Guest post: The New Yorker suggests that “other ways of knowing” can cure Covid-19

December 17, 2020 • 9:15 am

A few years ago I got an email from a colleague who was disturbed about the anti-science attitudes of the New Yorker, which include an emphasis on “other ways of knowing” —often through the arts and literature. But first I’ll repeat my colleague’s analysis:

The New Yorker is fine with science that either serves a literary purpose (doctors’ portraits of interesting patients) or a political purpose (environmental writing with its implicit critique of modern technology and capitalism). But the subtext of most of its coverage (there are exceptions) is that scientists are just a self-interested tribe with their own narrative and no claim to finding the truth, and that science must concede the supremacy of literary culture when it comes to anything human, and never try to submit human affairs to quantification or consilience with biology. Because the magazine is undoubtedly sophisticated in its writing and editing they don’t flaunt their postmodernism or their literary-intellectual proprietariness, but once you notice it you can make sense of a lot of their material.

. . . Obviously there are exceptions – Atul Gawande is consistently superb – but as soon as you notice it, their guild war on behalf of cultural critics and literary intellectuals against scientists, technologists, and analytic scholars becomes apparent.

Today’s topic, though, is “other ways of knowing through folk wisdom“. In particular: ways of healing used by indigenous people. Now this shouldn’t be rejected out of hand; after all, many modern remedies, like quinine, derive from plants used by locals. But that doesn’t imply a wholesale endorsement of “the collective lived experience” touted in this video about plant-based healing. For the “collective lived experience”, after all, sometimes includes shamanism and, in the example below, “spiritual elements” as a way of curing disease. And here the disease that “lived experience” tackles is something the Siekipai of Ecuador have never experienced: Covid-19.

Reader Jeff Gawthorpe saw a New Yorker video at the link below; I’m not sure whether you’ll have free access, but you will using the yahoo! finance link at the bottom, where the video was republished.

Jeff is about as distressed as I by the fulminating wokeness of the magazine and delivered his critical “review” of the video, which I asked if I could put up in full, including his name. (I don’t like paraphrasing other people’s words, especially when they’re as good as the analysis below). Jeff said that was fine, and so here is his take, indented. I have to say that I agree with it, and have a few comments of my own at the bottom.

Around 30 minutes ago I happened across a dreadful video on the New Yorker‘s website, which drove my temptation to meet head with keyboard through the roof. This piece of ‘journalism’ was entitled: “Fighting COVID-19 with Ancestral Wisdom in the Amazon”. And yes, It’s as bad as it sounds: unscientific, irresponsible nonsense. Complete tosh.

The message which the piece attempts to convey is that COVID-19 can be dealt with by ‘lived experience’, ancient ‘ways of knowing’, and a few bits of boiled tree bark. Then, if you hadn’t had enough already, Just before the end, a caption pops up saying: “With a new stock of plants, the Siekopai are prepared to address future outbreaks of the virus according to their traditions.” Urrrhhgg.

You’ll notice that they are canny enough to maintain a degree of plausible deniability by making no definite claims. To me this demonstrates the very worst of journalism:

  • Conveying mistruths to support an ideology
  • Lacking the courage to commit to claims by asserting them as supportable facts

That’s bottom of the barrel journalism at the best of times, but now it’s irresponsible, reckless even. It presents a clear message that indigenous knowledge and ancient wisdom are perfectly acceptable ways of dealing with the pandemic. At no point is it mentioned that these ‘remedies’ are not backed by evidence, clinical or otherwise.

As you know, many western societies have huge anti-vax movements which often distrust and denounce mainstream medicine. Unfortunately, this video just adds fuel to the anti-vaxers fire. By failing to mention that these plant ‘remedies’ have zero efficacy, they are providing implicit support to the anti-science, anti-vax groups. Worse still, they are acting like digital snake oil salesmen, imbuing members of the public with false confidence that that they can avoid or fight off this virus with a couple of well chosen tree bark specimens. It’s dangerous, irresponsible nonsense.

Click below to see the video:

My own comments are few. First, it looks like the “remedy” includes cinchona bark, the source of quinine, as a palliative (the remedy seems directed at symptomatic relief rather than a cure).

Second, even “lived experience”, while useful, is no substitute for double-blind clinical trials. Granted, the Siekipai can’t do that, but they sure as hell should take the vaccination when it gets to them.  And, like Jeff, I think it’s totally irresponsible of The New Yorker to present this video without any kind of caveat. After all, when Trump skirts the truth, they don’t hesitate to correct him.  I guess “lived experience of indigenous people” is a different matter—it’s not as if they’re recommending drinking bleach or anything.

22 thoughts on “Guest post: The New Yorker suggests that “other ways of knowing” can cure Covid-19

  1. I dunno. I’ve got my own beefs with The New Yorker, but the above strikes me as a bit of an overreaction. I took the video simply to be relating the indigenous people’s attempt to find a stop-gap measure to help relieve COVID-19 symptoms and to boost natives’ immune systems — not as a claim to some type of cure-all or as an anti-vaxxer polemic. (Indeed, the video shows indigenous people taking injections of western medicine to combat previous epidemics such as whooping cough, malaria, and hepatitis.) If the past is prologue, the people in the jungle will be among the last to receive the COVID vaccines. Whatever helps them cope in the meantime, I wish them luck.

    I agree, nevertheless, that The New Yorker editors should have included a caveat making this interpretation (if it’s accurate) express.

    1. The “boost immune system” can only be done using a vaccine, otherwise isn’t it a CAM myth?
      Too active an immune system and you might get into troubles such as auto-immune disease, sepsis etc.
      (not a medico or a lawyer)

  2. The Indians of the Amazon have the advantage—or better said, the virtue—of the lived experience of
    Rousseau’s “state of nature”. We in the modern world, on the other hand, are burdened by the chains of
    European civilization, which demands perpetual apology about everything (except cellphones). Younger staffers at the New Yorker no doubt absorbed this wisdom during their time in the groves of academe.

  3. Could not agree more. I would suggest that the promotion of alternative medicine for COVID-19 is worse than just peddling snake oil thereby diverting sick and often desperate people away from actual efficacious therapies and shamelessly profiteering from it. It discredits the very hard work of finding real drugs and elevates anecdotal bullshit medicine. I’m not the first to say that on the rare occasions when alternative medicine actually works for a particular disease, it just becomes medicine.

    Very very few natural remedies actually work (blinded, placebo-controlled clinical studies) and when they do, the effects tend to be modest. Though “natural” sounds less risky than synthetic, the former is almost never better or more efficacious than the latter.

    The global pharmaceutical market (2018) was worth an estimated $1.2T but the global “nutriceutical” market (think echinacea, St. John’s wort, etc.) was worth $231B. Because nutriceuticals are essentially foodstuffs, their purveyors can generally skirt the FDA rules around making unsubstantiated claims of improving human health. Same with folk medicine. People who perpetuate these grossly overstated myths, like antivaxxers, are almost complicit in manslaughter when it comes to COVID. Scumbags, liars, or morons at a minimum.

  4. The title says “Guest Post” but you have forgotten say who the guest is – I’m assuming it’s Greg or Matthew but I think there should be an attribution.

    NB I thought I’d already written a comment about this but I can’t see it. My apologies if it’s just a glitch in the Matrix and it shows up making this one redundant.

      1. I wouldn’t describe that as a guest post then. It’s a post by Jerry that extensively quotes correspondence with a reader.

        I haven’t counted the words, but it looks to me like lessfewer than 50% of them are written by the guest poster. That’s not a complaint or criticism, I just think that the words “Guest Post” in the title are confusing and may lead to people thinking the entire article is not by Jerry (as I did).

  5. Thanks for posting this – it was an interesting and well-made documentary of an indigenous people with few technological resources try to cope with the impact of the pandemic. No endorsements of “other ways of knowing” were apparent in the documentary other than expressions of no other resources to combat the illness by some of the indigenous speakers. And a lot of them were shown wearing masks, and wearing them properly, unlike some of the wearers I see in Maryland.

  6. I mean hell, go ahead and show us that simply chewing bark will cure things – _show_ – I’d love to see it. It might be “Just That Simple”.

    In the “other ways of knowing” Fantasyland the distinction between showing and telling never seems to be in play…. “show and tell”… it’s in nursery school.

  7. I have no disrespect for indigenous practices. On the contrary. But let’s not overlook the New Yorker’s purpose in producing this video: virtue signalling and Political Correctness. Despite the overwhelming invasion of foreign extractive industries and the resultant environmental devastation (oil drilling, dams, highways, mining, forest destruction, etc.), the New Yorker still does not see fit to discuss these long-standing continuing insults against tribal communities. Covid 19 is a continuation of this industrial form of genocide throughout Latin America. That the New Yorker continues to ignore these crimes against humanity and nature is truly contemptible. Of course it is not alone in overlooking these things. But presenting itself as a respecter of indigenous practices does not excuse its recusal from this issue or related ones such as biodiversity loss.

  8. NPR has regrettably fallen into this same trap. They often present nonsense as straight reporting. Like the Vicki Osterweil looting nonsense your posted on.

    And the other thing that is rubbing me the wrong way: Every story (every single story) on NPR has the “inequality” and “diversity” angle prominently baked into it. As if the important thing about people is what they look like, not their ideas or actions. Nearly every day, I restrain myself from pulling my sustainer support …

  9. And for reference, no consideration of how well Native American medicine dealt with smallpox-laden blankets.

    Relatedly re. referencing, whenever I get near Faith confronting COVID, I’ll note with a sneer that Landon Spradlin already ran that experiment. And now, just yesterday, an old fellow grad student from my distant U of Richmond days, to my great astonishment asked whether I knew Landon. Turns out her husband and he were in military school together! Crimony!! I think this means that there are three degrees of separation between me and the late Landon. Or do I count myself, too, in which case there would be four? In any event, oy!

  10. Oh woe the fate of the NYer. My woo-woo alert was louder than a NYC siren.

    I’ve been running my own little jihad against this nonsense in my column for YEARS.
    Here’s my takedown of Traditional Chinese Medicine (from last year) which turned out to be a bit prescient. (published variously, here first):

    D.A., J.D., NYC

  11. Well, after all, the probability, of death within a given length of time, for those who rely exclusively on “other ways of knowing”, never on medical scientific knowledge obtained in the usual way for science, the latter including much of the knowledge of Amazonian tribes for example, is only about 33 times higher (Just making up the meaningless number).

    In any case, the life expectancy of such a person would be about the same as it was for our ancestors maybe 300,000 years ago, so good luck getting past 25 years.

    Are the NYker editors capable of understanding the previous sentence?
    Do they ever think about scientific knowledge in anything other than idiotic postmodern philosophy terms?
    Are they aware of the concern for preservation of species, partly so the potential of discovering some such knowledge is not lost?
    Do they ever think that scientists, rather than emotional short term fads, are what’s needed to succeed in the last?

Leave a Reply