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Skeptical of the Skeptics: Unreason in the name of Reason

Sometime ago I happened to hear Timothy Caulfield discussing his ideas on a Canadian broadcast morning show.  He had authored an essay on  the subject of medical institutes that were proposing to incorporate complementary health care methods into their systems. The thesis of his essay was that there is medical science and then there are the many pretenders to the healing arts that had, in his view, 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 reasonable evidence, there are elements to Caulifeld's opinion that display an intolerant extremism that is contrary to facts. There is also a strange kind of naivety in the embrace of modern medicine as the sole vessel of medical truth that turns a blind eye to the inflluence of cultural and economic forces on medical materials and practice.

For instance, there are many institutional aspects of modern medicine that are bought and paid for by corporate interests. There are health-care policies and practices that are largely driven by profit-based motives and its corollary: expedient symptom management. There are a number of excellent books and articles and even organizations such as the Cochrane Reviews demonstrating that modern pharmaceutical research is frequently unreliable.  

What is the reliablity of the evidence on which medical practice and health care policy is based in an age when an interlock of exceptionally wealthy corporate interests rules the roost with a more or less iron fist - researchers, regulators, dissemenators, journals and public media?

In reality, the evidence-base for a very wide range of natural products such as herbs, nutrients, and, yes, even homeopathy, is extensive. To regard practitioners as if they were simply irresponsible snake-oil salesman is contrary to the very spirit of science,rather a very human species of arrogance. I have worked in this sphere of natural medicine, specifically homeopathy, for my entire adult life, and see that it is well populated with exceptional individuals whose intelligence, experience and insights are considerable. Fantasies of one true medical system leave so much knowledge and experience on the outside. Fortunately, perceptive individuals in various medical and academic settings are interested in bringing knowledge on natural medicines in from the cold. For some reason, the Timothy Caulfields of the world are intent on preventing this from occurring.  

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 an enormous and rapidly growing body of research on human diet and nutrition, medicinal plants, individual nutrients and nutrient supplementation. 

On the subject of homeopathy, Caulfield writes: “...homeopathy (the ridiculous and physically impossible idea that water holds the memory of nonexistent and healing molecules).” As a licensed 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 into the global homeopathic experience, these are evidently parroted thoughts borrowed from others with compatible certainty, a certainty that is not based on science, and again, is foreign to the spirit of science.  

The idea of ‘the memory of water’, to which Caulfield and others of his type refer, never existed in the world of homeopathy before the intensive nineteen eighties controversy over the findings of the late French research scientist Jacques Benveniste, who formed the hypothesis.  Homeopathy has been practiced globally by medical doctors and professional homeopaths, as well as professionals in every field of medicine. My early educators were three American medical doctors who were practicing homeopathy exclusively. It should be mentioned that homeopathy 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 experience of tens of thousands, not to mention millions of human and animal patients. How can it make sense to simply sweep away this vast body of experience because it is allegedly a physical impossibility for homeopathic remedies to act? 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? Are there other ways we can verify that homeopathic medicines do indeed have biolgical effects?" These are questions that should be asked in considering the subject of homeopathy, and there are fascinating answers for those willing to approach the subject with an open-minded yet rigorous attitude.

The attacks on homeopathy that are becoming increasingly shrill in recent years just seem to me to be simply ridiculous and wrong if they weren't so impactful. 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. It seems as if 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. If they do, it is with an exceptionally critical unto cynical attitude, that ensures that the find that they find evidence to support their established opinion. However, for the majority of the critics, it is easier to mimic the words and notions of others as compared to doing the hard labour of actually researching the subject. In fact, regarding homeopathy as the one woo that binds them all has become a meme, 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.

Caulfield’s aversion to 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 other fellow skeptics 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.  

Science is meant to provide a rational basis for the progress of society.  Yet there is a shadow side to scientism that often looks and feels much like a religion, with its own taboos and heresies, such as homeopathy. 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 there are 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 which should be charaterized by the open-minded spirit of inquiry.

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.


Evidence Based Medicine:

Indications of a Problem


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.

Nutrition and Herbs

The Benefits of Meditation
Help for Psoriasis


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