This article is from 2008.
Simon Singh has upset many people with his damning views on holistic treatment. Claire Sawers asks if he has his finger on the pulse of alternative therapy
Don’t get Simon Singh started on reiki massage. And as for ear candles or oxygen therapy, that’s just one new age, hocus-pocus step too far for the science journalist. Singh, a doctor of particle physics and author of science tomes including The Big Bang and The Code Book, has tackled what he calls ‘the Wild West of health care’ in his latest work, a cross between a handbook and history guide to alternative medicine. ‘It’s a book for patients,’ says Singh, of Trick or Treatment? co-written with Professor Edzard Ernst, the world’s first professor of alternative medicine. ‘We needed to find the truth among all the misinformation, so people can make informed decisions about their health and avoid therapies they don’t realise might be dangerous.’
As it is the fastest growing sector of medical spending, with £40bn spent globally on alternative medicine every year, Singh was genuinely concerned about the lack of regulation or clinical testing on treatments. Fed up seeing bookshops crammed with guides to detox, shiatsu and aromatherapy, but very few serious examinations of their credibility, he and Ernst started a rigorous scientific analysis of the most popular alternatives to conventional medicine.
His findings are controversial but revealing, and have already sparked a vicious backlash, particularly from chiropractors who object to many of his damaging conclusions. St John’s Wort is proven to be an effective treatment for mild depression, and he concedes massage and aromatherapy are good stress-busters. But professionally speaking, he cannot take the likes of detox, colonic irrigation, spiritual healing or reflexology seriously until therapists can produce convincing evidence of the benefits.
‘Why is there not a level playing field?’ he asks. ‘Drug companies need to convince authorities a pill is safe before they supply it to the public, but anyone can put a sign in their window and claim to be a homeopath who can cure fertility issues, weight problems or skin disorders. Any great claim requires great evidence.’
Singh admits he would turn to alternative medicine only ‘as a last resort’ and believes a healthy lifestyle is the best solution to many ailments. ‘People need to ignore a lot of this over-priced, made-up twaddle and lie down for half an hour with relaxing music instead.’
While his research is bound to give a headache to complementary practitioners and holistic therapists, his attack on pseudo-science also serves as a useful eye-opener for would-be suckers.
Simon Singh, 10 Aug, 1.30pm & 7pm, £9 (£7).