This question was sent in by Roope Kasvi and has been selected for this month’s Q & A.
I’m an openminded sceptic from Finland. One of my friends (also Finnish) is an Ayurvedic consult and spreads all kinds of crazy stuff in Facebook.
Recently in the comments section of one of his rants he said that there are many diseases that Ayurveda can cure or treat better than modern medical science. Needless to say, I am sceptical about this claim and wondered if you guys knew of any studies that could point me to any direction at all.
He just gave me his first link after consulting his “professor” in India: http://www.ayurveduniversity.com/peerjournal.php
He also gave me this:
Waiting for more details.
Ok, the second thing, this goes back a few years, but anyways, again with the same friend. It’s just an interesting diversion, but imo well worth knowing about.
One of his Ayurvedic stories concerned the NBA All Star player Alonzo Mourning.
His guru, Akhilesh Sharma, spreads a story to his followers and students that goes like this: first Alonzo had sent Akhilesh a letter where he would be interested in trying Ayurvedic medicine since the “western school medicine” could not help him with his career-destroying kidney problem. Akhilesh then sent him some Ayurvedic medicine, and, in a few months time Alonzo replied that the medicine seemed to work, and asked Akhilesh for more. Ok, Akhilesh sent some more medicine. In a few months time he received another letter from Alonzo which stated that the Ayurvedic medicine had totally cured Alonzo from the kidney disease and had saved his life, the letter also included a VERY substantial cheque in appreciation of the Ayurvedic treatment Akhiles gave to him. Akhilesh turned the cheque down.
Ok…this sounded very suspicious and that’s exactly what I told him. But he was 100% that his had happened in real life, his guru does not lie. And of course Ayurvedic medicine works better than the “chemical western school medicine”. Ok, I went home, opened Wikipedia and saw this:
On November 25, 2003, Mourning’s cousin and a former U. S. Marine, Jason Cooper, was visiting Mourning’s gravely ill grandmother in the hospital. Mourning’s father was present and informed Cooper that Mourning was retiring that very same day from the NBA because of a life-threatening kidney disease, focal segmental glomerular sclerosis, the same problem that Sean Elliott had in 1999. Cooper asked if there was anything he could do, and began to contemplate donating one of his kidneys to his estranged cousin, who he had not seen in 25 years and whom he only knew through basketball. Cooper was tested for compatibility, along with many other family members and friends (including fellow NBA center and good friend Patrick Ewing); as fate would have it, during his grandmother’s funeral, Mourning received the good news that Jason Cooper was a match.
Mourning received Cooper’s left kidney on December 19, 2003.
Not a mention of Ayurvedic medicine or Akhilesh Sharma, not a single hit in Google either. The closest it gets is that Alonzo does Yoga. But not a single hit with the words Ayurveda, or Akhilesh Sharma and Alonzo Mourning. I called the Ayurvedic practitioner and asked his comment on this. He was surprised and called immediately to his guru. After a while, he called back and informed me that the guru was pretty busy and couldn’t talk long, and changed the story drastically, now it had happened after the kidney transplant, but the guru was too busy to go into details this time. I was very skeptical to say the least.
I was wondering if you know anything interesting about Akhilesh Sharma or would be interested in looking further into this case.
Sorry for the long post and thank you for the wonderful site, much respect from the Finnish rational community.
All the best,
I will try to answer your excellent questions by first stating some basic information on how ayurveda is promoted and then discuss how we can try to reason with believers in ayurveda. I will also refer you to some literature on the subject.
Ayurveda is a pseudoscience. This is not to say that one cannot study and establish the validity of specific claims made by practitioners, using the methods of modern science. There are sure to be some specific ayurvedic claims that are true. What I mean is that Ayurveda proponents refuse to subject their claims to rigorous double-blind studies, and to publish their findings in peer-reviewed scientific journals. Just as with other worldwide medical pseudosciences such as Homeopathy and Chiropractic, Ayurveda is pushed onto the public as a genuine science, using manufactured consent. A whole support system has been built to sustain this system of beliefs by those benefiting from peddling the label ayurveda. Colleges, universities, institutes, research facilities and entire hospitals have spawned up around ayurvedic “medicine”. Here are two excellent articles by Meera Nanda on how postmodernist Hindus have established a false narrative about their core ideologies by pretending that their religious beliefs are actually scientific.
Meera Nanda is a really good thinker on this subject. Her book (co-authored), Ayurveda Today: A Critical Look, is a comprehensive read.
It can be really difficult to reason with people who believe in pseudoscientific belief systems. The first thing to remember when dealing with someone who claims that ayurveda is scientific is that this person does not know what science really is. These claims are part of the propaganda perpetuated by those who wish to hitch primitive knowledge systems to the legitimacy of the scientific process. So it may be useful to start with explaining a few things about science to your friend. I know this is no easy task, but that is the price of reason.
Once you are certain that the person understands what science is, then the metaphysical claims of ayurveda must be pointed out. This demonstrates how ayurveda is not really scientific. In fact, the actual basis of ayurveda is so completely crazy that most practitioners will not talk about the core beliefs involved.
Many practical aspects of ayurveda are observation-based. In pre-scientific times many medical issues were observed and categorized under this system of practice. In modern times, the ayurveda promoters have co-opted the actual scientific knowledge about these medical issues. For example, mental illness was originally thought of as demonic possession. Today, the ayurveda promoters are trying to portray the superstitious exorcism practices associated with this aspect of ayurveda as the original form of psychiatry. That is, they are pretending that they had a naturalistic interpretation of mental illness all along, when in fact they believe in all sorts of magic.
When your friend makes the claim, “Ayurveda can cure or treat better than modern medical science”, what source does he provide to back up this claim? If the source is an ayurveda journal or an ayurveda “institute”, pointing out that there are scientific journals established to publish medical research may be a good idea. Remind him that science is self-correcting. That is, if there is any truth to an ayurvedic claim, it will make its way into the medical literature.
There are bound to be a few ayurvedic concoctions that actually have a beneficial effect. The problem is that there are many others that don’t. The only way to bring the ones that work into science is to subject the claims to rigorous scientific tests. Meera Nanda says:
“The desire to appear scientific while desperately seeking to affirm pre-scientific traditions has led to a deep and wide-spread confirmation bias in research on traditional medicine and other traditional sciences. That is to say that those studying ayurvedic remedies tend to look for and notice only what confirms their existing beliefs, while they either do not look for, or ignore and explain away the evidence that contradicts their beliefs.”
Finally, the dangers of Ayurveda are very real. Studies have repeatedly shown toxic quantities of heavy metals in these drugs. A 2004 study demonstrated that ayurvedic drugs sold online had toxic amounts of arsenic, lead etc. A more recent 2008 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association had similar results. Added to this is the enormous costs in resources and time that could go into seeking proper medical care for easily curable diseases.
Here is another excerpt from Meera Nanda’s article that I quoted above:
“Indian scientists have tended to use the supposedly “holistic” nature of traditional Vedic sciences to reject the central pillar of modern medicine, namely, double-blind clinical studies. Double-blind studies are designed to ensure that the reported benefits of a medicine are actually coming from the active ingredients of the medicine itself, and not from the biases of the patients and doctors. These studies require drugs and medical procedures to be tested in randomly selected test and control groups, in which neither the subjects nor the researchers know who is getting the drug and who is getting a placebo (i.e., a treatment that looks and feels like the drug being tested, but lacks the active ingredient.)…
…Having avoided double-blind tests for so long, traditional Indian medicine has a big problem at hand. The problem is that traditional medical formulae and recipes, many of them thousands of years old, have never been put to a systematic test for safety and efficacy using the best available scientific knowledge, methodology and instrumentation. Their claims for curing diseases are entirely based upon traditional lore, anecdotal evidence and the authority of gurus and other “holy” men and women. Intellectuals and scientists in India have been too ready to simply find analogies and fanciful equations between advances in modern biology with the traditional concepts of body and disease. As a result, many obsolete and even harmful chemicals, methods of diagnosis and procedures still continue to be prescribed. What is worse, many of them are presented to the public as if they have been validated by advances in modern science and medicine.”
I really believe that there may be some truth contained in the ‘wisdom of the ancients’. The problem with ayurveda is that it forms a dogmatic belief structure that defends all aspects of this system. If ayurveda is not so ideological and is willing to open itself to scientific analysis with the intention of vetting the claims made by it, then there is room for it to contribute to the modern scientific/medical effort. Without that it is just another dogmatic ideology that protects its flaws by restricting critical thought.
Regarding Akhilesh Sharma and Alonzo Mourning, I have heard of neither. If anyone else can shed some light on this issue, please do!
Thanks for asking the hard questions, and for keeping a rational and skeptical outlook. I wish you and the Finnish rationalist community a splendid future.