Thursday, September 2, 2010

What do you call alternative medicine that works?

So let’s talk about homeopathy. Not because I particularly want to, but because it’s an instructive example of the kind of mass ignorance and self-delusion that I find distressing. (I had to think hard about the last word in that sentence; stuff like this is liable to make me angry, but that’s not a very useful emotion, so let’s settle for upset).

To begin with we need to clear up a widespread misconception that, while understandable, is hugely unhelpful if we are ever to come to an intelligent conclusion on this subject. Many people, when they hear the term ‘homeopathic’ used in relation to medicine, equate it with loose terms such as ‘alternative’, ‘natural’ or ‘herbal’. I call these ‘loose terms’ because they have no set, or generally agreed, definition. This is not true of homeopathy, which refers to a very specific set of ideas and beliefs, set out by a German doctor in the first half of the 19th century.

What are these beliefs? One central idea is that a substance that provokes a symptom similar to that of a particular disease, would also act as a cure for that disease. Another is that the process of succussion can vastly improve a medicine’s power (if you’re interested succussion basically means ‘shaking the bottle’). I’m going to ignore both these premises and concentrate on another central idea of the homeopathic system.

Homeopaths refer to this tenet as the Law of Infinitesimals. This declares that once you have an effective medicine, you can increase its power by diluting it. This deserves dwelling on. Homeopaths believe that the less you have of something the stronger it becomes. This means that as you add water to your squash it tastes progressively more orangey. Or that if you want to get really smashed you should have more tonic and less gin. Makes perfect sense to me.

This idea is then taken to its absolute extreme. Once homeopathy has identified a ‘medicine’ they take this substance and dilute it to a level where a bottle of it would not contain a single atom of that active ingredient.

If this sounds a bit ridiculous, that’s because it is. Yet in the UK we have NHS-funded homeopathy. That means our tax money is going towards something based on an idea that my four-year-old would see the holes in.

What do you call alternative medicine that works?


  1. I used to work in Holland and Barrett and really enjoyed explaining the principles of homeopathy to people.
    "apparently the water REMEMBERS the active ingredient"

    I recently read (correct me if I'm misinformed) that gin and tonic was invented in the British colonies as a way to make tonic water, which contained quinine taken to ward off malaria, acceptable to drink. effective medicine? it certainly works for my mum on a friday evening...

  2. Well, I've never caught malaria . . .