When Smart Women Call Other Smart Women Idiots

This “open letter” was sent from one of our patients who prefers to remain anonymous because of the strong reactions that both feminism and homeopathy can elicit online.

 

Dear Smart Women in Journalism,

Unless you were paying attention, you may not have noticed that fighting in the ongoing Homeopathy wars broke out recently in Ontario.  If you were paying attention, you have my sympathies; I know it can get tedious – a little skirmish in Australia, a kerfuffle in the US, a long simmering battle in the UK. In each case some precipitating event (or just a whim) causes some of the opponents of Homeopathy to lead a charge, vaulting the trenches of so-called skepticism to throw insults and ridicule at people who practice and/or use Homeopathy. Recently, a few of your number joined up. That’s why I’m writing you now.

Traditionally in these wars, the loudest voices attacking Homeopathy have been men. This makes sense. Homeopathy in the west, like other forms of complementary and alternative medicine, is overwhelmingly used by educated women[1]. There’s a lot of research to show that. It’s not controversial research; it’s pretty much common knowledge. Smart women use homeopathy. Not all smart women, of course. That’s just silly. Homeopathy users are a small portion of the population. To be sure, some smart men use homeopathy as well. But mostly, it’s smart women. Study after study has shown this. Some findings are more equivocal – like whether it’s mostly white women (in the US) or whether wealth is a factor. But that smart women predominate – that’s not controversial. One study even checked for science knowledge presumably to test arguments that those homeopathy-loving smart women must all be pseudo-educated in liberal arts fields that don’t actually count for “smart.” Turns out, science-smart women use homeopathy too[2]. Go figure.  

Now, the smart women who use or practice homeopathy are never all that surprised when the guys start calling them idiots. Men have been calling smart women idiots for a very long time. It’s hardly news. And misogyny is no stranger to the science clubs that serve as the crèches for the so-called skeptic associations and the men who like to mock homeopathy.[3] These men don’t say outright that they think smart women are stupid; they say that people who use complementary and alternative medicine are stupid. That these people happen to be smart women is simply coincidental. Yeah. I won’t insult your intelligence by explaining the gender politics that underline such statements.

Still, I’ve gotta say it hurt a bit to see some of you who in all other ways appeared to be feminists there on that side of the ramparts. It’s always a sad day for the sisterhood when smart women start calling other smart women idiots. Feminism has a wide and varied landscape and I would never say that an embrace of Homeopathy is necessarily feminist or anti-feminist. What is pretty foundational in feminism, however, is the right of women to make their own decisions about their own bodies.[4] Most of the attacks on homeopathy assume a duped, ignorant or anti-science (female) health consumer.[5] If they’re not insulting, they’re patronizing and, well, paternalistic.  In its most banal form, anti-Homeopathy humour belongs in the same circle of Hell as Blonde jokes; at its worst, it denies the agency of women over their own health decisions.  The female journalists I have seen entering the fray have mostly stuck to the former category. That’s something, I guess.

The detractors of Homeopathy like to claim that it is dangerous because it could lead people away from proven biomedical treatments. I, too, am concerned with a danger. I’m not concerned that Homeopathy will jeopardize anyone’s health. There’s scant evidence it’s ever done that, directly or indirectly, and there’s plenty of research showing that this just isn’t the way people who use Complementary and Alternative Medicine make their health care decisions.[6] I am concerned in a much broader sense with the danger to our social fabric when smart women are assumed to be stupid and when people start calling for regulations to protect us from ourselves. Good research shows that the smart women who use Homeopathy are not duped, ignorant or anti-science.[7] They’re making a rational choice to use Homeopathy. Which suggests that there might be a more interesting story here than the one you’re picking up from your pals in the science club.

Yours sincerely,

Smart Woman using Homeopathy

 

References

Bishop, Felicity L.  and G. T. Lewith, “Who Uses CAM? A Narrative Review of Demographic Characteristics and Health Factors Associated with CAM Use,” Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, vol. 7, no. 1, pp. 11-28, 2010. doi:10.1093/ecam/nen023

Flesch, Hannah. "Silent voices: women, complementary medicine, and the co-optation of change." Complementary therapies in clinical practice 13.3 (2007): 166-173.http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ctcp.2007.03.005 

Keshet, Yael, and Dalit Simchai. "The ‘gender puzzle’ of alternative medicine and holistic spirituality: A literature review." Social Science & Medicine113 (2014): 77-86. doi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2014.05.001

MacArtney, John I., and Ayo Wahlberg. "The Problem of Complementary and Alternative Medicine Use Today: Eyes Half Closed?." Qualitative health research (2014): 1049732313518977.

Posadzki, P., Alotaibi, A. and Ernst, E. (2012), Adverse effects of homeopathy: a systematic review of published case reports and case series. International Journal of Clinical Practice, 66 (2012): 1178–1188. doi: 10.1111/ijcp.12026

Stoneman, Paul, Patrick Sturgis, and Nick Allum. "Understanding support for complementary and alternative medicine in general populations: Use and perceived efficacy." Health: 17.5 (2013): 512-529.http://hea.sagepub.com/content/17/5/512 



[1] Many of the studies look at all forms of complementary and alternative medicine together but those that disaggregate them also find that the same pattern holds true for Homeopathy. See Bishop et al 2010 for a review of the literature and Stoneman et al 2013 for an account that focuses particularly on Homeopathy

[2] Stoneman et al 2013

[3] The academic literature is scant on this but a number of journalistic pieces have pointed to misogyny in the so-called Skeptic community: here, here and here, for instance.

[4] For the connection between Complementary and Alternative medicine and feminism more broadly, see Flesch 2007 and Keshet and Simchai 2014

[5] MacArtney and Wahlberg 2014

[6] Posadzki et al 2012 provides a review of the medical case reports attesting to adverse events from Homeopathy. This study found thirty-five reports occurring between 1978 to 2010, most being from toxicity when homeopathic preparations were underdiluted. The authors also reviewed 8 reports (16 cases) of “indirect harm” where physicians reported that a patient’s condition had deteriorated when s/he had foregone conventional treatment but had used Homeopathy. In attributing indirect causation to Homeopathy, the authors assume that the patients passively followed the advice of the Homeopathic practitioner and, had the option of Homeopathy not been available, would have returned to the conventional medicine practitioner sooner. These numbers are remarkably small given the international scope of the study and the assertions from the Homeopathic detractors that this is a large threat. The authors speculate that adverse events could be underreported. Without either a population wide study of Homeopathy users or an in-depth qualitative study of a representative sample of the users, however, we cannot know whether Homeopathy is ever really indirectly responsible for a patient’s choice to forgo conventional treatment.  For a review of studies that rigorously examine the decision to use CAM, see Bishop and Lewith 2010; Keshet and Simchai 2014

[7] Macartney and Wahlberg 2014

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