‘H’ is for ‘homeopathy’ or ‘hoax’ or ‘healing’

snake skin oilI’ve recently discovered the writings of the late John Diamond.

Many in Britain will know who he is, but many more will know him by association: he was married to the celebrity chef, Nigella Lawson, and they had two children together.

Diamond was a prolific journalist and columnist, writing in a very dry and witty manner about a whole range of subjects that caught his attention from bottled water to second-hand cars to Hasidic jews.

Before he became ill with throat cancer, Diamond tackled the subject of alternative medicine in a number of columns, but as he battled against the ravages of his disease, he dedicated his weekly column in The Times to sharing his struggles – without sentimentality or expecting sympathy – and looked deeper into the billion dollar alternative medicine industry, not least because so many of his readers wrote in to suggest alternative ways of fighting his cancer.

He also starting writing a book that had the working title of “An uncomplimentary look at complimentary medicine”

These six chapters along with a selection of his best columns were compiled into a book called “Snake Skin Oil and Other preoccupations“, which I have just finished reading.

In the  unfinished book he attacks homeopathy, along with all the other alternative treatments, calling it a sham with no healing powers whatsoever.

His principal attack against homeopathy is that it defies rationality and that furthermore, it has never been tested, nor will the homeopathic establishment submit it to proper, scientific testing.

This is an extract from his book:

It is a fundamental tenet of homeopathic theory that the active ingredient – arnica, bee venom or whatever it is – must be successively diluted some large number of times  until – all calculations agree – there is not a single molecule of that ingredient remaining. Indeed homeopaths make the claim that the more dilute the more potent it’s action.

This is not just John Diamond’s interpretation of the basis of homeopathy – the dilution of substances – but can be found on Wikipedia, or on the website of the Australian Homeopathic Association and numerous other places. Last year, there was a damning indictment of homeopathy as having no medical basis to heal in a leaked Australian government report last year.

Of course, as Diamond points out, the idea of diluting something until nothing remains defies science, chemistry and modern medicine.

But homeopaths will argue, he says, that it’s effects are physical, not chemical, with some trace memory left behind, a “physically imprinted template” on the water that cures the patient.

Diamond points out there would be a “brand new principle of physics” perhaps even a “new fundamental force in the universe” if this theory of dilution was  proved true.

Excuses made by homeopaths for not having their theories subject to conclusive tests “scrape the bottom of the barrel” including, he says, the homeopathic community’s claim that their theories are “true on a human level and can’t be tested in a laboratory”.

All of this I completely agree with and yet, funny things is, I have my own experience with homeopathy, a treatment I never sought to question at the time (the name sounds so scientific), and which did, by whatever means, make me feel better.

I should give some context.

I was at the time suffering from debilitating panic attacks in London, which were making my life miserable.

I started seeing a cognitive psychologist who suggested I also see a homeopath.

I knew nothing about homeopathy and it was only when I read Diamond’s book that I learned more about it.

Truth be told, when I think back on my consultations with my homeopath, a small, sweet-natured woman, about 50, who worked from a clinic in the East End of London, I remember them very fondly.

She worked from a tiny room up a narrow flight of stairs. I would catch the District Line and get off at Bethnal Green I think to get there.

My first consultation was very much like seeing a psychologist. She asked me to talk about myself and what was troubling me.

I did. I told her my life story.

And she listened.

At the end of it all, she paged through a thick old book with a leather cover and held together with bits of tape.

Then she opened a rectangular wooden box filled with tiny little jars of pills, which all clinked around as she searched for the right one for me.

Each bottle had a little cork stopper on top. She pulled it off and put a few tiny white pills into a small brown envelope with instructions for when to take them.

I remember I was told not to eat an hour after taking one, or some kind of similar instruction.

And you know what, over the sessions I saw her (maybe half a dozen times), I did start feeling better.

But who can say if it was those little pills of apparently nothing (trace memory of something), which contained, who knows what, that helped me get better.

It could have been them I suppose.

Or maybe it was just the soothing manner in which she spoke to me and put me at ease, or the ritual itself of talking, getting things out of me, then waiting as she selected the pills from her enormous box of tiny jars and the clinking, reassuring sounds they made.

Ritual+ placebo = healing?

PS. This is the final column John Diamond wrote before he died, very poignant and worth reading.

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