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It must be true because it's been around for so long

There is a widespread notion that if a treatment has been around for a long time, for example traditional acupuncture, homeopathy, herbal medicine, that automatically means it must work. Hardly any forms of CAM make a virtue of being new. Those that are not really ancient often claim to have roots in ancient traditions and to be rediscoveries of lost or forgotten knowledge.

Even within medicine, this idea doesn't stand up to criticism. Think of blood-letting, which was practised for many centuries yet was useless or actively harmful.

More generally, there are plenty of baseless systems of ideas that are sanctified by long tradition. Astrology is an obvious example. But my favourite comes from ancient Mesopotamia, where decisions of state, such as whether to go to war, were based on the inspection of livers of sacrificial animals.

Models of livers have been found that are marked out in squares containing symbols to show what they indicate prognostically. This system was in use for millennia and there were the equivalent of university chairs in the "science". So much for the validity of long-standing belief.

Liver model


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