Monday, March 01, 2010

faith in medicine

Last week the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee published its report on homeopathy.

Its findings were unequivocal, saying 'as they are not medicines' the NHS should stop funding their prescription, and they should not be allowed to have labels claiming medicinal properties. The report is clear in its belief that homeopathy does not work beyond placebo effect.

Supporters of homeopathy counter with the fact that it can't be a placebo as it works for a lot of people. This misunderstands what's meant by placebo.

It's often interpreted as meaning 'you are a gullible idiot' or 'you were making your symptoms up'. The fact is that placebo does produce real, measurable positive results for people with real medical conditions.

The interplay between our individual personal mindset and our physical health is as extensive as it is uncharted and mysterious. All of us have had our demeanour alter our susceptibility to illness. We don't need to know how something works in order to know that it does work.

But that's the thing with homeopathy; whether it works. When you get to the high-quality trials - randomised double-blinds - it is shown over and over to be no better than placebo.

Indeed, this was admitted by Paul Bennett, the Professional Standards Director and Superintendent Pharmacist at Boots the Chemist, in his evidence to the Science and Technology Committee. But he said he sells them anyway because

It is about consumer choice for us. A large number of our consumers actually do believe they are efficacious

A large number of people believe using cola as a vaginal douche prevents pregnancy. If I labelled cola tins as contraceptives and sold them for a tenner each, would Boots stock them?

A far larger number of people - many more than believe in homeopathy, and for centuries longer than homeopathy's been established - get real results from praying to the Virgin Mary. Should Boots be stocking statuettes of the blessed virgin with labels saying 'cures cancer'?

During my adolescent dalliance with Christianity, a man at the church explained the power of prayer. He told of how there had been a sick baby in hospital, but the parents had organised for people across the whole county to pray at the same time. It worked instantly, the doctor says the time of prayer was the moment when the infant's condition started improving.

Leaving aside the unlikelihood of a doctor pinpointing a single instant in which someone started getting better, I love the concept of god the story invokes. God hadn't noticed the sick child already. Or maybe he had, but it didn't strike him as unfair until it was pointed out to him.

Even then, a single prayer wouldn't have done it, it took a synchronised mass effort. Perhaps there are so many individuals praying that there's a sort of indistinct hubub. It's like being in a room with fifty people talking, you can't make out anything, but if ten of them suddenly say your name in unison you hear clearly. 'Oi! God! Over here!'

There are so many contradictions of the idea of an all-knowing benevolent god in there, it makes you rather admire homeopaths for their comparative logical consistency.

Having that memory bubble up in my brain sent me off to dig out an extract from George Orwell's wartime diary. You can never read too much of Orwell's chunky four-volume Collected Essays Letters and Journalism.

Anyway, in March 1941 he was a member of the Home Guard, and says it was 'more or less compulsory' to take part in their church parade and national day of prayer.

Apparently God is expected to help us on the ground that we are better than the Germans. In the set prayer composed for the occasion God is asked to "turn the hearts of our enemies, and to help us to forgive them; to give them repentance for their misdoings, and a readiness to make amends." Nothing about our enemies forgiving us.

It seems to me that the Christian attitude would be that we are no better than our enemies, we are all miserable sinners, but that it so happens that it would be better if our cause prevailed and therefore that it is legitimate to pray for this...

I suppose the idea is that it would be bad for morale to let people realise that the enemy has a case, though even that is a psychological error, in my opinion.

But perhaps they aren't thinking primarily about the effect on people taking part in the service but are simply looking for direct results from their nation­wide praying campaign, a sort of box barrage fired at the angels.


Anonymous said...

Weather or not Boots sells something or not is hardly the point. Do their anti wrinkle creams really work? is there really compelling evidence that their cold and flu remedies help you get better any quicker, does pantene pro-v really make your hair healthier, is their 'healthy eating' sandwich really healthy?....the fact that Boots are selling some crap that is falsely marketed is not really news, they'd have to empty their shelves if they needed to prove the claims made by all their products!

merrick said...

I take your point, but i think we have to differentiate betwenn what's sold on the sandwich shelves and what's dispensed as medicine from the country's largest pharmacy.

I'd have to check, but from memory the cold remedies tend to claim to help with cold symptoms. Paying a few quid for sachets of soluble paracetamol is a ripoff, but it will tend to work on headache and achey pains.

And absolutely, we should lok at what all the other medicines do. If there's no evidence that a medicine works on the ailments mentioned on the packaging, it shouldn't be sold.

hakan altan said...

thank you