The Limits Of Science: Un Altro Giro Di Giostra

Yesterday I felt a bit under the weather; my main symptom was a nasty sore and swollen throat which made it difficult for me to talk or swallow. But today I feel much better, and am up and about. And talking. 😉 I am very proud of my weakened (very low IgAs and IgMs) but valiant immune system. Since Monday evening, when I began feeling a bit ill, I have taken only a couple of aspirins (hey, salicylates!). Of course, I continue to take my curcumin etc. Yesterday I was feeling so poorly that I thought oh great, here we go again, another cycle of antibiotics. But today I think I will be just fine (well, starting tomorrow)! Goes to show that a compromised immune system can still function. Sometimes.

I don’t feel like posting the segue to my CRP post today, though. Instead, I will post about a topic that I have been pondering while reading a fascinating book by Tiziano Terzani, a well-known Italian journalist/writer. The book is about his experience with cancer and life etc. By the way, it took me the longest time to find what type of cancer he had (he died in 2004). Most websites, both Italian and English, just mentioned the generic word cancer. But I finally found it on the International Herald Tribune website: stomach cancer. At any rate, this wonderful book is titled Un altro giro di giostra (or One More Ride on the Merry-go-round ), and one of the themes he discusses is the inadequacy of modern science and medicine, and the fact that we (patients) are sometimes (often? always?) seen by our specialists not as a whole, but merely as a collection of our filled-out medical forms and charts and tests and x-rays. He writes that machines and tests and diagnoses are essential, of course. But if we are seen only as parts of our whole selves, the risk is blindness.

He offers a brilliant example: an ancient Indian story about a group of five blind men who were asked to describe an elephant. There are many versions of this story online, but this is Terzani’s: the first blind man grasps the elephant by its legs and says that an elephant is like a temple, and these are its columns. The second man strokes his trunk and declares that the elephant is like a serpent. The third man feels the elephant’s stomach and reports that the animal is like a mountain. The fourth touches an ear, and the elephant turns out to be similar to a fan. The last blind man grabs the elephant’s tail and announces that the elephant is like a whip. Terzani states that every definition contains some truth, but the elephant is not described by any of these men as it really is. He compares his excellent doctors at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center to those five blind men, because if a physicist, a chemist, a biologist and a zoologist were asked to provide a scientific description of an elephant, they would end up giving four totally different portrayals. This illustrates the problem of scientific knowledge: it is precise, it is exact, it is ready and willing to substitute current theories with new ones or vice versa, Terzani writes, but it is also permanently limited in its comprehension of reality. I have a story of my own: a neighbour’s daughter has something wrong with her. She is 17 years old. Her mother has taken her to almost every specialist in Florence, she has had a million tests of all sorts, but not one of these excellent doctors has been able to come up with a diagnosis, even less a course of treatment. Nobody can figure out what is wrong with her, and something clearly is wrong. So she undergoes more tests. This has gone on for months. Could it be that we have too many specialists in our modern Western world? Therein may lie the limits of science.

Terzani tells another story (I love his stories!) showing that if we look at reality only through the lens of science we risk acting like the drunk in a popular Asian story. On his way home after a jolly evening spent drinking with some friends, a drunk realizes that he has lost the key to his house. As he is searching the ground under a street lamp, a passerby asks him what he is doing. The drunk slurs, “I’m looking for the key to my house.” The passerby asks, “Are you sure you lost it here?” “No,” replies the drunk. The passerby asks Then why are you looking for it here? “Because it’s the only place where I can see anything.” Scientists, Terzani continues, behave in the same way. The world that they describe to us through their instruments is not THE world but a partial view of it.

Terzani also describes the frustrations that must be felt by modern scientists, again with a story: one day a scientist friend of his pointed to his head, saying: I know how every single type of cell works up here, but I don’t know how the brain works. Beautifully put. So, how to solve this problem? Well, I certainly don’t have the answer. But perhaps we would be better off if doctors were taught to have more of a holistic approach to medicine. I am lucky in the sense that I have two brilliant doctors: my GP who, in addition to having a specialization in general medicine AND surgery AND psychology, is also a skilled homeopath (the man is a genius), and my haematologist, who is very open-minded etc., as I have written on previous occasions. They both listen to me. I mean, REALLY listen. The first thing they ask when we sit down is: how are you doing? Not: let’s have a look at your tests. Not everybody has my good fortune, though. I belong to three myeloma listservs and have read plenty of ghastly doctor stories.

I concur with Terzani. I think, generally speaking, that doctors tend to identify their patients with their illnesses and not see them as people (excluding my own case). They look at the part, not the whole. This is a HUGE topic, but I must say that my interest in holistic Ayurveda seems to deepen day by day, especially as I read through this book.

Final thought: perhaps one day our specialists will no longer be called multiple myeloma specialists but multiple myeloma PATIENT specialists. 😉


  1. I’m so happy you loved the book. I knew it. I knew it!
    greetings from Lisbon, a place where the only national ‘fast food ‘chain sells delicious… vegetable soups 😉


  2. Ah yes, the blind folks and the elephant description…
    I am trying to be an internet researcher… Looking for how to increase omega 3 consumption in food. Lots of data about how good omega 3 is… and with mention of nuts… but today I discovered the horrifying truth… only walnuts, of all tree nuts, have any omega 3 at all.
    Sweet Myeloma Don is wanting to go more vegetarian for these few weeks.. and I am searching for all the ways I can find to pack those meals with omega 3’s, enough protein to support his running, a rich variety of nutrients,… and oh yes, now we are seeing the importance of fiber in fighting cancer.
    What a challenge! And which blind guy with the elephant can I learn from?
    Thanks always, Margaret.

  3. Suddenly your sore throat condition rang a bell with me. Now I remember reading, this summer, an article about teachers and the wear and tear on their throats/voices. They advised taking conscious, good care of voice… but alas I don’t remember if there were any specifics.. but I assume you are using your voice more this month. Take care.

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