Defend Truth


South Africa’s schools of witchcraft and wizardry

Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets.

You wouldn’t be surprised that there are schools of magic in South Africa. After all, someone has to teach would-be astrologers, sangomas and fortune tellers the tricks of the trade. It is more alarming to learn that real universities participate in the charade. Welcome to the Hogwarts Schools at the University of Johannesburg and Durban University of Technology.

If you ever want to be inundated with magical thinking, just get ill. I had the misfortune to wind up in hospital recently, where I had the good fortune of being treated by qualified experts in medical science.

They impressed me from the outset, because they refused to believe a word I told them. They did not let me self-diagnose. They did not let me self-prescribe. In return, I did them the courtesy of not wasting their time by quoting Wikipedia. I wasn’t paying them for an amateur opinion.

The doctors used sophisticated tests involving advanced chemistry, biology and engineering. They applied deductive reasoning to rule out the more worrying possibilities and reach a diagnosis. Once they knew what they could and could not conclude about what ailed me, they proceeded with treatment. This included pharmaceuticals, of course, but also instructions concerning diet, lifestyle and exercise, as well as how to reduce the dose (and cost) of drugs over time.

“I’m not just saying it would be a good idea for you to do daily cardiovascular exercise,” my doctor memorably told me. “Consider it a prescription.”

This struck me as a sensibly holistic way to approach disease. After all, many things influence the complex organism that is a living human. There were many possible causes for my illness, and many possible contributors to getting better.

However, many well-meaning friends and family volunteered unsolicited advice. They meant something entirely different when they advised that I seek “holistic” treatment. Besides “conventional medicine”, as they call science, they wanted me to consider “alternative medicine”, as they call quackery ranging from reiki to homeopathy.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m perfectly open-minded. I have nothing against “natural remedies”, provided that those remedies have been scientifically proven to work. For example, I will gladly take a tincture prepared from the bark of a willow tree, if I need an anti-coagulant or a fever remedy. Doctors call this herbal remedy “aspirin”. Study after study has proven that it is statistically superior to a placebo in treating a range of common ailments, and medical science has also been able to determine more or less how it achieves this feat. Doctors know, too, that despite its natural origin, it can cause certain harmful side-effects, such as gastric lesions.

The Australian artist and skeptic Tim Minchin uses the aspirin example in a brilliant sketch entitled Storm. He says, “Alternative medicine has either not been proved to work, or been proved not to work. Do you know what they call alternative medicine that’s been proved to work? Medicine.”

It appears I was lucky to find real doctors at the hospital. In South Africa, some so-called “doctors” get taught magical quackery, and by so-called “universities” to boot. End up at the wrong clinic, and you might get prescribed water for serious diseases.

Ariane Meena, a British visitor to South Africa, blogged about her alarming experience at a clinic in KwaZulu-Natal. Not only did doctors with qualifications from the Durban University of Technology prescribe homeopathic remedies, but patients believed they were cured by the homeopathy, instead of the medicine they were also taking.

It’s a great racket, of course, selling overpriced water to poor people, but I wouldn’t say it’s the sort of ethical thing a doctor ought to be doing.

Again, I should be clear. I have nothing against the idea that “like cures like”. I do, after all, believe that vaccination works. But homeopathy does not work like vaccines do. In fact, belief in the magic of homeopathy is inversely correlated with belief in the science of vaccines. Homeopathy’s “law of similars” is nothing but sympathetic magic.

I also do not object to studying ancient wisdom in the hope of learning scientific truths from them. It is certainly plausible that some traditional lore has a basis in scientific fact, and mining such historical knowledge is a worthy avenue of inquiry. But the unscientific musings of an 18th century quack named Samuel Hahnemann, who did not know germs or viruses existed and did not subject his theories to anything we would recognise as objective clinical tests, does not constitute “knowledge”.

Pseudoscience, in the phrase of Michael Shermer, editor of Skeptic magazine and the author of Why People Believe Weird Things, consists of “claims presented so that they appear [to be] scientific even though they lack supporting evidence and plausibility”. By contrast, science is “a set of methods designed to describe and interpret observed and inferred phenomena, past or present, and aimed at building a testable body of knowledge open to rejection or confirmation”.

Not everything that is charming and old must be true, and not every possible hypothesis is valid. Credible universities ought to teach their students why.

The notion that a doctor ought to consider the totality of a patient’s well-being, including psychological and environmental factors, is likewise spot on. But despite the innocent description of homeopathy on the University of Johannesburg website, as “a method of health care that focuses on using natural principles in the treatment of disease”, in which the “approach is holistic, whereby all aspects of the individual are considered before selecting treatment,” that is not all homeopathy claims to do.

The fundamental principles of homeopathy are flagrantly unscientific. Besides the “law of similars”, let’s consider the “law of infinitesimal doses”. It says that the potency of a drug increases the more it is diluted. It is based on the ludicrous idea that a solvent (usually water or alcohol) has “memory” of a substance, even when it has been diluted so much that no trace of the original substance can possibly remain. A typical dilution, advocated by Hahnemann himself, is 30C, which is equivalent to one in 1060. That works out to about one atom in an amount of liquid equivalent to the volume of a thousand suns. If you’re thinking “nonsense”, you’re terribly polite.

A homeopath once explained to me that water has a “crystal structure”, despite its fairly obvious liquid state and the turbulence induced by quaffing and digesting it. Other quacks invoke words that sound impressive to lay people, like nanotechnology or biophotonics or quantum physics, to make it appear they have a clue.

However they cannot explain the unexplainable. Homeopaths imagine water remembers only the herbal infusion with which it was doped, and not the radioactivity, pathogens and poisons that it encountered along the way. Presumably that is because the memory of the herbs is activated by a mystical ritual called “succussion”, which involves stamping a vial of ordinarily forgetful water against a special piece of leather stuffed with horse hair, ten times. If you lack such an instrument, you can use the palm of the hand.

Such ritualistic appeals to magic, and claims that modern science simply doesn’t know everything, should be grounds for deep skepticism. And I use that phrase only to avoid the term “bullshit”.

A detailed rebuttal of every claim that homeopaths make is beyond the scope of this column. Many studies in many countries have concluded that there is no evidence that homeopathy is more effective than a placebo in the treatment of any particular condition. What little clinical research does exist in the field of homeopathy is of questionable quality, according to an analysis by Edzard Ernst, published in the Skeptical Inquirer. To be fair, homeopathy can, despite its ineffectiveness, sometimes be beneficial, as Ben Goldacre explains in the Lancet, but only in the sense that it can be better to give someone with an untreatable condition a sugar pill than to risk treating them with a dangerous experimental drug.

The Homeopathic Association of South Africa offers a 63-page report entitled Scientific Framework of Homeopathy: Evidence Based Homeopathy 2012. Despite its grand title, it contains no actual evidence. It goes on about “traditional medicine”, lists which countries regulate or teach it, explains why patients ought to be free to choose their poison, and theorises about why a belief in the irrational is not unethical. It is essentially a very long report that says, “We have no clue, but don’t judge us, dude.”

It concludes with a series of puzzling non sequiturs: “The facts presented in this report are consistent. Homeopathy must be accepted in the scientific framework of medicine, especially in the general medical practice framework. Research must be supported and amplified. Objective information is needed for patients. Education in homeopathy is encouraged in the framework of medicine.”

It does not explain anything. Magic, see?

There are many sources for rebuttals to such arguments as, “But it works on my baby, and it cured my horse!” In short: No it doesn’t. It works on you, and because believing in magic puts you in your special happy place, your horse may appear healthier to you, and your baby may be less stressed. There’s even a good answer to the claim that if homeopathy is nothing but water and sugar pills, where’s the harm? Here: dead people.

No, modern science doesn’t know everything. But that does not mean anything can be true, if only you wish hard enough, or dissemble learnedly for 63 pages. This isn’t just scientific bias against obviously unscientific things. As Shermer points out, cold fusion is an eminently scientific concept and highly desirable idea, but it is not widely accepted by scientists for the simple reason that its possibility has not been shown.

A university that teaches astrology, palmistry and ghost-busting would not be worthy of the name “university”. If it charged a fee to have a psychic explain how crystal balls are explained by hyper-quantum nanotrigonometry, it would be guilty of fraud. It would not be a scientific institution, but a school of magic.

Why, then, do our universities offer studies in homeopathy? One might hope that the other courses that pad the homeopathy qualifications – subjects like chemistry, physics, anatomy, physiology, pathology and diagnostics – might convince prospective students that what they’re learning in “clinical homeopathy” is outright fraud. Meena’s experience suggests otherwise, however. Even education cannot cure magical thinking.

It is a disgrace that South African universities teach homeopathy. It is a waste of taxpayer money, which we can ill afford to spend indulging spoilt hippies. It is a dangerous fallacy for ignorant patients who suffer from serious diseases like malaria and HIV. Anti-scientific nonsense that puts lives at risk does not merit the imprint of authority that a formal qualification confers.

The University of Johannesburg and the Durban University of Technology’s homeopathy departments should be called the Hogwarts Schools of Witchcraft and Wizardry. They are tax-funded schools for fraudulent quacks. DM


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