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The Independent has a good medical column br Dr Fred Kavalier. The column has an insert for readers’ letters. On 1st August 2006 the ‘readers write’ section had this letter “I know homeopathy has taken a bit of a bashing recently but homeopathic remedies for travel sickness have a long and excellent reputation for working. The most important ones are cocculus, petroleum and tabacum.”.
Dr Kavalier was appropriately apologetic about this, and published my response on 15th August.

Readers write

DC, a scientist from London, replies to last week’s homeopath:
“The homeopath from Devon commented last week that ‘homeopathy has taken a bit of a bashing recently’. So it should. Selling pills that contain nothing whatsoever but sugar as medicines isn’t just delusional, it’s fraud. One of the recommendations for travel sickness was for cocculus. That is a plant that contains the poisonous alkaloid, picrotoxin. Luckily, the label on the bottle is untrue and the pills contain none. Travel sickness is known to be influenced by expectations. That makes it a good candidate for placebo effects. And also good for the income of charlatans.”

The question of where delusion ends and fraud begins is an interesting one. A book by Robert Park of the American Physical Society discusses the question particularly well.

Voodoo Science: the road from foolishness to fraud (Oxford
University Press) is an excellent read. [Amazon].

Robert Park deals with everything from perpetual motion macines to homeopathy. His thesis is that those who propagate these ideas often start with a genuine belief that what they say is true. Rejection of the ideas by sensible people just makes them more determined. Eventually, though, it probably dawns on many of them that they have made a terrible mistake. At this point, some recant, but more often they have so much reputation to defend, and frequently too much income to protect, that they will continue to propagate their ideas even after they have realised that they are wrong.

That is when foolishness becomes fraud.  I have often wondered how many middle-aged homeopaths still really believe their own nonsense?

“Alas, to wear the mantle of Galileo it is not enough that you be persecuted by an unkind establishment; you must also be right.” (Robert Park)

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