Whenever I return to India, I am always unpleasantly surprised at the popularity of homeopathy. I hear of senior political figures endorsing this quackery. I read that prime minister Narendra Modi has appointed a minister whose portfolio includes homeopathy. And I see that Bollywood stars endorse this pseudoscience.
Perhaps I should not be so surprised, after all the situation is very similar in London, where I currently live. We have several senior politicians in the House of Commons who believe in the power of homeopathy, we have a National Health Service that wastes money on these pointless pills and we also have celebrities who endorse the biggest joke in medicine.
So, how did this peculiar form of medicine (which believes in the ridiculous notion of diluting ingredients to the point of non-existence) become so popular in both Europe and India?
Homeopathy was invented in Germany in the late 1700s, and soon became popular among the gentry in Paris and London. In 1829, Dr. Martin Honigberger, a Transylvanian physician, brought it to India when he joined the court of Maharajah Ranjit Singh. The idea then spread rapidly, prospering largely because it was perceived as being in opposition to the imperialist medicine practised by the British. Attitudes towards British medicine were so negative that vaccination programmes failed dismally in the mid-19th century.
Moreover, Indians who wanted to pursue a career in conventional medicine often encountered prejudice when they attempted to join the Indian Medical Service, so a more realistic career option was to train to be a homeopathic practitioner. It was also felt that homeopathy and the Ayurvedic system of medicine could work together in harmony.
As the decades passed, tens of millions of Indians came to rely on homeopathy for their healthcare, and this European invention is now firmly embedded in the Indian culture of healthcare. And, back in Europe, homeopathy still remains popular in Britain, France and Germany.
Given its long history and global popularity, what makes me so sure that homeopathy is bunkum?
Homeopaths will tell you that they have plenty of happy patients. Even more impressively, a study of 6,500 patients at the Bristol Homeopathic Hospital over six years concluded that 70% of them showed clinical improvements following homeopathic treatment. However, there are many reasons beyond homeopathy that might explain why these patients reported that they felt better, including the body’s own healing abilities, conventional medicine and the placebo effect.
In order to set aside the issue of the placebo effect, homeopaths will often cite how pets and babies seem to get better after taking homeopathic remedies. They argue that pets and babies have no expectations and so cannot exhibit placebo responses. However, both pets and babies may react positively to the loving care of their owners or parents, and we should not underestimate the temporary effect of a shot of sugar, particularly on a baby who is teething. On top of this, those who report apparent improvements are not unbiased observers, but presumably believers in homeopathy who want their loved ones to get better.
Homeopaths will often state that some conventional doctors prescribe homeopathy. Some do, but many do not. In fact, the overwhelming majority of real doctors think homeopathy is pseudoscience. After all, homeopaths typically dilute their remedies until they contain no actual ingredients. Even though zero was invented in India, I suspect that most Indians would spurn the ridiculous notion of pills containing zero.
Of course, the ultimate factor in deciding whether or not homeopathy works is putting it to the scientific test. The bad news is that after 200 years and after more than 200 clinical trials, there is no good evidence that homeopathy works for any condition whatsoever.
Last year, Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council reviewed the evidence for homeopathy in relation to 61 health conditions and concluded that “…the evidence from research in humans does not show that homeopathy is effective for treating the range of health conditions considered.” It was the latest in a long line of such damning assessments.
Without doubt, conventional medicine is far from perfect, and I could write an entire article pointing out its many flaws. However, compared to the quackery of homeopathy, conventional medicine is positively miraculous. Indeed, many readers of this article would not be alive if it were not for vaccinations and antibiotics alone. When we are ill, we need to turn to treatments that have been shown to work. This does not just mean pharmaceuticals, but also nutrition, exercise and counselling and other so-called evidence-based medicines.
Those politicians and celebrities who have more money than sense will no doubt continue to rely on homeopathic pills, but the rest of us should be smarter and spurn it.
Simon Singh is the author, most recently, of The Simpsons and their Mathematical Secrets.
This post first appeared on Scroll.in