This morning I took part in a debate on the Phil Gayle show on BBC Radio Oxford as part of Homeopathic Awareness Week.
You can listen to the debate here:
I am always in two minds whether to take part in these things. It is easy for a homeopath to ambush with a bizarre study that makes them look like they have evidence. Or for the phone-in to be inundated with well meaning, but misinformed, anecdotes about how “lucky pebbles cured my next door neighbour’s dog”.
But more importantly, the debates rarely get past the ‘It works’, ‘No t doesn’t’ sort of ding-dong. It’s all so rather depressing that the real interesting ideas never get discussed.
It also does not help when the presenter chimes in with their own bad knee anecdote (in which they knew arnica worked – because it just did) or proudly declares that leaches are now back ‘in vogue’ with the medical profession.
It is not as if such a radio programme cannot tackle serious scientific issues. On the same programme there were discussions of the problems diabetics face with undiagnosed eye problems that can cause blindness. There was a running section on the eclipse of the Moon tonight and an interview with Oxford scientists about how the latest discoveries about anti-neutrinos might lead to clues how the the matter-antimatter asymmetry in the early universe formed. And this is on a mainstream local breakfast and commute show – not some specialist digital channel that no-one listens to.)
There is clearly an audience of people here who are perfectly capable of getting past the fact that homeopathy is an illusion and getting onto more substantive issues of why people believe such things, what harms it causes in society and the ethical issues of how doctors can still get away with setting up private practices that exploit these delusions.
The doctor I debated has a string of private clinics in the South of England that offers an “Integrated Medicine” approach at the Natural Practice. “Integrated” and “natural” things are always good, aren’t they? But what is actually offered is a string of superstitious, pseudoscientific, discredited and absurd tests and treatments for people who are willing, or desperate, to pay for them.
The Natural Practice offers not just homeopathy, but acupuncture, hypnotism, cranial osteopathy, reflexology, and nutritional therapy. Some of the practitioners are doctors. Some are not. One called Dr Ruolib Sun offers acupuncture and herbs but does not appear on the GMC register.
Dr George Lewith used to work in this practice until his retirement a few months ago. It is worth reading David Colquhoun’s opinions on what a consultation with Lewith was like after a student wrote to David regarding her disturbing experiences there. Lewith was using a Vega machine to test for ‘food intolerances’. This is despite Lewith himself having written papers showing that Vega machines do not work.
It is not just that Vega machines cannot diagnose allergies and intolerance, but that such devices are indistinguishable from fraud. Practitioners and patients may well believe they work, but the end result is a con. They spit out spurious results, convince the patient, or mark, that they have a string of allergies and intolerances and then allow the practitioner to sell a set of homeopathic remedies, strange diets and other treatments. Patients are left convinced they have a serious illness (that does not exist) and may well make drastic life changes because of this.
My debating partner on the radio, Dr David Owen has been the President of the Faculty of Homeopathy – that is probably the most senior homeopathic post in the UK. Dr Owen, as well as homeopathy, has a keen interest in “Environmental Medicine” which combines vitamin pills with homeopathic sugar pills to treat allergies and sensitivities.
Much more interesting than debates about sugar pills would be to look at the ethics of private medical practitioners offering tests and therapies for conditions using techniques that may be very misleading. But to get to that level of public debate on such a forum would require producers and presenters to get beyond the ‘it works for me’ mentality and start to explore how alternative medicine is a health illusion that may well be harming significant numbers of people.