Category: Pseudoscience

Views on the Homeopathic Emergency Room

Okay, I’m pretty sure that many readers will already have seen this video, presenting a depiction of a “Homeopathic A&E” (i.e., ER) by comedians David Mitchell and Robert Webb. After all, at the time of writing, it had accumulated over 1,000,000 hits on YouTube. However, it is certainly worth storing here for posterity.

As it happens, the title of “Homeopathic A&E” is a bit of a misnomer. Considering the script, this emergency room offers far more than just homeopathy. The physicians here invoke a wider range of paradigms in their treatment of their dying patient, including chakra balancing, flower remedies, crystal therapy, astrology, magnetic therapy (you need to be eagle-eyed to spot this one), “scream” thearapy (this one also), psi-cology (ditto), herbal medicine (again ditto), and even palmistry.

On the one hand this gathering together of multiple modalities is informative, because it reflects a level of theoretical confusion and non-discernment that is very typical in the real world of complementary medicine (in which practitioners regularly offer directly incompatible therapies to the same client). On the other hand, it also reflects the smokescreen problem that allows complementary practitioners to so easily deflect criticisms: they often dismiss attempts to conduct empirical research into complementary medicine on the basis that standardized studies do not capture the (holistic) complexity of a standard treatment situation.

Not surprisingly, even in this fictitious account, the therapies on hand are ineffective in treating the patient. Indeed, the back story, which reveals that the homeopathic A&E regularly fails in its attempt to treat real medical conditions, results in the best line, where one practitioner seeks to console the other with the following reassurance:

“Okay. So you kill the odd patient with cancer or heart disease. Or bronchitis, flu, chicken pox, or measles. But when someone comes in with a vague sense of unease, or a touch of the nerves, or even just more money than sense, you’ll be there for them…”

Pretty much captures it, really.

On jargon

It is true that science is more about falsifiability, objectivity, and empiricism, and less about white coats, bunsen burners, and laboratories. However, it is certainly the case that the common stereotyped view of most people is that  science focuses more on these latter superficialities than on the philosophical underpinnings. One feature of science that pseudoscientists often attempt to imitate is its use of technical language, or “jargon”.

It is often said that a precise technical vocabulary is necessary, but not sufficient, for good science.  This means that developing an extensive lexicon of technical-sounding terms might be a feature of science—but on its own it doesn’t amount to science. Unfortunately, pseudosciences often take advantage of the public stereotypes of science and scientists and develop strange but technical sounding terms to describe what it is that they do. Thus acupuncturists talk about “meridiens”, chiropractors talk about “subluxations”, and homoeopaths talk about “succussions”, despite the fact that these technical-sounding terms are so poorly defined as to be virtually meaningless.  However, without background knowledge, the general public often considers such technical-sounding vocabulary to be an indication that the practitioner knows what they are talking about and that the activity concerned is scientific. Continue reading “On jargon”

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