Medicine and magic

In primitive times medicine was inextricably linked with magic, and this is still true in many societies.  In parts of Africa modern hospitals exist side by side with medicine men practising rituals straight out of Frazer.  The difference is that the medicine men don't pretend to be scientists.  Their 'patients' may believe implicitly in their powers, but they know very well that this is religious or magical belief, and that the service offered has nothing to do with science.  This is not on the face of it dishonest, even if some of the services involved may be.

Some lay proponents of homoeopathy (most notably Ullman, 1991) take a rather similar line.  Science is not relevant to the discipline because science rejects the essential concept of the 'vital force'.  The word 'magic' is never used of course, but it's difficult to know what else to call such an approach.  To a certain extent this goes down very well in modern society, where people are becoming increasingly enchanted by every 'New Age' belief from feng shui to biofield therapeutics.  Again they never quite come out with the word, but magic is in effect what is being proposed.  And if the basics of the transaction are honest, in that the customer understands clearly that what is being offered is not science, but mysticism, then is this necessarily so reprehensible?  It's a free country, after all.

However, 'medicine' as we understand it and as we were taught it at college, long ago rejected its magical beginnings and threw in its lot irrevocably with science.  Our clients trust us precisely because we have had a scientific education, and because the service we offer is based on cause-and-effect which takes extreme cognisance of mechanism of action.  Pragmatism is all very well, but nowadays it is not usually very long before some boffin has discovered exactly why some new effect or new treatment actually works.  And surprise, surprise, it has never yet been found necessary to propose any new law of physics to explain the observations.

It's one thing for a lay person to offer 'healing' based on some arcane operation of mystical forces, but what are we to think of a trained and qualified professional physician (medical or veterinary) who offers treatment whose only claim to efficacy rests on a pseudo-scientific invocation of these same forces, and which clearly owes far more to magical thinking than to science?  The vast majority of the lay public are in no position to distinguish between the legitimate scientific explanations of the latest advances in medicine and the pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo used to sell homoeopathy.  Are they not entitled to expect medical professionals to make this distinction clear?

Arguing with colleagues who have been seduced into belief in magically-based disciplines is usually a waste of breath.  However, do we have to be quite so polite?  Declaring that we "must keep an open mind" may be appropriate when trying to avoid upsetting religious sensibilities, but it is not the language of scientific enquiry, not when there is ample information available to allow a rational conclusion to be drawn.

If we were really to begin treating animals by the voodoo doll system described on the front page, we would very soon find ourselves on the wrong end of a Disciplinary Committee enquiry.  Homoeopathy is no more rational, and of no more venerable a pedigree.  It merely had the luck to get its knees under the table of 'medicine' in the days before we understood physics and chemistry quite as well as we do today.  Rather than weasel round the subject with excessive deference, is it not about time to face up to this?

We have a Royal College which sees fit to include a list of Members who hold a 'qualification' awarded by the Faculty of Homoeopathy, positioned so as to imply parity with Members of the Royal College of Pathologists, and even capable of being represented as implying that the holders are RCVS Recognised Specialists in Homoeopathy.  This is in spite of the homoeopathic qualifications (in stark contrast to the MRCPath) not actually being recognised for inclusion in the Register itself.  And in spite of that lack of recognition, no action is ever taken to prevent members from including these qualifications in their professional stationery, alongside the 'MRCVS'.  Getting rid of that list would signal a small step towards the cessation of tolerance of the use of professional qualifications to lend spurious respectability to essentially magical systems of treatment.  Alternatively, in the interests of equality, perhaps the College would like to include a list of Voodoo Practitioners too?

We have veterinary schools who invite prominent veterinary homoeopaths to contribute to their undergraduate courses in the capacity of guest lecturer.  Quite what the students make of this is difficult to guess, but it certainly does allow the 'lecturer' concerned to represent himself as a teacher of a recognised academic subject.  How would the colleges react to the suggestion of a lecture or two in Voodoo Medicine, we wonder?

The British Association of Homoeopathic Veterinary Surgeons has not so far succeeded in achieving BVA Specialist Divisional status.  The last time that was mooted (it was in 1990 and it was thrown out nem pro, though they're still talking about it on their web site as if the decision was pending), there was a heavy rumour that a simultaneous proposal was likely to be advanced by something called the British Veterinary Voodoo Society.  However, the Veterinary Record regularly carries notices of homoeopathic courses and meetings, and according to James Randi, the BVA has issued a statement that it considers alternative medicine to be "another weapon in the veterinary surgeon's armoury".  Any alternative method, chaps?

There's not much joy to be had in lecturing committees and chairmen about Avogadro's Law and the forgetfulness of water and the things the immune system doesn't do, never mind the more arcane byways of anthropology and primitive cognition.  Tabling equivalent applications from the BVVS for whatever recognition the homoeopaths are seeking is a lot more fun, and a lot more likely to be listened to.  The longer the list of members, the more credible this becomes.  Please sign up now!

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ULLMAN, D. (1991)  Discovering Homeopathy: Medicine for the 21st Century.  Berkley: North Atlantic Books.