I paid a short visit to my parents in the UK during the Winterval, but by the time I got there I had developed full-blown tonsillitis and spent most of the time feverish and delerious in bed.
Fortunately I was able to get to a doctor who took my temperature, peered down my throat, made the diagnosis- my father had already guessed correctly- and prescribed some antibiotics. The visit lasted only a few minutes- there was no time for a lengthy lifestyle analysis or discussion of my psychological state and so could hardly be called “holistic” but the whole experience was pleasant one, the doctor was chatty and very affable, I hadnt even had to wait long, and most importantly, within 24 hours I had made a miraculous recovery and had no barely symptoms left at all after 48hours.
Now, this is just anecdotal of course and proves nothing- maybe I would have got better anyway- but since this was a very rare trip to the doctor- my mother refers to all doctors as “quacks” – it seems worth noting that it was as pleasant and as trouble-free an experience as I could have hoped for.
However, as I sat in the waiting room I couldnt help noticing a prominent sign advertising the services of Homeopaths and Reflexologists; if I hadnt been so sick and had there been more time I would have loved to have asked the kind doctor his views on promoting such fraudulent “remedies” in his surgery, and to have had a chat about evidence-based medicine and the public perception of in general.
All this is by way of prelude to drawing your attention to the new 10:23 campaign in the UK: “Homeopathy- there’s nothing in it”.
This campaign is tackling head on the inconsistent postion of high street pharmacists like Boots who claim to have the best interests of their customers at heart and yet sell sugar pills and water as medicine.
One of the main excuses of homeopaths is that their methods are more “holistic”- they incude a lengthy interview covering many detials of the patients’ personal life before making proscribing the remedy, while allopathic medicine “only treats the symptoms”- the implication here is that there is always some kind of emotional/psychologiclal/spiritual component to illness.
Apart from the fact that this is largely mystical mumbo-jumbo- my tonsillitis for example was caused by the bacterium actinomyces and not by some kind of negative energy in my chakras- this whole process is side-stepped by the fact that anyone can just walk into a chemists’ shop and buy whatever type of sugar pill they fancy straight off the shelf. If homeopaths themsleves think that remedies should only be given by a trained practitioner after lengthy holistic interviews surely they should be coming on board fully behind the 10:23 campaign themselves.
The other aspect of this is that belief in quack medicine is inherently anti-science. I could give loads of examples from conversations I have had with mystically minded folk. Start by telling them that there is no scientific evidence to support the efficiacy of things like homeopathy and they will recount anecdotes along the lines of “homeopathy cured my hamster”, even though many conditions people seek treatments for- like the ‘flu- are self-limiting.
If like me you are more insistent, 9 times out of 10 they will attack science in general as being biased- “science has been wrong before” “science doesnt know everything” or most infuriatingly invoke something they call “the observer effect”- the idea that you can discount any scientific evidence whenever it suits you on the basis that the observer will affect what is being observed, possibly on the quantum level.
The claim here is that their own opinions are more vaild- infallible even- and less biased than science, which just displays a complete ignorance of the scientific method, which is by definition an attempt to overcome our own personal, subjective bias. Anecdotes are not evidence; lots of anecdotes do not constitute data.
I recently was discussing evidence-based medicine with a herbalist who had just completed a degree. I asked him about whether he had looked at clinical trials during his degree course; he had to some extent, but was quite happy to tell me that he didnt think it necessary to have evidence for everything.
His real interest it turned out was plant-spirit medicine and shamanism (which were not you will be relieved to hear covered on the degree); the degree was just a front to give more credibility for what he was really practicing. Since he made his own preperations from home-grown herbs I asked him how he could control the concentrations of active ingredients, which could vary wildly from plant to plant; his response was just to shrug his shoulders and say, “I know I make good stuff, the clients like it and know it is good stuff”. In other words, weather the treatments worked or not was immaterial; all that counts is can he sell them.
Another conversation I had on this topic was with someone I would certainly expect to support the role of science in the environmental movement, specifically climate change. When she questioned the value of evidence-based medicine, I pointed out that clinical trials on medical treatments are routine and trivial compared to say the incredibly complex body of evidence from many different scientific disciplines accumulated over decades that constitutes climate science; yet the evidence that homeopathy and other “alternative” therapies do not work is much less ambiguous than the evidence for climate change. I was shocked that her response was that there is no scientifc consensus on climate change, that science is all just a matter of opinion.
Quack medicine is not just an assault on science and reason but appears to lead people to abandon even the most basic standards of ethics, honesty and common sense.
Unfortunately, as I have covered on Zone5 many times, the environmental movement seems to have no discernment when it comes to quack medicine. Wherever you see the word “Green” or “Organic” you can be sure the homeopaths and the herbalists will not be far behind. Alternative therapists seem to make up a significant part of the environmental movement in general and are keen to protect their public image of progressive, natural and holistic alternatives to the nasty world of Big Pharma.
In fact, the persistence of these practices undermine our ability to understand and respnd to the much more serious issues confronting us and make the green movement the laughing stock of the more rational sections of society, and thereby feeds the climate change deniers’ case.
The 10:23 Campaign looks like being the start of a more direct way of tackling these issues head on, let’s all get behind it.
More information on this week’s episode on the Pod Delusion:
Fascinating account of the inside world of CAM and more insights into homeopathy here: