Gen­uine medicine or bo­gus science?

De­spite re­peated at­tacks on it by science, home­opa­thy is the fastest grow­ing medicine in the world to­day

Down to Earth - - CONTENTS - DOWN TO EARTH RAKESH KALSHIAN

The de­bate home­pa­thy goes on

HOME­OPA­THY DOESN'T work. In fact, you are prob­a­bly bet­ter off with­out it.This caveat comes from Australia’s Na­tional Health and Medicine Re­search Coun­cil (nhmrc), which last month de­clared home­opa­thy as use­less in treat­ing ail­ments rang­ing from com­mon cold to malaria.

The re­view­ers didn’t get into the com­plex and rather fu­tile de­bate over home­opa­thy’s slip­pery the­o­ret­i­cal foun­da­tions. In­stead, they kept it sim­ple by ask­ing whether it re­ally worked. This ap­proach, called ev­i­dence-based medicine, is now a popular method of in­quiry into the claims of al­ter­na­tive medicine.

Pre­dictably, the find­ing has reignited ver­bal skir­mishes be­tween op­pos­ing camps. Re­spected Bri­tish naysay­ers like Ben Goldacre and Edzard Ernst took the op­por­tu­nity to de­nounce home­opa­thy as not only un­sci­en­tific but also a con job on gullible pa­tients and help­less tax­pay­ers alike.

De­fend­ers of home­opa­thy were quick to slam the re­view as biased and flawed, ar­gu­ing that ran­domised con­trolled trial, the gold stan­dard in West­ern medicine, treats ev­ery hu­man be­ing as the same when it comes to treat­ing any given ail­ment. This, they ar­gue, con­tra­dicts the very in­di­vid­u­alised na­ture of home­o­pathic treat­ment.

This isn’t the first at­tempt by science to “ex­pose” home­opa­thy.In Au­gust, 2005, Bri­tish med­i­cal jour­nal The Lancet pub­lished a clus­ter of stud­ies damn­ing home­opa­thy as no “bet­ter than a placebo”. How­ever, the stud­ies were later at­tacked for be­ing biased and lack­ing in rigour. Again, in 2010,a study by the Bri­tish House of Com­mons rub­bished home­opa­thy as quack­ery and even rec­om­mended that the Na­tional Health Scheme (nhs) stop fund­ing it.The gov­ern­ment though, de­cided against it as home­opa­thy had a large fol­low­ing.

Home­opa­thy gets un­der the skin of sci­en­tists not just be­cause of its mass ap­peal but also be­cause it flies in the face of sci­en­tific logic.It is founded on the be­lief that “like cures like” and that the more di­luted the medicine (most home­o­pathic medicines are di­luted 1060 times in al­co­hol or dis­tilled wa­ter), the more po­tent and ef­fec­tive it is.Now, this de­gree of di­lu­tion will ren­der the orig­i­nal sub­stance ethe­real, leav­ing be­hind its “mem­ory” or “essence”. That this ghostly pres­ence cures the body of its many aber­ra­tions is pure bunkum, claim crit­ics.

Pa­trons of home­opa­thy do con­cede that it is coun­ter­in­tu­itive.To make sense of it, they grasp at any prover­bial straw, such as nanopar­ti­cles, or the sheer com­plex­ity of the heal­ing process that can’t be re­duced, as mod­ern medicine does, to a lin­ear “A cures B” for­mula. Nonethe­less, what mat­ters is that it works for many. As Bri­tish nov­el­ist Jeanette Win­ter­son wrote in The Guardian, “Where is the sci­en­tific sense in say­ing that be­cause we don’t un­der­stand some­thing, even though we can dis­cern its ef­fects, we have to ig­nore it, scorn it, or sup­press it?”

The sci­en­tific cri­tique of home­opa­thy seems a tad tire­some now with both sides re­cy­cling the same old ar­gu­ments. A more fas­ci­nat­ing co­nun­drum to mull over is how is it that mil­lions of peo­ple put their money in some­thing they be­lieve works for them but which science trashes as bo­gus. No ready or sim­ple an­swers there. How­ever, au­thors of the present re­view be­lieve that their find­ings will at least pro­voke peo­ple into think­ing about med­i­cal ev­i­dence, and help them judge bet­ter. Wish­ful think­ing, given the grow­ing public dis­il­lu­sion­ment with mod­ern medicine.

For now, home­opa­thy seems to be win­ning. It is re­port­edly the fastest grow­ing medicine in the world to­day, and by 2035, its pro­jected worth would be about US $1.1 tril­lion. In In­dia alone, there are half-a-mil­lion reg­is­tered home­opaths cater­ing to 100 mil­lion pa­tients. To para­phrase Mark Twain, re­ports of home­opa­thy’s death have been greatly ex­ag­ger­ated.

TARIQUE AZIZ / CSE

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