Though in use for over 200 years, and still benefiting millions of people worldwide today, homeopathy is currently under continuous attacks for being “unscientific.” The reasons for this can be understood in terms of what might be called a “New Fundamentalism,” emanating particularly but not exclusively from within biomedicine, and supported in some sections of the media. Possible reasons for this are discussed. New Fundamentalism’s hallmarks include the denial of evidence for the efficacy of any therapeutic modality that cannot be consistently “proven” using double-blind, randomized controlled trials. It excludes explanations of homeopathy’s efficacy; ignores, excoriates, or considers current research data supporting those explanations incomprehensible, particularly from outside biomedicine: it is also not averse to using experimental bias, hearsay, and innuendo in order to discredit homeopathy. Thus, New Fundamentalism is itself unscientific. This may have consequences in the future for how practitioners, researchers, and patients of homeopathy/complementary and alternative medicine engage and negotiate with primary health care systems.
Acts of terrorism aside, in a pluralistic society intolerance can work far more insidiously on an intellectual level, by stifling and ultimately removing access to alternative forms of knowledge. For example, the evidence-based discourse that some think has “colonized” much of contemporary conventional medicine1 could be said to be based on a “naÃ¯ve inductivist” scientific paradigm2,3 (i.e., that purely objective observations can be made that lead to irrefutable facts: that generalizations can be induced from these facts; and that scientific laws and theories result from these inductions) that ideologically excludes alternative therapies (such as homeopathy), and their discourses. The discourse of evidence-based medicine (EBM) has recently been compared to a “fascist” structure for its active intolerance of pluralism in health care systems.1 As such, overzealous interpretation of the principles of EBM could be said to promote an attitude that demeans and attempts to disempower practitioners and patients of homeopathy/complementary and alternative medicines (CAMs), ultimately seeking to deprive millions of people of these therapeutic choices because they are considered “unscientific.” The uglier side of this attitude is displayed on internet websites virtually on a daily basis.
An examination of such skeptical Web sites reveals a high level of emotive subjectivity directed against CAMs, particularly homeopathy. Given the warnings these sites display, about not tolerating offensive language, it is remarkable that what can only described as abuse masquerading as debate is allowed onto a widely used communication medium: easier, perhaps, to ignore these Web sites, and go about one’s business. Unfortunately, that would be to bury one’s head in the sand, for it is now appearing in mainstream literature.
Take, for example, the respected and influential U.K. Sunday newspaper, The Observer. One of its columnists, Nick Cohen (ironically, a popular scourge of political correctness in what is essentially a left-wing newspaper) recently had this to say:3,4 “Yet dismissing homeopathy as quackery given by and for the feeble-minded is surprisingly hard. Anti-elitism dominates our society and many feel uncomfortable saying that the six million people who take alternative medicines are foolishâ€”to put the case against them at its kindest. They sincerely believe in phony remedies and sincerity trumps sense in modern culture.” And, “(homeopathy’s) effects can be positively deadly,” a sentiment repeated recently in The Lancet.5,6
All this ignores conventional medicine’s own highly questionable safety record, something that has recently come under scrutiny from the UK’s House of Commons Public Accounts Committee. Thus, it concluded that in 2006 alone and including fatalities, at least 2.68 million people were harmed by conventional medical intervention: that represents a staggering 4.5% of the U.K. population.7
Clearly, homeopathy is being deliberately misrepresented when it is referred to as “deadly,” but is now considered fair game; to be lambasted and lumped together with religion and creationism, etc.: a point of view that uncritically condones a procrustean version of scientific rationality. From whence does it spring?
THE NEW FUNDAMENTALISM
In the United Kingdom, attacks on homeopathy/CAM as non valid therapeutic procedures emanate mainly from individuals such as Edzard Ernst (oddly, the United Kingdom’s first professor of CAM at the University of Exeter), Oxford academic and author Richard Dawkins, pharmacologist David Colquhoun, and some emeritus medical professors and doctors (including oncologist Michael Baum, and gerontologist and philosopher Raymond Tallis) who recently wrote to the Times newspaper urging health authorities to stop supporting “unproven” therapies like homeopathy/ CAMs.8 As well as the recently formed organization, Sense About Science, they and those like them around the world, I call the “New Fundamentalists.” It is perhaps only fair to say at this point that not all scientists who value the essentially scientific principles behind EBM are “New Fundamentalists”; equally, not all those who defend homeopathy/CAMs do so within a spirit of scientific inquiry.
New Fundamentalists tend to represent themselves as the last bastions of reason, against a perceived tide of irrational belief in, among other things, “quack” medicines. Their certainty that all the evidence indicates homeopathy doesn’t work and, in fact, is positively deadly, leads them to ignore or condemn out of hand anything that contradicts their beliefs. And behind them, like some eminence gris, is the financial reach of the globalized pharmaceutical industry.
In the United Kingdom, the New Fundamentalists’ raison d’Ãªtre is to ensure the total exclusion from the National Health Service of all what they consider to be “quack” therapies, and to bring about the closure of the five state-funded homeopathic hospitals, regardless of the many who have and continue to benefit from them.8 Subsequently, there have indeed been reductions in NHS referrals to homeopathy, and the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital in the United Kingdom, is currently under threat of closure.
Though no more than a clash of paradigms, and in the history of science nothing new, what marks the present attacks on homeopathy/CAMs as different is that we now live in an age of easily accessible mass communication. And the New Fundamentalists are helped in propagating their “quack-busting” message by many in the media, some of whom share their beliefs.
SCIENCE, EDUCATION, AND DETERMINISM
Journalism was not always specialized. So any journalist interested in the subject or commissioned to do so, wrote about science. For, the fact is, a good investigative reporter can usually turn their hands to anything and write balanced, entertaining copy. But over the last couple of decades this situation has changed.
Increasingly, one finds ex-science graduates and post graduates, many with a biomedical sciences training, as journalists and writers.9 Either they became bored with the practice of science and sought something new, or they could not find long-term gainful employment in their chosen disciplines (I exclude here career scientists who write in order to popularize their subject).
Some universities now offer postgraduate conversion courses in science communication. In addition, scientists have realized their subjects are perhaps not as well understood as they would like by the general public who, through their taxes, pay for state-sponsored scientific research. This has led to a growing “industry” in the public understanding of science.
There is nothing wrong with that per se. Ideally in any democratic society, the public should be well informed and able to engage with the big scientific and ethical questions of the day (e.g., climate change and stem-cell research). Then through the democratic process they can have their input into political debate concerning the choices that need to be made.
Education has a vital role to play here, but in the last 20 years, there has been serious dumbing-down of school science curricula, and evidence that in the developed world, children are increasingly being turned off from science.10 This may be partly due to fears of real hands-on and engaging curiosity-driven experienceâ€”chemistry experiments in particular, can be dangerous, and parents litigiousâ€”and that perhaps in their early teens, children tend to be more interested in other things (including each other) than science.
There are also the effects on education of what some consider is a Post-Modernist anti-elitism,4-6 part of whose agenda has been to deconstruct the assumed supremacy of scientific “truth” over other forms of discourse.11-14 New Fundamentalists might argue this attitude is at least partly to blame for the current disenchantment with science in the developed world. Thus, instead of being humanity’s crowning achievement or indeed its “savior,” as science was perceived to be back in the 1950s, it could be argued that science has become a slave to the military-industrial complex, globalized (e.g., pharmaceutical) profit, and a corporate arrogance that, for example, regards genes as nothing more than sets of privatizable molecular “Lego®” bricks. Between boredom, raging hormones, and Post-Modernism, is it any wonder the kids are turned off from science?
So, there is a felt need for more and better science communication and qualified communicators. However, in a media age where sound-bites rule, science has to compete for time and space in a crowded and increasingly commercialized media marketplace. Inevitably, this leads to oversimplification of complex scientific issues. Thus, though perhaps a readily accessible and media-friendly version of science, the New Fundamentalists’ naÃ¯ve inductivism2,3 had its limitations pointed out in the 1950s by Karl Popper,15 not to mention being undermined by Post-Modernism11-14 and other philosophical movements.