Friday, September 01, 2006


Advertising Witchcraft

Listeners to the Today Programme, the BBC’s helpful device for waking up the nation by driving us to the point of apoplexy, will have heard an exchange this morning on the merits of homeopathy. I’ll say up front that I believe this branch of ‘medicine’ to be complete bollocks. There is no shred of evidence to back up the idea that you strengthen an effect by diluting it into undetectability; all tests point in exactly the opposite way. Despite this, a government agency is now allowing the makers of ‘homeopathic remedies’ to print that they are helpful with some ailments.

I’m sure that many people feel better with homeopathy. Belief is very powerful in helping your health, but it’s not the only factor to consider. I have no problem with homeopathic ‘practitioners’ saying any old rubbish if it makes people feel better, as long as they don’t tell their ‘patients’ not to take treatments that have been through the rigorous testing processes that homeopathy shies away from. Where it gets dangerous is when people are led to believe that actual cures or doctors who practise based on evidence should be ignored in favour of placebos, which leaves ill people getting more ill through a confidence trick.

But what about side effects, you ask? Indeed, the homeopathic salesman on Today claimed that the products he was peddling had no side effects, and this was the only claim of his that I believed. I’ve had prescription drugs that have had side effects. In some cases, I’d really rather have been spared them, but I always read the leaflets carefully, just in case, because I know that if something is powerful enough to do one thing to my body, it may well be powerful enough to do something else less welcome too. As Richard said, of course homeopathic ‘medicines’ have no side effects – that’s because they have no effects at all. If something is diluted down a million times until it can’t be detected, it’s complete, utter, bald-faced rubbish to claim that that makes it work at all, let alone that it’s magically more powerful. In fact, the proper doctor on the programme was exasperated enough to compare it to advertising witchcraft.

Let homeopathic ‘medicines’ be tested to the same standards that all other medicines are – if they work under strict experimentation, fine, let them advertise what they’re good for. But it’s permitting a lie to fool the public if these ‘medicines’ are allowed to make claims without proof in exactly the way that no other medicine can, or even any other advertising. Why should these superstitious nonsenses be given special treatment? And if they’re not superstitious nonsenses, why can’t they prove it? In addition, as Richard pointed out, if homeopathic ‘treatment’ is about treating the whole person and you can’t take the ‘remedy’ in isolation, what earthly good is it supposed to do you to buy the stuff over the counter without seeing a ‘practitioner’? Why do they need to make advertising claims if everything has to come as part of personal consultation? This whole business sounds, unsurprisingly, like the homeopathic industry are trying to have their cake and sell it. To put it pejoratively, what’s the good of snake oil without a snake oil salesman?

I think I have the solution. I’m perfectly happy for homeopathic ‘remedies’ to carry writing in which they boast of their effect. The text should just be strictly set at one-millionth the size of that on proper medicines. If the theory of homeopathy is true, that should make the advertising far more effective, and everyone will be happy.

Oh, and on their regular slot for Evidence-Free Platitude For the Day, a man was droning on about the new book on Charles Kennedy to the effect that biographies were more accurate than autobiographies, or, as he sneeringly referred to them, ‘memoirs’, and piously expressed the view that the Gospels were therefore reliable while, thankfully, “Jesus never wrote an autobiography” (and by implication all who do are creating the work of the Devil / making themselves out to be bigger than Jesus. Jesus never used a computer, either, so if you’re reading this, you’re already damned. And as for Jesus’ many radio broadcasts…). Richard seized on his stupidity in assuming that biography is by definition less partisan than autobiography, as if there’s no axe to grind in, for example, the book about Charles. My reaction came from the other end of the telescope, and drew on my religious upbringing. For Christians, this idiot failed to realise, Jesus is God, and the Bible is nothing less than the revealed word of God. Or, to put it in lay terms, it’s his autobiography.

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Of course homeopathy is bunkam.
What I want to know though - if the water used to dilute somehow remembers whatever has been diluted out of it - what's to stop the water also remembering everything else it has come into contact with? All the people, animals, rivers, clouds and sewage pipes...
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