AS A CONFIRMED, but lightweight, sceptic, I have had to endure many jibes from friends and colleagues as I questioned information reported in the newspapers and on the news. Equally, I have had to explain what being a sceptic is really all about — not straight dismissal of, but the opportunity to question information that is presented as fact.

So, given that I am happy to dismiss such truths as aliens, psychics and ouija boards, I now find myself plunged into the middle of a full-blown sceptical conflict — one which is difficult to resolve.

It goes something like this. Two months ago a great friend of mine had the misfortune to fall from a ladder whilst pruning his trees. The fall while not from a great height was extremely awkward and resulted in a broken back (burst T12 for those of you with a medical bent). He was fortunate enough to receive extremely good medical care, including the insertion of some very impressive “scaffolding” to ensure his back had as much strength as was possible.

As a result of the accident he is now paraplegic and, while his spirits are good, the probability of mobility from his stomach down is almost zero. He has always been an extremely active person and has never been one to be depressed by his situation, or to accept that anything he has been told is necessarily true (the makings of a sceptic himself maybe…).

Together we have undertaken huge amounts of research: contacting people in similar situations (the Internet has come into its own here), tracking down the possibilities of new drugs that are currently being trialled and chasing up all the different types of rehabilitation that are available. The medical profession does not seem to offer any hope for recovery; their emphasis is purely upon rehabilitation.

Now he is in a situation where he feels that he must try every avenue available to him and so he is turning to “alternative” medicine calling upon acupuncture, Samoan massage and homeopathic drugs.

Here is the dilemma: as a sceptic I cannot accept that these treatments can be given any credence, however, as a friend I must support him in his beliefs and purchase those herbal remedies that will “enhance nerve regeneration”, “help to heal internal bruising” and so on.

Where is the line drawn? For me, it comes down to the need to enjoy a healthy understanding of both medicine and quackery, and to apply them both in the appropriate circumstances. Clearly, my friend is in a situation where traditional medicine is not so much failing to provide, as offering the best that it can — rehabilitation for a new lifestyle.

This is not enough for him and he still believes that hard work and mindpower will triumph over his nerve damage. If the homeopathic drugs provide him with the extra belief that he can make progress, then so be it; after all, we have all read about the placebo effect on numerous occasions.

I would be the most delighted sceptic of all if I were able to report to you all in six, twelve or even eighteen months that my friend had persevered with everything he believed in and was now able to walk. We would never be able to prove what helped his recovery, we would never be able to trumpet the homeopathic remedies as “wonder drugs”. But at the end of his experiences I don’t think I would mind. Ultimately as a sceptic and friend, I must do the best for my friend, and if that includes a little white lie to bolster his confidence in alternative treatments, then so be it.

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