Last month North and South magazine had a feature on Alternative medicine which sensibly pointed out the unlikelihood that many such treatments work, including homeopathy. In the letters section of this months magazine there are letters both applauding and condemning the article.
One article, written by “Diane Willcock, MSc, PhD”, criticized the article and claimed that homeopathy was “developed using rigorous scientific method then goes on to use what I call the Galileo defence, as follows:
“It is no surprise that there are sceptics and hecklers – history is replete with rejections, denials and ridiculing of people and their discoveries and theories that did not fit the current mindset. Some examples: Galileo propounded the theory that the earath goes around the sun; his fellow scientists wouldn’t even look through his telescope to see the evidence. George Ohm (of Ohm’s law) had his publication dismissed as a “tissue of naked fantasy.” Ignaz Semmelweis, who suggested that surgeons who had been tending to septic wounds should wash their hands before assisting at births, was derided and ended up in a mental asylum; the Wright brothers flew their plane in public for a year and were dubbed the “Lying Brothers” by Scientific American magazine, which did not so much as send a reporter for a look. Scepticism is healthy, simply denying the evidence is not.”
Let me begin by breaking down these examples.
First, there were other scientists who saw the sense of Galileo’s observations. The pressure to suppress Galileo’s work came from the Catholic church, not from the scientific community. Likewise, in the case of the Wright brothers it was a magazine, not scientists who cast doubt on their achievement; doubt that was soon set aside given the overwhelming evidence of their flight.
In the case of George Ohm, I am not aware of the accusation that his work was a “tissue of naked fantasy”, but history shows that within TEN YEARS of publication his work was recognized for its importance contribution.
Similarly, with Semmelweis, although he was viciously hounded by the medical profession at the time, within FIVE years Lister was using carbolic as a disinfectant and Pasteur was formulating his germ theory.
Unlike these examples, homeopathy has been around for TWO HUNDRED years, and despite repeated trialing has proven to have no use greater than a placebo. It has not provided effective treatments for major diseases, such as sepsis, cancers or cardiac arrest. Rather it lurks in the background “treating” self limiting conditions.
It is true that some of the greatest discoveries in history have been initially been dismissed as absurd or ridiculous. However, it does not follow that if you are told that your idea is absurd or ridiculous, it must therefore be a great discovery. As Carl Sagan so aptly put it – “they laughed at Galileo. They laughed at Newton. They also laughed at Bozo the Clown.”