Why do people turn their backs on mainstream medicine and put their trust in unproven remedies not attested by science? The question came to the fore recently when the NHS announced that a major centre of homeopathy in London will no longer be allowed to spend NHS money on homeopathic remedies. Under NHS rules GPs are no longer allowed routinely to prescribe homeopathic remedies. Simon Stevens, chief executive of NHS England, has described homeopathy as 'at best a placebo and a misuse of scarce NHS funds'. (1)
Even so, alternative remedies with no basis in science have influential advocates. The MP David Tredinnick, a passionate advocate of homeopathy, recently asked a parliamentary question of the Health Secretary. Now that Britain is leaving the UK, he wanted to know, would it be possible for the NHS to build closer ties with traditional Chinese medicine. (2) CMF has published a useful introduction to issues relating to alternative medicine. (3)
Britt Marie Hermes has achieved notoriety in the USA and gained a lot of media attention here in the UK. Some years ago she made a sudden transition from naturopath practitioner to sceptic. Her blog, Naturopathic Diaries, (4) has gained a huge following in the sceptic community.
She devotes much of the space to unmasking remedies which she judges to be scams. In the process, however, she has angered some proponents of alternative medicine. She is currently being sued for defamation by a naturopath and so far has crowdfunded nearly $40,000 from fellow sceptics to fight her case. Hermes observes that many ordinary people are credulous. 'It is surprisingly easy to sell snake oil,' she says. 'I have done it.'
So back to the question: why do people persist in pursuing alternative cures when the medical profession dismisses them? It often happens when disillusion sets in about conventional medicine, particularly when all possibilities for conventional treatments seem to be exhausted. Or it happens where people have come to believe alternate narratives about health and well-being and the mantra that 'nature is better'.
Hermes says the potential shortcomings of conventional medicine are seldom acknowledged as a motivation for people to seek out alternatives. And sceptics, not least in the scientific community, often focus only on debunking quack remedies rather than trying to understand why people seek alternatives in the first place.