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Skeptical of the Skeptics: Unreason in the name of Reason

Recently, I happened to hear Timothy Caulfield, the author of an essay on  medical institutes attempting to incorporate complementary health care methods, discussing his ideas on a Canadian broadcast morning show.   The thesis of his essay was that there is medical science, and then there are the many pretenders to the healing arts that have no evidential support.

b2ap3 thumbnail skepticalCaulfield's key assertion, is that for universities and medical clinics to associate themselves with purveyors of “nonsense”, such as naturopaths, acupuncturists, homeopaths, etc,. is to debase "scientific" medicine.   Study them if you must, (in fact, there are those that insist that funding research work on subjects such as homeopathy should completely come to an end) but certainly don’t lower medicine by integrating alternative medicine practitioners or courses into clinics or institutions of higher learning.  He believes it is wrong to give medical alternatives the least bit of legitimacy that may come from associating them with conventional medicine.

While it is naturally important to build social and political policy as well as health care practices on the basis of evidence, there are elements to Caulifeld's opinion that seem exceptionally ill-informed, if not peculiarly naive.  

There are many institutions of medical information, research and recommendations to the medical profession, professional journals, etc., that are bought and paid for by corporate interests. There are social health-care policies and practices that are largely driven by profit-based motives. Furthermore, there are a number of excellent books and articles and even review organizations such as the Cochrane Reviews demonstrating that modern pharmaceutical research is frequently unreliable.  

 So first question: What is this reliablity of the evidence on which medical practice and social health care policy is based in an age when a vast interlock of corporate interests absolutely rules the roost - researchers, regulators, dissemenators, journals and public media?

Secondly, the evidence-base for a very wide range of natural products, herbs, nutrients, and, yes, homeopathy, is very extensive. To speak of practitioners as if they are simply snake-oil salesman to be shunned, is arrogant, ignorant and childish.  I have worked in this sphere for my entire adult life and it is heavily populated by extremely intelligent, often brilliant individuals, whose experience and insights are exceptionally valuable.  However, this would require authorities that are actually interested in reality as distinguished from fantasies of one true medical system.

The term that is generally used to distinguish modern medicine from all others is “Evidence-based medicine”.  "Evidence-based" is a powerful, influentual term, that in reality is nothing more than a buzz-phrase, meant specifically to draw a line that doesn't exist. Evidence-based health care is not owned by modern medicine, whose patrons have in any case essentially corrupted the whole notion of evidence.  “Evidence-based" medicines have killed or harmed hundreds of thousands, if not millions.  As it turns out, where there are ideological or profit-based motives, evidence often has a knack for bending to a purpose.

Mr. Caulfield emphasizes the necessity to study why patient’s are dissatisfied with regular medicine and driven into the arms of what he evidently regards as quackery.   Millions are drawn to natural therapies because their experience reveals deep and systemic problems in the philosophy and practice of modern medicine.

Caulfield writes: “Still, research on alternative approaches seems warranted, if only because of their profound popularity.”  This is patronizing and fact-averse.  A vast amount of research has already been done and is being done on a global scale.  Research into medicinal plants, their biochemical components, as well as their influence on human health, from the cell to the tissue to the organ to emotion and cognition.  There is also a massive amount of research on human diet and nutrition, individual nutrients and nutrient supplementation. 

Caulfield writes of homeopathy: “homeopathy (the ridiculous and physically impossible idea that water holds the memory of nonexistent and healing molecules).”  As a naturopathic physician specializing in homeopathy, this feckless comment and dismissive judgement makes it plainly evident that Mr. Caulfield has no knowledge of homeopathy or the homeopathic experience spanning much of the globe over two centuries.  He is also unlikely aware of the growing amount of research in the biophysical effects of ultra-molecular dilutions that are part of the controversy surrounding homeopathy.  Rather than conclusions derived by careful and open-minded research, these are quite evidently parroted thoughts borrowed from others with compatible certainty, a certainty foreign to the spirit of science.  

The idea of ‘the memory of water’ never existed in the world of homeopathy before the intensive late eighties controversy over the findings of the late French research scientist Jacques Benveniste, who formed the hypothesis.   Homeopathy has been practiced by medical doctors and professional homeopaths, as well as professionals in every field of medicine world-wide.  It has amassed an enormous body of literature, many active journals, regular case conferences, professional organizations, sophisticated empirical research, etc. 

It is truly remarkable that anyone who allies themselves with science would simply dismiss as “ridiculous” a subject as rich and complex as homeopathy, along with the global experience of tens, if not hundreds of thousands of physicians, not to mention millions of human and animal patients.  Homeopathy is a purely empirical science based on observation built upon observation, as well as applying a systematic approach to assessing the medicinal effects of substances.  How can it make sense to simply sweep away this vast body of experience because it is allegedly a physical impossibility?  A scientist rather than an idealogue would think, "Tens of thousands of conscientious physicians and millions of patients have reported striking effects from homeopathic remedies.  Could there be a mechanism to explain this over and above a placebo phenomena?"  

The attacks on homeopathy that are becoming increasingly virulent in recent years are ridiculous and wrong.  What's more, the critics, such as Caulfiled, seem mostly to repeat what they've heard from other critics, using the same words and phrases and lines of attack. None of them have really entered the world of homeopathy, interviewed or studied the experience of leading practitioners and teachers, or seriously attempted to understand the history, philosophy and practices.  It is so much easier to mimic the words and notions of others as compared to doing the hard labour of actually researching the issue.

The reality is that homeopathy has unique and transformative information to offer the worlds of science, medicine and philosophy. Yet due to the arrogant certitude of a host of science writers and their faithful followers, all of this wonder is entirely dismissed.  In fact, the attitude of many scientists and related academics towards homeopathy has become an essential touchstone, a communal agreement, a way of establishing credibility among peers.  This despite the fact that the majority of these people have never met a homeopath and are entirely ignorant of the subject.

Here is a recent German film with (rather poor) subtitles detailing some significant aspects of the contemporary German experience with homeopathy.  Things get interesting after ten minutes.

Caulfield’s dismissal of nutritional supplementation also appears to be the rote repetition of what he has heard or read in the news without careful examination.  In this case, Caulfield and friends don't appear to find interest in the mountains of research supporting the therapeutic application of a wide array of specific nutrient factors.

Finally, in dismissing naturopathic medicine with the same brush as homeopathy, Caulfield is ignoring the fact that this large, growing profession is populated with hard-nosed, bright and skillful health practitioners, with a minimum of eight years of university and professional education and an enormous emphasis on the sciences.  

Devotion to science is perfectly right, since it provides a rational basis for the progress of society.  However when this involves modern medicine things get strange.  There is a shadow side to this devotion in that modern medicine often looks and feels a lot like a religion, with its own taboos and heresies, such as homeopathy.  Merely wondering at the safety of aggressive infant vaccination or annual flu shot programs leads to loud shaming from various sides.  Despite the veneer of rationality, there is an insistence on absolute faith coupled with attacks against apostates and doubters.  These attacks can become particularly vicious when scientists announce findings that contradict the accepted canon.  

The intellectual and emotional allegiance that this requires can be distinctly, maddeningly irrational, as exemplified by Caulfield’s insistence on the absolute separation of modern medicine and its institutions, from those he regards as heretical pretenders.  It is a tragic caricature of the spirit of science.

Postscript: About four months after writing this article I came across the following website that has almost the same name as this article:   This website contains outstanding critiques of the modern skeptical movement.  The articles on the right under the title "TOP ARTICLES" are valuable discussions of the deep problems associated with this movement and displayed throughout Mr. Caulfields article.

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