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.