Yesterday, prize winning author, Jeanette Winterson, delivered a devastating blow to supporters of homeopathy by calling for ‘better regulation’ of the profession and for the Society of Homeopaths to ‘engage with its critics’. In vindication of this web site’s stance, and in recognition of recent futile and aggressive attacks by the Society, the writer slated the current leadership of the profession and said ‘there will always be rogue homeopaths and bad homeopaths’.
Jeanette Winterson is a well known supporter of the scientific worldview and a keen advocate for rationalism and enlightenment values, as testified by her weekly purchase of New Scientist magazine. In a feature in the Guardian, Winterson used her beautiful prose to clearly articulate the appalling state of scientific understanding within the homeopathic community and to show how homeopathy has become associated with AIDS denialism in South Africa.
Readers of Prospect Magazine have voted Jeanette Winterson as one of Britain’s ‘top intellectuals’, falling well below Richard Dawkins and Germaine Greer, and somewhat below Matt Ridley, recently resigned chairman of the troubled Northern Rock bank.
There have been a number of articles in the press recently criticising homeopathic remedies as worthless at best, and potentially lethal at worst, if they are being taken instead of tried-and-tested conventional medicines for conditions such as malaria or HIV.
Of particular concern is a claim by the British homeopath Peter Chapel [sic] and his Dutch colleague, Harry Van Der Zee, that Chapel [sic] has developed a remedy, PC1, that can be used to treat the HIV virus.
The prompt for the article was apparently the increasing criticism by journalists, the medical profession and bloggers of homeopaths’ beliefs and behaviours. Winterson says that,
it is hard to talk about what it is that homeopathy actually does,
and that a forthcoming Lancet edition will state that doctors should tell their patients that homeopathy ‘has no benefit’. Obviously talking about homeopaths’ understanding of science, she says that,
where is the […] sense in saying that because [homeopaths] don’t understand something, even though [homeopaths] can discern its effects, [homeopaths] have to ignore it, scorn it, or suppress it?
Of course, science has a full understanding of the perceived effects of homeopathy. Winterson is quite right to highlight the placebo effect. But more importantly, there is wishful thinking, false attribution, post hoc reasoning after natural disease progression and, occasionally, fraud. Such an explanation is much more reasonable and plausible than homeopaths wishful thinking over completely magical so-called ‘water memory’ effects. As Winterson quite rightly says, homeopaths “do not know whether [memory effects] have a bearing on homeopathic dilutions’. Just because they use words like nano, does not mean they are talking science.
Alarmingly, Winterson tells us that “homeopathy is no snake oil designed for gullible hypochondriacs”. Indeed true. Homeopaths are offering their snake oil to the most vulnerable and desperate people in the world. The tens of millions of people infected with HIV in Southern Africa can hardly be described as ‘gullible hypochondriacs’. Winterson has been a long standing supporter of South African charity TAC – the Treatment Action Campaign – that seeks to counter the ‘lunatic’ insistence by senior politicians in the region that AIDS is not caused by HIV and cannot be managed by ARVs.
Winterson notes that homeopaths too have utterly misguided views of AIDS by saying that they believe that it is “not enough to say Disease A is caused by B and can be cured by C”. She notes that “tests used for conventional medicines fail when used to test homeopathy” and that “I am sure that there is a placebo effect in homeopathy”, but adds that the placebo effect “is common to all therapeutic processes, and it is valuable”.
As the Treatment Action Campaign says,
We recommend that you DO NOT put your trust in one of the numerous people and organisations offering cures and treatments for HIV/AIDS. Many people with HIV are taken advantage of by unscrupulous charlatans or well-intentioned but uninformed people. Learn the science and trust the science. HIV is a manageable chronic disease if you follow sound medical advice. It is deadly if you do not.
Echoing this warning, Winterson says that “people can shrivel and die in the wrong hands”. This stark message is brought to life by the deluded statements made by homeopaths at a typical homeopathic AIDS clinic, such as the Maun Project in Botswana. In a Society of Homeopaths newsletter, a volunteer homeopath wrote:
The patients in Botswana have no knowledge about homeopathy, and are very rarely interested in learning more. All they need to know is that the homeopaths have helped a neighbour or a relative and, personal recommendation being the way of life in Africa, they come full of confidence that they’ll be healed.
For the people visiting the clinic, we are “doctors”. A bit weird for doctors – no white coats, no nurses, the clinic is sometimes a bit of shade and a couple of plastic chairs, and the pills are small and few – but they seem to trust us more than the doctors in the hospital, who never seem to have time to listen.
The writer of these chilling words is not the only fruit-cake that has worked out there. Reflecting my horror at these sort of statements, Winterson says that there is “obviously a genuine terror of what homeopathy is suggesting; which is that [homeopaths] think differently about the relationship between the cure and the disease”. One of the big health care issues in the region is that people are used to magical thinking about illness and so many Botswanan people may believe that the homeopaths offer a genuine alternative to real treatment. Many homeopaths are convinced that homeopathy holds a magical and real secret to understanding human well-being and that medical doctors are corrupted by greed and power. Their ‘gentle art’ and lies are very dangerous in this context. Winterson is clear – “There is no suggestion that homeopathy can replace ARVs”
Bizarrely, Jeanette Winterson has donated her fee for the Guardian article to the above mentioned Maun clinic (which offers the patient ‘a smoother transition into the other world’) rather than the South African Treatment Action Campaign that she claims to support. Interestingly, the Maun Homeopathy Clinic was co-founded by Philippa Brewster, the publisher who ‘discovered’ the young Jeanette Winterson and gave her the big break by publishing her first novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. This fact is strangely absent from the article. Maybe she is shy.
Supporters of homeopathy are clinging to a few parts of the article that appear to offer some confirmation of their homeopathic beliefs. For example, Winterson says that once upon a time she had a headache that cleared up, hours after taking a magic sugar pill, whilst staying in an enchanted cottage somewhere in La La land. Or Cornwall. To supporters of homeopathy, the ‘dramatic stuff’ of fairy tales and magic realism are indisputable proof of the genuine efficacy of Cornish Piskey Pills. Winterson often takes the ordinary and mundane in her writings, such as a simple sugar pill and a headache, and turns it into a fantastical ‘non-linear’ transformative metaphor that can contain real power over us through language, or something.
However, as all critics and fans of Jeanette Winterson will know, you should be aware of the irrelevance and unknowability of authorial intentionality.
Jeanette Winterson is telling stories. Trust me.
Follow up here on Justice Edwin Cameron
If you are a UK citizen and believe that NHS funding of homeopathy gives credibility to lay homeopaths and endorses their dangerous and deluded beliefs, then you might want to put your name to this petition.