Believers in homeopathy live in their own magic universe


Good news. Health authorities in Scotland have announced they will no longer be providing funds for the dunking of witches. Only joking.

NHS Lothian has, however, confirmed that, following public consultation, state funding of homeopathy clinics is to cease. Reports on the story went on to reveal that the UK health service has been spending about £4 million a year on this claptrap.

Sorry? The health service of a major western country is financing the supply and distribution of snake oil.

Actually that’s unfair to snake oil salesmen. Their product has an active ingredient (oil from snakes, I assume). Homeopaths dilute their medicinal compounds – thank you, Lily the Pink – so rigorously that the key component is present only in insignificantly minute portions.

It’s not often that we applaud our own Health Service Executive for failing to finance a treatment. On this occasion, however, the officials are to be congratulated for their parsimony.

“Doctors may recommend various complementary therapies in the context of overall care of patients,” a spokesperson said a few years back. “But the HSE has no plans at present to develop or fund such initiatives.”

Last September, writing in this newspaper, David Robert Grimes, a cancer researcher at Oxford University, lucidly explained why homeopathy could not work and then went on to describe studies demonstrating that, indeed, it did not work.

“Homeopathy is at best useless and at worst positively damaging, not just medically but to our collective understanding of science,” he wrote.

Why, 300 years after the Enlightenment brought rigour to natural philosophy, are we still bothering with these unnecessary arguments?

It seems a shame that Grimes should be distracted from his important work (there is little work more important) to wearily explain why dancing round a totem poll at midnight won’t alleviate your gout.

You don’t need a degree in applied chicanery to deduce that homeopathy is prime baloney.

Even if the supposed active ingredients were present at significant levels there would still be no evidence to suggest they could do what the alternative practitioners claim. Devised by one Samuel Hahnemann in the early 19th century, the supposed like-cures-like philosophy is no less shaky than that man in the pub’s theory about the impending killer-lizard invasion.

For all that, otherwise sensible people insist upon sticking with homeopathy and other equally nonsensical practices such as cupping, magnetic field theory, reiki and coffee enemas (don’t try that one at home).

Many of the negative responses to Grimes’s article evaded the central question and took the argument in a largely irrelevant direction. Again and again attention was drawn to the squalid activities of the major pharmaceutical companies: flogging unnecessary drugs, fixing prices, shelving unhelpful data. All this is worth saying. But none of it does anything to prove the efficacy of homeopathy.

Other fans of water diluted in water wondered (oh lord, not this again) whether we should put all our faith in Men in White Coats?

This is a favourite argument of apologists for alternative therapies. The implication is that (dark chord) “western medicine” – and evidence-based science in general – is a kind of priesthood that demands blind obedience from its lobotomised followers.

Confronted with evidence of repeated studies from the Men in White Coats, the homeopathy adherent will respond that it “works for me”.

That’s to say some ailment that was always likely to clear up anyway cleared up at about the same time the magic water was applied.

I bet if you’d severed something pink and sensitive in a threshing accident you wouldn’t be applying a homeopathic remedy. Huh? Huh? You’d be straight round to the Sacred Brothers of the White Coat.

See? I can use empty, facetious arguments just as enthusiastically as can the alternative medicine adherent.

Anyway, what’s worth noting here is the depressing embrace of medieval chaos and muddy thinking. A dismissal of the scientific method is a dismissal of basic logic. By all means question the rigour of any individual trial. Bad science is no science at all. But there remains only one reliable route to a worthwhile understanding of the universe: the acquisition of measurable evidence followed by the application of sound reason.

If you look out the window, see water falling from the sky and deduce that it’s raining, you are making a scientific observation. Several million such observations later you end up with the Large Hadron Collider, the Hubble space telescope and Grand Theft Auto IV.

There is no dispute. That class of logic also proves that homeopathy does not work beyond a placebo effect. If you choose to believe otherwise then – in the name of consistency – you might like to attribute air travel to sacred spirits and the internet to alien interlopers.

That is the magic universe you have decided to build for yourself.

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