Alternative medicine: the pros and cons

Saturday 30 October, 12.15pm until 1.15pm, Lecture Theatre 1

Alternative medicine in the UK has been dealt a heavy blow over recent months. As hundreds of sceptics gathered outside Boots chemist stores to stage a ‘mass overdose’ to prove that such remedies were ‘nothing more than sugar pills’, the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee’s report on the funding of homeopathy by the NHS was concluding that the government should cease its funding of homeopathy. Meanwhile the legal case du jour, the libel case brought against scientist and writer Simon Singh by the British Chiropractic Association, saw Singh and therefore ‘pro-science’ champions emerge triumphant.

But despite this setback, alternative medicines are on the rise with the total market in the UK alone thought to be approximately £1.6 billion, and the new coalition government is continuing to make homeopathic treatments available on the NHS. In the United States more than 80 million adults are thought to use some type of alternative medicine, from herbs and megavitamins to yoga and acupuncture. Patients too report that such treatments make them feel better, even if there is a lack of evidence to explain why. In India alternative medicines are enjoying a renaissance, with the government’s Ministry of Health and Family Welfare recently announcing that it would be taking significant steps to promote ‘Indian Systems of Medicine’, including spending over £10 million on the promotion of AYUSH (Ayurveda, Yoga & naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy). While strong pro-science criticism has been waged at this move, supporters argue that Western medical bias is acting in the interests of the pharmaceutical industry.

In both India and the UK lies an important paradox. A half-century that has seen remarkable medical advances has not succeeded in eliminating complementary medicine. In fact quite the reverse: the breakthroughs in conventional medicine have been accompanied by the proliferation of other forms of healing - many of which have little or no scientific evidence base to prove their efficacy. Do attitudes to Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) reflect a Western arrogance and bias for conventional medicine? Does it matter that CAM is not based on conventional science, as long as it works, or even as long as people believe it works? Or do we need to uphold scientific evidence as the basis for healthcare? Does the debate around alternative medicine point to a wider disillusionment with the gains of science, both in India and the UK?

Listen to session audio:


Anil Gupta
professor, Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad; founder, Honey Bee Network; executive vice chair, National Innovation Foundation

Tim Parks
novelist, essayist and translator; author of Teach Us to Sit Still: a sceptic’s search for health and healing and Dreams of Rivers and Seas; associate professor of English and translation, IULM University, Milan

Dr George Thomas
orthopaedic surgeon; editor, Indian Journal of Medical Ethics

Professor Sir Mark Walport
director, Wellcome Trust; Government Chief Scientific Adviser (from April 2013)

Helen Birtwistle
history and politics teacher, South London school

Produced by
Helen Birtwistle history and politics teacher, South London school
Recommended readings
Alternative medicine council ousts critic

'Ofquack' dismisses professor who claims 'reflexology is bollocks

Paul Jump, Times Higher Education, 27 August 2010

DH commits to continue NHS funding of homeopathy

NHS funding for homeopathic treatments will continue, despite a highly critical report published by MPs earlier this year.

Adrian O'Dowd, onmedica, 27 July 2010

Homeopathy remains on NHS

The Department of Health based its decision to continue funding homeopathy on “choice”, not efficacy, reported newspapers.

NHS Choice, 27 July 2010

Teach Us to Sit Still: A Sceptic's Search for Health and Healing

Bedevilled by a crippling condition which nobody could explain or relieve, Tim Parks confronts hard truths about the relationship between the mind and the body, the hectic modern world and his life as a writer.

Tim Parks, Harvill Secker, 1 July 2010

'Alternative' Medicine Is Mainstream

The evidence is mounting that diet and lifestyle are the best cures for our worst afflictions.

Deepak Chopra, Wall Street Journal, 10 January 2009

Care or concern?

Just how safe is alternative medicine? In the second extract from their book, Professor Edzard Ernst and scientist Simon Singh explain how ‘natural’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘safer’

Edzard Ernst and Simon Singh, Calcutta Telegraph, 6 May 2008

`Every tradition has its dark side'

The past cannot be romanticised, says noted sociologist, psychologist and writer Ashis Nandy. All talk about traditional systems of knowledge is not honest. For instance, the BJP and Sangh Parivar go on and on about tradition. But why do they discard our traditional systems of knowledge for resistance to external aggression and violence -- expounded by Gautam Buddha or Gandhi -- in favour of ultra-modern nuclear technology?

Parshuram Ray, Centre for environment and food security, January 2001

The Philosophical Surgeon

In defence of scientific medicine

Michael Baum, Manifesto Club

Session partners

in association with