My Debate with a Naturopath
A few years ago I retired from teaching chemisty at our local high school. The philosophy teacher there structures debates for his class. Each pair of students picks a topic and asks a local "expert" to participate. The most recent topic was whether naturopathy is more effective than "mainstream" medicine. The teacher recommended that a student contact me to debate a local naturopathic "doctor" and I agreed.
She began by outlining her education; an undergraduate degree in biology and several years of naturopathic schooling. She said, or at least implied, that she had as much medical knowledge as a mainstream doctor. Her presentation revolved around the idea that ordinary medicine had failed her patients who, she said, were "sick of being sick." She treated each patient as a "whole person." She said that mainstream doctors and the pharmaceutical industry don't want us to know the truth, and that it's all about money with them.
One of the first points I made was that there was no scientific evidence that the "vital force" that naturopaths talk about exists. I pointed out that it can't be observed or measured. Her response was, "Why should it have to be measured?" She said that when one has a cut in the skin, this "force" causes the blood to clot and heal the cut. I didn't want to be rude, so I decided not to question the value of a B.Sc. in biology that had not taught a graduate to understand the basic clotting mechanism.
I thought it might be useful to demonstrate the foolishness of homeopathy, which naturopathic schools teach in several coures. I displayed a flask with dark purple potassium permanganate solution in it. I told the students that this solution is poisonous, and that first I was going to make it stronger and then drink it. I took a few drops of this solution and diluted it with a couple of hundred milliliters of water. I told them that I was going to increase its strength by shaking it in a special way. I then took a couple of drops of this, and repeated the process. After doing tthis a few more times, I drank the resulting solution and told them to get ready to call 911.
Of course, several students were laughing at this, but I turned to the "doctor" and asked, "did I do this correctly?" She replied that each step with its special shaking was called a "succussion" and that basically I had the right idea. I remarked, "So it is possible to make a substance stronger by diluting it to infinity?" and she said it was. Her next remark was that she was just as astounded about homeopathy when she first learned it in school, but the point was that we didn't need to understand HOW it worked—all we had to do was observe that it does.
I tried to bring up the usual ideas of double-blind scientific studies being needed and the placebo effect. She replied that homeopathy works with animals that can't be affected by the placebo effect, and also pointed out that with her own child she observed immediate relief of teething pain when administered homeopathic medicine. She rejected the idea that a baby might be soothed by attention and even a few drops of water administered by her mother.
I kept my cool fairly well until a student brought up the question of vaccinations. She had heard that they cause autism. I referred the class to the Quackwatch website and asked them to read the research on this. I then told the class that many of them were sitting there alive and well because they had been vaccinated as infants. I told them how wonderful it was that they had not even heard of childhood diseases like whooping cough, dyphtheria, polio, and others that killed many children a couple of generations ago. The naturopath then commented that these people should at least have the right to choose; they could choose to come to her for naturopathic preventions of these diseases instead of vaccinations. This is when I lost my cool; I raised my voice and implored the class, "PLEASE, when you are parents in a few years, take them to a pediatrician and have them vaccinated!"
I was both pleased with how the class went and somewhat discouraged. I believe that my demonstration reached some of the students. However, a few thought that there "had to be something to it" when these succussions were performed in the correct way, and a couple asked for her card afterwards and whether they could visit her at her office. Of course she was quite receptive to this idea. How sad that the easiest quackery of all to destroy with visible evidence—homeopathy—can still be accepted by a few who have seen the evidence. Imagine how easily they may be taken in by the rest of the nonsense that naturopathy offers.
Mr. Fowler is a retied chemistry teacher who resides in Fenwick, Ontario.
This article was posted on August, 8, 2009.