Health, Disease, and Magic
(November 26, 2019)
Arthur C. Clarke was a science fiction writer most famous for having written 2001 (which is not his best work. That would be Childhood’s End. Just sayin’), but he was also a science writer of no small accomplishment. As well as for his writings both fictional and nonfictional, he is famous for three remarkable pieces of folk wisdom – Clarke’s Three Laws -- the third of which I particularly wish to discuss today. You may have heard it already. If you are a scifi reader, you almost certainly have.
3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
I am thinking of this particularly in regard to health and illness. When antibiotics were first put into broad usage, the healing that took place was seemingly miraculous. People an hour or two away from death by pneumonia would be up and walking the next day. If anyone is wondering why their parents or grandparents thought that doctors were gods and slavishly did and believed everything that the medical profession told them, well, that's why.
Similar-appearing miracles took place when the second generation of AIDS drugs was introduced. People a few hours from death, again, were up and about in a few days. I remember hearing one story about a man who, anticipating death, ran his credit cards up sky-high travelling the world, expecting to never have to pay them off – only to be unexpectedly restored to health by those medications.
As pleased as everyone was with that advance, we were all sort of expecting it to happen sooner or later. We all take for granted that eventually there’s going to be a miraculous-appearing technological solution to every human illness. But technological advances are not always dramatic, way in the future, or accomplished by good-looking people accompanied by classical music soundtracks. Sometimes they are the product of – committees.
There is a saying about committees. They say that the camel is the horse that was designed by a committee. This rather rude saying overlooks the fact that the camel is a remarkable adaptation to its environment and as odd-looking as it is, does things that horses cannot do.
So do not underestimate committees. There is something out there that was designed not just by one committee, but by a bunch of them. It incorporates the work of tens of thousands of people in thousands of experiments over multiple decades – the very definition of bureaucracy. And this thing, such as it is, will reduce your changes of dying prematurely (before your life expectancy) by 80%. If I am doing the math correctly here, it means that this thing will increase your chances of living out your full lifespan by 400%.
You would think that something that fabulous would HAVE to have been invented by someone at least as good-looking as Chris Hemsworth, accompanied by at least one Beethoven symphony. But it wasn’t. This medical miracle was wrought by a lot of boring, faceless scientists and bureaucrats conducting dull analyses and experiments, crunching numbers and then WRITING FEDERAL GOVERNMENT HEALTH GUIDELINES.
If you follow the current federal government guidelines on smoking (meaning -- don’t), diet/body weight and exercise (and make sure you get enough sleep too, just for giggles), you will reduce your chances of dying prematurely by 80%. Meaning you’ve increased your chances of living out your full lifespan by FOUR TIMES. Boring? Not once you get to my age, that isn’t boring. In fact, it's rather thrilling, and looks an awful lot like magic. Even though it's just technology.
Do miracles always have to look like magic? Can’t they sometimes be the result of a bunch of smart people slogging along doing smart stuff until they’ve figured out some aspect of the real world to the point where it can actually be controlled? Huh? HUH?
Let’s keep that in mind this holiday season. No one should deny themselves an occasional indulgence. But your health, life and death are not entirely subject to the whims of the universe. They are somewhat subject to our control, and when the rewards are so great, they are worth controlling.
There’s nothing unpleasant about being healthy, or about following the rules to get there. So we will bring all of that back to mind again in due course.
By the way, here are the other two Laws:
1) When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
2) The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
These are brilliant, and deserve to be noticed and remembered. If I can think of a useful way to relate them to health and disease, I’ll write on them myself. If I can’t, well, I’ll have to just think of something else for next time.
In the meantime, on Friday morning (or on Thursday night if you can still move), or at least sometime the first week of January, you can find those dietary and exercise guidelines that I am so thrilled with right here.
--dr. diane holmes
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