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As a skeptic, and someone dedicated to establishing the objective truth of various phenomena, I sometimes feel quite depressed when I see how many forms of pseudo-scientific, semi-intellectual, superstitious, and new-age beliefs are still quite popular.

But then there are times when it seems that some progress is being made too. For example, recently Australian doctors have been told to not prescribe homeopathic remedies, and pharmacists have been asked to strip them from their shelves. This has come from the official body for Austrialian GPs which has concluded that homeopathic products have no health benefits above placebo.

Before I go any further I should tell you exactly what homeopathy is. This is the dictionary definition: “a system of complementary medicine in which ailments are treated by minute doses of natural substances that in larger amounts would produce symptoms of the ailment”. For example, a homeopath might suggest a small dose of caffeine to cure poor sleep.

When I say small doses I really do mean small. In classic homeopathy the dose is usually so small that there is literally nothing left of the actual “active” ingredient and all that actually exists in the product is water (or filler if the remedy is in solid form).

Some forms of homeopathy have real doses of herbs and other naturally sourced components. In this case it really isn’t homeopathy any more, it’s herbal medicine, and the efficacy of that is another subject entirely (I would say the vast majority of herbal remedies do nothing, some might help a bit, and others will make things worse). I’m really talking about classic homeopathy (which was really invented in the early 1800s) here.

Here’s some of the nonsensical bullshit describing homeopathy I found on one of their more lucid web sites: “Today, homeopathic medicines are safe for all to use. They are dispensed as highly dilute, sub-molecular remedies that are free of the chemical side effects associated with other medicines.”

Well yes, that’s probably true. Since they do nothing they are relatively safe apart from possibly being used instead of a real drug which might help. And because they have nothing in them (apart from water or filler) then they are free from side-effects. In fact they are free from all effects!

Here’s some more: “The nature of potentisation is the mystery of homeopathy. What is understood is that the potentisation process imprints energetic information from the original substance onto the diluting liquid during the stages of succussion.”

Don’t feel bad if you don’t understand this because there is actually nothing to understand. It’s pure gibberish, including words that homeopaths made up to describe processes which don’t exist. Note this phrase “imprints energetic information” which is a classic in many forms of pseudoscience. When you see that you know you’re dealing with pure gobbledegook!

Finally, there is this: “This liquid is then prescribed according to the law of similars as either drops or medicated pilules to the unwell person. They carry the energetic information into the body to trigger a self healing reaction that moves the person back to a state of health.”

Pure drivel, and there’s that “energetic information” again!

I have never heard of a New Zealand doctor (I mean a real doctor here, not a naturopath, homeopath, or other quack) prescribing homeopathic remedies, although I have heard indirectly that some do. I do often see homeopathic products for sale in pharmacies though, which is disappointing but not surprising because pharmacies have commercial as much as medical priorities. So selling what people want – whether it works or not – just to make money is to be expected.

And that does bring up an interesting question. Should people have the freedom to buy products which don’t work if they want to? Well, maybe, but there a few reasons I would question this right.

First, it is against the Consumer Guarantees Act (part of New Zealand consumer legislation) to sell something you know doesn’t work, and after years of professional training all pharmacists should know that homeopathy doesn’t work.

Second, medical professionals are committed to serving the best interests of their patients, not providing them with something which won’t work and might be used instead of something which would be effective.

Third, the patient/medical professional relationship is an imbalanced one and it should be up to the expert, who has the greater authority, to guide the decision making process appropriately. If the patient really wants to use a useless or even dangerous remedy then the doctor or pharmacist probably can’t stop them (there are plenty of suspect internet sites which sell this stuff) but at least they shouldn’t be making it too easy.

So-called supplements and complementary and alternative medicine (please note the acronym SCAM is purely coincidental) have not been held to the scrutiny they should have been. Even though they are treated as medicines by some they are not tested or regulated to the same extent. The quality control in many cases is really poor, and they sometimes don’t even contain what the packaging says.

Also note that the argument that it’s better to use SCAM rather than conventional medicine because that way you avoid paying the big pharmaceutical companies doesn’t really work any more because those same big companies produce a lot of the alternative medicine. And yes, they must know that most of them don’t work!

Still, as I said at the start, there is hope because homeopathy is gradually being discredited and eliminated from sources which would normally have some credibility (like pharmacies). Maybe other ineffective or unproved alternative medical systems like naturopathy and acupuncture will be next. I’m optimistic that the world is becoming more rational and eliminating homeopathy is a good next step in that direction.

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