Nicolas Baumard

Homeopathy as witchcraft

Published on 2 July 2010 at 12:48

The British Medical Association's annual conference of junior doctors has declared that homeopathy is witchcraft. They have voted a blanket ban and an end to all placements teaching homeopathic principles to training doctors (this debate is quite hot in the UK as you can see here).

 

 

Dr Tom Dolphin, deputy chairman of the BMA's junior doctors committee in England, told the conference:

"Homeopathy is witchcraft. It is a disgrace that nestling between the National Hospital for Neurology and Great Ormond Street there is a National Hospital for Homeopathy which is paid for by the NHS".

Although this comparison may be quite harsh for homeopathy, the connection between homeopathy and witchcraft may be of some interest from a Cognition & Culture point of view.



To this day, cognitive anthropologists have focused on some very spectacular cultural beliefs such as beliefs in God, in the ancestors or in witchcraft. In contrast, they have neglected other interesting but less spectacular beliefs such as superstitions, feng shui or homeopathy. This choice may have important theoretical consequences. Indeed, spectacular beliefs tend to produce spectacular outcomes (churches, sacrifices, etc.). From these outcomes, it is tempting to infer that the existence of spectacular beliefs is due to their effect: beliefs in God exist because they bind people together, beliefs in the ancestors exist because they make people obey social norms, etc. In other words, the study of spectacular beliefs naturally would lead to adaptionist or functionalist theories - theories stating that religious belief evolved because it benefited individuals or societies.

By contrast, when one is confronted with harmless and insignificant beliefs (well, not so harmless for British contributors!), it is hard to think that such beliefs have been selected in any way. These beliefs seem to call for by-product theories according to which beliefs in supernatural phenomenon are just a side effect of the way our brain works. For instance, homeopathy is based on the intuitive law of similars according to which the illnesses can be cured by small doses substances that cause the same symptoms (for example, since arsenic causes shortness of breath, then small doses of arsenic will cure disease that also cause shortness of breath). Other intuitions may be at work, for instance, the intuition that natural products are purer and softer, less polluted by the industrial society or less aggressive than industrial treatments. Of course, there are other complementing causes such as, in the case of homeopathy, a never-ending social demand for treatments, or the drawbacks of official medicine.

Studying ‘small beliefs’ is interesting for further reasons. ‘Spectacular beliefs’ are often quite institutionalized and generate lots of official discourse. Institutions and discourses create the impression that there is such a thing as ‘religion’. Think about the European tradition that opposes the Church and the State, the secular and the religious, philosophy and theology, etc. Official discourses on 'big beliefs' naturally suggest the view that there is such a thing as 'religion'. By contrast, the study of homeopathy and superstition suggests that there is no such thing as ‘religion’ (as Maurice Bloch noticed in a previous discussion) but rather a variety of cultural beliefs, some insignificant (such as the beliefs in black cats causing misfortune), other more important (e.g. the belief in God), some institutionalized and theorized, other not, etc. Furthermore, it suggests that there is continuity between folk theories and ‘religious beliefs’ and that, from a cognitive and cultural point of view, there is no differences between folk theories of medicine such as homeopathy (postulating the law of similars and the power of plants) or folk theories of society postulating that ethnic groups are based on an essence or that leaders have charisma and mana, and religious beliefs postulating the existence of supernatural agents.

Finally, the study of ‘small beliefs’ helps us to see the incomplete nature of most cultural beliefs. By uncomplete nature, I mean the fact that people often do not have a full understanding of their beliefs (Dan Sperber would say that they are semi-propositionnal). Take the black cat superstition. Do people think that black cats have some special powers? What about black cats with a little bit of white in their fur? Do they cause misfortune too? And what if the cat has not seen you? Unlike religions that are often endowed by theologian explanations, ‘small beliefs’ often lack of any rationale. This shows that culture is often composed of bits and pieces rather than of fully integrated and consistent credo as the study of religion may suggest.

To sum up, we should take the British Medical Association’s statement seriously. We should study homeopathy as witchcraft. But may be more importantly, we should study witchcraft as homeopathy!

Leave comment
5

Laetitia Debruyne   7 July 2010 at 08:10
Good idea. I would look forward to this next article. ;)


How small ?
Ophelia Deroy   9 July 2010 at 18:33
Very interesting debates. Still, I am wondering about the distinction between spectacular and small beliefs. Is it supposed to be exclusive (can't there be small spectacular beliefs, or small getting spectacular at times) ? And you seem to correlate it with a institutional vs. informal distinction (regarding transmission and expression) , as well as with a complete vs. incomplete difference (regarding contents). Again, can't there be "small beliefs" with complete contents and spectacular with incomplete ones ? More precisely, then, I am wondering how "small" homeopathy can be said to be. It has many institutions, and even specialist academic journals - contrary to common sense wisdom (there is no society against black cats and broken mirrors, even less funded by governments, and no "Journal of bad luck"). "Witchcraft" was a rather too big category in anthropology as well, and perhaps there is room for discrimination here. Looking forward to the next post as well !


a bit of related humor
Jacob Lee   12 July 2010 at 08:19
A little bit of recent humor on homeopathy and natural selection: [img] http://imgs.xkcd.com/comics/dilution.png[/img]


Intuitively small...
Nicolas Baumard   12 July 2010 at 11:56
Thank Ophelia for your comment. The distinction between big and small beliefs is not supposed to be scientifically valid. Rather, I intended to capture the intuitive difference between spectacular beliefs for which we need a spectacular explanation and insignificant beliefs for which a by-product explanation seems good enough. For those interested on the debate on functionalism in social sciences, I recommed Elster on marxism: http://books.google.co.uk/books?hl=en&lr=&id=c2FlQHuy7JYC&oi=fnd&pg=PA22&dq=elster+functionalism&ots=c9xnMvsyhJ&sig=4GTlC6Zue6NQhJp5Md1ve77w_uk#v=onepage&q=elster%20functionalism&f=false


Homeopathy Works Effectively!
Jacky Kuman   25 November 2014 at 11:31

Homeopathy works effectively in the treatment of diseases. A research article at http://adidarwinian.com/father-of-human-pharmacology/ shows why homeopathy is not at all a placebo.  I and my family members have been taking homeopathic remedies for more than a decade. Even my 5-year old son takes homeopathic treatment for his day-to-day health problems.




Nicolas Baumard

Website: http://sites.google.com/site/nicolasbaumard/
City: Paris
Country: France
About me:

morality, religion

Latest comments

Comment on: Abortion puzzles, part two
Published on 25 September 2008 at 17:01
Comment on: "You work in WHAT field?"
Published on 18 November 2008 at 17:20
Comment on: What about cognition and society?
Published on 7 February 2009 at 14:03
Comment on: Do economic games tell us something about real behaviours?
Published on 18 February 2009 at 12:30
Comment on: How persistent are intuitive (erroneous) beliefs?
Published on 24 February 2009 at 00:36
Comment on: In praise of neuroscience (for once)
Published on 12 July 2009 at 14:47
Comment on: The cultural group selection hypothesis
Published on 23 October 2009 at 14:19
Comment on: Death, where is thy sting ?
Published on 9 December 2009 at 11:34
Comment on: Na'vi Cognition and Culture
Published on 19 January 2010 at 23:25
Comment on: Cognition under the high brow
Published on 26 January 2010 at 13:12
Comment on: There is no such thing as sexual intercourse
Published on 9 February 2010 at 14:10
Comment on: Better live in Sweden than in the US: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better
Published on 23 February 2010 at 09:24
Comment on: How many minutes does it take for social norms to inhibit survival instinct?
Published on 10 March 2010 at 12:49
Comment on: Do only humans share with non-kin?
Published on 15 March 2010 at 10:45
Comment on: The social rationality of footballers
Published on 29 March 2010 at 14:33
Comment on: Are variations in economic games really caused by culture?
Published on 2 May 2010 at 16:03
Comment on: Are variations in economic games really caused by culture?
Published on 3 May 2010 at 15:21
Comment on: Why do we make our tastes public?
Published on 25 May 2010 at 13:08
Comment on: Why do we make our tastes public?
Published on 25 May 2010 at 17:45
Comment on: Why do we make our tastes public?
Published on 26 May 2010 at 11:38
Comment on: Why do we make our tastes public?
Published on 28 May 2010 at 18:27
Comment on: Why do we make our tastes public?
Published on 31 May 2010 at 14:19
Comment on: Why do academics oppose capitalism?
Published on 15 June 2010 at 01:13
Comment on: The sacredness of God
Published on 28 June 2010 at 20:48
Comment on: Homeopathy as witchcraft
Published on 12 July 2010 at 11:56
Comment on: Paul Rozin on what psychologists should study
Published on 7 August 2010 at 12:42
Comment on: Why pink? Color matters
Published on 8 September 2010 at 10:18
Comment on: Why pink? Color matters
Published on 10 September 2010 at 14:21
Comment on: Video games as applied anthropology
Published on 24 November 2010 at 12:55
Comment on: The evolutionary and cognitive basis of the cultural success of garbage trucks among western toddler
Published on 29 December 2010 at 10:03
Comment on: How much trust should we put in experimental results?
Published on 10 January 2011 at 21:21
Comment on: How much trust should we put in experimental results?
Published on 13 January 2011 at 11:43
Comment on: Cultural differences and linguistic justice
Published on 28 January 2011 at 21:35
Comment on: What’s wrong, in the end, with Homo Œconomicus ?
Published on 4 February 2011 at 18:35
Comment on: Cultural relativism: Another victim of Arab revolutions?
Published on 11 March 2011 at 15:47
Comment on: False choice: Is the underrepresentation of women in science by choice or by discrimination?
Published on 27 March 2011 at 17:29
Comment on: False choice: Is the underrepresentation of women in science by choice or by discrimination?
Published on 27 March 2011 at 18:03
Comment on: Words or Deeds
Published on 29 March 2011 at 16:47
Comment on: Moral Compensation and the Environment
Published on 9 May 2011 at 19:18
Comment on: David Hume, the anthropologist, born May 7, 1711
Published on 9 May 2011 at 21:41
Comment on: Theology and cognitive science
Published on 25 May 2011 at 23:05
Comment on: Fast lemons and intuitive beliefs
Published on 9 June 2011 at 19:54
Comment on: Fast lemons and intuitive beliefs
Published on 17 June 2011 at 18:38
Comment on: Smith (1723-1790) on innateness and cultural variability
Published on 24 June 2011 at 15:44
Comment on: Mèng Zǐ (372 – 289 BCE) on the moral organ
Published on 28 June 2011 at 18:50
Comment on: The evolutionary and cognitive basis of the cultural success of garbage trucks among western toddler
Published on 29 June 2011 at 16:30
Comment on: History of social sciences week!
Published on 24 January 2012 at 22:26
Comment on: What it is about women?
Published on 21 February 2012 at 01:40
Comment on: What it is about women?
Published on 21 February 2012 at 16:37
Comment on: Policing friendships. Lessons from the equine world
Published on 16 March 2012 at 14:58