The true enemies of reason

I saw Richard Dawkin’s two-part documentary The Enemies of Reason a couple of weeks ago and I’ve been meaning to add a note of criticism here.

It’s not that I disagree with his assessment that people such as spirit mediums and alternative health gurus are not antithetical to enlightenment values; far from it. My problem is that the programme lacked analysis about why such movements have grown in popularity over the past forty years.

Take homeopathy for instance, and the fact that the NHS now ploughs millions of taxpayers pounds into clinics such as the Royal London Homoeopathic Hospital. How has such a thing come to pass? Have health managers lost their minds? While no doubt there are true believers working inside the NHS who are pushing for homeopathy, I suspect the underlying reason is more prosaic. Indeed, Dawkins himself alluded to this, as Susan Blackmore points out, by alluding to the Placebo effect and comparing the amount of time a homeopath spends with their patient – 1 hours – to the amount of time a GP spends with their patients – 8 minutes.

We could, arguably, achieve the same effects as homeopathy by allowing GPs to prescribe a wider range of treatments. A week in a health spa, for instance. Healthcare professionals know however that such leftfield treatments would be politically untenable. Mental health treatment is very much a Cinderella service, despite the fact that it is now well recognised that depression and a whole range of long term health problems are inextricably linked. So is it any wonder therefore that they turn to an approach with is supported by people such as the Prince of Wales and has at least a quasi-scientific basis to it? Who can blame them for indulging in a noble lie, if the result is more people treated successfully?

Who, then is responsible for creating this climate whereby mental health treatment is marginalised while homeopathy is lauded? We can’t really blame the Prince of Wales. The real problem is that the latter is championed by a whole section of the media. The same media champions horoscopes, the Bible Code and all sorts of anti-intellectual faffery. By coincidence, it also advances an agenda that women are better off staying at home being dutiful housewives, that Princess Diana was murdered, that the poor get what they deserve, that padeophiles are lurking on every street corner, that asylum seekers live like sultans at taxpayer expense while local people struggle to find housing and that the house price boom is an unequivocal good.

What I’m getting at, of course, is that the missing third part of Dawkins’ the Enemies of Reason is an expose of Paul Dacre, his poisonous empire and his competitors at the Express. It seems odd to expose well meaning dowsers as frauds while failing to lambast the people at the top of the chain. Of course, were Dawkins to indulge in such a project he would find himself having a torrent of shit poured onto him by the very people he chose to attack. That may be what is holding him back. But if he doesn’t, who will? It would at the very least be entertaining to watch the likes of Melanie Phillips and Peter Hitchens go bright purple.


  1. On the other hand introducing any kind of very nice healthcare would have unintended consequences. You can get a free holiday if you go to your doctor and say …

    Where it is free at the point of use, perhaps healthcare has to be impersonal and a fairly technical service. Yes, people benefit from a bit of chat and grooming, which they should be getting from their friends and hairdressers. Please lets not expect highly trained people to do it.

  2. It seems odd to expose well meaning dowsers as frauds while failing to lambast the people at the top of the chain.

    It’s not often that I disagree with your analyses James, but this is one of those occasions. First off, Dawkins has many times had a go at media coverage which he regards as batty bordering on the irresponsible. But blaming the media rarely gets us very far. The BBC is one thing because we pay for it to some extent, but criticising newspaper hacks who are in the business of selling as much copy as they possibly can in a free market is like blaming rain. That particular problem is not going to go away unless we further regulate the media which I don’t think we should.

    In my view, the problem lies with that great conspiracy of unreason – religion, alternative medicine, astrology, etc. – all of these things essentially operate in an unspoken unholy alliance. Criticise one, and you have to criticise them all; shield one from criticism and all are protected. But of all those idiocies, religion is surely the major culprit. We don’t have astrology schools, but we do have faith schools – thousands of the buggers. And how can we keep homeopathy out of the NHS when we have Bishops in the House of Lords?

    There’s a reason why Rowan Williams has not attacked homeopathy as a false medical treatment which lifts money out of the pockets of vulnerable people. Apart from the fact that it would look like an attack on Prince Charles (who is far more culpable than Dacre), it would inevitably lead to an entirely justified accusation of gross hypocrisy. As long as we continue to accord religion the singular treatment and respect it has enjoyed for centuries, we are going to find ourselves awash with all manner of foolishness and unable to do very much about it.

    So what is to be done? Well I do have one practical suggestion which I made on the Sue Blackmore thread. How about compulsory warnings such as we have on cigarette packets? The warnings should be entirely factual and neutral in tone. For homeopathic remedies, something like this: “Repeated medical trials have failed to prove the efficacy of this remedy.” And how about this for children’s Bible story books? “Many people would say that some of the stories contained in this book could not possibly be true.”

    I, for one, would certainly enjoy watching the charlatans squeal in mock indignation.

  3. I don’t particularly disagree with any of that, but if you’re going to make a programme called the Enemies of Reason and don’t seek to understand the media’s role in all this, then you are simply not getting to the heart of the matter.

  4. Laurence,

    If blaming journalists for selling papers is like blaming rain, why isn’t blaming priests for getting bums on pews also like blaming rain?

    Or if everybody is under commercial pressure, does that mean nobody is at fault?

    No. All the commercial pressure angle tells us is that assigning fault doesn’t achieve much, and the solution is for us to be more savvy consumers.

    Anyway, while I would like to think that Conservative journalism is just another kind of quackery, I’m not quite convinced yet.

  5. Again, I would emphasise that the important thing is to understand, not to blame. I’m interesting in exploring exactly what makes a man like Dacre tick and how rightwing politics, new age alternative health therapies and wacky religious movements are connected; it isn’t as if I want him tarred and feathered.

  6. The trouble with the priests Joe, is that we do far more than merely tolerate them operating in a free marketplace of ideas. We give them hefty tax breaks, allow them special schools to indoctrinate the next generation, and sit them in our legislature without them having to bother with anything so inconvenient as an election. When we cease according religion such special privileges, I promise I will stop banging on about it quite so much.

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