What is a ‘Natural’ Medicine, Anyway?

I’ve often found that many people aren’t aware of the difference between herbal medicines and homeopathic remedies, perhaps because these terms have come to be used more and more interchangeably. There are many herbal, or ‘natural’, medicines, that are proven to work for many conditions: aspirin, quinine, ginger, marijuana, and so on. Homeopathy refers to nothing of this sort. Rather, homeopathy makes two claims: 1. like cures like (for example, a substance that makes a stomach ache will also cure it) as long as it’s greatly diluted, and 2. water has a ‘memory’, and it can be ‘imprinted’ by adding such a substance to it. Neither of these claims can be substantiated by any scientific means, and to my mind, they’re preposterous.

Homeopathic businesses, just like peddlers of many other ‘natural’ cures, wish to remain immune from demonstrating, through studies and testing, that they actually work and are not harmful. Yet they are both multi-billion dollar industries with the potential to do massive harm. To my mind, their efforts to remain immune from regulation and oversight are just as corrupt as those of some pharmaceutical companies and other industries that seek to shield themselves from public accountability. There are other ‘natural’ medicines which are proven to work, offered by honest practitioners who care enough to demonstrate effectiveness, that the health-conscious consumer can opt for instead.

I use the word ‘natural’ in quotes because I think there’s something odd about qualifying certain medicines as natural, and some as not. Since I don’t believe in anything ‘supernatural’, by default, everything is natural. The difference between all these medicines, then, is whether they’re effective or not, or whether they’re harmful or not.

~ This little essay is a reflection inspired by Jerry Coyne’s article ‘Why Do Liberals Tolerate Pseudoscience at Whole Foods?

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