Homeopathy losing ground in Italy August 22, 2007Posted by dorigo in news, physics, science.
For the series “let’s cheer up if we can”, a small reason to be optimistic about the future of mankind -or at least, of my sorry country- came today, when I read on the italian newspaper “La Repubblica” that my fellow citizens seem to be slowly withdrawing from curing their diseases with homeopathic drugs and other alternative treatments.
Homeopathy is founded on nasty pseudo-science, and is a big business – as anything pharmaceutical companies handle. The idea is that diseases can be cured by assuming microscopic amounts of substances which in larger amounts cause the same symptoms of the disease. The preparation of the drug is usually performed by dissolving ridiculously small amounts of the active substance in water, and then shaking it such that water will “retain a memory” of the molecular structure it was in contact with. The whole concept is at odds with hundreds of years of studies of chemistry, physics, and medicine: which only shows how, if you take a lie and shout it loud enough and long enough, you will get somebody to believe it. The situation is made worse by the human mechanisms of attaching hope to whatever treatment they are subjected to: the very well known “placebo effect”.
According to a research performed by the italian ISTAT (national institute of statistics) quoted in the article, the estimated 8.2 million users of homeopathic drugs in 2000 (a huge number, reached at the peak of a boom in Italy) have gone down to 7 million in five years. A drop of 15% which does not mean collapse but still smells of crisis. Of those seven million users, the large majority say they integrate homeopathic and other “alternative” treatments with more conventional drugs – maybe a sign that, when a bacterial infection is in progress in your kid’s lungs, you are more likely to come to your senses.
More depressing is to know, however, that there is a sick correlation between the instruction level and the use of alternative treatments to standard drugs: twice as many people who completed high-school studies or got a bachelor have used alternative medicine than people who abandoned school earlier. Among the categories that make most use of homeopathy and other non conventional treatments, businessmen and white collars are above 20%, while blue-collar workers are at 12.5%. The picture of the homeopathic drug user is clear: the peak usage is in the category of women between 33 and 44 years of age, with a high level of instruction, and living in northern Italy.
I read the 15% decrease in the use of homeopathic treatment with some caution, anyway. A factor which has to be taken into account with care is the strong decrease in buying power between 2000 and 2005, brought about by the introduction of the new unified european currency in 2002. Homeopathic treatments are usually more expensive in my country than regular drugs, although many of them can be obtained through prescription; they also last longer. So it is unclear by how much the decrease of users is really due as I hope to an increased understanding of the total ineffectiveness of these substances. For sure, in 2004 the italian Superior Health Council has done its part, by inviting pediatricans to be careful when prescribing homeopathic treatment to children.
I am curious to know if any of my readers who consider themselves true scientists one way or another (a nice way to say I accept PhDs and also crackpots with a ToE in their pocket to speak up, or even internationally acclaimed string theorists) have used with confidence homeopathy to cure themselves or their relatives in the past. In fact, while I am with Feynman when he says “I believe that a scientist looking at non scientific problems is just as dumb as the next guy”, I hope the same can’t be said by “a scientist looking at scientific problems just outside his narrow field of research”!