Homoeopathists have had a bad time of it recently. Other bloggers have pointed out that there is nothing in the tablets that their clients buy other than sugar. Protestors have been taking massive ‘overdoses’ in Boots stores. A committee told the government to stop wasting NHS money on the quack technique. But is it possible that homeopathy could actually be good for some people, even if it is just sugar?
In spite of all our medical technology, not all ailments are curable. For the unfortunate people with untreatable conditions, the best that medics can do is control their symptoms and make them feel better. Some of these sufferers might also be helped by homeopathy.
Pain is an interaction of the body and the mind. Whatever signals the nerves in your toe send when you bash it against the door it’s only when your brain receives the messages and interprets them that you hurt.
Sometimes, the mere belief that your pain is being relieved is enough to make it go away. To find out how placebos work, scientists in the US conducted a series of experiments. They applied a moisturising cream to the wrists of some volunteers, telling them that it was a new analgesic which would reduce pain. They then gave participants intensely painful electric shocks. Not only did participants wearing the cream report suffering less, there was also less activity in a number of parts of the brain which deal with pain signals.
The scientists also wanted to find out whether they could make placebos more effective. To try and do this, they put two creams on the arms of volunteers, claiming that one was a topical analgesic and the other was a control (both were in fact the same drugless skin creams). To make the difference between the two creams more convincing, they applied heat to both patches, telling the volunteers that they were equally hot. In fact, the heat applied to the placebo patch was much milder.
Once this manipulation was completed, and the volunteers had a good reason to believe that the placebo was effective, more pain was inflicted on both of the cream covered areas. This time the participants reported even more pain relief on the ‘analgesic’ covered patch: the more credible the placebo the better it worked.
For quack medicine to be useful, the patient has to believe in it. Sugar pills have to be given with the right amount of theatre. Witch doctors, with necklaces of shrunken skulls, are outdated; likewise trepanning and bloodletting have fallen out of fashion. With their mock science degrees, ‘professional’ associations and natty uniforms, homoeopathists are the modern experts in conning their clients.
For those of us reading this blog, keeping track of the news, or with basic scientific training, homeopathy is useless; we already know it’s hogwash. But even in the modern world, not everybody is in our position. Should we take the high-minded route and deprive them of their ignorance? Or should we let them have their magic pills? So long as they go to medical doctors first and don’t shun real medicine when it could cure them, their naivety might give them relief from their suffering.