What’s the harm? Well, homeopathy could (indirectly) kill you.

The letters Penelope Dingle sent to Francine Scrayen make for very sad reading. Scrayen was “treating” Dingle’s cancer, diagnosed in February 2003. Dingle’s sister is now suing Scrayen, and it’s easy to understand her motivations for this on reading not only the letters, but also the coroners report following Dingle’s death :

In my view the deceased’s rectal cancer was present and causing bleeding and other symptoms from at least 31 October 2001. During the period 31 October 2001 until at least the end of November 2002, the deceased regularly described the symptoms of her rectal cancer to a homeopath, Francine Scrayen. It was not until November 2002 that Mrs Scrayen and the deceased discussed the possibility of reporting her rectal bleeding to a medical practitioner and it was not until 5 December 2002 that she first reported those problems to a doctor.

I accept that Mrs Scrayen believed that the deceased had suffered from haemorrhoids years earlier and the bleeding and pain was “an old symptom coming back”, but a competent health professional would have been alarmed by the developing symptoms and would have strongly advised that appropriate medical investigations be conducted without delay.

As I’ve said before, pseudoscience doesn’t only cause the (relatively trivial) harm of lightening the wallets of the gullible. When it’s taken seriously, it can not only result in these sorts of tragic stories, but also helps to contribute to a general climate of unreason, where people become less discerning about what to believe and why to believe it. In fact, an increasing concern is the ways in which this climate of unreason can be leveraged in favour of political and economic interests. Conspiracies are attractive to many folk, because we sometimes prefer grand narratives to the conclusions reached via the application of Occam’s Razor (on this topic, Rosenberg’s new book The Atheists Guide to Reality makes for good reading).

Alternative medicine that works is simply called “medicine”, as Dara o’Briain reminds us here:

The Dingle story is now a few years old, but it’s back in the public eye thanks to the recent publication of the coroners report and Dan Buzzard’s highlighting of that report’s contents. And now, Scrayen has sent Buzzard a cease and desist letter, demanding that he retract his allegations regarding her complicity in Dingle’s suffering and her potentially avoidable death. You can read Buzzard’s two posts on Scrayen via that last link, and it’s difficult to see how Scrayen thinks he’s done anything wrong – except, of course, for exposing her as a dangerous quack.

It is ultimately the consumer’s fault if she makes choices which endanger her own life. The issue here, though, is that while Dingle (and most of us) live(d) in a society which protects us from all sorts of misrepresentation and fraud, that protection is absent in the case of things like homeopathy. The politically-correct, relativistic way in which opinions and evidence are treated make us afraid to tell people that what they believe is sometimes nonsense, and sometimes dangerous nonsense.

Medical aid schemes should of course not reimburse for homeopathic treatments. Pharmacies, who are associated with treatment and good health, should ideally not sell them, no matter how profitable exploiting the gullible can be. Pharmacies are of course free to sell anything legal, though – my point is more that it’s unfortunate that they often don’t take any proactive role in reminding consumers that what they’re buying is pure placebo, and shouldn’t take the place of medicine.

Most important, perhaps, is that in an age of manic labelling of everything consumable, down to the most minuscule ingredient, it’s an almost criminal neglect that legislation doesn’t exist to force producers of homeopathic remedies to spell out the simple fact that a glass of water will “treat” your ailment just as effectively as a homeopathic “remedy” will.

Also see Angela Meadon’s post on this, reminding Scrayen that she can’t bully Buzzard into silence, and that the Streisand effect might well result in her attempts to do so having the opposite effect to what she hopes.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.