Homeopathy really annoys me

I am really glad to read of the grilling that MPs are giving the people in the Homeopathy ‘industry’.  If astrology sucked that much out of ordinary gullible pockets, I would hope that they would do the same.

I have a specific reason to be annoyed: as someone who has sat through one and a half home-births, I am aware of quite how vulnerable people can feel when about to undergo great pain.  And you know there are no easy ways out: and it was a considerable distraction and annoyance last summer to find these placebos in the house during such a difficult time.  A diluted substance that promises to strengthen the uterine muscles? Please. I would love to know how they think that is proven.  And (update) “Loads of people have done this for centuries” is no proof.  Loads of people used leeches, believed in faires and alchemy.  The scepticism of science has been quite a liberation.

Another white pill promised “to reduce irritability during labour”.  How on earth could they know that?  If they had taken 1000 pregnant women, given one half homeopathy and the other half fruit pastilles, and recorded their levels of irratibility, I would be willing to half-believe it. I also bet the general levels of irritability would have shot up!   But I very much doubt that there is anyone alive who would have that degree of courage or insensitivity.

So it must be making statements about its effect that it cannot possibly justify.  But since most of us only experience our own medical situation once, the gullible and needy will lap this sort of stuff up: even when the CEO of Boots admits it does nothing.

I see homeopathy as no better than the misselling that happens around financial products.  Life and outcomes are too varied and multi-causal for you ever to know for certain that you were sold a bad deal.  The noise and fuzziness between pill and cure, or buy and sell, are enough to hide all sorts of cause and effect.  Finance knows how to make money out of such vagueness.  Playing on our insecurities is also a tool of the fashion industry.   But at least choosing the wrong dress is not a dangerous mistake.

UPDATE:  Great, interesting comments below, and can I point anyone reading to SceptiCat’s useful looking blog on this subject? It discusses the HOC evidence at length: I like this bit:

“Why does the water retain the memory of the homeopathic ingredient and not the memory of all the poo that’s been it?”

And this blog gives some alarming evidence of the serious consequences when hokum is accepted by people in authority:

In 2000, the now infamous International AIDS Conference took place in Durban. Mbeki’s presidential advisory panel beforehand was packed with “AIDS dissidents”, including Peter Duesberg and David Rasnick. On the first day, Rasnick suggested that all HIV testing should be banned on principle, and that South Africa should stop screening supplies of blood for HIV.

Published by freethinkingeconomist

I'm a mid 40s, former special adviser (Downing Street 2017-19, BIS from 2010-14), former FT leader writer and Lex Columnist, former financial dealer (?) at IG, student of economic history, PPE like the rest of them, etc. This blog has large gaps for obvious reasons. The name is dumb - the CentreForum think tank blog was called Freethink, I adapted that, we are stuck now.

10 thoughts on “Homeopathy really annoys me

  1. You pobably selected a homeopath who was not really well trained. Homoeopathy in a country like India is recognised by the goverment and the students go through the same rigorous training that the students studying conventional medicine (allopathy) go through- same books, same practicals and similar hospital training on live patients.
    I would like to draw your attention to http:/www.drvaishnav.com/case_studies.htm where cases treated with homeopathy WITH documented evidence of response have been posted. You may also visit http://homeopathicure.wordpress.com

  2. Giles,

    Isn’t the continued acceptance by so many of homeopathy a massive demonstration that the beneficial placebo effect so often noted in clinical trials is real? The damn things at least meet Galen’s first requirement of doing no direct harm, and do some good because we expect them to do some good.

    The trouble comes when they are substituted for real treatments which work better than the placebo effect. That is damnable. I favour a rule which says “If you promote any product or treatment that has not been clinically proven and approved as a remedy for any medical condition for which a clinically proved remedy exists, you are liable for the full medical costs of treating that condition in any patient who buys the product or treatment you have promoted.” Until the quacks take fright, it could be a nice little earner for our NHS.

  3. The biggest argument for MDs to support alternative medicine is this:

    Sometimes, what the patient really, really needs, is a placebo.

  4. Dr Vaishnav

    Sorry, but I remain highly unconvinced. Case studies can be used to prove everything from ghost stories to out of body experiences. What I need to accept something scientifically is (a) a reasonable proof for why diluting something massively is has any kind of effect and (b) a thorough removal of placebo effects.

    What also makes me ENORMOUSLY suspicious is how many claims the medicine makes. An ordinary drug has to go through a huge number of trials before effects are recognised. Yet Homeopathy claims (just from your blog: http://homeopathicure.wordpress.com/2009/08/29/homeopathic-first-aid-kit/, which I don’t mind publicizing!) various effects including:

    reductions of swelling,
    early healing (relative to what)
    reduction of redness

    then also from

    improvement of the optic nerve
    sore laryngx

    And so on. To me, it resembles (forgive me for this) a child caught telling a fib about a stolen sweet; instead of limiting the unlikely story, he expands it further and further, involving trolls, elves, time machines, and so on, hoping that a sheer proliferation of entities will be more, not less convincing.

    The more that homeopathy claims – and your blog claims SUCH a lot – the more it is possible to believe that its claims are suggestion, vagueness, and the sheer hope of the patients, and not an established, testable, proveable theory.

    And as David implies, if it crowds out proper medicines, it may be doing harm


  5. Also

    1. these are *not* homeopathic remedies. They are traditional herbal remedies.

    The two are often confused, sometimes on purpose, by homeopathic practitioners who want to take credit for St John’s Wort besting an obsolete antidepressant in trials.

    But herbal remedies DO have effects and many modern medicines are based on them. Homeopaths will often give herbal remedies as well as pills with no active ingredient. Since their main schtick is that they, erm, spend *time* with the patient who is *personally paying them*, they don’t care too much about the exact nicities of informing the patient which pills are placebo and which might do something.

    2. Failure in a controlled study doesn NOT mean no-one was helped, it means that “number helped by intervention” <= "number hurt by intervention". (Both could be zero of course)

    A controlled trial cannot usually tell whether the people who were cured with the drugs were the same individuals who would have been cured without them. It can't tell the size of the two groups, only count the net-net.

    The upshot of which is that while you wouldn't recommend people to persist with such an intervention if makes them feel ill (as you might with cancer chemotherapy) because they probably fall into the group "number hurt by intervention" – but you've no basis to laugh at people who think it helped them. Maybe they fall into the other group.

    Or maybe it's just a placebo that makes them feel better. But a controlled study can't distinguish the two.

    3. Oh, and I have checked. No actual promises there, FreeThinkEcon. None.

    Of course homeopathy proper is ridiculous. The comparision to astrology is apt. (Or religion.) People might be better, greater, if they could stand up, look the cold universe right in the background radiation and say:

    " I can stand it ! "

    (or they might just be bigger *****)

    But . . . . Can't you just let people have their solace?

    Just let people . . . . . . be . . . . . .

  6. It depends. If it is a harmless, low cost, and as comforting as, say, a funny religion, sure let them be. I’m a liberal, and if believing in strange things makes you feel better, go for it.

    But if it crowds out other ideas, or wastes precious resources, not so.

  7. @FreeThinkEcon: “But if it crowds out other ideas, or wastes precious resources, not so.”

    But they are paying with their own money, so it’s like spending money on “Glamour” magazine to read about Brangelina. De gustibus, etcetera. As a liberal, the resources used are surely not your concern.

    As for crowding out other ideas, almost no-one, least of all a herbalist or homeopathist, would ever tell you to stop your *proper* meds. No, just take the white pill *with* your chemo.

  8. @Ben The reason MPs are concerned is because the NHS is currently funding homeopathy, so it is indeed wasting precious resources and some of us taxpayers are less than pleased.

    As for “almost no-one, least of all a herbalist or homeopathist, would ever tell you to stop your *proper* meds,” unfortunately that is very far from being the case. In fact the opposite is true. Homeopaths habitually give dangerous advice against evidence-based medicine in general and immunisation in particular, sometimes with tragic results.

    You might want to look at whatstheharm.net

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