Sarah: Last week I spoke about science writing and blogging to postgraduate journalism students at the University of South Australia. Following the lecture, the students and I had a great Q&A session which has now spilled over into email conversations. Here’s one of the written queries I received, and my answer.
Query: Thinking about homeopathy, how does the theory of “like treating like”’ relate to science?
Response: As far as I know, there is no scientific evidence to broadly support the idea of ‘like treating like’.
Treating medical ailments in a scientific manner involves considering what specific mechanism is involved in each case. As an example: for a fever which results from infection with a virus, this involves thinking about how the virus creates changes in the body which elevate temperature. In a nutshell, the virus triggers a response in the body’s immune system. This response includes the release of signalling molecules (known as cytokines) which tell the cells of the immune system to travel to the site of infection, and also coordinate activities which eventually kill the virus (in most cases). Unfortunately the cytokines also lead to a rise in body temperature. So using something like panadol reduces body temperature and pain in a targeted way and without limiting the ability of the cytokines to coordinate immune activity.
However in each treatment there is also a placebo effect. In effect, this refers to the fact that people tend to feel slightly better after taking what they perceive to be a treatment even if that treatment has no actual effect at a biological level. The simple act of believing a treatment is effective actual does have an impact – how much of an impact varies according to the situation. Here’s some more reading: http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2009/10/16/2715696.htm
[image thanks to Sue Clark on flickr]