Thursday, May 24, 2007

Homeopathy and open-mindedness

A number of doctors and scientists have written an open letter as part of their campaign to persuade the NHS to cease providing non-evidence-based, "alternative" medical treatments, including homeopathy.

Also on CiF there's a response from Peter Fisher, which accuses them of closed-mindedness.

I personally don't need persuading of the doctors' case. As one commentator noted below Fisher's article, some kind of testable hypothesis would be nice, maybe an explanation of how the principle of dilution works, because without these I don't see why anyone should feel obliged to take the advocates of this particular brand of 'alternative' medicine seriously.

But what interested me was the idea that 'open-mindedness' per se is a virtue. For this apparently liberal idea has suffered from a sort of concept-inflation. It's a bit like the way 'discrimination' is used nowadays; it is always and everywhere wrong to discriminate, and it is always appropriate to be 'open-minded'.

Any sort of context seems to have been lost. Looking for a partner? Then you better discriminate against the under-16s. Is the earth flat? We really aren't obliged to be 'open-minded' towards people who think this. Apart from anything else, open-mindedness like this must surely be rather inefficient.

Appropriate closed-mindedness allows doctors not to waste time on the possibilities that the patient before them is ill because they were abducted by aliens the previous evening, or they're possessed by a demon, or have been disabled by a witch-doctor or something. And mechanics can fix cars more quickly if they dismiss the suggestion that engine failure is down to fact that the driver's ying was out of sync with his yang.

And appropriate closed-mindedness allows us to dismiss homeopathy. Peter Fisher defends it on the grounds that it doesn't cost much and it's popular - two considerations irrelevant to the scientist. He also claims 'it works'. Not against cancer, it doesn't.

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