During my daily work, I regularly train witches and wizards in the arcane skills of magic. From these lessons, they learn how to summon friends, make foes fall ill, cure the diseased, locate lost items or destroy their enemies.

Of course, these witches and wizards are all players in the multi-user computer game MUD, and magic is just part of the game's surreal landscape, where even death is merely a temporary setback, an annoying loss of hard-earned points, nothing more.

The reality of a hospital is very different. Here, death means the permanent, irreversible loss of a loved one: a parent, a child, a spouse, a friend. Hospitals exist for a very important purpose: to apply the knowledge, systematically collected over many centuries if not millennia, in order to delay the inevitable, to prolong and improve life, to fend off death.

Which is why I am appalled to read reports about a growing number of health "professionals" who bring their superstitions to the workplace and practice voodoo and witchcraft instead of healing people. Just as appalling is the response of our politically correct era: we actually respect these people's beliefs instead of demanding from them professional conduct.

But what, you may ask, is so bad about health workers doing their best to save us? Nothing wrong with their intentions, I agree. Indeed, I imagine that often it is their frustrations with the inability of medical science to deal with certain types of illness, to ease the suffering of patients that prompts them to seek alternatives. However...

How would you like to sit on an airliner whose pilot, faced with severe engine trouble, leaves the cockpit, drops on his knees in front of the passengers, and begins praying?

How would you like to live near a nuclear power station whose crew, facing an imminent meltdown, abandons the controls and begins a ritual of religious sacrifice?

How would you like to see a group of firefighters who, when confronted with a blaze too big to handle, drop their equipment and begin a chant to appease the angry fire spirits?

Of course, these bizarre examples are not known to happen. Pilots, nuclear engineers, and firefighters are among the many professionals who rely on training and accumulated knowledge, not hunches, superstitions, or religious convictions when dealing even with the most difficult, most hopeless situations. We expect nothing less of them, and they know from experience that it is their training and professional conduct, not their instincts that will help them avert disaster.

So why is it different with healthcare workers? Sure, medical science is inexact, the human body is a far more complex system than a nuclear reactor or an airplane, we understand fire or even uranium fission a lot better than we do diseases. But this is no excuse!

Science isn't successful because it can provide an answer to all questions. It cannot. What gives science its power is that it is based on facts, on hard evidence, and on a rigorous exercise of logic. When you are treated in hospital with a certain drug, it is because that drug, during controlled experiments repeated many times, has proven to be effective in fighting the disease you have. We may not know how a certain pharmaceutical works or why. We may not even know that it works all the time (in fact, we may have evidence that it does not work all the time.) But we do know that it is likely to help because it has been tried on numerous occasions before and the results were recorded and analyzed.

In contrast, beliefs, hunches, superstitions and personal convictions are based, at best, on anecdotal evidence. You perform a ritual "just the right way" once and a miracle happens: at that moment, you acquire the unshakable belief that your ritual was the cause of the miracle, and no amount of failure later can convince you otherwise. You would rather believe that you aren't doing the ritual the right way, that something essential is missing, that perhaps it only works on every other Tuesdays or when it's a full moon out there, any excuse just to avoid the alternative conclusion: that the miracle might not have been miracle at all, just a lucky coincidence.

But this is exactly where the power of science lies: its experiments are repeatable. There is scientific evidence that a pill of Aspirin helps you when you have a headache: what this means is that anytime in the future when you have a headache, you can take an Aspirin and reasonably expect it to alleviate the pain. It may not always help (certain types of headaches may require a different cure) but it will help with statistical reliability. Furthermore, if it fails, the fault is not yours: it's not your wrong state of mind or lack of belief in the powers of the wonder drug but some perfectly rational reason that prevents it from having its desired effect.

Which is why it is a practicing of medical science, not hunches and beliefs, that we ought to expect from health professionals.

It is often said in defense of alternative treatments that at the very least they do no harm even if they cannot be proven as helpful. But is this really true? Health care workers are a limited resource. If their time is wasted on witchcraft, even less time will be available for health care that is based on scientific evidence. And is it not an abuse of patients' trust that we let them believe he's treated by the most advanced methods of science when, in fact, he is no better off than in the hands of an African witch doctor?

In our brave new world, at the age of 35, I can even fantasize about medical advances in the next 50 years that will enable my generation to live forever. But if that happens, it'll be due to medical science. Until then, should bad luck find me at the mercy of doctors and nurses, I expect them to use the best their science can offer, and I ask them to leave their superstitions at home. Just as I don't want priests flying airplanes, preachers control nuclear power plants, I also don't want witch doctors to treat me. If your science cannot help me, I will accept the inevitable. But if you want to treat me with voodoo, I have but one request: get your dirty hands off me!

Followup notes: I wrote the above piece in February 1998. Since then, there were widespread reports about an experiment by an 11-year old student that disproves the effect of the famed "therapeutic touch". Naturally, the method's proponents explained the result: since the participants were not actually practicing "healing", their "powers" remained dormant. Just goes to prove that it's meaningless to argue with true believers: any evidence that is contrary to their convictions will be either ignored or explained away!