... to which I knew the answer. It was 'homeopathy'.
Quite a few science bloggers comment on homeopathy from time to time. I haven't done so myself, before this - partly because I haven't been inclined to stir things up.,.. But recently I've read material that rather bugs me.
I find many of the concepts surrounding homeopathy quite confusing - & completely unscientiific. For example, the idea that a substance that causes a particular set of symptioms will, if sufficiently diluted, treat those symptoms. Or the idea that this ability to treat symptoms becomes stronger, the more you dilute that substance. There really is no scientific basis for this, considering that in many instances the remedy is so diluted that no molecule of the initial substance can possibly remain.
Which does rather make you wonder about claims of cures by homeopathic plutonium, for example. Orac (among others) has written quite extensively on this one. Given the dilutions involved there is no possibility of the patient being exposed to a radiation source (which is rather a good thing, really!). But what I really, really want to know is - where did the original plutonium come from? Plutonium is an incredibly tightly-regulated substance (for very good reason!) & not something one can hope to buy off the shelf... Nor is it something you'd want to have sitting around in your average laboratory. (Although apparently there was a brief period in the old Soviet Union where plutonium batteries were used in pacemakers. Pity the poor patients.)
There are also quite odd claims about sending homeopathic treatments to patients via mp3 files. Or (via the Little Black Duck) there's the idea that a practitioner can take a hair from the patient & dip it in a vial of a particular remedy, thus transmitting the cure to the patient (they don't have to be in the same place). There is no mechanism known to science by which this could work - you could say that it's verging on magical thinking.
You could argue that at least all this does no harm (except perhaps to the client's wallet), & if the patient improves, then that's to the good & shows that the treatment works... (I should probably write something about self-limiting conditions, & regression to the norm, in the future. Also the placebo effect, which is almost certainly acting here.) But in some cases, there is definitely potential for harm. Take, for instance, the claim that homeopathic remedies can be used to treat the symptoms of malaria, or act as a prophylactic & stop you developing the disease. (This last does go counter to the advice of the UK Society of Homeopaths, but must surely raise questions about the efficiency of any regulatory bodies involved.) This is a real concern - the benign forms of malaria can make you sick for weeks, left untreated, while the malign form has the potential to kill you very dead indeed, (This is why blood donors must declare any recent overseas travel & - if they're whole blood donors - refrain from donating for several months after visiting an area where malaria is rife; plasma donations get centrifuged & fractionated. The alternative is the very real possibility, if they've contracted malaria, of passing it on to any blood recipients.)
I have a sneaky suspicion that I've just opened a can of worms...