Stick Your Arnica Up Your Paradigm
One of my most shocking experiences in a doctor's surgery was when the doctor took a homeopathy manual from his bookshelf. I reflected on the amount of taxpayers' money it had taken to train him in medical science.
Now another study has found that whilst homeopathy may work as a placebo for some people it has no real curative powers. And if the NHS is going to dish out placebos then coloured water would be a great deal cheaper. Of course, that doesn't work if you tell the patient it's only coloured water. But lying to patients would be considered unacceptable - unless apparently you're giving them homeopathic coloured water.
The principle of homeopathy is that the more you dilute a substance the more effective it becomes, so homeopathic tinctures are diluted until they disappear up their own arse.
Here's a thought: mainstream science tells us that, since there are a finite number of atoms on the planet that are endlessly recycled, most of us have some of Shakespeare's atoms in our bodies. Does this mean that most of us, if we made the effort, could write Hamlet or King Lear? With maybe one of Will's atoms to 50,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.......[add a few more trillion noughts] other atoms, the homeopathic principle would suggest we could.
Hang on a minute, I feel a sonnet coming on.
It was fun to see several agitated homeopaths crawling out of the woodwork to defend themselves in the Guardian letters column. One of them deployed a common argument: the new research "may well be correct, within the materialistic paradigm of conventional science, but the paradigm is inadequate for a full critique of homeopathy."
Don't you just hate those inadequate paradigms?
The same inadequate paradigms that in the course of thousands of years of deploying human reason and using evidence-based research methods have given us a much greater understanding of our planet and universe and given millions of people a quality of life far greater than that of our ancestors even 200 years ago. Yes, science sometimes has disastrous side-effects and is put to terrible uses. But next time your dentist needs to drill your teeth are you going to decline the anaesthetic and ask for an arnica tablet instead?
Let's try shifting the paradigm argument to another area.
"Executing people who fail to vote for the governing party without trial and on the orders of the Prime Minister may be unacceptable within the paradigm of liberal democracy but the paradigm is inadequate for a proper critique of alternative forms of governance."
Would we swallow that one?
Homeopathy may, in most cases, be harmless nonsense. But the flight from reason is a dangerous thing. It leads to body parts scattered round Russell Square and teenagers hanged in Middle Eastern squares.
One final linguistic reflection: most other words ending in 'path', meaning disease, like 'psychopath' and 'sociopath' refer to someone who is mentally disturbed or who has lost the power of reason. Is 'homeopath' the exception? It denotes nothing more threatening than a purveyor of remedies that have no scientific basis.
But personally, as with people who have fairies at the bottom of the garden or who insist that Elvis is working in their local Kentucky Fried Chicken, I prefer to give them a wide berth.
A letter in today's Guardian refers to an experiment at the University of Leipzig which "gave concentrations of belladonna which were literally less than a drop in the ocean" to rats.
Is that a concentration? And what does 'literally' mean in that sentence? What size of 'drop' and which 'ocean'?
But I'm being picky.
Anyway, "statistically significant changes in the contraction of the gut of rats were measured consistently and repeatedly. The study used double-blind techniques designed to detect the placebo effect."
How the hell could a rat experience a placebo effect anyway?
But the real point is this. The previous letters from homeopaths [the Guardian uses one 'e'] argued:
a) that normal scientific trials could not be applied to homeopathy
b) that the effectiveness of homeopathy stems from its uniquely holistic approach to the patient.
"Homeopathy is a therapy that relies on the practitioner finding the remedy to suit the patient's condition based on successfully matching the patient's symptoms with the picture of our known medicines" wrote one.
"....the medicine is tailored to the patient and not to their medical diagnosis", wrote another, the head of The Society of Homeopaths, no less.
Now, what I want to know is this:
1) What were the Leipzig rats able to tell the scientists about their guts?
2) Was there anything wrong with the rats' guts to start with?
3) How exactly do you practise a rodent-orientated holistic approach?
4) Were the rats questioned about their lifestyle, musical tastes, star signs, etc?
5) If homeopathy is individually tailored, why were all the rats given belladonna rather than some being given arnica or something else?
I'm sure there are more questions, but now my own gut is contracting.
From laughter in my case.