In his latest venture, Dawkins is making a series called ‘The enemies of Reason’ which is to be aired on TV on 13 August, 2007. In this series, Dawkins takes on practices such as astrology, tarot, psychic readings and the topic we recently discussed, homeopathy. I quote from the Sunday Times review on Dawkins’ series:
As Dawkins says: “There might be bad scientists, but that does not mean the methodology of science is bad.” For him the acid test is forever and always: “Test it!” This is a principle totally lacking, he charges, at the Royal London Homeopathic hospital, recently refurbished to the tune of £20m, including £10m from the cash-strapped NHS, and with a plaque certifying the endorsement of the Prince of Wales. (His title for episode two of The Enemies of Reason is The Irrational Health Service.)
What is undisputed is that homeopathy derived from an early misunderstanding of the principle behind vaccination: that like cures like. But actually a real vaccine stimulates the body’s own immune system to fight the disease. What makes homeopathy so truly absurd in Dawkins’s inexorable logic is the idea that a substance becomes more powerful the more it is diluted. The idea, widely believed though totally unproven, is that water retains a “memory” of the molecule, though if it did he points out – as the people of Gloucester might nowadays bear in mind – it would also “remember” the salt, mud and urine it once contained. He cites the statistical probability that “one molecule in every litre of water drunk once passed through the bladder of Oliver Cromwell”. Hardly reassuring for royalists.
“I say to doctors who use homeopathy: if you can identify this you’d have discovered a whole new force in physics. Either there is no effect, in which case you shouldn’t be charging people money, or there is an effect, in which case you should prove it and win the Nobel prize.”
The fact that homeopathic doctors and patients do claim there is a benefit he puts down to the human body’s power to restore itself when given the psychological boost of someone else’s concentrated concern and attention: the average half hour to an hour, rather than the typical eight-minute NHS GP consultation. “There was a time when old-fash-ioned family doctors used to hand out placebos but now they aren’t allowed to because it’s against medical ethics. Now it’s only the homeopaths who are allowed to benefit from the placebo effect.
“Homeopathy started out about 200 years ago at a time when conventional medicine was considerably more dangerous. At least they weren’t applying leeches.” Dawkins insists that phenomena including religion, myths, superstition and science need to be seen in their historical context. He quotes the science fiction author Arthur C Clarke’s Third Law, “any significantly advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”.
“But you can’t simply reverse that and say that because it calls itself magic now it must be future science.”
I am happy that finally such initiatives are taking place and being broadcast on national television…albeit on Channel 4.