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Your truth or mine

MagazineMarch 1995 (Vol. 5 Issue 12)Your truth or mine

Medicine enjoys a special position in society as one of the sciences

Medicine enjoys a special position in society as one of the sciences. As such, it would appear to be unassailable. After all, as a science it must be a solid house, built slowly and methodically with the bricks of facts and certainties, arrived at af

Because it is a science, it does not need your or my faith or belief. We are dealing here only with the facts, as Dickens's Mr Gradgrind might say. And facts can sometimes be hard taskmasters. A scientist might indisputably prove tomorrow that the moon is indeed made of cheese and shortly will be making a moussaka of the earth. Not a very nice thought to contemplate, and it doesn't benefit anyone, but such is the hard world of facts. Without fear or favour.

With its double blind, placebo studies and its exhaustive testing of drugs in expensive trials, medicine purports to face the same rebuffs and challenges with honesty and to let go of long cherished beliefs if a better and newer truth is discovered.

So when it stumbles on a truth that is unpalatable or even detrimental to its standing, then as a science it embraces the new with good grace.

Enough of theory, and welcome to the real world. A recent study yes, conducted scientifically with the "gold standard" double blind, placebo checks and balances in place showed that homeopathy is truly of benefit; in fact, it was the third study carried out by the same man since 1985 to show exactly the same result. Homeopathy works (see story on this page).

Well, no it doesn't actually. You see, as the leader of the trial was at pains to point out in his conclusion, tests such as these have a habit of producing false positive, or wrong, results. Funny he should raise that point just then, when our solid, scientific house has been built with those bricks of scientific trials for all these years, and nobody has mentioned it before.

Well, better late than never. So who's going to dismantle the house? You or me? (And can you spare a few weekends; it's a big house, after all).

Before we put on the hard hats, medicine (in the shape of the editorial comment of The Lancet) has a few words. "...what could be more absurd than the notion that a substance is therapeutically active in dilutions so great that the patient is unlikely to receive a single molecule of it?...Yes, the dilution principle of homeopathy is absurd; so the reason for any therapeutic effect presumably lies elsewhere."

Wait a minute. Hasn't homeopathy just been scientifically proven (in fact, proven three times)? Yes, but nobody likes the result, it seems. It is unpalatable; it shakes the tree on which we perch. When uncomfortable things like that occur, we all have a wonderful ability to create two truths: yours and mine. Except then it's no longer scientific. Then it requires a leap of faith, just as religion expects of us.

Now whether you make that leap or not is your business. Our job is to point out that that is what you are doing. And if you do feel disenchanted with modern medicine, perhaps you could leap the other way. At least that has been scientifically proven to work.

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