Saturday May 27, 2006
â€œI hope you get cancer and then look in the mirror.” That’s a pretty representative sample from the Bad Science mailbag last week, so I shanâ€™t be writing about mobile phone masts again until you all calm down. But itâ€™s in the backlash that you can find the truth. This week, some fabulous elderly scientists came out loudly against homeopathy on the NHS. A maelstrom ensued, and critics focused mainly on the failures of modern medicine: the side effects, and the disappointments, as if these problems could somehow be subtracted from medicine and given to alternative therapies as a benefit. In that backlash, you can see a whole century of medical history.
Before 1935 we were basically useless. Then suddenly, between about 1935 and 1975, science poured out a constant stream of miracle cures. Everything we associate with modern medicine happened in that time: antibiotics which could save you at 21 and let you die at 70; dialysis; transplants; intensive care units; CT scanners; heart surgery; almost every drug youâ€™ve ever heard of, and more. As well as the miracle cures, we really were finding those hidden killers that the media still desperately pine for in their headlines. Smoking, in the 1950s, to everybodyâ€™s genuine surprise, turned out to cause 97% of lung cancers.
Then, rather suddenly, for the most part, the breakthroughs stopped, and the subtle refinements began. We can shave percentages off here and there, but itâ€™s marginal. Maybe things will pick up again with the human genome project â€“ who knows â€“ but medical stories certainly lack pace these days.
And so you get dogged headlines like â€œIs This The Cure For ME?â€ in the Daily Mail, last week. This was apparently based on a conference presentation, not a published paper, reporting just 12 people treated for chronic fatigue syndrome with an antiviral drug, apparently without a control group, although you canâ€™t read it, of course, or critique and assess the methodology, because itâ€™s not published. It feels pretty wet alongside, say, the invention of the coronary bypass: but the media havenâ€™t found a way to cope with the change of pace. They still want the miracle cures and the hidden threats. They try to convince you that one glass of wine a day can prevent a heart attack.
But we want perfect health, which is where homeopathy comes in. The World Health Organisation define health as â€œa state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmityâ€. Now that is a tall order, and the desire to make it a biomedical issue, and pretend that science and medicine can serve up your immaculate physical, mental and social well-being, will create nothing but disenchantment.
We will have back ache. We will get colds. We will get tired, sometimes cripplingly, without explanation. We will be shy, and sad. And that is where homeopathy is valuable: often, medicine can do little for these problems, which have become the focus of our health worries; and where medicine can do nothing, it should step aside. We may be tempted to offer drugs, as placebos at least, but drugs have side effects, and sometimes theyâ€™re not worth it.
During the Cholera outbreak of 1854 surrounding the Broad Street Pump, where John Snow famously removed the pump handle and stopped everyone drinking poo water, the London Homeopathic Hospital had a death rate of 13%, rather better than the Middlesex Hospitalâ€™s death rate of 53%. Neither medicine nor homeopathy could really do anything to treat cholera then, just like neither can really give you perfect health now; but medicineâ€™s attempts â€“ with bloodletting, for example â€“ had dangerous side effects, and itâ€™s the same bargain today.
To stop your transplant being rejected, you want big pharma. But if youâ€™re treating the untreatable, if the NHS is there to serve up WHOâ€™s modern definition of immaculate well-being in a pill, then thatâ€™s like trying to cure cholera in 1854: at least with homeopathy, the side effects only effect our intellect. Bring on the placebos.