The shibboleth of homeopathy

I’ve written before (though not here) about the smugness of your average self-declared “sceptic”. The kind of person who puts “atheist” in their Twitter bio as if “not believing in God” counts as a proper hobby. The internet is absolutely crawling with them.

And of course all online communities have their shibboleths. In the left-leaning communities, it’s the BNP. Making an anti-BNP comment, however obvious or fatuous, marks you out as one of the gang. Hating the BNP is easy, sure, but that’s kind of the point. You might disagree on education or immigration or cycling, but you can all agree on hating the BNP. How very cosy. (The Daily Mail, ditto.)

I can’t believe how long it’s taken me to spot that homeopathy serves exactly the same function among internet “sceptics”. In the past few weeks I’ve heard several friends expressing doubt about an ethical bank because it funds homeopathy, and another friend saying she’s unsubscribed from a vegan newsletter because they ran a pro-homeopathy article. Yes, the ethical bank also supports windfarms and fair trade and third world development projects. Yes, the vegan newsletter probably also offers a wealth of interesting content and support for a vegan lifestyle. But still, the perceived evil of homeopathy definitively overrides the good bits for one friend and plunges the others into a quagmire of ethical dithering.

To me, that’s hard to understand, because in these examples the good still so clearly outweighs the bad. Of course homeopathy is a load of rubbish. Of course it’s been debunked again and again. And yes, it can be dangerous. But I don’t believe that’s why it attracts such horror and ridicule on the internet, to the point where people (like me) who spend half their lives on the internet are trained to hear loud alarm bells when it’s mentioned.

It’s because homeopathy is a shibboleth. It’s a handy way of othering certain groups to show your membership of your own group. And it’s easy to laugh at the misguided flakes who use it, even when they’re misguided flakes driven to desperation by chronic pain. Maybe they’re misguided flakes who are frightened of mainstream medical treatment because they’ve had a traumatic experience that destroyed their trust. Chortle! The hilarious fools!

Even if you’re not that cruel, you’re still discouraged from showing empathy for homeopathy users because you know you’ll be jumped on if you express a nuanced view. You can’t say something like “We need to look at why people use homeopathy”, or criticise mainstream medicine in the context of the rising popularity of alternative medicine, because there are so many people out there itching to find a homeopathy advocate to argue with. And even though you’re not a homeopathy advocate, they’ll turn you into one for the purposes of winning an argument with you. Up to now, I’ve avoided blogging about homeopathy for the same reason I don’t blog about economics; I can’t face dealing with the comments of people who see certain keywords and joyfully jump in to say I’m stupid without actually listening to what I’m saying.

Mocking homeopathy on the internet is a way of asserting your identity as a rational, ethical person. It suggests you’re worthy to follow in the footsteps of the sainted Ben Goldacre, even though you don’t have his medical qualifications or his talent. Showing contempt for one minor, specific piece of flakery is a way of joining the right-about-everything club. You look like a free-thinker without actually challenging the views of anybody around you. It’s a sweet, easy pill to swallow.

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3 Comments on “The shibboleth of homeopathy”

  1. jgp Says:

    Good point. I have no time for homeopathy per se, but you are right that we should think about why people use it. Maybe they are being fooled, but as you say, maybe they are in chronic pain and are clutching onto anything that might help.

    I use a chriopractor regularly and it makes a great difference for my jaw and back. But Ben Goldacre says its crap. Maybe it is, but it works for me whereas nothing else a GP or medical specialist has ever done has helped. Apart from getting me to take lots of pain killers.

    Well thought-out piece. Given me pause to reflect.

    • gryphon Says:

      Thanks for your comment. Thanks especially for understanding what I was trying to get across!

    • gryphon Says:

      I also meant to add: you probably know this already, but Goldacre’s problem with chiropractors wasn’t that they claim to help people with back or jaw pain – I think everybody, including Goldacre, accepts that they do indeed help with musculoskeletal pain. His problem was that they were claiming to treat other things, such as ear infections and colic in babies, through chiropractic. And when science writer Simon Singh criticised them for this, they brought in the lawyers to shut him up. (He won.) I think Goldacre’s problem was with their bullying behaviour and refusal to engage with the facts, rather than with their skill at their core job.


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