Who would have thought that James Delingpole and the Prince of Wales might actually agree on something?
No, relax, it’s not the environment or organic food or the exorbitant price of Duchy of Cornwall posh biscuits. But it is something rather shocking. M’colleague is, it seems, a fan of homeopathy – or “magic water” as we Big Pharma shills like to think of it.
Now, for a self-described “sceptic”, that might seem a slightly odd position to take. After all, the evidence – which, one supposes, sceptics are supposed to study and evaluate before making an always-revisable-in-the-light-of-new-facts judgment – suggests that it doesn’t work. At all.
Even better, what you might call the meta-evidence suggests that the better quality the study done into homeopathy, the more likely it is to show that homeopathy is bunk. So a small-scale, non-blinded trial might well suggest that homeopathy has some effect, while large-scale RCTs and good meta-analyses very consistently show that it simply doesn’t work.
And, of course, that’s before you get into the really funny stuff, which I’ve gone on about before but never ceases to amuse me – like the fact that a fairly ordinary homeopathic dilution, 13C (diluted to one part in 100, 13 times), is the equivalent of one-third of a drop of water in all the oceans in the world; or that the duck-liver solution Oscillococcinum, diluted to 200C, is the equivalent of one molecule of the original duck in more than a centillion observable universes (10 followed by 303 zeroes). That wouldn’t matter, of course, if it worked – if it worked, we would have to acknowledge that there is something else going on, some physical effect unknown to science, some memory of water or mystical force or something, and we would have to look for it. But it doesn’t work. So we don’t. It’s really very straightforward.
James begs to differ, as of course he is entitled to do. But, I have to say, for such a clever and well-read man (which he is, even if I disagree with 99 per cent of everything he has ever said), he does so in a disappointingly by-the-numbers fashion. Let us examine.
There are certain inevitable arguments one can expect from homeopathic apologists. One, for example, says “A friend of mine who is very serious and important tried it and it made him/her better even though real doctors couldn’t”. Another goes “science doesn’t know everything, you know. People used to think the world was flat (or whatever). I’m just keeping an open mind.” The third goes “Modern science is really just a religion.” And the fourth, the most pernicious in my mind, says “sure, maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t. But what’s the harm in trying? It’s cheap and has no side effects.”
All of these are present and correct in James’s defence of the non-pills. Point one is represented here: “Just recently, for example, [the homeopath in question] cured a woman (a successful author) of a mysterious respiratory illness acquired on holiday in Greece. The woman’s GP was flummoxed, as were the various specialists she consulted.”
I am pleased for this woman, honestly. But no amount of “I got better!” stories count in the face of carefully gathered evidence, I’m afraid.
Point two comes in the following form: “Up until the 1880s, the experts would have laughed in your face if you’d suggested that malaria was caused by anything other than the foul air that emanated from swamps; up until the 1970s, you’d have been ridiculed for positing that stomach ulcers were caused by a bacterium; up until 1934, nobody even suspected that the major part of the universe comprised something called ‘dark matter’. Does that mean that everyone was totally thick in the old days and that we have all the answers now?”
Of course not. But nor does it mean that everything we think we know is equally likely to be wrong. It’s not as if homeopathy hasn’t been studied, as though there is a great big question mark hanging over its effectiveness. It doesn’t work. So it doesn’t pose any great questions about How It Works. It doesn’t work. Nor does yogic levitation, so I don’t feel any urge to “explain” that.
Point three rears its head thus: “I do wonder whether in their pursuit of post-Enlightenment heresies (from Christianity to homeopathy to climate change ‘denial’), [homeopathy sceptics] are not exhibiting just the kind of self-righteous fervour which in earlier times would have made them ideal witchfinders general or Spanish inquisitors.”
I’m sure some people do get overly aggressive about some of these things (alas, we don’t all have James’s saintly good manners when it comes to dealing with those with whom we disagree). But the point of scepticism – true scepticism – is that it is constantly evaluating. So, I promise you, if Ben Goldacre, or James Randi, or I (to put myself in some serious company), were to be presented with solid evidence that homeopathy worked, we would alter our position. I don’t even know what “evidence” you could present a Spanish inquisitor to convince them that Jewish children shouldn’t be forcibly converted, or what evidence you could give a witchfinder to show that witches don’t actually exist. The comparison is a nonsense one.
And finally, the “open mind, what’s the harm?” thing:
“Perhaps, when we get round to discovering the hidden truth about absolutely everything, it will emerge that homeopathy is a load of old crock. Or perhaps, we’ll be totally amazed to find that despite being so dilute as to contain not a single molecule of the original substance homeopathic remedies yet really do retain a ‘memory’ with incredible curative powers. Until that day, what harm is there in keeping an open mind?”
This is where it all gets rather tragic, I’m afraid, James. Not funny, at all. As much as I’d like to say, in flippant response, “If you open your mind too much, your brain will fall out”, there are real people really killed by their reliance on homeopathy – not homeopathy itself, which is water, but by using it in place of actual medicine. Gloria Thomas, an Australian baby, died in agony after her homeopath father tried to treat her chronic eczema with homeopathy. Isabella Denley, another Australian, aged 13 months, died of epilepsy after being treated with homeopathy instead of anticonvulsants. Sylvie Couseau, a 41-year-old Parisian, died of Aids after taking homeopathy and other quack remedies instead of antiretrovirals for her HIV. Lucille Craven, a 54-year-old from New Hampshire, died after trying to treat her breast cancer with homeopathy. High street stores offer homeopathic vaccines for malaria – Janeza Podgoršek, a Slovenian 42-year-old, died of the disease after using them for a trip to Africa. There are hundreds more stories like this.
Of course, nobody forced these people to take it, as James rightly says (except in the case of the children, whose parents did, and that is appalling – thanks Ben Gladstone in the comments for pointing that obvious mistake out). He, no doubt, is sensible enough to take it for his hayfever while realising that for cancer, real medicine is more useful. But by legitimising it, he makes it more likely that other people will use it. And – as we’ve seen – not everyone makes the distinction between the trifling unwellnesses for which homeopathy is harmless, and the real diseases that need proper medicine.
Would it be cheap of me to wonder whether this calls into question James’s approach to evidence in other areas? I have no doubt that he is as scientifically rigorous as the next man (as long as the next man’s Christopher Booker) when it comes to climate change. But I fear his willingness to believe in comforting-yet-demonstrably-untrue nonsense might not be limited to homeopathy’s magic beans.