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13 August, 2004

What's in it?

Yesterday evening, as an irrelevant aside in a discussion with Jason about the CO2 circulatory system at his workplace (yes, really), I criticised nouveau-hippies for unquestioningly favouring natural remedies over prescription medicines, in all cases and without knowing anything substantial about either alternative.  Unexpectedly, J disagreed.

To be absolutely clear: I don't remotely question the evidence that plant extracts, etc. may be appropriate treatments for a large number of conditions, and herbalism is a valid aspect of modern medicine, but I strongly feel their success is because they contain certain chemicals which happen to occur naturally, not because there is some mystical significance to the mere fact that they grew in a field.

If an active ingredient can be specifically identified and synthesised, and the resulting molecules are absolutely indistinguishable from the natural ones, why not use them? The only possible difference is intangible, a disturbing matter of prejudice or blind faith, with no rational justification. It's black & white division into "natural='good', synthetic='bad'" - not a quality judgement of 'better/worse', but a moral one of 'good/bad'. On a practical level, that might have a psychosomatic effect in those who hold such prejudices, but c'mon - really.

Despite his taste for 1960s 'hippy-rock', I was surprised that J, a graduate-level nuclear physicist, would feel otherwise. Unfortunately, we didn't pursue the point, so I still don't know why. It seems he understood my view, and acknowledged that there is scope for illogical extremism, even hypocrisy, citing a mutual acquaintance who relies on amphetamines and ecstasy to work tremendously long days running his business. He was almost hospitalised recently due to physical exhaustion, but was very reluctant to accept a prescription from a doctor, preferring to buy remedies from the local 'whole food' shop.
He'd happily consume illicit, synthetic chemicals on a daily basis, which have had no appreciable quality-control or safety testing, but would reject thoroughly-tested and certified prescription medicines, solely because they aren't derived directly from nature.

NP: The Beatles 'Abbey Road'

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