Skepticism About Homeopathy: Can’t We Just Ignore the Skeptics?

Homeopathy is the bad boy of healing systems. Over 200 years after its inception it continues to generate controversy, and being skeptical about homeopathy is far more popular than simply accepting it as is.

It is not surprising, therefore, that possibly the most popular article on this blog has been Is Homeopathic Medicine the “Enemy of Reason”?, where I offered an example of the media’s sensationalization of the alleged scientific implausibility and irrationality of homeopathy.

Why be skeptical about homeopathy in a homeopathic blog?

There are four main reasons for being interested in the skeptical perspective on homeopathy:

  1. Perhaps the skeptics will turn out to be correct: homeopathy is all a big lie, and I shouldn’t be wasting my life and your time.
  2. More soberly, engaging with the skeptical arguments against homeopathy helps one in developing a balanced, well-reasoned perspective on the subject: while skeptics are not likely to sway me and those of you who have experienced homeopathy’s benefits away from it, I think it is important for each of us to avoid accepting homeopathy uncritically, either.
  3. Not least because I am convinced that homeopathy is real, I believe that entering this debate encourages a deeper assessment of the adequacy of the current scientific paradigm or world-view in explaining (i.e., incorporating rather than rejecting as unreal) the many known yet unexplained phenomena of which we have knowledge. This will, in turn, lead to a more inclusive future paradigm that has yet to be articulated fully.
  4. Homeopathy is under a constant battle for public opinion. In this battle homeopaths are outnumbered by the mainstream scientific and medical communities and their media outlets, which allocate significant resources toward defending the official world-view to which they pledge allegiance. Gains and losses in this battle roughly translate into gains and losses in the success of homeopathy in reaching a wide population and thereby fulfilling its potential for bettering humanity.

Of these the last one is of most concern to the homeopathic community: Because of the influence of media on public opinion and on regulatory bodies, homeopaths must engage with their skeptical critics rather than hope to survive in isolation from such worldly troubles.

Trial by media

Most of the public debate on homeopathy is stimulated by media reports that favor a skeptical view of homeopathy, most often based on complete ignorance of the subject matter. As a result of such negative media coverage, many people who know nothing of homeopathy (and very little of the foundations of modern science) hold a critical view of it.

The people who inform the media range from clueless journalists to professional skeptics who are rarely clueless but often disingenuous in their skepticism. The list of such skeptics includes academics such as Michael Shermer, Richard Wiseman and Richard Dawkins, magicians such as James Randi, and physicians such as Stephen Barrett and Ben Goldacre.

Some of these skeptics are high-level or world-class scientists in their domain (Richard Dawkins is a leading evolutionary biologist). Others are media figures who achieved fame prior to becoming professional skeptics (James Randi won fame during his early career as a professional magician appearing on television), and others yet have garnered attention thanks to their journalistic rather than their primary professional pursuit (Ben Goldacre is a physician who writes a weekly skeptical column for England’s Guardian newspaper).

While in some cases skeptics are professionally suited to their task (e.g., James Randi regularly applies his magician skills to the debunking of fraudulent claims by reproducing the phenomenon under investigation) all skeptics are limited in their ability to evaluate phenomena in which they are not themselves expert.

To bypass this limitation, for example in the case of a non-homeopath skeptic investigating homeopathy, skeptics apply standard criteria of evidence to questionable phenomena, whereby they determine whether a phenomenon is real by whether or not it passes a test that they devise based on their understanding of what constitutes evidence for or against the phenomenon in question. Consequently they engage in “armchair skepticism” rather than sincerely encountering the field or belief they are criticizing.

At best, armchair skepticism is a shortcut to the truth: it allows the skeptic to sift through most bogus claims and distill most true claims without needing to spend an inordinate amount of time on each. But frequently armchair skepticism is inadequate, because its superficial approach cannot penetrate into phenomena that cannot easily be distilled into black and white.

And as should well know by now, I regard homeopathy as a phenomenon, field of medicine, and set of beliefs that is anything but black-and-white!

Skeptics exert a powerful influence on regulatory bodies

Debates on homeopathy usually take place in remove from clinical reality, often between scientists and physicians who have little or no inside knowledge of the practice of homeopathy (whether they are in favor or against it).

Yet it is such debates that influence government policies worldwide as well the general public which these governments serve, and therefore determine to what extent homeopathy is simply allowed to be, encouraged to flourish, or actively suppressed.

At present, the homeopathic profession is functioning and often thriving in many places worldwide, outside of official legislative frameworks such as governmental regulation. Indeed, its rate of growth is among the highest of all forms of natural medicine.

But homeopathy could be in a much better state if it were to be the recipient of outside financial resources rather than self-supported. Furthermore, certain legislative moves could hamper its present level of activity, even crippling the profession as it was crippled following the 1910 publication of the Flexner Report which led to the standardization of medical education in the US, to the benefit of modern medicine and detriment of naturopathy and homeopathy (both of which had been highly evolved, growing professions until then).

What are the main issues in the homeopathy debate?

In upcoming articles on this topic I will be answering the following questions which represent the main issues in the ongoing ‘homeopathy debate’:

  1. What are the main skeptical arguments against homeopathy?
  2. What are the proper responses to these arguments?
  3. What scientific research is there in support of homeopathy?
  4. What other data are admissible as evidence for homeopathy?
  5. What conclusions should be drawn (by homeopaths, patients, scientists, and regulatory bodies) from these research findings?
  6. Can homeopathy be explained within the context of the current scientific paradigm?
  7. If not, what world-view could incorporate modern science and medicine, homeopathy, and other unexplained phenomena without mutual conflict?

I believe that this debate has been ongoing for the entire duration of the existence of homeopathy because it brings up fundamental questions about the nature of reality that have remained unanswered by modern science. Besides the remarkable clinical results of homeopathic treatment, it is for this reason that I find homeopathy fascinating: it is a portal to a deeper reality that we are only now beginning to understand.

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