Money is better disaster aid than homeopathy

In which Dr Aust suggests that while sending money for disaster relief may not feel like enough, it it better than sending nothing. Even magic nothing.

Earlier this week Dr Aust wrote out a cheque to the Disasters Emergency Committee.

At times of disasters with tragic costs in human lives, people are naturally moved to think about what they can do to help. Money seems a feeble response, in a way – but here in rich countries, money is what we have to contribute. It is also something that is needed urgently, and will continue to be for many years to come.

Beyond that, though – and perhaps other slightly more “political” measures like campaigning for cancelling of Haiti’s debt – there is little concrete you can do.

And anyway, it would be rather arrogant to think you could do anything on the ground. Or even that you know what needs doing. Though certain things are fairly obvious, like medical supplies for overstretched hospitals, or – possibly most urgent of all – getting enough clean water to people to try and head off deadly outbreaks of water-borne infectious diseases.

It would certainly be arrogant, though, to think one knows exactly and precisely what kind of medical treatments are required to deliver the necessary care. How could one know from here?

Some people do seem to think they do know quite precisely, though. You can find a few of them here, or here. Some of these folk seem to think that homeopathic first aid (sic) would be just the thing for the people of Haiti.

It strikes Dr Aust that this is a touch self-centred.

If the homeopaths want to help, they should do what everyone else does and donate their pounds, or dollars, or whatever, through some non-profit NGO (non-governmental organisation) with an existing local presence – like Oxfam, or Unicef, or Save the Children. That would be my first thought, and indeed it seems to be what real aid workers tell you to do too.

To be fair, there are some people on the homeopathy blogs and forums saying this. But there are also some commenters who seem as interested, or more interested, in promoting homeopathy. Or telling you the established NGOs are (to paraphrase)  “just going to spend all your donation on administration and jobs for fat cat managers”

[PS – even if some aid organisations do spend more money on “administrative costs” than others, I think you’ll find it’s just a bit more complicated than that]

Instead, some of these folk want to send homeopathic first aid kits. Or “trained homeopaths”.

To me this smacks of arrogance, and insularity.

It seems to me that it would be a bit like me thinking that I knew exactly – and better than the people at the sharp end – the precise medical interventions, and indeed brand of supplies, that were needed to deal with a diarrhoeal disease outbreak, or some other epidemic, in an unprecedented disaster setting halfway around the world.

It would also be a bit like me telling Oxfam, or the Red Cross, or Médecins Sans Frontières, that I was not going to donate money, but instead was going to buy £££ worth of the remedy of my personal choice – say branded Generic Evul Pharma Dioralyte – and send it to their depot.

Now, I’m sure they could use the Dioralyte, which is a perfectly good product for treating water, and more particularly salt, loss in diarrhoea. Even if it does taste a bit bleagh. (I speak from experience)

On the other hand, perhaps they would prefer something else, like a cheaper unbranded version. Or, in an emergency setting, they might prefer a bunch of water boilers (for sterilizing water) plus a crate of 10 kg tubs of NaCl (sodium chloride, aka salt) and glucose, or sucrose. For the reason why this is useful stuff, see the end of the post.

Or alternatively, perhaps what they would really need is a generator to run the water-boilers. Or bottled gas. Or  well-digging equipment to find a source of water.

Perhaps they need all of the above.

The point, of course, is that I DON’T KNOW just what what would be most useful for the people in the disaster zone, or the local workers on the ground. The local aid workers on the ground, on the other hand, do know.

And what we can do, hopefully, is give their organisations the resources to buy what they say they need and to get it to them.

It isn’t really enough. But it is,  hopefully, something real.


Edit: There is a brilliant blog post from the British Red Cross blog, pointed out by Zeno (see first comment below), that makes the point about why donating money – not items – really is the best way to help. Highly recommended.


Appendix:  Salt, sugar and water

When you have diarrhoea you lose water, and salts. The best way to treat you is to replace these, orally if at all possible (and intravenously if that is not enough). For oral rehydration the World Health Organisation defines Oral Rehydration Solutions, and most manufactured (packet) formulae follow these.  The basic points are that they contain salts, and also sugars. This is because you need to replace the lost salts, and salt and sugar are absorbed together in the small intestine via linked transport (“co-transport” is the technical term) of sodium ions and glucose into your intestinal epithelial cells. [Sucrose, table sugar, can be used since it is rapidly broken down into glucose and fructose].

Since severe diarrhoeal disease means that you lose not just water, but also sodium, potassium and chloride ions, the rehydration formulae contain not only NaCl (sodium chloride) but also potassium chloride (KCl). Some versions contain bicarbonate too, since diarrhoea also leads to the loss of bicarbonate ions.   More fascinating stuff about diarrhoea and oral rehydration therapy at Wikipedia.

In emergency settings, simpler “homemade” versions are also used. Perhaps the most famous is:

– one level teaspoon of salt
– eight level teaspoons of sugar

– dissolved in one litre of clean drinking water, or water that has been boiled for 10 minutes and then cooled.

This simple recipe has saved innumerable lives – some estimate as many as fifty million in the last three decades. It is particularly important for children under five who are at increased risk from diarrhoeal disease – the second leading infectious killer of under-fives worldwide.   As Ben Goldacre says, behold the power of ideas, and the scientific principles on which these ideas are based.


22 Responses to “Money is better disaster aid than homeopathy”

  1. zeno Says:

    The arrogance and ignorance of the likes of Debby Bruck is astounding.

    I also find the comments about the Red Cross insulting. I don’t know about the American Red Cross, but I do not believe the caricature that is presented there – they certainly are not corrupt and the vast majority of the money collected will go to the needy. As for selling water to those in need…for those of us who know and understand the history and Fundamental Principles by which the whole of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement operates, this lie is deeply insulting.

    But it’s just another example of their distance from the real world.

    The British Red Cross have a great explanation about why they only collect money and do not take things like blankets, tents and medicines: Help not hinder Haiti. Well worth reading.

  2. draust Says:

    Thanks for that excellent link to the British Red Cross blog. Have added it to the blog above.

    Quite agree about Debby Bruck et al. It truly is a Parallel Reality they inhabit.

    The staring-eyed certainty that they are in possession of a tremendous received truth about human existence, together with their utter inability to recognise that there is any situation where they don’t have the magic answer, seems to me to crystallise much of the Alt.Reality mindset. The parallel with certain strands of religious belief is hard to avoid.

  3. pv Says:

    Re the comments about the Red Cross, one wonders what might be the response from the homeoquackery corner if a member of the Red Cross wrote publicly that the SoH or any other homeoscam marketing organisation were corrupt. Off to court in a flash methinks with a claim for defamation.

    Fortunately the Red Cross is bigger and better than that and prefers to spend its money on helping the disadvantaged rather than “protecting” its reputation from being sullied by a bunch of deluded and habitual liars.

    Anyway, the Red Cross reputation around the world is for the most part unimpeachable so I tend to think that criticism of them by a bunch of homeopaths is self-defeating. In this respect a little publicity for the homeopaths’ idiotic position can only be of positive benefit to the Red Cross.

  4. draust Says:

    Oh dear. They are really getting worked up about their “Haiti Mission” now.

  5. Zeno Says:

    That is despicable, deluded, dangerous nonsense.

  6. Nash Says:

    They really don’t have a clue what they are doing.

    On the subject of disasters, has Jeremy Sherr sloped home yet?

  7. pv Says:

    Zeno Said:
    January 26, 2010 at 2:48 pm

    “That is despicable, deluded, dangerous nonsense.”

    I know it’s not homeopathy, but John Travolta flying in some of some of his scientology buddies comes close in the “despicable” stakes.

    “…he also brought Scientologist “volunteer ministers” who claim to be able to heal victims with the power of touch.”

  8. 129th Skeptics’ Circle! « The SkeptVet Blog Says:

    […] august Dr. Aust considers the needs of those suffering from the recent earthquake in Haiti and suggests that while maybe sending money to aid organizations is a quiet, anonymous, not […]

  9. Nash Says:

    For more arrogance and ignorance:

    What makes a healer stand out from the crowd

  10. pv Says:

    For more arrogance and ignorance:

    What makes a healer stand out from the crowd

    Extraordinarily deluded, overestimated sense of self importance and ability.
    They live in a parallel universe.

  11. draust Says:

    No argument from me.

  12. Medical Student Says:

    Many people do not understand how homeopathy works, so they are skeptics.

    Homeopathy is a very complex medicine, and it works because of quantum physics.

    Steps to make a remedy:
    1. One drop of the original substance with 100 drops of water
    2. Shake
    3. One drop of that substance, 100 drops water
    4. Shake
    5. Steps 1-4 are repeated until there is no amount of the original substance in the tincture
    This point is called Avogadro’s number or Avogadro’s constant.
    As steps 1-4 are repeated, the remedy becomes stronger.
    This is because of quantum leaps and quantum physics.
    Hey, just because we didn’t know how bats flew in caves, doesn’t mean they didn’t fly in caves.
    Just because we don’t have the technology at this point in time to figure out how homeopathy works, doesn’t mean it doesn’t.

  13. pv Says:

    Just because we don’t have the technology at this point in time to figure out how homeopathy works, doesn’t mean it doesn’t

    We do have the technology, and homeopathy doesn’t work.

    Otherwise “Medical Student” appears to be trolling.

  14. draust Says:

    Yes, the comment from “Medical Student” is a curious one, isn’t it? It did originate from the webservers of a genuine and highly respectable medical school in the US, which is why it made it past the spam filtering.

    I would be, erm, “worried”, to say the least, if a real medical student believed this. Especially in the US where medicine is a graduate degree, so the people have all had some University-level training in critical thinking and analysis.

    A sizeable minority of the UK preclinical medical students I teach have a rather trusting attitude towards “traditional remedies”, and towards CAM generally. They are an open-hearted lot, keen to help people, and also rather young and sometimes pretty naive (only a year or two out of the 6th form). Because of all this they are often swayed by the idea that the Alt.Med types “try to heal people in their own traditional way”, are sincere, dispense gentle wisdom, are harmless, are “complementary” to mainstream medicine etc etc. They are also prone to be taken in by myths the Alt.Med lot push like:

    “Well, no-one researches CAM, so we don’t really know whether it works or not, lots more research is needed.”

    [Hmm. I wonder why we are no nearer “validating” any CAM treatment – as in “finding that it is effective” – after the NIH has spent at least a Billion Dollars on CAM research? Could it be that the therapies are, y’know – ineffective?]

    Anyway, I suspect that most of the UK students get a reality check once they get into real healthcare settings in the hospitals and surgeries – which is another reason not to give CAM “privileged access” (i.e. bypassing normal evidence requirements) to the mainstream. As I and many others far more eminent than me (and Tim Minchin!) have said, if CAM can meet the normal standards of evidence required for accepting treatments as effective, then it becomes “medicine”. If it can’t, then it has no place.

    Finally, as to the comments about Quantum Theory, I think we have already said enough about that. The general idiocy of that comment is the one that most makes me doubt a medical student could actually have written it.

  15. patricia Says:

    This is a comedian’s view of homeopathy, mine too.

  16. sid Says:

    What is the definition of a hoeopath?

  17. draust Says:

    Assume you mean “homeopath”, sid – “a practitioner of homeopathy”.

    There is a comprehensive Wikipedia entry on homeopathy.

  18. draust Says:

    I’ve reinstated the semi-anonymous comment linking the Mitchell & Webb Homeopathic A&E clip on the basis that the clip ought to be part of every single post related to homeopathy – if not in the post, then certainly in the comments.

    The reason is that it conveys the utter absurdity of homeopathy so beautifully, and in a way that pretty much anybody can understand.

  19. Nash Says:

    Slightly off topic, but the youTube clip is worth watching. It is from the US version of Dragons Den

  20. uberVU - social comments Says:

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by GMSkeptics: RT @Dr_Aust_PhD Money is better disaster aid than homeopathy:

  21. skeptical scientism Says:

    the religion of scientism is like any other vicious body of dogma; it is fully circular; insular; self-referential; and cannot stand the light of day

  22. draust Says:

    @”Skeptical scientism”

    Thank you for that little nugget of rhetorical defensiveness in the service of pre-Enlightenment hand-waving.

    The point of “science” (not “scientism”) is that it asks what things we can accept (or reject) on the basis of empirical evidence. Not dogma or belief.

    If you prefer various forms of mysticism or religion, that is up to you – but please don’t try and impose it on the rest of us.

    Finally, since the topic of this post is homeopaths vulture-ing into disaster zones with their pretend medicine, I thought I would close with a link to this recent (and inevitably depressing) example of their laughable delusions.

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