Amy Jenkins: The writing is on the wall for homeopathy, and not before time

Saturday 27 February 2010 01:00 GMT

It looks like the New Age might be over before it has even begun. Its most high-profile contribution to modern life – the alternative health therapy – is under threat. Science is back in fashion and the forces of rationality are gathering. The fashion for reflexologists, applied kinesiologists and iridologists may finally be drawing to a close.

The term "new age" refers to the astrological Age of Aquarius and, as we know from the song, this is the dawning. (Even though the song dates back to the Sixties, the age is still dawning, apparently. Astrological ages are 2150 years long and they take some time to dawn.) According to astrologers, Aquarius is all about nonconformity – and so we see why the idea of the new age was taken up in the Sixties and then again in the Nineties when we were recovering from Thatcherism.

This week the science writer Simon Singh was in court standing up for his opinion that the British Chiropractic Association shouldn't support "bogus" treatments for children. And a House of Commons science and technology committee has said that the NHS should no longer fund homeopathy treatments (since this gives the impression they actually work). Despite countless studies, it has never been proven that homeopathy is any better than placebo.

Never one to eschew the zeitgeist, I naturally spent the Nineties handing out hundreds of pounds to quacks and charlatans in tasteful Notting Hill therapy centres. People were angry with conventional medicine in those days. The heady days of being grateful that antibiotics had wiped out all sorts of appalling diseases had long gone. The idea was in the air that you were somehow likely to be worse off, rather than better off, if you consulted your GP. Perhaps there was a disillusionment that conventional medicine was in a lull. There were no easy cures for cancer and – now that we were all so healthy – there was plenty of time to grumble about chronic irritations such as indigestion, eczema, infertility and so on.

At any rate, if you had any kind of mild complaint, people told you in no uncertain terms to pull your socks up and cure yourself forthwith. This was done with needles or foot massage or vile teas – you name it. It never worked, but that didn't matter to the therapists because the process was "holistic", ie, if it went wrong it was your own fault. The treatment hadn't worked because you fell off the wagon and ate a burger – or, if it was homeopathy you were trying, then the whole thing came unhinged if you used peppermint toothpaste.

But the reason the alternative community fails to cure is the same reason conventional medicine fails. Doctors have such a hard time with indigestion and eczema and the like precisely because there are no cures. IBS is notoriously complicated and various. Eczema can be controlled with cortisone, but not eradicated. If cancer could be cured by eating vegetables, everyone would eat vegetables and be cured.

I remember once going for "muscle testing" for food allergies. I had to hold a small vial of the suspect food in my hand and then the therapist made me push against her arm and gauged from that whether or not I was allergic to bread. Now I look back, it seems extraordinary that I didn't laugh out loud. I always had doubts, of course, but the idea at the time was that these treatments came from ancient wisdoms and that, if you discounted them, then you were being foolish. Even the NHS sanctions homeopathy, remember.

In fact, applied kinesiology (of which the above muscle test is an example) was invented by a chiropractor in 1964. Reflexology was invented in California in the 1930s by a nurse who massaged patients' feet. Acupuncture, of course, is truly ancient but then so is astrology and nobody really buys that these days. Modern science has never found any evidence of the "meridians" acupuncturists talk about.

Despite the comedy element of alternative therapies, there can be a certain rigour about the treatment that appeals to the masochistic. You often have to give something up, something pleasant, like dairy or red meat. The fantasy in the New Age world is that we can take the healing into our own hands – but if that's the case, then the patient who doesn't heal is at fault. You died from cancer because you didn't do enough positive meditations.

So I'm glad the writing's on the wall for alternative treatments. Nowadays, if I feel tempted to see a quack, I go straight to a website called the Cochrane Collaboration. There they give you a pithy summary of the results of properly conducted clinical trials. Bingo. No more false hope.

No looking back

A survey out this week show that happiness levels peak at 74. In our early adult years we are apparently too preoccupied with ambition and status to be happy. We get happier in our forties and after that, we coast along getting happier and happier as long as we're reasonably healthy.

The only trouble with all this good news about old age is that it tends to get interpreted (by the young mostly) as evidence that the elderly don't actually have to feel old at all.

But the whole point of being old is that you don't have to be young. The movie It's Complicated peddled the dream of oldies smoking dope and having sexy affairs. But surely the old are happy precisely because they've left all that stress behind.

Not so much a 'bottler' as a person with real feelings

If I had painfully split up with a former lover – someone I had a child with – and if that lover had then been gratuitously seduced by someone powerful in my professional world, I wouldn't feel able to go and work as a team with that person. Wayne Bridge has been called a "bottler" for not wanting to play for England in the World Cup on the same team as John Terry, but I think he's courageous for owning up to his feelings.

Among all the trumped-up moral outrage, here is a real person with a real feeling imposing a real consequence. By comparison, Terry's stagey reunion with his wife in soulless Dubai was arid nonsense. But Bridge's response feels inadvisable – a little messy – and very human. Max Clifford said: "I'd have assumed that Wayne Bridge and John Terry would have sorted out their differences man to man." In your media dreams, Max Clifford. Real feelings aren't so easily dealt with.

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