14 November 2007

There are a surprising number of things I can agree with in the novelist Jeanette Winterton‘s article on homeopathy in the Guardian. Such as her insistence on the disastrousness of AIDS denialism and the importance of conventional ARV treatments for HIV.

But I’m going to focus on what I disagree with. She starts with the standard “alternative medicine works because it worked for me” line. Do you know, I had a cold the other day, but I listened to Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue and within a day or two I was fine. Amazing medicine, that album.

The point is that most people get better all by themselves, yet tend to attribute healing powers to all sorts of things, like waving your hands around while praying to a non-existent deity. The only way to find out whether something really does make a difference is to run double-blind, randomised controlled trials. Individual cases prove absolutely nothing.

Winterton then goes on to acknowledge the touchy-feely aspect: we feel better if someone takes our woes seriously. Fine, but do this effect have to be dressed up in mumbo-jumbo? She also acknowledges the placebo effect, which admittedly is hard to deliver as a conventional medicine – it can only be done effectively by rogue doctors like the fictional Dr House.

But then we come to the utter rubbish. She admits trials of homeopathy show it doesn’t work but then dismisses them by an appeal to individual cases. She’s answered her own question (as per above paragraph), but just can’t see it.

Worse still, we then get “the appeal to magic” to explain the non-existent efficacy of homeopathy: science doesn’t know everything and “nanoparticles” blah blah blah. At least the word “quantum” doesn’t make an appearance but the rest is sheer idiocy and superstition – and Winterson should recognise it when she sees it, as readers of Oranges are not the only fruit will understand.

Jeanette, Jeanette, use that mind of yours. More here, here and here.

As alternative medicine goes, homeopathy is at least mostly (but not entirely) harmless. What really annoys me is that here in the UK, taxpayers like me are funding this irrational nonsense.