I reread my thesis today. It’s always a scary practice, reading your own writing after you’ve let it sit for awhile. But I came away pleased overall, and the time I’ve spend out of the academic world has made it a lot easier to reflect on some of the real-world implications of my research.
I think the most important takeaway from it for any normal, non-historian reader is the idea that our ideas of what is healthy (and by extension what isn’t) are concepts that are constantly changing. It’s not based on some absolute truth, determined by the medical powers-that-be that understand, through the power of science, how the human body really works and interacts with its environment. Doctors are humans too, and they are exposed to the same articles you read at midnight on Facebook about how drinking unfiltered springwater is actually good for you or how only drinking cranberry juice for a week will cleanse your system. Outside of popular health fads, they are also exposed to very real and very persuasive economic incentives for maintaining certain ideas about what human health means in their professional lives (ever seen Dallas Buyers Club?). Doctors–and other scientists, religious leaders, and authority figures–are all human and subject to the same biases that lead us all astray and color our perceptions in unique and impossibly complex ways.
I think there’s this idea that the experts in any given field have determined some sort of abstract truth, often understood as universal laws that exist independently of human existence and merely await our discovery of them. The fundamental flaw in this way of thinking is that it fails to account for the very human aspect of human-held truths. Our doctors, our scientists, our teachers, our neighbors, our families, and we ourselves are all contributors to the social milieu from which our beliefs about the world are drawn. Our ideas of what is true and what isn’t are culturally, economically, and socially contingent, and it is every individual’s personal responsibility to realize our role in creating that truth. It is only when we have realized how our humanity factors into the way that we understand ourselves and our world that we are truly empowered to create it.