Return of the witch doctors

Edited by Vacilando. Last updated 14. December, 2015.

Tim Minchin's wonderful piece Storm deliciously ridicules homeopathy and other pseudosciences
Tim Minchin's wonderful piece Storm deliciously ridicules homeopathy and other pseudosciences

I'm wondering why do homeopathic doctors limit themselves to administering virtually pure water and sugar pills. Plain old witchcraft might be a better business!


They operate with that catchy slogan: "Let like be cured by like". So short and simple, so appealing. Almost enchanting — literally. Unfortunately, the second "like" there usually means some pretty harmful stuff that has to be diluted down to a few molecules (if any) per dose to make sure that the concoction does not actually poison the patient. So it's kind of a weak rule, even if they ostentatiously call it the "Law of Similars". Some tried to improve on it by hypothesizing that water has memory, so in fact there is no need for the original substance to be present in the solution — but that really stretches the credibility ad absurdum.

The whole business is pretty hard to trust — despite a complete theory about some "vital force" (that stubbornly remains hypothetical), despite all the near-magical procedures and fancy terms, like "succussion", which basically means thrashing a container with the solution in a prescribed way (and if you beat and dilute in a sequence, it is called "potentization"), and despite tons of literature (with books called "repertories"). And despite the "success stories" which, unfortunately, time and time again fail to prove a direct causal link between the administered solution and the effect.

Critically thinking people tend to dismiss it as nonsense — only with age they learn to keep it for themselves out of a sort of cowardice they call respect for beliefs of others. On the other hand, for some people that are ill, unhappy with aging, irrational, or in any way feeling desperate, ... for them it is a holy grail of medicine.

Believe to heal

It is in the nature of humans to automatically conjure up connections where they actually wish them to exist. Just consider how many advertisements function: they juxtapose something attractive with the item they want to sell, blatantly suggesting a relation in such a way that many of us will accept it emotionally, bypassing any rational judgement. Imagine, for example, a TV ad featuring some assumedly revitalizing cosmetic product shown applied on the smooth skin of a beautiful young woman, a pack of provenly carcinogenous cigarettes apparently considered delicious by that handsome square-jaw guy galloping on a horse (incidentally, the three actors who played the Marlboro Man died of lung cancer), or a plastic bottle full of stale water with the background that includes a sparkling waterfall in some faraway pristine corner of nature. If advertisements are not enough for illustration, read how easy it is to "prove" pretty much any relation using statistics, such as a link between a tennis tournament and the rate of washing machine repairs.

Homeopathy effectively thrives on wishful thinking. For example on that related to the belief that every medication humans need can be provided directly by nature, a theory further fueled by well-known greed and frequent dirty affairs of some pharmaceutical companies. Unfortunately ignoring, of course, that many drugs produced by these companies actually are extractions from or improvements based on herbal remedies. Take 2-acetoxybenzoic acid — produced e.g. under the popular label Aspirin — which was initially found in the bark of a willow tree, and then ingeniously synthesized so that we don't need to unbark millions of willows to satisfy the market demand for the drug. Also, some feel that despite all the lauded science and expensive drugs people do keep ailing and dying daily; they feel that science betrayed them, so they are only happy to embrace pseudoscience which promises them a cure for everything short of death itself. People want to believe something like that is possible, so they do. We automatically tend to embrace anecdotes the same way as repeatable and verified findings; we love miracles. Wishful thinking and an objective proof are incompatible with each other.

The homeopathic business is even comparable to a regular faith or religion. Homeopaths, just as preachers, are generally good-natured fellows with excellent skills in psychological manipulation. It is undeniable that it must take considerable verbal skills to coax another sane person into believing that an imprint of a poison in the memory of water somehow has the capacity to heal them. But the practitioners convincingly show that they are here for us, and if only we trust them they will help us to get rid of our maladies — any and all — and free us from the evil hands of the pharmaceutical industry and its dreaded sidekick, the "conventional medicine". Their arguments differ from those of Mormons or Jehova's Witnesses, but their approach is the same. Believe us and you will happily live (longer) — follow the science-based conventional medicine and you will end up impoverished and stuffed with nasty chemicals. Clever mind hacking. Admittedly, both disciplines flourish particularly thanks to the fact that the suffering people are particularly vulnerable to believe anything that promises them an improvement of their condition.

Persistency of the illusion is then automatically guaranteed by another known feature of human psychology called confirmation bias. That means that most of us, most of the time, look for that which confirms what we believe rather than that which disconfirms it, even though the latter is the better way to get at the truth. Once we believe something, we will tend to defend it with fervour, even if objectively it stands on feet of clay. It is interesting to read more about cognitive bias in general; there is even a list of its various forms.

Is homeopathy a pseudo-science? Absolutely; in fact I cannot think of a better example! OK, now I feel all those unnaturally-healthy homeopathic fingers tightly squeezing my throat... fine, under duress I haste to add that the practice of science as we know it does not always provide perfect results. Scientists, and the processes most of them must follow to secure research funding, are flawed just like other social instruments. But the ideal scientific process, where theses have to be modelled and then proven to a high level of certainty, is fundamentally far superior over anything based on promises and beliefs.

If homeopaths were consequent and responsible, they would join scientists and help with rigorous research of placebo effect which is what they are actually misusing under the cloak of their stories. It's widely accepted that methods of placebo administration are more important than the placebo itself. In fact that is a truism, because placebo as such is not meant to have an effect on the treated condition. In other words, it boils down to the ritual, to the way the healer can lie to and trick the subject who trusts him or her with their own life. Conventional medicine considers it essentially unethical to deceive patients but it keeps studying the placebo effect, and there even is some practical use of it. Homeopaths, on the other hand, deceive their patients consistently with completely fabricated stories — and cashing on it without a glimmer of remorse.

Business potential

Of course, who am I to judge what helps whom. Indeed, if medicine does not (seem to) make you better, and if you don't trust it anyway, there is little risk in placing your bets on the homeopaths. If you are lucky it will not cost you (much) more, you will surely get answers that you want — including a friendly chat you missed at your GP's — and anyway, a pinch of sugar can do you no harm, and a drop of clear water is good for your body in any case. There always have been, and will be, clients for faith healing.

The one thing I fail to understand is why the homeopathy practitioners do not make their discipline a bit more attractive. Only the hardiest — or simplest — devotees will remain happy with succussion, potentization, and other clever-sounding terms. Isn't even that "Law of Similars" just a variant of common sayings such as "fight fire with fire" or "one nail drives out another"? A comment like that can be applied to many phenomenons, but it's not a law. The more clever of the followers may even one day realize that the dreaded cash cow of conventional medicine — vaccination — actually makes an effective use of the same principle...

If homeopaths have such a power over gullible people, why don't they pick up their courage and drive their business in a more impressive way. For a start they could begin prescribing goat sacrifices, piercing rag dolls, drawing happy faces with a chalk on the pavement, or something else exciting. Collaboration with astrologers, crystal healers and all sorts of other confidence tricksters should certainly prove beneficial, too. For the more wealthy there could be professional spell dissolving or spectacular demon eviction services, and for millions of others perhaps a one-for-all mobile app for just $0.99 — each (religious people already can make use of apps such as Shut Up, Devil that "make it easy to find the Scriptures you need, when you need them").

I mean, if the power is in the ritual and deception, and if it's the faith of the patient that is actually doing the job, then homeopathic doctors should be courageus enough to break loose from mimicking the pharmaceutical industry practices and turn into full-blown witch doctors instead!

Related links

4. Nov 2010 ~ 30. Aug 2014, Brussel, Belgium


 magic superstition lying fake medicine health cure psychology placebo religion witchcraft homeopathy ritual deception dishonesty trust pseudoscience witch doctor faith healing

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