History of Homeopathy
Homeopathy has a fascinating and tumultuous 200-year-old history, from its beginnings in late-eighteenth-century Germany to its current Renaissance that is spanning the globe.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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’:
- What are the main skeptical arguments against homeopathy?
- What are the proper responses to these arguments?
- What scientific research is there in support of homeopathy?
- What other data are admissible as evidence for homeopathy?
- What conclusions should be drawn (by homeopaths, patients, scientists, and regulatory bodies) from these research findings?
- Can homeopathy be explained within the context of the current scientific paradigm?
- 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.
In the recent article on skepticism about homeopathy we saw how we cannot ignore skeptical media reports because of their powerful influence on the acceptance of homeopathy in society. Well, if we cannot ignore them then let’s debate them!
In today’s article I present a video of a recent debate between physician and homeopath Peter Fisher, clinical director of the Royal London Homoeopathic Hospital (the same one who appears in Dawkins’ The Enemies of Reason) and Ben Goldacre, a physician and skeptical columnist for England’s Guardian newspaper.
The importance of debates such as this is that they influence not only the public but also regulatory bodies that rely on self-appointed experts on both sides of the debate in crafting their policies. In some cases their regulatory decisions exert a significant influence on the state of homeopathy locally and internationally.
Availability of publicly funded homeopathic treatment in the UK
Should homeopathy be available under publicly funded medical programs such as Britain’s NHS (National Health Service)?
Recently there has been a movement afoot to eliminate all UK government spending on homeopathy, after many decades of limited but significant support.
Thanks to the Royal family’s use of homeopathy over the past few generations, there happen to be four government-funded homeopathic hospitals in the UK, where patients can access a combination of conventional and homeopathic treatment along with other alternative services. These hospitals are now under risk of closure due to discontinuation of their government funding. (Incidentally, if you ever experienced the benefits of homeopathy you may sign the “Homeopathy Worked for Me” online petition which has been organized in response to this troublesome state of affairs — both UK and international residents may sign.)
By learning about this particular debate we can better understand the dynamics between supporters and opponents of homeopathy, and the social consequences of their interaction, wherever in the world these debates might take place.
The video’s total length is 1h33m, of which the following sections are relevant to us:
- 6m-26m: Peter Fisher (pro-homeopathy) retells some cases of ‘bad science’ that argue that homeopathy has no effect followed by ‘good science’ that shows that homeopathy has an effect.
- 30m-50m: Ben Goldacre (anti-homeopathy) presents the basic principles of skepticism, engages in “armchair skepticism” by declining directly to challenge any of Fisher’s positive evidence.
- 1h1m-1h30m: Audience debate, in which several interesting comments in favor of homeopathy are made (the audience in this case is made up mostly of supporters of homeopathy).
Relevance to other countries
Legislative trends in certain countries often have worldwide implications. If homeopathy were to take a step backward in the UK then it might have less of a chance of being supported elsewhere in the near future, regardless of positive clinical outcomes and patient satisfaction.
Even detractors of homeopathy will admit that the homeopathic hospitals offer a valuable service to the community by striving to maximize patient choice through a broad selection of conventional and complementary treatments: external referrals from ordinary physicians are their main source of patients, and surveys show high patient satisfaction and positive clinical outcomes.
But despite this they consider any expenditure on homeopathy unjustified given, as they claim, its scientific implausibility and lack of demonstrated efficacy in randomized, placebo-controlled trials. In other words, they see any expenditure on unproven therapies as unjustified in principle.
So we see that the fact that there is demand for homeopathy and that homeopathic treatment likely saves health-care resources (by diverting patients away from more costly conventional care) is not enough for ensuring its ongoing, unhindered development. The debate on the status of homeopathy is thus a debate on the extent to which mainstream scientific opinion should determine which treatment choices we pursue.
It is difficult for skeptics to forbid everyone from pursuing homeopathic and other alternative treatments. But it is possible for them to make it more difficult and costly than it could otherwise be, and thereby to prevent from many people from experiencing the benefits of alternative medicine.
You may explore the current UK situation in greater detail by following the links below. For a more general view of a typical debate on the scientific status of homeopathy see the lengthy discussion between myself and several defenders of Ben Goldacre’s position as mentioned below.
- Open letter calling for a boycott on homeopathy (see also the comments that follow it), written by a group of UK physicians and academics headed by Edzard Ernst (a physician who investigates alternative medicine), demanding that NHS support for homeopathy be stopped.
- Peter Fisher’s reply to the above letter.
- A recent editorial titled Benefits and Risks of Homoeopathy published in The Lancet (a British medical journal of worldwide influence) by Ben Goldacre, followed by a discussion between myself and Ben and several of his supporters on his site Bad Science. This discussion offers a lively illustration of how such debates are typically not resolved, because each side views the raw evidence through the lens of pre-existing assumptions.
- A more recent article about funding cuts for homeopathic services that are already taking place in the UK.
Again, please sign the online petition in support of government-funded homeopathy if you have experienced its benefits and wish to voice your support of it in the UK and beyond.
Have your say below: Should homeopathic treatment generally be funded by the taxpayer or financed privately?