Six months ago, the Hindustan Times (one of India’s biggest selling newspapers) asked me to write an article about homeopathy. I was busy and suggested delaying it to coincide with my trip to the Jaipur Literary Festival, which took place last week.
When I finally submitted the article to the Hindustan Times in early January, I was surprised that the person who commissioned article was unhappy with my use of the words bunkum, quackery and pseudoscience in relation to homeopathy. She went on to write: “While we agree that it is important to debunk myths about alternative medicine, we would also like to avoid lawsuits!”
I tried to point out that there was nothing wrong with the article, but she replied: “This may spiral out of control, considering the wide reach of the magazine. We would much rather be cautious, that’s all.” In the next email, she wrote: “We do not want to indulge in name-calling in the magazine. Using pejorative words doesn’t help in building up an argument – and removing the aforementioned words will not change the nature of the article at all! And if we carry the piece, I’m afraid, I must insist on certain words to be removed.”
It is not my finest piece of writing, and it does not say anything that has not been said before, but I find it shocking that the Hindustan Times is so reluctant to offend anyone. Or maybe I am being unreasonable?
You can decide for yourself, as the article that I submitted is pasted below. If the HIndustan Times would like to shed any further light on their decision then I would be happy to include its response in full and uncensored.
Whenever I return to India, I am always unpleasantly surprised at the popularity of homeopathy. I hear of senior political figures endorsing this quackery. I read that PM Narendra Modi has appointed a minister whose portfolio includes homeopathy. And I see that Bollywood stars endorse this pseudoscience.
Perhaps I should not be so surprised, after all the situation is very similar in London, where I currently live. We have several senior politicians in the House of Commons who believe in the power homeopathy, we have a National Health Service that wastes money on these pointless pills and we also have celebrities who endorse the biggest joke in medicine.
So, how did this peculiar form of medicine (which believes in the ridiculous notion of diluting ingredients to the point of non-existence) become so popular in both Europe and India?
Homeopathy was invented in Germany in the late 1700s, and soon became popular among the gentry in Paris and London. In 1829, Dr Martin Honigberger, a Transylvanian physician, brought it to India when he joined the court of Maharajah Ranjit Singh. The idea then spread rapidly, prospering largely because it was perceived as being in opposition to the imperialist medicine practised by the British. Attitudes towards British medicine were so negative that vaccination programmes failed dismally in the mid-nineteenth century.
Moreover, Indians who wanted to pursue a career in conventional medicine often encountered prejudice when they attempted to join the Indian Medical Service, so a more realistic career option was to train to be a homeopathic practitioner. It was also felt that homeopathy and the Ayurvedic system of medicine could work together in harmony.
As the decades passed, tens of millions of Indians came to rely on homeopathy for their healthcare, and this European invention is now firmly embedded in the Indian culture of healthcare. And, back in Europe, homeopathy still remains popular in Britain, France and Germany.
Given its long history and global popularity, what makes me so sure that homeopathy is bunkum?
Homeopaths will tell you that they have plenty of happy patients. Even more impressively, a study of 6,500 patients at the Bristol Homeopathic Hospital over six years concluded that 70% of them showed clinical improvements following homeopathic treatment. However, there are many reasons beyond homeopathy that might explain why these patients reported that they felt better, including the body’s own healing abilities, conventional medicine and the placebo effect.
In order to set aside the issue of the placebo effect, homeopaths will often cite how pets and babies seem to get better after taking homeopathic remedies. They argue that pets and babies have no expectations and so cannot exhibit placebo responses. However, both pets and babies may react positively to the loving care of their owners or parents, and we should not underestimate the temporary effect of a shot of sugar, particularly on a baby who is teething. On top of this, those who report apparent improvements are not unbiased observers, but presumably believers in homeopathy who want their loved ones to get better.
Homeopaths will often state that some conventional doctors prescribe homeopathy. Some do, but many do not. In fact, the overwhelming majority of real doctors think homeopathy is pseudoscience. After all, homeopaths typically dilute their remedies until they contain no actual ingredients. Even though zero was invented in India, I suspect that most Indians would spurn the ridiculous notion of pills containing zero.
Of course, the ultimate factor in deciding whether or not homeopathy works is putting it to the scientific test. The bad news is that after 200 years and after more than 200 clinical trials, there is no good evidence that homeopathy works for any condition whatsoever.
Last year, Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council reviewed the evidence for homeopathy in relation to 61 health conditions and concluded that “…the evidence from research in humans does not show that homeopathy is effective for treating the range of health conditions considered.” It was the latest in a long line of such damning assessments.
Without doubt, conventional medicine is far from perfect, and I could write an entire article pointing out its many flaws. However, compared to the quackery of homeopathy, conventional medicine is positively miraculous. Indeed, many readers of this article would not be alive if it were not for vaccinations and antibiotics alone. When we are ill, we need to turn to treatments that have been shown to work. This does not just mean pharmaceuticals, but also nutrition, exercise and counseling and other so-called evidence-based medicines.
Those politicians and celebrities who have more money than sense will no doubt continue to rely on homeopathic pills, but the rest of us should be smarter and spurn it.