Monday 1 June 2009

Bring back Paracelsus, all is forgiven

Blimey, I am so fed up with the positivists – those puritanical creatures who disapprove of anything that doesn’t fit their stringent ideas of academic proof. Evidence-based, of course, but only very narrow kinds of evidence actually count with them.

Now here is the poor old vice-chancellor of Westminster University being hammered in public for the temerity of running a course on homeopathy:

Now, I happen to be someone who has found homeopathy very helpful, and I’ve tried a lot of complementary therapies – some of them not very successfully, sometimes disastrously. But I’m not one of those people who is happy to be maintained in my chronic condition for the rest of my life by the NHS, at great expense to the taxpayer. So searching seems to me to be not just worthwhile, but a moral obligation.

Maybe that means I deserve to be berated by the positivists for dealing in ‘mumbo-jumbo’, but I don’t think so.

What is fascinating to me is that the leader of this bitter reproach this time is the editor-in-chief of the Catholic Herald. Go back five centuries or so and you found a very similar stand-off.

On one side, the doyens of ‘approved’ medicine, backed by the reactionary forces of the Church. On the other side, the new protestant upstarts, barefoot healers ministering to the poor, and taking their inspiration from people like Paracelsus: calling for a ‘chemical revolution’ using pills and medicines instead of bleeding and shifting the humours. No guesses whose side the Catholic Herald would have been on back then.


Skepticat said...

If 'only very narrow kinds of evidence actually count' with us puritanical creatures, what kind of evidence do you think we should be considering?

For running a course about a system of remedies that are based on nonsensical ideas that contravene the laws of physics, calling it a BSc and encouraging young people to invest thousands of pounds and 3 years of their lives in it, the University deserves to be hammered.

There is indeed an irony in a devout Catholic condemning anything as 'mumbo jumbo'. However, there is an important difference between now and five centuries ago: the 'approved' medicine of today is medicine that has been shown in clinical trials to have significant effects, which homeopathy hasn't and never will have.

How you spend your money is up to you. You are welcome to your homeopathy as long as you don't expect the taxpayers to fund it.

David Boyle said...

That would all be very neat and convincing, were it not for two things.

First, as most medical researchers will tell you – as they tell me – the evidence for most of the advice NICE gives doctors about effectiveness is extremely sketchy. The great divide between hard evidence and mumbo-jumbo you rely on just doesn’t exist. How can it when a good third of the effectiveness of most treatment is placebo, and nothing wrong with placebo if it works (or aren’t people allowed to get better that way in the narrow world of positivism?)

Second, 80 per cent of the time and resources of the NHS goes on chronic problems which it is, at present, very ineffective at dealing with. As a result, people are maintained at great expense with their chronic problems for the rest of their lives.

So your prescription, which sounds such a clarion call for evidence, is actually going to be vastly expensive. Something else has to happen – whether it is social innovation or new kinds of medicine. I only know what a relief some complementary therapy has been for me. The puritanical view may be that the state shouldn’t pay in those circumstances, but it would be better – and cheaper – for all of us if the state was a little more broad-minded and imaginative.