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The Sugar Pill Subversion
Not only is this unsupported by modern science, but it’s also antithetical to some of the most basic tenants of medicine
25 December, 2020

Homeopathy is defined by the NHS as a “treatment” based on the use of highly diluted substances which practitioners claim can cause the body to heal itself. It spawns from the teachings of Samuel Hahnemann, a 17th-century doctor who proposed the well-known principle of “like cures like”— the substance causing the symptoms of a disease can also be helpful in its relief. With this, he prepared dilute solutions of common compounds as treatments for his patients and published a set of guidelines for the use of homeopathic methods. The practice continues to boom in large parts of the world, with almost 10% of the UK reporting use of homeopathic practices in 1998 and the market for similar alternative medicines being projected to reach $296 billion (£222.8 billion) by 2027.  While the growing success of a health industry would usually warrant celebration, there is one problem that continues to undermine it — homeopathy has no actual effect in curing disease.  

Unfortunately for the alternative medicine industry, homeopathy has been proven time and time again to have zero efficacy in treating modern ailments, performing no better than a placebo in most cases. In 2017, the NHS recommended that GPs and other practitioners stop providing it, owing to a lack of “clear or robust evidence to support its use”. The core principles behind homeopathy have also long since been disproven and it’s easy to see why, when they are examined in detail. Homeopathy relies on the principle of “potentisation” whereby the dilution of a substance increases its efficacy. Not only is this unsupported by modern science, but it’s also antithetical to some of the most basic tenants of medicine, namely that administering a concentrated solution will lead to a greater effect on the patient. How then, does the alternative medicine market labeled “Placebo treatment at best, quackery at worst” by the world’s leading healthcare authorities, have a compound annual growth rate of 19.9%  while the rest of the global health industry stalls at 5%?  One answer may lie in the marketing methods of alternative medicines.

An underlying theme in the marketing of these treatments is an emphasis on “natural” and “holistic” substances being used to cure disease, seemingly in contrast with the industrial approach of conventional allopathic medicine. However, these terms are left deliberately vague. The exact specifications for a natural treatment are not defined by industry companies, forming a sense of ambiguity and leaving the meaning of ‘’natural’’ for the consumer to rationalise. Here, the positive connotations of the word are used as a substitute for any real scientific evidence to convince buyers to put their faith in the product. Celebrity health gurus have also been criticised for their role in promoting pseudoscientific treatments. In 2017, the advertising watchdog Truth in Advertising filed a complaint against Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop for ‘‘deceptive health claims’’ attributed to their products, including the use of healing crystals for infertility and rose extract for depression. The company settled this lawsuit with a $145,000 fine in 2018. In spite of this controversy and the promotion of many other potentially fatal procedures, such as the “coffee enema”, Netflix prepares to run the second season of “Goop Lab” — a promotional documentary where the pseudoscience of Goop products is construed as “wellness”, another deliberately ambiguous term.

The fact that the largest movie streaming service is currently promoting these baseless alternative remedies is a worrying sign of the times, hinting at a wider triumph of ignorance over established science. Despite our superb rate of scientific advancement, public literacy in the sciences remains shockingly low, with AAAS Science magazine declaring 90% of Americans to be “scientifically illiterate”. This is not only appalling but is a direct threat to our well-being, as manifested by the recent anti-Covid demonstrations and the refusal of large portions of the population to abide by Covid safety guidelines. Even our politicians and lawmakers run their campaigns with flagship policies that directly contradict scientific evidence, such as President Trump backing out of the Paris agreement and rolling back preventative actions on climate change. If our highest-ranking leaders cannot respect the scientific method, how can we expect the public to do so?

The rise of the homeopathic market and Netflix’s Goop Lab are only the latest in a long trend of pseudoscientific beliefs that have subverted modern science. While the intent of these practitioners may well be in line with public health, the misinformation and defamation of the scientific community they use to promote their methods are proving to inflict more harm than good.

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