthquake in Los Angeles, listening day after day to the comments of people in check-out lines and elsewhere. One comment was, "Why doesn't the government do something about it?", i.e., why doesn't the federal government spend enough money to learn how to eliminate all earthquakes? No doubt, the same hope prevails concerning floods, tornados, and other natural disasters!
One patient, aware that he was going to die, asked of a nurse plaintively, "Can't they do something about it?" Instant miracles are demanded by men when they need them. Thus, we live in an age of quackery.
The problem at heart is theological. The theology of all who demand humanistic miracles is that of Genesis 3:5; as sinners, they see themselves as gods, and they want life to move at their behests. The writer, Ambrose Bierce, married one of the most beautiful women in the San Francisco Bay area. In addition, Mollie Day was the daughter of one of the wealthiest men of that part of the state. Not too many years later, in 1888, he left her, after discovering that she had kept some letters from a man who loved her, although she had never been involved with him or returned his affections. Life had to be on Bierce's terms, and his wife could not have even a keepsake or thought apart from him. Later, Bierce, fearful of old age, went to Mexico to join Pancho Villa's rebels (and die), and he was never heard from again.
Life becomes an impossible burden for those who play god. Trifles become crises, and life becomes a continual problem and an unending burden. We are all familiar with people who have everything, and are miserable. We are also familiar with people who do not have everything, and are also miserable. Such people want life on their terms. If things go contrary to their will, no matter how trifling, they are miserable. They resent a world they never made, and yet the only world any man can live in is God-made, not man-made. Their attitude is, "I do well to be miserable," as though the world will stop in its tracks to satisfy them when the world sees that they are offended.
Such egocentricity (or sin) is a fertile ground of quackery. These men demand impossible things and require that they be given them. It was one of the most successful of all con men, Weil, who said that he never "conned" any man who did not first of all have larceny in his heart, and expected to take advantage of him; they had one thing in mind, their own expectations and satisfaction, not reality.
The prevalence of quackery means a departure from reality into fantasy and magic. It means a denial of God's world in favor of the world of imagination. It is no accident that the prevalence of evolutionary thought has coincided with the return and prevalence of magic. Both presuppose a world of chance rather than God's sovereign creation and His laws. Magic and evolution enthrone chance and deny any meaning beyond man. If Christianity is weak or wanes, magic and quackery will prevail. Eric von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, in The Intelligent American's Guide to Europe (Arlington House, 1979), describes how a journalist in Iceland attacked him furiously for his religious "superstitions" such as belief in Christ's resurrection, the Virgin Birth, and so on. Half an hour later, the same man whispered to him, pointing through the window of his library: "You see that man there? Beware of him! Several weeks ago he changed himself into a bull and chased me across the fields" (202). Why not? If you believe in chance, you will believe that anything is possible, except God, Who is the antithesis of chance.
The problem of quackery is thus at root a religious problem. The elimination of quackery must begin from the pulpit, and it must be carried out in every field, beginning with the church and politics. The problem, however, is more than an ecclesiastical one. The doctor himself must have a realistic perspective of his role, and that of medicine. The principles and practice of quackery are magical, although they pass as science, and Christian medical practice must avoid them.