Monday, 30 March 2015

The religious fervour of homeopathy fans

A couple of weeks ago I put up a blog item on Huffington Post, suggesting that it would be a good idea if alternative remedies, like cigarette packets, had to carry a health warning.

In some cases this was because there were reports of a high percentage of herbal remedies not containing the requisite herb, and sometimes containing fairly dubious contents that could be harmful. And in others, such as homeopathy, it was more because there was a danger of using a homeopathic remedy, and as a result not taking medication that actually does something. So I suggested a suitable warning for a homeopathic product might be something like:
WARNING -- contains no active ingredients. If taken in place of medical treatment could result in harm or death
Now it would be disingenuous of me to suggest that I didn't expect a certain amount of negative response. I was sure it would bring the homeopathy supporters out of the woodwork and it has. I'll go into some of the specific kinds of response in a moment, but the thing I was really quite surprised by (but probably shouldn't have been) was how close some of these responses were to someone defending their religious faith.

I expect, in a contentious area of science, that there will be arguments. So, for instance, if I were to say that I rather hope MOND (modified Newtonian dynamics) can be made to work rather than dark matter as an explanation of the gravitational effects blamed on dark matter (which is true), I could sensibly expect cosmologists/astrophysicists to weigh in with the scientific arguments as to why dark matter is a better bet. But that's not what happened here at all. What I should have been seeing is a) a good explanation for the mechanism of homeopathy (as I claimed there wasn't one) and b) a good collection of large scale, double blinded trials undertaken by experienced professionals that came out in favour of homeopathy being more than a placebo effect. Neither of these things happened.

In practice, the science isn't contentious about homeopathy - it's fairly straight forward. And so, instead, arguments fell into these broad categories:

  • The report you mention only uses big studies - and this is a bad thing because? Good big studies give more statistically reliable results that good small studies - that's inevitable. If you don't understand this, take a statistics course, please.
  • Making snide remarks - ad hominem attacks are the last resorts of those who have no good arguments. When I see things like 'Thanx [sic] for embarrassing yourself even more' and 'pointing out your egregious ignorance and prejudice in regard to the topic' I know I've hit a raw nerve, because clearly there is a total inability to answer my two key points above.
  • Attack allopathic [sic] medicine - there's a technical term for 'allopathic medicine': it's 'medicine'. However the real point here is that you can't defend something by attacking something else. (E.g. 'Rx drugs are toxic, and RCTs have proven that 50% of the drug trials cannot explain the method of action.') I know the huge amount of good done by modern medicine, and know plenty of people whose lives have been saved or improved by it. But even if every real doctor doing real medicine made all their patients worse, it wouldn't make alternative remedies any better. It's a bit like responding to a restaurant critic who says the food in your restaurant is bad by saying 'Yes, but the food in McDonald's is really bad.' So?
It was also fascinating that at least four of the comments were by the same person, someone called Dana Ullman who strangely enough, according to Google is a 'proponent in [sic] the field of homeopathy. Ullman received his MPH from the University of California at Berkeley, and has since taught homeopathy and integrative health care.' So he's not at all biassed, unlike me, as I don't make any money from either alternative remedies or real medicine.

The sad thing is that in all those comments, none of the supporters of homeopathy could address my two key points (or even tried - randomly mentioning the existence of trials without citing them, when meta-studies like the Australian government one have a very clear outcome is not trying). And none seemed to actually realise the point is not that we need a warning that homeopathic remedies (unlike some other alternative therapies) can harm you, but that using them instead of things that work to treat dangerous diseases (there are homeopathic remedies for malaria, for instance, one of the world's biggest killer diseases) really does put people's lives and health at risk.

In the end, as I mentioned above, these weren't logical or scientific arguments I was presented with but rather statements of faith. And that should be a bit embarrassing for those concerned.


  1. Madsen Pirie's book ‘How to Win Every Argument’ (which I reviewed briefly at: is an entertaining read, describing the different sorts of tricks/logical fallacies people invoke when trying to defend the indefensible.

  2. I have made the same observations regarding the "homeopathy" debate myself. I have pointed out the similarity in the method of argument from young earth creationist and supporters of homeopathy. It is also disconcerting that in more recent times, the homeopaths have tried to claim that they are the scientists and their beliefs are evidenced based, and presumably therefore the 99% + of real scientists have got it wrong. Very similar in my mind to "creation science". I'm a pharmacologist myself but if anything could attract me to psychology, this would.