Science & Homeopathy: Has Science Become One True Religion?


Amir Cassam searches for the meaning of science in modern society and homeopathy’s place in the schema.


research.jpgMy above article was published in The Homeopath – 2000, No.77 in the United Kingdom.  I used mainly the works of Paul Feyerabend (Against Method, Science In A Free Society and Farewell to Science) to suggest that modern science had taken over the role of religion and had gradually become – in the words of Paul Feyerabend – “One True Religion”.

The latest attack on homeopathy in Europe but mainly in the UK, has revived my memory of the attack on the researches on the ‘Memory of Water’ by Benveniste and his associates in UK towards the end of 1990’s by the Editor of the scientific journal Nature aided and abetted by part of the media.

In an article in The Guardian of 16 November 2007, under the title The end of homeopathy?, Ben Goldacre alleged that homeopathic pills were nothing but sugar pills and the alleged benefits, if any, were due to placebo effect on the patients. When confronted with the fact that some also worked on babies and animals, he wrote, “A baby will respond to its parent’s expectations and placebo effect is still perfectly valid for children and pets. Placebo pills with no active ingredient can even elicit measurable biochemical responses in humans and in animals (when they have come to associate pills with active ingredient).”

This was reprinted in Lancet of 17 November 2007 as one of the items under the caption ‘Bad Science’.  The allegation that homeopathic pills are just sugar pills harks back to the controversy over the ‘Memory of Water’ that I dealt with in some detail in my article that I had submitted to, but was rejected by the Editor of the British Homeopathic Journal, Dr. Peter Fisher, for that reason alone. In his letter to me he wrote the reason for his reservation about my article, was my allegation that the way Benveniste and his research on the ‘Memory of Water’ was treated by the medical establishment was “tyrannical”.  “But the fact remains”, he wrote in his letter “that most of the individuals involved in Benveniste’s research now accept that this was ‘science as normal’ and have moved on (emphasis added), in some cases with marked success, without the need to interpret the whole episode as proving that science has become tyrannical.” I responded by reminding him that I had never suggested that science had become ‘tyrannical’ but ‘authoritarian’.

The article was then published by The Homeopath, the journal of the Society of Homeopaths in 2000 (Issue No.77).

By a coincidence, the same charge of authoritarianism against the Royal Society was leveled by the Editor of the Lancet, Richard Horton in the Times Literary Supplement.  In its 17 December 1999 issue, under the caption ‘Genetically modified potatoes’ the Editor of the Lancet accused that most prestigious of scientific establishments, the Royal Society, of using its tremendous authority to prevent the debate on genetically modified food.  Richard Horton, referred to the Royal Society as “Secret Society” “that had turned its conservatism into strength by making it the cornerstone of a robust corporate image”. In its support for the genetically modified food, he wrote in his article that the Royal Society had entered into twenty-one industry-sponsored fellowships. This attack on the Royal Society by the Editor of Lancet at the time, reminded me of the attack on the ‘Memory of Water researches by Benveniste and his team, by the Editor of Nature. The Royal Society, Richard Horton claimed, had rejected the research on genetically modified food by Arpad Pusztai that showed that GM food harmed laboratory mice “by claiming that the researcher had breached the fundamental scientific rule… that scientists must not report results of their research to the public before those findings have been presented to their peers either at a scientific meeting or in pages of scholarly journal”. According to the Editor of Lancet, this “seems like a gagging clause and it is”.

It was for this reason that I sent my rejected article to the Editor of Lancet for his comments. In his reply, he wrote: “I enjoyed reading your piece very much and I thought you drew together some very different sources to make a powerful argument”. It therefore came to me a shock to find Lancet joining hands with some in the medical establishment with journalistic support of a paper like Guardian, accusing homeopaths of peddling sugar pills.

In view of this, I have had a re-look at my article after almost eight years.  In the letter to me the Editor of the British Homoeopathic Journal rejecting my article, had said (as I have quoted earlier), “most of the individuals involved in Benveniste’s research now accept that this was ‘science as normal’ and have moved on…” At the time, I was not quite sure of exactly what he meant. But I had surmised that what he meant by this was that the Benveniste’s research and its repercussions were ‘science as normal’ and left it at that.

On second reading now, I think what he meant was that the reaction to Benveniste’s research was considered, even by most of the latter’s associates, as ‘science as normal’. If that was what he meant, it is surprising how Benveniste research workers also thought the same way. However, in the article shortly afterwards entitled ‘The end of the Benveniste affair?’ in the BHJ, Dr Peter Fisher wrote: “the results of a study recently published in the journal Inflammation Research may mark the beginning of a solution to the so-called ‘Benveniste affair’. It seems likely that the “Benveniste affair may yet have a happy ending”. ‘Happy ending’ suggests that Benveniste’s researches into the ‘The Memory of Water’ probably did show the imprint of the original molecule in the water after dilution and succussion beyond the Avogadro Law and that the homeopathic pills were probably after all medicated. Of course, he had left a question mark in the title of his article. But the positive sense pervaded its conclusion.

I now go back to the article of Dr. Ben Goldacre reprinted in the Lancet, accusing homeopaths of peddling ostensibly homeopathic medicine pills when they ought to have known that they were just sugar pills and any success with them was due to the placebo effect. In my article in The Homeopath, I had also briefly dealt with the subject of placebo.

My response to the placebo argument at the time was that the placebo effect was not universally recognised. I quoted the example of Dr. Michael Evans who argued in his paper that the work of Gunver Kienle had cast serious doubt on the size and effectiveness of the placebo effect.

However this was and still is a minority opinion in the medico-scientific researches. But, I suggest that the placebo effect has been taken to absurd length in order to attack homeopathy – as Dr. Goldacre has done. For example, when confronted with the examples of homeopathic medicines working on babies, children and animals, he does not deny it. But he explains it by the baby’s placebo response to its mother’s expectations. But what if the mother is not administering the homeopathic drops – for example a stranger whom the baby had never seen before? If it works, would it be due to its placebo response to the stranger’s expectations as well? And suppose, the stranger in a double or single blind method did not herself know which drops were homeopathically medicated and which were not? As far as animals are concerned, Dr Goldacre makes a proviso in his contention that they only work “when they (animals) came to associate pills with active ingredients”! How do the animals distinguish between active and inactive ingredients? Surely, there is no such thing as ‘active’ ingredient in homeopathy! They are all, in the last resort, only sugar pills! Moreover, suppose, an animal is given for the first time an active (by homeopathic standards) pills and it reacts positively.  How does placebo effect work then? One may argue that it was just a coincidence. But it could not then be considered a placebo effect even, by Dr Goldacre. But what if such ‘coincidences’ happen too often and therefore could not be accounted for statistically? After all, there are many qualified veterinary doctors who are also homeopaths. They would not be practising the latter unless they got satisfactory (to them at least) results because otherwise they might go back to practising allopathic veterinary medicine – which I am sure they practised alongside homeopathy or rather the other way round – practising homeopathy alongside veterinary medicines they were originally trained in.

The whole question of placebo effect finally revolves around the controversy around the ‘memory of water’.  Since there is not a single molecule of the medicine found in water dynamized beyond 12c potency, it was and still is claimed that pills made out of this dynamized liquid are simply sugar pills. Even Dr Anthony Campbell, a former Editor of the British Homeopathic Journal and a Consultant Homeopath, argued many years ago in his book Two Faces of Homeopathy that the concept of homeopathic medicine beyond a single molecule of the original medicine that was left in it, was ‘metaphysical’ – in line with Karl Poppers definition of scientific method: that all theories or concepts which were inherently incapable of objective verification by the established ‘scientific method’ were necessarily metaphysical. Karl Popper gave Freudian psychology as one example of pseudo-science and therefore metaphysical because it was intrinsically incapable of verification by established scientific method.  I have in my above article disputed Karl Popper’s falsifiability definition of scientific method and argued that his theory was flawed and seriously exaggerated.  However, even if one accepts his definition – as many in the scientific establishment still do – and then uses it to attack homeopathy as metaphysical, one might look at Dr. Goldacres assertion about the placebo effect on babies and animals. Is his assertion capable of Popperian scientific verification or is it also metaphysical?

What then is science? R.C Lewontin writes in his book Biology as Ideology, “Science is a social institution about which there is a great deal of misunderstanding even among those who are part of it. We think that science is an institution, a set of methods, a set of people (scientists), a great body of knowledge that we call scientific, is somehow apart from the forces that rule our everyday lives and that govern the structure of our society. We think that science is objective. But “(S)cientists do not begin life as scientists, after all, but as social beings immersed in a family, a state, a productive structure, and they view nature through a lens, that has been moulded by their social experience”

(my emphasis).

Therefore the legitimacy of scientific institution in our divided society must appear to come as a supra-human source. Secondly, “the ideas, pronouncements, rules and results of the institution’s activity must have validity and a transcendental truth that goes beyond any possibility of human compromise or human error. Its explanations and pronouncements must be seen to be true in an absolute sense and to derive somehow from an absolute source… And finally, the institution must have a certain mystical and veiled quality so that its innermost operation is not completely transparent to everyone. It must have an esoteric language, which needs to be explained to ordinary persons by those who are especially knowledgeable and who can intervene between everyday life and mysterious sources of understanding and knowledge.” In short, western science has come to replace religion of the earlier – Christianity – “as the chief legitimating force in modern (Western) society.’

In my earlier article, I had gone so far as to claim that homeopathy was in accord with Thomas Kuhn’s innovative distinction between ‘normal’ and ‘revolutionary’ science each representing a different paradigm. I argued then that homeopathy belonged to Kuhn’s revolutionary paradigm.

However, during the intervening period, I have come to the conclusion that I was far too optimistic about homeopathy as a new paradigm in Thomas Kuhn’s sense. It could never replace allopathic medicine and has to exist with the latter alongside acupuncture, osteopathy and other complimentary therapies.

Unfortunately, within homeopathy, there is also a serious drawback of some influential section of its practitioners embracing irrational and esoteric healing traditions thus breaking away from the fundamental Hahnemannian homeopathic principles.

I have argued about this trend in my articles, Was Kent a Hahnemannian? (BDJ) and Is homeopathy compatible with esoteric healing traditions?  One of its exponents Jorg Wichmann, in an article in the Homeopathic Links (2002), asserted that homeopathy “really rests on a different tradition from science….. This tradition is hermetic, which puts homeopathy in the same line as shamanism and alchemy”.  This is a serious statement to be printed in an influential homeopathic journal. I am almost sure that he was even made a guest editor of one of the journal’s issues.

George Vithoulkas made serious complaints to the its Editors for the mystification of homeopathy at that time but without any avail and later attacked in the BHJ (Homeopath) the ‘proving’ of Thiosinamine by Grinney through a metaphysical medium “which is the common communal consciousness” (2002: 91).

About the author

Amir Cassam

Amir Cassam

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