Homeopathy, anyone?

“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.

Hahnemann_1996

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.

By …trialsanderrors (Kellar: Levitation, magician poster, ca. 1894) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]

By …trialsanderrors (Kellar: Levitation, magician poster, ca. 1894) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D

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?

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About Pipteinpteron

Catch a falling feather. Don't keep it.
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10 Responses to Homeopathy, anyone?

  1. duncommutin says:

    Well I think it would certainly not be ethical to *prevent* the use of alternative remedies, where they were known to be at least harmless. And as you suggest, there’s no doubt that the placebo effect plays a big part in mainstream medicine. (People have been known to benefit from the placebo effect even when they know it’s a placebo.)
    My experience of homeopathy is of my son when he was small, who had recurrent ear infections, and constant rounds of antibiotics. Just to try something different, we tried homeopathy – still, strangely, available in the British Health Service. The first dose didn’t seem to work, but after the practitioner changed it, the ear infections suddenly stopped for good. Well, it doesn’t prove anything, and these infections sometimes stop around that age anyway. And the subject himself (now studying for a PhD) certainly doesn’t believe in homeopathy these days. But I still wonder…

  2. Thank you for your comment. As you write, seeing the end of the ear infections does not prove anything. But I think many people would imagine it does. If people believe in homeopathy, it’s almost always on the basis of so-called ‘anecdotal evidence’. Or that very same gut feeling that Will Storr became so sceptical of. I’m surprised people can get it on the NHS, though. It would seem reasonable to just offer evidence-based medicine. Do you think Prince Charles is behind it? 🙂

  3. David Yerle says:

    If they were giving away homeopathic medicine that may be ethical. I don’t think it is. Firstly a huge amount of money is being made by selling people air. That is the definition of scam. Secondly, some people actually reject proven treatments to follow an “alternative course” and die because of it. One example from the top of my head is Steve Jobs, whose cancer was caught in a very early stage but who decided to use more “holistic” methods to get rid of it. When he realized that wasn’t working, it was too late. So scam + human health + people dead because of it = non-moral practice.

  4. Thank you for your comment. I do agree that people exploit homeopathy and make a lot of money. I also worry about the “big pharma is against you using safe homeopathic drugs that work”-conspiracy theory. I was just trying to look at it from the angle of the patient and one point I did not cover is the question what you use homeopathy for. It’s dangerous to try alternative methods for cancer, but I would like to know why an intelligent man like Steve Jobs turned to them. Was it because he was scammed, or did he have a belief that made him take a non-rational approach to cancer? I just don’t know. I do think it’s morally wrong to refer people with (suspected) cancer to a homeopathic doctor. I agree with you there.

  5. Argus says:

    I’ve read just yesterday a throwaway para about a guy who in the early days of germs picked up a glass laced with a deadly cocktail of cholera and glopped it down with great gusto. Apparently the company was horrified but he lived, completely unaffected. It seems his complete disbelief in germs and such was stronger than those germs and such.
    In another blog tonight I read a screed that effectively tells me that something not only comes from nothing, it does it all the time. If a law of some kind could be invoked here—could my disbelief in what he was saying suddenly destroy the universe?
    Dammit, I’m reading several books at the same time and can’t remember where that stuff was about the cholera guy …

  6. Thank you for commenting. I have not yet found the story of the cholera swallower. It did make me think of a weird kind of mirror of your story, namely Marshall, who swallowed H. pylori to prove that bacteria cause stomach ulcers. He met with a lot of criticism when he first wrote about the bacteria, so he must have felt forced to make a dramatic gesture. He got a Nobel Prize in 2005.

  7. Lin says:

    Well, while I am a strong advocate for alternative medicine I have never really managed to embrace homeopathy. I don’t discard the notion that there’s such a thing as molecular memory but I still believe that a more potent form of treatment is preferable, especially if we’re dealing with a serious disease and not just a simple cough and runny nose. (Often for that the best thing is lots of water, some good quality sleep and letting the immune system work in peace, at least in my opinion).Take for example Bach flower remedies. They supposedly retain the essence of the flower/plant in the dew on the leaves of the plants. I much prefer aromatherapy which has the same ”essence” of the plants and also has a wide range of therapeutic strength available to the practitioner, not just a diluted version…

  8. Thank you for your comment, Lin. I must say I don’t believe that water has a memory as Benveniste described it. According to Wikipedia: “Some studies, including Benveniste’s, have reported such an effect, but double-blind replications of the experiments involved have failed to reproduce the result. The concept is not consistent with accepted scientific laws and is not accepted by the scientific community.” I have never tried a homeopathic remedy and on the basis of what I know now, I would not try it. I just like to challenge my beliefs.

  9. lawsonsotherdog says:

    On the subject of Zen I see it as very pure very clean. On the subject of that French philosopher Jean Paul Sat……I started reading Nausea and at the start it was very to me, by the end I didn’t know my arse from my head…very zen

  10. lawsonsotherdog says:

    I meant very clear…..must be the alcohol

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