Scientists are a serious bunch, especially the hyper-analytical ones. “Where is the data to support your argument?” they’ll say in their aggressive, no nonsense, dismissive, don’t-waste-my-time-I-have-bigger-fish-to-fry style. “Where is the data, huh? Get me the damn data.”
Consider then, for a moment, my fascination with homeopathy. A classical economist would call it irrational behavior. Hindi has a colorful phrase for describing my predicament – pet par laath marna – which literally translates to kick someone in the stomach. A google search is quite enlightening, it translates the phrase into English as “take the bread out of mouth” (http://dict.hinkhoj.com, I am not making this up). You perhaps get the drift by now, it means to do things that would threaten one’s livelihood. I work in the pharmaceutical industry, and have been part of research teams that discover new drugs for various diseases – of the allopathic kind. The kind that is regulated by well-respected regulatory watchdogs such as the FDA. The FDA demands data that requires exorbitantly expensive, large-scale clinical trials with well-defined end points.These are responsible for generating “healthy” livelihoods for many a highly trained professional. Included among its ranks are the vaunted statisticians, whose verdict is accepted as the gospel truth. At stake, after all, are human lives and life is serious business.
Espousing homeopathy in the pharma world, therefore, is career suicide. A smart person, you would think, would steer clear of such controversial topics, but not me. It still remains my favorite topic at the lunch table and has most definitely led to a substantial loss of reputation. You see, there is an unwritten rule in the pharma circles, that talking about homeopathy, or other alternative medicine, is taboo. Not unlike discussing one’s political affiliation or religious beliefs in the workplace. Ain’t cool at all.
Homeopathy has long been dismissed as pseudoscience. The rationalists are pretty certain of their position. “Where is the evidence that it works?”, they ask. I would cite examples from my own experience where I claim to have had remarkable recovery from some niggling ailment. But of course, anecdotal evidence is not science. They also are quick to pull out their trump card (no pun intended) – the placebo effect. How else do you explain getting cured by popping sugar pills? “Show me statistical significance in a double blind clinical trial and I’ll be more than happy to agree with you” they say with condescension. “Never going to happen”, I argue, “sugar pills don’t make business sense. They don’t generate jobs and wealth on the scale that pharma companies do.” And round and round we go in circles. I never learn.
So why do I keep at it? Deep down, I think what rankles me is that air of know-it-all certainty. How can one be so sure? Isn’t it a scientist’s job to constantly question her/his own assumptions? If your goal is to pursue the truth, shouldn’t you test all the possible solutions for yourself before passing the verdict? There is yet another possibility to consider, and that is, perhaps, I just love to argue. “The most savage controversies,” said Bertrand Russell, “are about those matters as to which there is no good evidence either way”. Homeopathy, one might say, could safely be tucked into that basket of topics with “no good evidence either way”.
Corporate life has its benefits, most importantly in the form of a comforting predictable bump to your balance-sheet tally at the end of every month. There is also the warm-fuzzy camaraderie of being in the company of career nerds. Lunch time is particularly notable. Once you get past the initial polite getting to know each other conversation, you then graduate to the how-was-your-weekend banter. Soon, all you hear is “blah blah blah”, even as you are rudely awakened to the monotony of the lunch menu at the company cafeteria. As you drift in and out of awareness of your surroundings whilst fiddling distractedly with your unimaginative lunch, your hear someone say, “my allergies are back again”, and just like that things brighten up again. “Um, have you considered homeopathy?”