“Why are you scared of homeopathy?” my friend asked. “I am not scared of homeopathy,” I answered. “You are,” she said. “I’ve read your blog and I think you are.”
My friend is a retired yoga-teacher. She believes in homeopathy. She also recommends astrology and the teachings of Rudolf Steiner. Every time we meet, she says something that will make me muse for at least a week. She’s a real expert at lateral thinking. And this week, I also read Will Storr’s book “Heretics” because another blogger recommended it.
Storr went to a meeting with sceptics and found that many of them rejected homeopathy because they believe it’s rubbish. Not because they examined the evidence.
I reject homeopathy mainly because I’ve read “Trick or treatment” by Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst. It’s easy to build an argument that discredits homeopathy. I think the treatment fundamentally relies on water having a memory on a molecular level and to me, that seems implausible. The idea that a homeopathic solution gains strength when it is weakened does not make a lot of sense, either.
Apart from that, Hahnemann’s principle “similia similibus curentur” (like cures like) seems to date from an era when we did not have many clues about the causes of disease. The history of the treatment of malaria seems to be a case in point.
Great, so why am I scared of homeopathy?
Say homeopathy works. Just for the sake of argument. It’s results could easily be attributed to the placebo effect. But if we look into the placebo effect, many new questions pop up. Why is the placebo effect so powerful? In clinical trials of SSRI antidepressants, it’s hard to find a pill that works better than placebo. Because of the side effects of any ‘real’ drug, it would have to perform better than a sugar pill if we were to prescribe it.
– Or would it?
Most doctors would not prescribe a placebo because it’s unethical. How would you feel if your doctor told you that you were cured by a saline injection? Well, you might actually feel good. If you’ve got 47 spare minutes, you could watch Derren Brown’s Rumyodin trials. If you don’t, there’s an interesting article about placebo prescriptions by Scott Gavura on Science-Based Medicine. It seems they are prescribed more often than you think.
But what exactly happens when you are cured by a placebo? If we’re convinced the pill does nothing, then you must have cured yourself. We just don’t know how you did it. This makes me think of Milton Erickson. He firmly believed that people’s unconscious could cure them. Apparently he hypnotised them, told them a story and sent them home to get better. I’m not sure I even believe in the unconscious, but Erickson’s method seemed to work, at least when he used it.He orchestrated people’s emotional reactions and he really knew how to make their resistance work for him. He said:
“Usually it’s best to have patients experience the emotion first and later the intellectual, because after they have experienced emotions to strongly, they have a need to get the intellectual side of it.”
This principle works for charlatans and doctors alike. But if used in an ethical way. (I won’t go into what that is, not in this post) If it genuinely makes people feel better, why be against it? Could it be that the basis of my argument against homeopathy is not my materialist world view, but the fact that it goes against my beliefs? Is my friend right, again? What do you think?