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Monday, March 24, 2008 

Take me out to the crucifixion.

It being Easter, when we duly celebrate Christ's agonising death by devouring chocolate eggs, the media seems to assume that you've gone soft enough in the head to also not feel queasy about swallowing some little short of bigoted views (main and repeat offender Cardinal Keith O'Brien) and then those hollowed out enough in an attempt not to offend but which nonetheless do exactly that.

First up the Grauniad foists on us the delectable Madeleine Bunting, who can, on occasion, produce the odd piece of some worth. Not this time round, where she's saluting the joys of "complementary" (read: alternative) medicine and remarking on the amazing powers of the placebo, via a BBC 2 programme called "Alternative Therapies" starring scientist Kathy Sykes:

Tonight she examines reflexology, and gives it pretty short shrift. There are 30,000 reflexologists working on a million British feet a year. They base their work on a theory that parts of the sole of the foot correlate to organs in the body. The only problem is that Sykes could find no one, reflexologist or scientist, who could explain how these correlations might work. Furthermore, it turned out that this "ancient" healing system seems to have originated with an imaginative American woman in the 1930s. But patients swear by it. One reflexologist points Sykes to her annual garden party full of babies and children as evidence of the success she has had with infertility problems. This is the point where most scientists snort with derision at the use of personal anecdote as evidence, but Sykes presses on and it takes her into two areas of scientific research. First, she digs up new research on the importance of touch, which can have a profound impact on the brain. Even the hand of a stranger reduces anxiety and that of someone with whom one has a close relationship is even more significant. In fact, Sykes finds some scientific underpinning which goes beyond placebo in many of the therapies she looks at. But it is placebo which emerges as a recurrent and crucially important thread in her quest, and it leads her to the work of several American scientists who are trying to identify what placebo is, who it works for, and why it works.

Bunting is both overselling herself and ignoring the key worry that the vast majority have over homoeopaths and all the rest of the alternative clique. Very few of use could care less if someone wants to piss all their money up all the wall on water where less than 00.1% of it is the active homoeopathic ingredient, having someone stick needles up their arse or on foot massages if it's for something that isn't life threatening or for where medication's efficacy is either unproven or doesn't work for everyone; it's when it goes further and starts making claims for treating disease that it needs to be swiftly kicked into touch. It's also not as if it's only a tiny minority of snake-oil merchants looking to profit from their own cures; Newsnight's survey of homoeopaths who only recommended their "treatment" prior to someone going on holiday to Africa, as opposed to the malarial and other jabs given by doctors showed that there's a lot who are potentially giving highly dangerous advice. When reflexologists and the like go around claiming that it's their treatment which is helping with fertility problems, it's taking advantage of those who are desperate to have children, and it's only a few steps from there to making even bigger, bolder claims.

Quite why Sykes needed to dig up new research on the reassurance and comfort which touch gives is unclear also, as it's long been established that human interaction is beneficial for almost all slight ailments. It's the same reason why those with depression get onerously ordered to "exercise". The headline for the article, which probably wasn't Bunting's work to be fair, is also a straw man. No one is pouring "wholesale scorn" on complementary medicine, for the very reasons Bunting outlines, because of how little we still currently understand the placebo effect. Ben Goldacre has written about it at length, for example. There's a very long way from there however to Bunting's claims towards the end about "complementary" medicine and mental health because of conventional medicine's failures: Bunting mentions the recent meta-analysis on the anti-depressants, but doesn't make clear that for the depression they were developed for they do indeed work.

Bunting also doesn't mention how a previous series involving Sykes had a number of serious complaints upheld against it, with those involved in the programme itself disillusioned by it:

"The experiment was not groundbreaking, its results were sensationalised and there was insufficient time to analyse the data properly and so draw any sound conclusions. It was oversold and over-interpreted. We were encouraged to over-interpret, and proper scientific qualifications that might suggest alternative interpretations of the data appear to have been edited out of the programme. Because the BBC had funded the experiment, they wanted their money's worth - that's not a good basis for science."

Both the conventional and the "complementary" medicine industries have their own failings and foibles, but I know which I'd depend on when it came down to it.

Bunting's article is nothing though compared to the chutzpah on behalf of Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor, who opens his article on the evils of atheistic secularism thusly:

Two months ago I was in Zimbabwe, to see for myself the desperate situation of so many people and to offer my support and solidarity. It was a deeply moving experience. Many of those living with HIV/Aids are now too malnourished to take the drugs they need, though they have them. I asked Sister Margaret McAllen, director of an Aids programme in Harare, what she could do. She replied: "How can we give hope to people in such a desperate situation? Through love. Change comes through love." Sister Margaret may sound like a romantic, but I know she is a very practical realist. Her faith is no obstacle to facing the most horrendous facts: it is a resource with which to change them.

Surprisingly, nowhere in the article is it mentioned that the Catholic church, through its condemnation of contraception and promotion of abstinence programmes, damns more in Africa to the ravages of HIV/Aids than if it changed one or more of its doctrines for the common good. It's not atheistic secularism that's killing the human spirit, it's the Catholic church which is in many cases doing nothing to stop the killing of the human wholesale.

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