Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Scientists don't always know best

Sometimes we are duped by charlatans who make us believe they can relieve or cure illnesses
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The Independent Online

My husband is mathematical and rational. Our older son is sharp and analytical. My best friend is a doctor in America, adamantly empirical and a pragmatist. Simon Singh, the brilliant scientist, is a close friend. My daughter, who is excited by physics and engineering, adores Singh and his wife Anita. This column will not go down well with those I love. But then they know I am leery of their scientific certainties.

Sure, reason, experimentation, invention and logic impel progress and lift civilisations out of superstition and fatalism. But humans need more than material betterment and explanations. We have emotions, desires, faith, dreams, uncharted (unchartable) psychological geographies, mysterious physical responses that cannot be validated by scientific methodologies and templates. Such claims for the unknowable and unmeasurable are usually met with friendly pity and mockery or faint scorn. But these days sceptics have acquired a new militancy and stridency.

The strident are much encouraged by Singh's landmark victory over the British Chiropractic Association a few weeks back. He wrote an article rightly attacking those chiropractors who claimed, without providing convincing evidence, that they could cure some chronic childhood illnesses. The professional body took him to court and he spent years and much money trying to defend himself. Though strong and determined and supported by many around the world, it was a terrible ordeal for Singh and his family.

Our libel laws are iniquitous and his win will hopefully lead to changes. People like Singh must be free to investigate alternative therapy practitioners. We need better regulation and in economically straitened times we should debate the wisdom of public funding for complementary medicine. Prince Charles, a man of weird proclivities, used his influence to push homeopathy on to the NHS, a luxury the country cannot afford. However, my worry is that the Singh case has given sceptics licence to dismiss all the professionals working in various sectors of non-traditional medicine and all those who go to them. That can't be right. Particularly offensive is the demeaning language used for patients as well as practitioners.

In 2003, a BBC survey found that the number of people seeking alternative or complementary treatments was rising exponentially. These men and women are not all stupid or guileless. Most have tried "real" doctors and hospitals and often use other treatments to improve their chances. Those of us who suffer from various health problems know well how many drugs and treatments provided by GPs and hospitals can lead to other problems. I owe such treatments my life and believe in what they do, but no medical system can have all the answers all the time.

Sometimes we are duped by charlatans who make us believe they can relieve or cure illnesses. When my son was young and having scary asthma attacks, a friend recommended a Chinese herbalist who sold us some dark stuff that smelt like a sewer. It cost a lot, made no difference, might have been dangerous, and he has never forgiven me. But an acupuncturist cured my aching neck, and arnica and turmeric help heal swellings, and I am convinced that various vitamins and supplements, including cod-liver oil, help keep me healthy.

British Asians use Ayurvedic remedies for headaches, fatigue, nausea and other symptoms. We believe they have worked over thousands of years. So too Chinese medicine. Homeopathy, acupuncture, cognitive behavioural therapy, and yes, chiropractics seem to produce positive results for many people. Maybe it is the placebo effect, mind over matter. But if it produces a change for the better, and there are no discernable dangers, I can't see why those choices should be denied or forced out of existence. Arrogant fanatics want to control and run the world their way. Scientists are not, and should never be, arrogant fanatics.