Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Winter 2002-2003

Money for Old Rope

by Terry Sanderson

Homeopathy is ridiculous by any measure, but it seems even more ridiculous that intelligent, educated people can still believe that such medieval juju is a feasible treatment for disease.

It was, therefore, entirely gratifying to see the whole multi-million pound con trick effectively demolished by the BBC’s flagship science programme Horizon (BBC2, 26 November 2002).

Horizon took its lead from James Randi, the American conjuror who is famed for his debunking of self-proclaimed mystics, mediums, spoon-benders, psychics and other purveyors of bunkum. Randi has a longstanding offer to pay $1 million to anyone who can prove that homeopathy works.

Horizon took up the challenge and engaged scientists from the Royal Society to try to replicate experiments that supposedly showed that homeopathic remedies did, indeed, have a physiological effect.

The reason for Randi’s (and my) scepticism springs from the thinking behind homeopathy. Homeopaths believe that like should be treated by like. So, for example, they treat a cold using a remedy based on onions, because onions produce a streaming nose and eyes, typical of a cold. Then you take your start substance and dilute it, the principle being that the more you dilute it the more potent it becomes.

A single drop of the remedy is diluted so many times that it is the equivalent concentration of much less than one drop of the original substance in all of the oceans on the face of the earth. Homeopaths insist that their remedies have healing powers; scientists say there is not a single molecule of the original chemical in the solutions homeopaths use.

If homeopathy worked, the whole rule book of physical science would have to be rewritten. And why should it be? Just because some eighteenth-century chap by the name of Hahnemann came up with the idea (which may have seemed sensible in those times, when modern medicine was in its infancy) doesn’t mean it’s true.

Homeopathy has now become big business. Boots and other chemists make a fortune from pushing these sugar pills. Homeopaths undertake elaborate training in this medical equivalent of alchemy, but the fact that they have studied nonsense for years doesn’t make it any the less nonsense.

Arguments were made that homeopathy works by the placebo effect. People believe that these remedies are doing them good, so they work, even though they have no active ingredients in them at all. This is fine: there is no doubt that the mind can have a profound effect on the workings of the body. Stress can definitely manifest itself in physical symptoms, such as skin eruptions, headaches and so on. And, if homeopaths can treat stress, then that’s good. But why do they have to attach all this incredible gobbledegook about snake venom and cow’s udders to it?

The Horizon programme attempted to reproduce experiments that had “proved” homeopathy had a physical effect on the body. They failed. Randi’s money is safe, and we sceptics feel vindicated.

The homeopaths, and their credulous clients, however, sail on into a rosy, money-for-old-rope future.

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Created : Sunday, 2003-01-12 / Last updated : Sunday, 2010-05-16
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