Scientists say homeopathy is undiluted hogwash. But it CAN work – and that’s all that matters
By James Delingpole
UPDATED: 10:52, 1 March 2011
Just what is it that makes so many people so angry about homeopathy? I’ve been using it on and off for years — arnica tablets for when the kids fall over, a magic box of special remedies which helped cure my hay-fever. I’ve always thought it was something harmless, something all of us did now and again.
Apparently not, though. In the past few months, whenever I’ve mentioned my guilty homeopathy secret to friends, it’s as if I’ve confessed to a penchant for child sacrifice.
‘What?’ the general reaction has been. ‘Don’t you realise all homeopaths are charlatans; their remedies are nothing more than sugar pills; they’re a drain on the NHS; they’ve resulted in the deaths of gullible innocents all over the world?’
This surprises and saddens me, for there have been times in my life when I’ve found homeopathy beneficial. I wouldn’t class myself as an ardent believer — I won’t shun coffee or mint toothpaste, or any of those other boring things you’re supposed to do if your remedies are to work properly. But I’m not a virulent sceptic, either.
Probably the greatest success I’ve had has been with my hayfever. It made my childhood summers a misery of itchy eyes, sneezing and almost flu-like debilitation.
Yet by my mid-30s it had all but vanished thanks to a wonderful little Welsh firm called Ffynnonwen (which makes a special homeopathic anti-hayfever kit) and to the miracle worker who sent me there, a homeopath called Fiona Gross.
Fiona was just an ordinary London housewife who got into the business quite by accident when her daughter broke out in terrible eczema which conventional medicine couldn’t cure. After much reading, research and experimentation, Fiona did cure it, and decided thereafter to make a career of her new-found expertise.
One of her recent success stories was a woman struck down with a mysterious respiratory illness acquired on holiday in Greece.
Using her Sherlock Holmes-like skills, Fiona eventually narrowed it down to the pollen of olive blossom. She sent some olive blossom to Ffynnonwen, which made up a remedial homeopathic tincture. Within a few days, the woman’s problems had gone.
Almost as interesting as Fiona’s cure was the reaction of the woman’s GP: he was livid.
Though he’d failed to cure the problem himself, he refused to accept that homeopathy could have done the trick. Clearly, her illness had been all in the mind.
Of course, I understand why the medical establishment is sceptical. As campaigners such as science journalist Ben Goldacre tirelessly remind us, homeopathic remedies are so dilute that they’re unlikely to contain any pharmacologically active molecules.
And I’m well aware that in countless tests, homeopathic remedies have been shown to be no more effective than sugar pills. In other words, its power may lie purely in the placebo effect.
Perhaps they’re right. Certainly, almost everything I’ve read on homeopathy convinces me it’s bunk. That’s why, every time I take a homeopathic remedy, I mutter to myself: ‘You don’t really believe in this nonsense, do you?’
And why, though I use homeopathy for routine ailments, I very much doubt I’d rely on it, say, as a prophylactic against malaria or as a miracle cure for cancer. Well, not except as a last resort — which is how most people come to homeopathy anyway.
Where I seriously find myself in disagreement with the anti-homeopathy lobby, though, is over the shrillness of their bullying intolerance.
They pride themselves on their rationalism, yet the foaming fury with which they pursue this modern heresy owes more to the religious fervour of Witchfinders General or Spanish inquisitors.
There’s often something insufferably smug about their attitude, too: ‘See how clever and rational I am! I know my science, I do. That’s why I hate homeopathy! I am a real sceptic, me.’
Well, yes, I too am all for the principles of post-Enlightenment rationalism. But surely one of those principles is a healthy awareness that none of us yet knows everything there is to know about everything. The history of scientific progress, after all, is the history of old ‘consensus’ theories being discredited and being replaced by new theories.
Until the 1880s, the experts would have laughed in your face if you’d suggested that malaria was caused by anything other than the miasma of foul air that emanated from swamps.
Until the Seventies, you’d have been ridiculed for positing that stomach ulcers were caused by a bacterium; until 1934, nobody even suspected that the major part of the universe might comprise something called ‘dark matter’.
Does that mean that everyone was totally thick then, and that we have all the answers now? One day, perhaps, scientists will prove beyond all doubt that homeopathy is hocus pocus nonsense. But there are other possibilities, too.
The principle of homeopathy is that a remedy can be as dilute as Goldacre points out because the water retains the memory of the active ingredient; it doesn’t need lots of the remedy to work. This has been scoffed out of court by the sceptics.
However, Dr Luc Montagnier, the French virologist who won the Nobel Prize for discovering the Aids virus, and Nobel Prize-winning Cambridge physicist Brian Josephson both argue that water is capable of retaining some form of ‘memory’.
Josephson accuses homeopathy’s critics of ‘pathological disbelief’ — that is, they hold the unscientific view that ‘even if it were true, I still wouldn’t believe in it’.
‘The practitioners I’ve known have been sincere, thoughtful people who give their clients the kind of attention you’d almost certainly never get from a GP these days’
Not being a scientist, I’m keeping an open mind. What I’m wholeheartedly against are the anti-homeopathy brigade and their attempts to destroy this harmless cottage industry through expensive over-regulation.
I find their complaints about homeopathy on the NHS overdone (just £4 million out of the NHS’s annual £104 billion budget goes on homeopathy: that’s a mere 0.004 per cent).
Nor am I persuaded by their line that homeopathy is denying genuinely sick people proper medical treatment.
No one is forcing cancer sufferers to use pulsatilla extract rather than radiotherapy and chemotherapy. Almost everyone who uses homeopathy does so out of informed choice, rather than ignorance — often after they’ve been through all the conventional remedies and found them not to work.
And if we’re going to come down hard on ‘sugar pills’, what about all the cases where the pharmaceutical industry’s licensed drugs have done far greater damage — such as the teenage suicides linked to the antidepressant Seroxat, or the increased risk of heart disease caused by the diabetes drug Avandia?
That’s why I’m laying my neck on the line and sticking up for homeopathy. Not because I know for certain it’s true, but because I’ve met too many people whom it has helped not to give it the benefit of the doubt.
The practitioners I’ve known have been sincere, thoughtful people who give their clients the kind of attention you’d almost certainly never get from a GP these days.
Homeopathy has helped many thousands of people feel healthier and happier than they were before, fairly inexpensively and without any unpleasant side-effects.
Call them gullible fools, call them what you will: the point, surely, is that it worked for them — and that’s all that really matters.