Sorting wheat from chaff

As a sceptic, I watch out for bad science and it's surprising how much mumbo-jumbo there is out there. Mumbo-jumbo? This catch-all descriptor of gobbledegook first became popular in Britain following publication of the Scottish explorer Mungo Park's Travels in the Interior of Africa (1798).

Mumbo-jumbo was, according to Park, a masquerade involving the wearing of masks by polygamous men in adjudicating squabbles between their wives. The historian Frank McLynn describes mumbo-jumbo as an idol used by healers in West Africa. Today, the term is often used to disparage "alternative medicine", which is also an ambiguous term, as medical intervention either works or doesn't, regardless of whether it conforms to cultural convention.

Acupuncture, for example, has been shown to alleviate neck pain in well-controlled comparative experiments. And natural products still make up a large part of our pharmacopoeia. Of the drugs used against malaria, the first widely used agent, quinine, and the most recent, artemisinin, are both derived from plants.

But the action of these compounds has been proven. Other "herbal remedies" fall down on investigation. It is scientific analysis, recording true effect, that sorts successful medical intervention from pure mumbo-jumbo.

This article first appeared in the 23 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Obama 2.0