Saturday 1 October 2016

Working it out: Homeopathy - much ado about nothing

John Masterson

Published 07/09/2015 | 02:30

Library Image. Photo: Thinkstock Images
Library Image. Photo: Thinkstock Images

Philosopher Ivan Illich was not a great fan of schools. He was a great champion of education. He argued that what went on in schools was not always great educationally. One of his hobby horses was that the best thing any child could be equipped with was what he called a 'crap detector' - that is, a set of skills that would enable one to see through nonsense. I like to think my schooling and education gave me one.

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Recently on my morning programme on KCLR 96FM radio in the course of a discussion I offered the view that homeopathy was 'rubbish'. I came in for some abuse. Mind you, none of it directed me to articles and experiments that would demonstrate just how homeopathy worked and why it is valuable. As it happened, I had done some reading about it not long before, so I was fairly content with my description.

One medical body after another has dismissed it as a theoretically empty placebo. That is, it does as much good as a sugar pill. Mind you, the placebo effect also enhances the effect of proper scientific medicine too. I put in the word 'proper' deliberately. In my book, it is proper because there is a theoretical foundation behind it that makes sense in terms of biology, chemistry, physics, maths and relevant disciplines and that results are researched in a way that is testable. If a scientific theory does not work it is rejected, and that is why science has enabled us to go to the moon, cure smallpox, understand DNA, improve the brakes in cars, make nylon stockings, explain why birds fly and plants flower, build skyscrapers, understand global warming etc etc etc. Without scientific method we would still be in the dark ages.

Homeopathy is not too far from the dark ages, in my book. It was introduced around 1796 by a man called Samuel Hahnemann with the theory that "like cures like" claiming that a substance that causes the symptoms of a disease in healthy people can cure similar symptoms in sick people. Add to that the belief that the more you dilute the substance the better it works and you have the underpinnings of bonkers pseudo science. But at the time medics were carrying out bloodletting and purges. At least homeopathy didn't do any harm.

Since then, medicine has come on in leaps and bounds, while there is not a single scientific study that shows any of homeopathy working. More and more public funders of health budgets are deleting it from their books. If you have a cold it won't do you any harm. But sadly, homeopaths make outlandish claims which often result in vulnerable sick people delaying proper treatments.

I have nothing against alternative treatments that stand up to scrutiny. We may not even fully understand how they work. But if they are open to scrutiny I am open to increasing my understanding. Nothing I have read about homeopathy suggests to me that my radio comment was wrong.

Sunday Independent

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