Excerpted from Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. Medical Essays: Homeopathy Currents in Medical Science Border Lines of Knowledge
A medical man, as he goes about his daily business after twenty years of practice, is apt to suppose that he treats his patients according to the teachings of his experience.
No doubt this is true to some extent; to what extent depending much on the qualities of the individual. But it is easy to prove that the prescriptions of even wise physicians are very commonly founded on something quite different from experience. Experience must be based on the permanent facts of nature.
But a glance at the prevalent modes of treatment of any two successive generations will show that there is a changeable as well as a permanent element in the art of healing; not merely changeable as diseases vary, or as new remedies are introduced, but changeable by the going out of fashion of special remedies, by the decadence of a popular theory from which their fitness was deduced, or other cause not more significant. There is no reason to suppose that the present time is essentially different in this respect from any other.
Much, therefore, which is now very commonly considered to be the result of experience, will be recognized in the next, or in some succeeding generation, as no such result at all, but as a foregone conclusion, based on some prevalent belief or fashion of the time.
There are, of course, in every calling, those who go about the work of the day before them, doing it according to the rules of their craft, and asking no questions of the past or of the future, or of the aim and end to which their special labor is contributing. These often consider and call themselves practical men. They pull the oars of society, and have no leisure to watch the currents running this or that way; let theorists and philosophers attend to them. In the mean time, however, these currents are carrying the practical men, too, and all their work may be thrown away, and worse than thrown away, if they do not take knowledge of them and get out of the wrong ones and into the right ones as soon as they may.
Sir Edward Parry and his party were going straight towards the pole in one of their arctic expeditions, travelling at the rate of ten miles a day. But the ice over which they travelled was drifting straight towards the equator, at the rate of twelve miles a day, and yet no man among them would have known that he was travelling two miles a day backward unless he had lifted his eyes from the track in which he was plodding.
It is not only going backward that the plain practical workman is liable to, if he will not look up and look around; he may go forward to ends he little dreams of.