I hung out near the back door long enough to hear the theme of Ola Obasi's talk which was Deconstructing Reductionism. The theme continued to resonate from the entire gathering. I went to Paul Bergner's talk because his was a name that I have long heard in herbalist circles. I had no conscious expectation, but his appearance surprised me. Most famous herbalists are gaunt and woodsy looking, and he had a pot belly on a stocky frame and a collared shirt that made him look like a gas station attendant. Bergner was perhaps a little surprised at the turnout, for he was in a room that held 40 and there were 60 of us in there. I was stationed near the door because that is my rule when inside the academic building which is an old masonry structure that is likely to crumble in a quake. They're planning to replace it but that's years out.
Bergner talked a bit about how science is applied to herbal medicine. "A scientific trial is like a serial killer" he said, "because it kills the complexity of the herb." He said that all botanical science falls into one of two groups, 1. pharmaceutical companies prospecting for useful constituents, and 2. supplement manufacturers shoring up the plausibility of their formulations. In other words, the profit motive is always at hand. When Big Pharma finds a useful constituent, they extract or synthesize it and sell it as a drug. They are always looking for another blockbuster drug. When supplement companies conduct their own studies, they are usually trying to prove that one of their products works for a particular condition. In both groups the tendency is to bury negative results and exaggerate positive ones in order to generate sales and profits. It is no wonder that herbalists in general have a bad attitude about science when it is said to be reductionistic and corrupt.
What I hope that the herbalists will integrate is the fact that each one of those studies that does give us a result--this plant has that constituent which has such and such an effect--gives us an evidence base upon which we can build a case for herbal medicine. Sure, the studies are not done for our benefit. But we can learn from that and build upon it, even while keeping close the traditional knowledge upon which the studies are built. If we know from all that corrupt research that Scutellaria baicalensis lowers inflammation in the liver and the brain, awesome! We can use it for those purposes, and extrapolate that it might help with inflammation systemically. We can also remember all the indications for that herb in ancient Chinese and western eclectic traditions, and extrapolate beyond what the science says as to what the herb in its fullness (and not just one constituent) might do.
We need both. We need the subjective and the objective. Science does not have to be reductionistic. I suppose there are scientists that will say that everything is reducible to chemistry and physics. But there are just as many scientists who will tell you that we just don't know everything that is out there, and there could be surprises. The fact that we just don't know is not a rational reason to believe in nonsense, but it is a reason to stay humble and reject reductionism. Everything is more complex than we know. When we find out one detail about something through the scientific process, we know one tiny piece in a very big puzzle. Nobody knows how complicated things are better than scientists.
Berner's talk was officially about herbal pairings (and triplets). To him this means pairs of herbs with complimentary actions which he can see no contraindications for giving together, and no situations in which he would want one and not the other. One of the pairs he mentioned was dandelion and Oregon grape, aka taraxacum and mahonia. In general his pairings have a function so that he can grab that mixture off the shelf and add it to a more complex formulation, saving time in the formulation process.
I tried to go to a couple of other lectures but ended up walking out. One speaker's voice was practically sedating--though I imagine some in his audience might have been hypnotized. Social justice is a major theme for this group, and there was a lot of talk about finding our roots so that we could extract ourselves from the white supremacy paradigm. I imagine the goal would be to begin to operate as a conglomeration of cooperative and complimentary minorities; a modern civil society. I appreciate this message, and I do not need to sit through another 2 hour lecture in which someone recites their entire lineage and teaches us their family traditions. I am fully aware that there is great variety in human life. And I have been quite educted enough about the advantages I have in this society because of my pale skin tone and heterosexuality. Berate me no more, instead go out into the world and be awesome. Run for office and help us bring nuance back to government. Model your own kind of success.
After I left the lectures I went home and processed my own herbs. I learn more from handling the plants than I do from lay-level herbal lectures. It makes me appreciate the difference between CE and not. At least continuing education classes allow for the possibility that we might actually talk about how to treat a condition, because we have licenses that allow us to practice medicine. I believe I need to offer an herbal class, and I'm sorting out a topic. Probably herbs for the mind, perhaps herbs for the aging mind. The kiddos won't be interested yet but I'm interested.