Mohammad Al-Ubaydli’s blog

How an Amazon tribe approaches evidence-based medicine

Posted in Books, People / organisations by Dr Mohammad Al-Ubaydli on October 18, 2009

Don't sleep, there are snakesI am saving a rant about the excesses of evidence-based medicine for another day, but first, I am reading a hilarious about what we can learn from an Amazonian tribe. The Piraha tribe’s language includes a laudable emphasis on searching for evidence behind each statement. The book, Don’t sleep, there are Snakes, is by Daniel Everett who went to live with the tribe as a Christian missionary and returned… an atheist.

Here is a quote from a lecture he gave explaining why it was they who converted him. It is worth listening to Everett’s amusing rendition.


Three suffixes are very important, and they tell you how you got your evidence. So every verb has to have on it the source of the evidence. Did you hear about it, did you see it with your own eyes, or did you deduce it from the local evidence. So if I say “Did John go fishing?”, they can say “John went fishing pee-eye”, which means “I heard that he did”, or they can say “John went finishing sibiga”, and that means “I deduced that he did”, or they can say “John went fishing tah”, and that means I saw.

In some respects they are the ultimate empiricists. Or, like people from Missouri, The Show Me State.

Part of this culture value of the Piraha, the immediacy of experience, is reflected in this word imitpeeo, produces a value to keep information slow, and to keep it verifiable. It must be witnessed.

So, as a Christian Missionary, which I no longer am, and if you read the book, you will find out what they did to me. They actually demanded evidence for what I believed. And then I realised I couldn’t give it as well as they wanted me to give it. So this changed me profoundly.

But I remember telling them about Jesus one time. So they said, “So Dan, this Jesus, is he brown like us or is he white like you?”
– “I don’t know, I haven’t seen him.”
– “So what did your dad say, your dad must have seen him.”
– “No, he never saw him.”
– “Well what did your friends say who saw him?”
– “I don’t know anybody who saw him.”
– “Why are you telling us about him then?”


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