“I’d rather be ‘cured’ by a placebo than rely on science and remain ill” by Kevin Maher of The Times (28/1/13)

If the choice is between a New Age effect that works or sickness in the world of Dawkins, I’ll take the meaningless pill.

Another day, another homeopathic smackdown. This time it was the turn of Professor Dame Sally Davies, the Chief Medical Officer, who informed the Commons Science and Technology Committee in no uncertain terms that homeopathy was “rubbish”, that homeopaths were “peddlers” and that homeopathic pills themselves were no more effective than a placebo.

Davies, you see, has devoted her life to the practice of genuine, traditional and empirically validated medical science and is thus apparently perturbed by the popularity of alternative therapies, claiming to be “perpetually surprised” that homeopathy is provided on the NHS (to the tune, according to some sources, of up to £4 million a year).

Of course, no one wants to argue with Davies, and we all know that homeopathy hasn’t yet mastered the art of public relations (beardy man in brown jumper + vial of bellis perennis = nuts). But there’s something in the familiar surety of her rejection that niggles. It’s the same dismissive stance of the self-appointed champions of reason who are forever on the lookout for so-called bad science and keen to beat us all into submission with the rationality stick.

I’m thinking here mostly of Richard Dawkins (although Bad Science author Ben Goldacre is a close second), whose Channel 4 documentary The Enemies of Reason was a true low-point in the annals of intellectual bullying. Here, after sneering through a group meditation and dreaming of “supercomputers that can make 60 trillion calculations per second”, Dawkins took apart the “bizarre” world of homeopathy, concluding, unsurprisingly, that in the face of modern science, “It just doesn’t make sense.”

And yet isn’t the irony here that modern science doesn’t make sense either? Anybody who knows anything about the history of science will tell you that it’s a moveable feast, a constantly shifting terrain of narrative ideas and malleable theories. The long-cherished Newtonian model of the atom, for instance (you know, nucleus at the centre, electrons whizzing around it), is an outmoded joke when compared with the cutting edge of quantum physics, which itself is based more on belief, theory and expectation than actual visible, tangible evidence (Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, anyone?).

And while we’re at it, what’s wrong with the placebo effect? Hell, if I’ve got the choice of being cured by the best New Age placebo effect or remaining ill in the world of Dawkins and supercomputers, I’ll take a sugary meaningless placebo pill any day.

And, yes, of course, I get it too. I understand it. Nobody likes being patronised by a hippy with a book of spells. But, equally, isn’t this blind faith in the teachings of the medical-industrial complex, not to mention the attendant appetite for the products of multinational pharmaceutical companies, kind of limiting? Isn’t it just a bit, well, ignorant? What did Einstein say? “The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.” I’m pretty sure that he means you too, science.