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Jan 17 2011

Quick refutations to common homeopath complaints

At the time of writing, the CBC Marketplace piece on homeopathy (in which yours truly makes an appearance) has not yet aired. However, there are already in excess of 100 comments on the 30-second trailer. Part of this is an intentional campaign by homeopaths to troll the comments section and make it look as though CBC’s reporting is reviled by a representative cross-section of Canadians – I’d be inclined to think that most Canadians haven’t even heard of homeopathy let alone tried it. There are, most probably, at least some people who are commenting because they honestly believe in homeopathy, but I’d suspect they’re in the minority.

Of course homeopaths are indeed going bat-shit insane and decrying the Marketplace piece as “one sided and unfair” (again, remember that it hasn’t aired yet) and accusing the lot of us of being sponsored by the pharmaceutical companies (which is such a tiresome lie that I almost don’t want to bother pointing out how untrue it is). For the record – I have received zero pharmaceutical money. My salary is paid by a number of grants, some of which are pharmaceutical. However, my personal income does not change, and would not change from any kind of skeptical involvement. The people who pay my salary (the provincial regulatory body for health services) have no idea what I do outside of work, and my salary is based on a fixed schedule that is common for everyone who has my job title and experience within the organization. I have worked on exactly one pharmaceutically-related project to date, and have had zero direct contact with the funders, who (incidentally) don’t know what my findings are yet; findings that have been presented at public conferences over which the companies exerted zero control.

Rather than going to the trouble of responding to the flood of comments, I will avoid fighting the tide of stupid and respond to the claims generally:

1. I’ve used homeopathy and it worked!

No you haven’t. The easiest way to think of this response is to compare it to someone who swears they’ve seen aliens or ghosts. I have no doubt that people who think they’ve seen ghosts saw something, but it doesn’t mean it’s because of a ghost. Every time we investigate ghost or alien sightings, it turns out to be something that is not ghosts. The very idea underpinning ghosts makes no scientific sense, and there are many physiological and psychological explanations that can explain your experience much better than “the spirits of the dead returned, but I’m the only one who saw them.” Similarly, I have no doubt that you were sick, and you got better. However, it wasn’t ghosts that did it – it was more than likely the fact that you had a sympathetic health care practitioner, changed a bunch of lifestyle factors, and experienced something akin to the placebo effect.

2. Homeopathy can’t be tested by “Western” science

Bullshit. I say it again for emphasis – bullshit. First of all, we know that you don’t believe that because there are more than 600 articles indexed under “homeopathy clinical trial”. Homeopaths constantly trumpet any type of bullshit study that purports to prove that homeopathy works (even when those studies are fundamentally flawed in terms of design). Second, science isn’t “western” – it’s just science. You observe events with and without the exposure of interest, and control as best you can for other effects – if the thing works you’ll see a difference. It’s not arcane, it’s not complicated, it’s incredibly straightforward. Every time a rigorous study is conducted, it finds no difference. That’s not because everything else in the world is testable by science but somehow homeopathy is exempt from the rest of the laws of the universe – it’s because the shit doesn’t work!

3. Homeopathy is energy rather than chemistry, which is why it doesn’t work like pharmaceuticals

You say “energy”, but you mean “magic”. Energy is measurable, observable, and testable. There’s absolutely no reason whatsoever that shaking a small amount of a substance in water will somehow imprint the “energy” from the substance into the water. Why, if it did, wouldn’t latex paints (which are water-based) become SUPER POISONOUS when shaken at the Home Depot? Why wouldn’t a water bottle with some chlorinated water exhibit bleach-like properties when jostled around in a backpack? Why doesn’t ocean water exhibit unique properties if consumed near shore compared to out in the placid middle of the ocean? No no no, you’re not talking about “energy” – you’re talking about “magic”. Stop calling it homeopathy and start admitting that you’re trying to sell people “magic water” – see how many people defend that.

4. Homeopathy is natural – that’s why it doesn’t cause side effects

Homeopathy doesn’t cause any effects period. Of course it doesn’t cause “side effects” – it’s water! Saying that something is “natural” is a complete red herring. Lead is 100% natural, but it will certainly kill you whether ingested or made into completely natural bullets. Arsenic is natural, as is cyanide, as is mercury, as are hemlock, warfarin, digitalis, foxglove, and any other number of things that are refined and made into real medicines. Saying that it “stimulates the body’s natural healing defenses” is similarly a crock. It does no such thing – it’s just water with an elaborate ritual that precedes it.

5. Homeopathy has to be prepared in an individualized way in order for it to work

I call bullshit once again. Homeopathic “remedies” for colds, sleep, fever, earache, flu, all manner of illnesses are sold in pre-packaged vials that have nothing to do whatsoever with “individual preparation”. All you do by using this excuse is add yet another mechanism by which your pet woo can evade any kind of scrutiny. Since homeopaths don’t even claim to customize it to a person’s DNA, there’s no reason (besides magic) why a dose that works in one individual would have absolutely no effect in another.

6. Homeopathy can take days or weeks to take effect

This is also another bullshit statement that even the person making the claim doesn’t believe. Homeopathy sympathizers make the claim that they’ve been instantly cured (OMGLOLBBQ) by homeopathic preparations. But when someone takes it and it doesn’t manifest its miraculous powers in anything like a reasonable time frame, it’s because it takes days or weeks to work. I’ve talked before about regression to the mean, albeit in a sociological context rather than a medical one. If you’re sick and you wait days or weeks, you will often get better without the intervention of any kind of pills, magic or otherwise. I went in with a pretend sleeping disorder – those often resolve themselves as circadian rhythms adjust or people make other adjustments in their lifestyle.

This one deserves at least partial points for credibility. Antidepressants famously take weeks to take effect. There is undoubtedly regression to the mean at work in that class of drugs as well (which I personally think are way overprescribed and have awful side effects), but they are tested against placebo for precisely that reason. The drug takes a while to build up to operable levels within your body, after which they go on maintenance dosing and are constantly adjusted to make sure they aren’t in too high concentration. Homeopathy doesn’t operate in that same way, nor does it even claim to.

7. Thousands of people say they’ve been treated happily with homeopathy. It must work!

Thousands of people have been treated happily by the direct intervention of Jesus. Thousands of others have been directly touched by Allah. Therefore, by homeopathic logic (which is diluted several million times from any real logic), both Christianity and Islam – two religion with fundamentally different claims of association with the divine – must be right. Of course this is an entirely fatuous conclusion – both parties are misattributing an effect to an improbable cause. Favorable anecdotes do not constitute evidence, as people are often willing to give credit (or blame) to things that have nothing to do with the outcome of interest.

Homeopaths also don’t keep records on the number of people who it doesn’t work for. I can claim to be the greatest lover of all time because every woman I’ve slept with loved it, until you observe the long list of ladies who I have completely failed to satisfy (sorry, ladies). It’s just as dishonest of homeopaths to claim that they satisfy their customers as it is for me to masquerade as some kind of sex Jedi; more dishonest in fact given that the stakes are much higher for people seeking medical treatment than for the trollops I lure home from the bar.

8. Under homeopathic principles, the overdose wouldn’t work anyway – you haven’t proved a thing

Strictly speaking, this one is true. It was a totally non-scientific experiment – much of the same type that are used to prove that homeopathy works. Congratulations on pointing out that all of your own “evidence” is actually cherry-picked bullshit.

9. Big Pharma doesn’t want homeopathy to succeed because they can’t make money from it

Considering that pharmaceutical companies a) can monetize just about anything, and b) own many homeopathic-producing companies, I’d say they’re just fine with your magic water. Thanks for doing their dirty work for them, allowing them to make money off of completely bullshit “remedies”.

10. Homeopathy is 200 years old, and that’s because it works

Just because something is old doesn’t make it venerable. The theory of the four humours of the body (blood, yellow/black bile, and phlegm) is over 2000 years old, which means it must be at least 10 times more respectable than homeopathy. In a sense it is, since both of these ideas are complete crap. The age of a theory doesn’t mean anything – the standard by which we judge truth is whether or not it fits with observed fact. If a new theory came out tomorrow that better explained cancer (for example) than our current understanding allows, it would be better than the old theory, even though the old one is… well… older.

If you’re still not convinced, imagine for a second that the pharmaceutical companies were allowed to flood the market with drugs that were justified by these same bullshit claims – “oh this new antidepressant uses energy rather than medicine, and it can’t be tested in clinical trials”. Everyone would be apoplectic with anger (and justifiably so). These excuses are nothing more than a series of whining attempts to give credibility to a system of thought that has none. We have a standard for truth, which is how we know that the rockets will reach the moon and that the electronics in your computer allow you to read this post and that the brakes on your car will prevent you from going through that traffic light. Homeopathy fails to live up to that standard, which is why we know that it doesn’t work.

It doesn’t work.

It doesn’t work.

I’m sure I’ve missed some common claims. Please feel free to add them in yourself as a comment. For bonus points, refute the argument in the comments too.

TL/DR: Homeopaths make the same list of excuses for the fact that homeopathy doesn’t work. None of these excuses is particularly persuasive, and a number of them are outright bullshit that not even the excuse-maker really believes.

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4 comments

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  1. 1
    Kevin Cedrone

    I was heartily amused by the term “sex Jedi”.

    I have 3 things to add here:
    1. “I have a degree in homeopathy”
    –”You have a degree in baloney!”

    2. Medical desperation can make people do and believe funny things. If homeopathic cures “work” for them, and a little energy-adjustment keeps these malcontents from clogging the regular medical care system then I’m okay with it.

    3. If you concede that the care works even on a psychological basis it should be testable by “western science”. The danger in conceding that it works at all, even by placebo effect is that they’ll want public monies which are provably better spent on legitimate treatments. (Lest the market be flooded by people/corporations with less to lose than big pharma)

    3a. Maybe they meant “Western science” as in science conducted at University of Western Ontario? Perhaps they doubt the science/medicine faculty’s facilities and local expertise?

  2. 2
    Crommunist

    1. I believe this is the video you’re looking for.

    2. I’m not in favour of lying to people because we have a bad system. I think we should be fixing the system. If we need to find a way to give people some TLC without lying to them and charging them money for the privilege, then so be it.

    3. If the whole package of homeopathic treatment conveys some benefit to patients, then we should be looking for it. My suspicion is that it is due to how much time patients spend with a homeopath, and how much emphasis is placed on lifestyle factors as well as the “medicine”. There’s something to be learned from there, and we shouldn’t ignore it.

    3a. That’s the most likely explanation.

  3. 3
    R

    I believe in placebo as well as any doctor: if the crazy hysteric woman can only be calmed down by telling her she’s getting a special pill, then it’s ok.

    But don’t try to say that your magic pill is better than real scientific medicine, and that real scientific medicine is all a conspiracy by big pharma to keep people unhealthy. This is just disgusting and an insult to decency.

  4. 4
    Crommunist

    Thanks for the comment (and associated sexism, but I’m sure you didn’t mean it :P )

    It is indeed pretty disgusting and insulting to people who spend their lives trying to make life better for people, only to have those efforts impugned by fradsters.

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