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Homeopathy and the Central Powers of Quack

Fake Quack Violates Patient

I took this picture about a year ago with the intention to mail it to Ben Goldacre, but lost track of it soon after. When I migrated to Mac last week, I came across it once again—but now I can’t find the Bad Science post anymore I had hoped to be able to illustrate!

This curious misuse of the word falsch—fake—keeps tingling. It’s like listening to people talking about “bogus counterfeit” or “false imitation.” But it’s actually quite scary how many people in Germany believe that homeopathy, the All-time King of Bogus Medicine, actually does anything except what water always does. The German magazine Spiegel confronted the matter in this week’s issue (German language), and, rejoice!, there seems to be an initiative afoot, see the English language article Homeopathy Targeted in Debate on Health Care Spending, to follow Britain’s NHS’s footsteps and stop providing superstitious quackery as a subsidized prescription drug.

Or take Austria, where I was horrified to read today that, at the Children’s University Vienna, children are primed for quackery in “TCM” indoctrination courses—if you read German, check out Florian Freistetter’s blog post Pseudowissenschaft an der Kinderuni Wien at Astrodicticum Simplex. And he came up with some shocking numbers, too: as reported, 84 % of Germans are either active users of homeopathy or might use it at some point in the future!

Of course, not everybody realizes what homeopathy really is; as Freistetter puts it, many people think it’s a kind of “gentle herbal medicine,” or »sanfte Pflanzenmedizin«. They just don’t realize that it’s pure magic and superstition all the way down. I choose “don’t realize” instead of “don’t know” because I do not think that, in many cases, it is a problem of not enough knowledge, or of information or misinformation. It’s a story people want to tell themselves, sometimes desperately so, and an epistemic problem too. It’s related to what Daniel Dennett calls the “Belief in Belief” phenomenon: besides the still sizeable amount of people who know exactly what homeopathy is and actively believe in its magic, there are many people who, in contrast, just vaguely believe that CAM in general and homeopathy in particular is a good thing. Because otherwise Big Pharma would take over; because they think CAM’s completely bogus “holistic” approach is an important alternative to the purportedly “reductionist” approach of science-based medicine; and because the seemingly “natural” explanations of how CAM works eliminate the troublesome and unpleasant “but how do they know that and how can I trust them” question menacingly attached to modern, science-based medicine and how it works.

Add to that the pressure they’re put under by friends and acquaintances who swear it worked for them and who didn’t believe in it either at first (the powerful conversion-type story), which the majority of people is utterly unable to object to, or even so much as discuss, without fear of being offensive. And there you have it: a whole lineup of mechanisms that effectively work toward a powerful intrinsic motivation to not inform oneself too deeply about what homeopathy really is, or even actively evade such information as it’s freely disseminated and available everywhere.

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