Conversations with Skeptics

I recently discovered that there was a group called ‘Sheffield Skeptics in the Pub’ meeting regularly at the pub down the road from my practice. They describe a Skeptic as follows:

“A skeptic is one who prefers beliefs and conclusions that are reliable and valid to ones that are comforting or convenient, and therefore rigorously and openly applies the methods of science and reason to all empirical claims, especially their own.

A skeptic provisionally proportions acceptance of any claim to valid logic and a fair and thorough assessment of available evidence, and studies the pitfalls of human reason and the mechanisms of deception so as to avoid being deceived by others or themselves.

Skepticism values method over any particular conclusion.”

They sound really nice on their website, but I’m not sure if they’ll like me just as much. I’d guess that as a complementary therapist, I’m quite high on their list of idiotic morons. Nevertheless, I’ve been tentatively wondering about wandering along one week. So this has focused my attention on what exactly it is that I think we do. Why do herbs work and how could I explain it to the lovely Skeptics?

One argument, and one that would perhaps be accessible to my Skeptics (towards whom I am already feeling an affectionate interest), starts by looking at the botanical role of secondary metabolites. Anyone who has completed Phytochemistry with me at level 2 will be familiar with this one. Most plants produce a variety of compounds that serve a biological role akin to the human immune system (Bennet and Wallsgrove, 1994) preventing infection, deterring herbivores, etc. It is straightforward to make a logical case from here to their use for similar or related purposes in humans.

So, for example, tree resins such as Myrrh are produced to seal an area of damage to the bark. Now, any area of damage will be at higher risk of infection. So, logically enough, Myrrh resin contains constituents with powerful antiseptic effects (Hanuša et al., 2005) that will reduce the risk of infection in this damaged area. As these have to work against a wide range of potential pathogens, the antiseptic effect will be relatively non-specific. It would therefore be more surprising if they didn’t work against some human pathogens, than that they do.

But, that’s kind of a cop-out – I don’t feel it really gets to the heart of the issue. One bigger issue for me, is that a herbalist, like other complementary therapists, believes in asking why any given patient is ill, and thinks that it might be possible to find something of an answer for an individual case. And that answer may help to unravel the illness and lead to an effective treatment.

But then, how can we possibly validate our ideas of how to find an answer to the question that an illness poses, and how can we argue that herbs, in particular, would be effective in treatment? Plenty to discuss there in future postings.

Incidentally, if you are a Sheffield Skeptic in a Pub yourself, I’ve not got my nerve up yet. But I’ll be along one day. Remind me not to drink too much beer before we start.

Reference List

Bennet, R.N. and Wallsgrove, R.M. (1994) Secondary metabolites in plant defence mechanisms. New Phytologist, 127(4), pp. 617–633.

Hanuša, L.O., Řezankab, T., Dembitskya, V.M., and Moussaieff, A. (2005) Myrrh: Commiphora chemistry. Biomedical Papers, 149(1), pp. 3–28.

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