Submitted by Ken Rose on November 25, 2007 - 8:24am.
Authenticity: Does It Matter?

Data, Information, Knowledge, and Wisdom in Chinese Medicine

From time to time we talk about authenticity in Chinese medicine. Does it matter?

We face a curious challenge in this field. How do we bring ancient Chinese ideas to life more than two millennia after they were originally current? Can we assume that the structures and functions of antique Chinese philosophy are in any way whatsoever pertinent to our contemporary circumstances? If we are inserting needles or boiling herbs when the sea waters rising from the great meltdown now taking place in the arctic regions come washing through the clinic doors, will we have correctly understood the ancient message about how to avoid disease and attain longevity?

On a more easily confronted scenario, how do we know if any single datum in the subject of Chinese medicine is either true to its original source or applicable to contemporary life? And to come to an even more down to earth issue, how do we know who the people in the field of Chinese medicine are, where they come from, and what the meaning of their various identifiers really is?

When we hear that someone is a "doctor of Chinese medicine" or holds a degree of "Oriental Medicine Doctorate" or "Oriental Medicine Diploma/Diplomate/etc., what does that mean?

Those who have been in the field over the past few decades share an understanding of conditions that existed when the subject was in its embryonic and infant stages...not that it has matured much beyond even now. A lot of invention out of whole cloth was taking place. People manufactured not only degrees but also entire institutions. Some of this invention was done under close scrutiny; some took place behind closed doors. Some was even done in the shadows from which it may or may not ever emerge.

Does it matter?

What does it matter if we know or don't know the authenticity of sources of information in Chinese medicine? Paul Unschuld did a demonstration a few years ago that addresses this question. He presented half a dozen or so alternative translations of several passages from the Yellow Emperor's Classic, the Nei Jing Su Wen, to be precise. Those of us who were in the room for this demonstration (it took place at a seminar following the 2003 Pacific Symposium in San Diego) were struck with the point he was making. Most versions of the text with which those who can only read it in English have been supplied have relatively little to do with the actual textus receptus that stands today as the canon of traditional medicine in China. A good many of the inherent contradictions in the text have been expurgated, by authors who evidently are either not aware of them or find them not to their liking for one reason or another.

Does this matter? Does it matter if students are presented with a version of information that consists of a more or less orthodox approach to its various topics when in fact the text in question actually presents an altogether heterodox set of views?

Does it matter?

This is just an example of the kinds of situations in which we find ourselves today when we talk about entering the great treasure house of traditional Chinese medicine and seeing what little goodies we can scare up for our amusement and various other exploitations. So, does it matter who does this work? Does it matter whom we have dispatched to these hallowed halls to retrieve these treasures for us?

One might construct a spectrum of phenomena that exist in the broad field of human action called information, to wit: silence, noise, data, information, knowledge, and wisdom.

In ancient Greek, chaos, long recognized as the origins of the cosmos, means literally emptiness. Silence is the soundtrack of emptiness and thus this scale of values begins in silence. Beyond silence there is noise, meaningless sound. Then comes a datum, which is simply to say a bit of information that has a meaning but that is not necessarily correlated with any other bit. Beyond data there emerges information itself: patterns of data correlated according to any of a virtually infinite set of criteria that have evolved and will no doubt continue to evolve as humans sharpen their mental capacities. From information, the manipulation thereof, we acquire...we construct knowledge. And the eventual objective of such knowing is the pursuit of knowing what to do: wisdom.

So what does it matter if a credential in the field of Chinese medicine is authentic or not?

Getting back to those early days of the profession, or getting back to the current days of the profession, we find a curious initiative that seems to be irresistible to folks who get involved in this field, namely the creation of Doctorate degrees.

Does it matter?

I believe that one of the most critical questions in health care is the quality of information. Another way of saying this is that one of the stiffest challenges we face nowadays is vetting sources of information related to...well everything, of course, but to health care in particular.

If a person tells you lies and then asks you to believe what comes next, who is the fool?

Let's not be foolish. The credibility of the entire field rests upon the faithfulness of representations made concerning a wide spectrum of data, information, knowledge and yes, even wisdom. Who makes these representations matters of course. And if we listen to individuals who persist in making false representations about their early education and credentialing, then we are being foolish. And I just got through saying, let's not be foolish.

Does this matter? Are such false representations being made? Have they been made?

It's often said that our profession is still immature. One of the hallmarks of maturity is the capacity to self-correct. Shall we develop and exercise this capacity? Or shall we sit quietly and wait for others to notice and act?

Does it matter?