Is it possible to be totally objective as a journalist?
This is a major can of worms to open, but as I’ve recently written an article on homeopathy – a practice that flies in the face of everything I believe – it seems a timely question to ask.
I’ve been involved in a few heated online discussions over the years about this question. Some people have argued passionately that the job of a good journalist is to be objective, not to take sides in any debate, not to let your personal views affect what you write, and to treat all sides of an argument equally and give them equal air time/column inches.
It has taken me a long time to realise that it is in fact impossible to be objective as a journalist. The best I can do is acknowledge my particular views on an issue, set them aside as much as I can, and try to write an article that is not unduly influenced by those views.
So writing about homeopathy, I know that I have a high level of skepticism about this practice. I know the logic behind homeopathy, but my scientific knowledge tells me that people are being treated with nothing more than distilled water with flavourings.
That aside, large numbers of people from all walks of life use homeopathy and derive benefit from it, so to understand why, I needed to suspend my disbelief and keep my mind as open as possible.
The results, for me at least, were surprising.
Before I get into this, I need to make something very clear. I don’t believe in homeopathy, I don’t believe it has any scientific basis, I don’t believe it should be subsidised by governments and I believe that substituting it for known, effective treatments (especially vaccines) for serious illness is irresponsible.
But …(and this is the clincher) I have come to appreciate that for some people, homeopathy meets a need, and provides a therapeutic benefit that for one reason or another they have failed to derive from conventional Western medicine.
No amount of randomised controlled trials, reviews or meta-analyses can stop that from happening. If someone believes in homeopathy, and if they walk away from a consultation feeling better, that is set in stone. For that person, homeopathy works.
From the western medical perspective, we can analyse the hell out of that and dismiss it vociferously until we’re apoplectic with frustration…
… but it won’t change that individual’s subjective experience.
We know that the placebo effect probably has a significant role in homeopathy, but if we’re going to play that card we must also acknowledge that placebo effect plays a significant role in some western medicine as well (antidepressants being a good example, but even knee arthroscopic surgery – a well-established surgical procedure – has also been shown to be no better than sham surgery).
One thing I think that homeopathy – and many other forms of complementary and alternative medicine – gets right is that it treats the patient, not the disease.
How often do you go to a GP for something and you are in and out in under ten minutes? Chance are you get a prescription, or maybe even a referral, but generally speaking GPs only have the time to focus on the immediate problem and do what they can to fix that.
It’s not their fault, and the vast majority of GPs do the very best they can under enormous time pressure and institutional constraints.
In contrast, if you go to a homeopathist, or a naturopath, or a traditional chinese medicine practitioner, or even a massage therapist, you will be in their room for a good amount of time – maybe even an hour and a half – for a good solid discussion about how you are feeling, what’s going on in your life, what your diet is like, how your body is feeling etc. There may be the taking of pulses, the touching of various pressure points, maybe some holding of hands and gazing into eyes … you get the picture.
But at the end of it, you feel cared about. You feel listened and attended to. You feel like you have been treated like a whole human being instead of a collection of symptoms.
And I believe that is one of the main reasons why homeopathy, and so many other alternative therapies that science has failed to find biological validity for, still have a positive effect for people, and why a significant number of people keep going back to homeopathy even when so many studies and analyses fail to find any benefit over placebo.
What we do with this situation, I don’t know. I don’t believe homeopathy should be subsidised by governments because when it comes to the health dollar, governments have to (or at least should be) making evidence-based decisions.
But I also don’t believe that it should be banned, as some people have suggested. If there is no harm being done, in the sense that people aren’t missing out on proven effective treatments and it isn’t being used to treat serious illness or as a substitute for immunisation, then it doesn’t pose a threat and may also be meeting an unmet need.
And of course, the one incontrovertible good thing about homeopathic remedies is there are no side effects. If it’s just water, how could there be?
P.S This post has been a little rambling, but I have one more thing to comment on, and that is the response that the homeopathy article has received. For possibly the first time in my life I have been accused BY MY OWN PEOPLE of being unscientific and alternative. For the first time, I have found myself arguing exactly the opposite side of the table to what I would normally.
I would consider myself to be a fairly strident science advocate, and I know I can be very closed minded and skeptical on many fringe issues, but now I realise I’m actually a moderate!
Sooooo, the moral of the story is … ummmm … I forgot.