Charlatanry begins at homeo’

The pointless practice of homeopathy was in the news a couple of days ago again: some ‘remedies’ will be permitted to say that they help with some ailments. They don’t have to prove that they help, though: there just has to be proof that these products are used by the vast, rich homeopathic industry. No news yet as to whether the same statement will be permitted to be printed on copies of the Bible or other faith-based treatments, although Alex Wilcock recommends they be homeopathically advertised, which is bound to be far more efficacious than normal advertising.

Lest we forget, the often atrocious behaviour of snake-water salesman—aggressive anti-medical rants, unfounded claims, preying on the weak—is documented in (among many other places) a piece by the otherwise mild-mannered Alan Bennett in Untold Stories: without homeopathy, his homeopath suggested, he would probably die of the cancer that mainstream medicine was treating. The tone was one of surprised outrage that Bennett could be both simultaneously unwell and such an idiot as to reject homeopathy.

I’m happy to believe that the placebo effect means that homeopathic remedies often have more success than mere water. Despite the strenuous attempts by the homeopathy establishment, mere water is all that it remains: “memory” effects seem be only demonstrable by sympathetic scientists, and unrepeatable by any impartial observers. Anyone with a decent training in chemistry or atomic physics can prove in a few short equations why any putative effect would last less than microseconds at room temperature: if homeopathy worked, then placing your tea near near someone’s Topic bar would just as likely set off your nut allergy. And, by extension, astrology would be a science.

“But,” the homeopath claims, “all this arguing is just hair-splitting and snobbery, while our remedies—by whatever means—make people feel better! Why shouldn’t they be treated with respect on that basis?” Well, apart from the fact that the basis is morally and intellectually reprehensible, then while the placebo effect is an interesting statistical observation (a quirk of clinical trials that has to be accounted for when testing whether or not a treatment really works) its use as a tool in primary care should be strongly discouraged.

There’s little evidence that people actually get better, apart from the rallying of their own immune system purely because of the aforementioned effect. With that as the only benefit, deliberately and systematically withholding information on the inefficacy of a treatment, in order that patients might feel better, is a fundamental violation of the relationship between doctor and patient. It’s one thing to guess higher chances of, say, chemotherapy success in the spirit of hopeful encouragement; it’s another to routinely describe a non-treatment as a treatment to deceive the patient. Such actions erode the trust which so many medical practitioners are desperate to see reinvigorated, because whenever your doctor recommends something in the future you have to ask yourself: is this medical professional lying to me? Is this lying sanctioned by the government?

It’s patronising, and ultimately harmful, to try to keep patients stupid so they’re easier to treat. And once any given patient knows the doctors are doing it, he has no reason to trust them ever again.

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