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Sunday, 9 November 2008

A League of One's Own

In a feature-length episode of Rosemary and Thyme titled The Memory of Water, I wrote a scene in which one of the characters - a fully-qualified anaesthetist, and like everyone else in a 'tec show a potential suspect - explains over coffee in her kitchen a number of suspicious-looking phials that she keeps in her refrigerator.
Katie’s examining the medicine bottle in the light.

It’s for the children’s little ailments. I make it up myself. Do you know how homeopathy works?
You take a heavily diluted form of something that causes the same symptoms as the disease?
Ah. You’ve done a study.
Just what I read in the magazines.
Of course, when they set the dilution levels, they failed to realise that you’d need to drink eight thousand gallons of the stuff to get one molecule of the additive. So then they came up with the Memory of Water.
I was never that good at science.
They say it doesn’t matter if the additive’s long vanished. The water (gives the bottle a shake) remembers it. Now, when I make up medicine for the children, I take that one stage further. I just show the additive to the water. And then the water (shake) imagines it.
(catching on)
You... don’t believe in any of this, do you?
I do believe in the placebo effect. The power of suggestion. And I don’t imagine plain water ever did much harm to anyone.

So, just to recap... a form of medicine that goes one better than homeopathy, where instead of the water having to 'remember' the nonexistent ingredient, you just show it the ingredient and the water 'imagines' it.

Of course, you do something like this, only to find that life outstrips art. A friend who's a science lecturer at the University of Central Lancashire told me, "I was on a course with a biologist and he'd met a bloke who insisted that all you needed to do was write the name of the chemical structure on a piece of paper and put it under the glass. And the water then reads the chemical structure and puts it into the solution. At the time I said you couldn't make this stuff up - seems I was wrong!"

The University made the headlines earlier this year. They'd been offering a BSc Honours degree in Homeopathic Medicine. Not as a rigorous dissection of a pseudoscience in which philosophical conclusions are transmuted into invented principles, but as "a recognisable academic and professionally recognised course for people interested in pursuing a career in homeopathy."

UCLAN is a former Polytechnic that was awarded university status and has been steadily raising its game to merit the name. Many of the staff were horrified to discover that the course was on offer. Now, as a result of "relentless attacks from the anti-homeopathy league", the course has been suspended.


Caroline said...

Hmmm, I think I might have to take issue with you on this one, Steve! I take it you don't believe in the power of homeopathy then?

I have ME, aka. Chronic Fatigue Syndrome - had it for many, many years. Doctors can do nothing about it, so I tried alternative therapies instead. Most did nothing - but, although homeopathy hasn't cured me (I've probably had the illness far too long for a cure now), it certainly had an effect.

I was very sceptical about it when I first started, but certain remedies which I tried definitely had some effect - for example, helping me sleep better (paradoxically, Chronic Fatigue often involves insomnia!) or improving the associated irritable bowel syndrome (I'm sure you really wanted to know about that, didn't you?!). Some remedies did nothing at all, but I was amazed that some did alleviate certain symptoms for a short while. And that was with me coming to it as a total sceptic - not expecting any results.

So homeopathy DOES have an effect. I've no idea how, but it certainly does SOMETHING.

Stephen Gallagher said...

Caroline, if you're getting genuine benefit, then don't let me be the one to unpick whatever's doing it... I'm sure there's something to be learned from cases like your own and equally sure that it won't be explained by anything involving vibrations, frequencies, or the "memory of water"!

Piers said...

Caroline: If it works for you, it works for you. And that's fine. If you're happy, leave it there.

But if you were curious to check whether it's really the homeopathy, rather than just a placebo effect, why not get a friend to make up two vials for you when you're not looking?

One would be homeopathic, one would be just plain water. And they'd be labelled A and B. And you could see which one worked, or if they both did, or if neither did. And then find out from your friend which was which.

Caroline said...

Thanks chaps! I just wanted to make the point that homeopathy (and other alternative therapies) CAN have beneficial effects - whether we, or the scientific establishment, understand the reasons or not.

It's not really been "working" for me - it just had an effect of some small kind (well, several different effects depending on which remedy the homeopath made up for me!). I'm completly at a loss as to WHY it had any effect. But I'd happily suggest that anyone tries it. Like you said: if it works for someone, then it works! :>)