Archive for February 22nd, 2010

Puffs and huffs of homeopathic smoke

February 22, 2010

In which Dr Aust ponders whether recessions are good for scepticism. Or at least bad for homeopaths.

The sceptical blogosphere has been afire this weekend with the (presumably) leaked news that the  House of Commons Science and Technology Commitee were not terribly impressed with the homeopaths, and that the Committee’s report – to be released Monday morning – will reflect this. Almost makes it worth going to bed early so that I will be awake enough to have a good giggle tomorrow.

My only sadness is that, as far as I can tell from a long “tweet-up” on Twitter, none of the sceptical “citizen-journalists” seems to be able to get into the press briefing tomorrow morning, not even cyber-geek turned Blogzirkusmeister turned 10-23 press supremo turned impressively-bearded U-boat-commander-lookalike turned Guardian freelancer Martin Robbins.

It would be a shame if we have to rely entirely upon mainstream press coverage, since bloggers like Ben Goldacre, Prof David Colquhoun, Le Canard Noir, and Gimpy (see blog sidebar for links) have played a critical part in lighting the fuse under homeopathy’s shaky foundations.

Take that together with the late-breaking (at least for MPs, though better late than never) insight that NHS money you spend on homeopathy cannot be spent on other more sensible things, and you have a recipe for a spotlight finally being turned on the surreal daftness of having an eighteenth century superstition enshrined in Act Of Parliament, and endorsed by the NHS.

Now, I did have a post on homeopathy about three-quarters written, penned two weeks ago as a retrospective muse on the brilliant 10-23 campaign. But it never got finished, largely because I got derailed by a deadline crisis and then by a debate I got involved in under my real-world identity. And  I don’t have time to finish it now.

However, I do have time to quote a bit of it – which is actually itself a quote from what I wrote about homeopathy in a comment on Jack of Kent’s blog about a month back. The trigger for this little summary was that someone asked why sceptics tended to highlight homeopathy’s intrinsic scientific impossibility, rather than talking about the clinical trials.  I reproduce it here because it is perhaps as close as I have come to a reasonably concise explanation of my personal reasons for finding homeopathy risible.


“The point about homeopathy is that the two approaches [to deciding what is a useful treatment] mesh – the “prior plausibility” approach (aka incomprehensibility, or impossibility) and the “lack of real evidence” detailed-forensic-scientific-analysis-of-the-trials approach.

To scientists, homeopathy serves as a kind of sine qua non demonstration of the way implausible / mystical / belief-based therapies are both clung to (all evidence notwithstanding) and promoted.

As a sub-set of this, homeopathy also shows what happens if you take a completely placebo therapy and feed it into the arena of medical trials, where biases of various kinds are undoubtedly present, and indeed are well-described.

The first point is that most of the studies will be done by enthusiasts / advocates for homeopathy. So you get enough random false positives, people fooling themselves through the psychological need to believe or through lack of technical know-how, finagling of results, over-promotion of wholly inadequately-controlled “positive” studies, “file drawer” burying of the results of negative studies, etc etc. that the homeopaths can always find SOME positive results in the literature.

And all the detailed meta-analysis of the trials which shows that the positives are illusory (essentially, as the study design and size, and hence reliability, improves, the “positive effect” of homeopathy beyond placebo tends inexorably to zero) cannot “unconvince” them.

Coming back to the point [about why scientists tackling the issue in public fora tend to concentrate on talking about how intrinsically silly homeopathy is] we basically default to incomprehensibility because the scientific argument is won, to the satisfaction of all but the homeopaths, who are utterly beyond all convincing (cf the anti-vaccination nuts and MMR).

And… the incomprehensibility argument is quicker, pithier, and easier for a layman to grasp.”


Meanwhile, how have the homeopaths responded to the last few months’ events?

They have circled the wagons. They have made lots of loud noise about all this being unfair. They have started a snide letter-writing campaign about Dr Evan Harris, one of the very few MPs that actually understands science and medicine. This last one is particularly revealing. Essentially the homeopaths feel it is unfair to have scientifically or medically literate MPs like Dr Harris on the Science and Technology Committee, because such folk seem unusually likely to see homeopathy clearly for what it is. They think that MPs should be selected for a lack of any relevant prior knowledge, presumably because as it would then be easier to bullshit them.

[It is so important not to let that mean old knowledge get in the way of being “open minded”]

Anyway, for a full chronicle of the spasms of nastiness, frivolous complaints and persecution mania over the last few weeks, Gimpy’s blog is a must.

So, if the report is indeed as widely expected, what next?

Probably little, this side of any election.

But that is fine. At least it will be another, and very clear, public statement that faith-based “magical” quack therapies should not be given a special and privileged place in a modern medical system where we strive towards the goal of there being sensible evidence behind what doctors do.

To repeat an old line, if you can show that something works, then it is neither “mainstream” nor “alternative”. It is just “medicine”.

The playing field should be equal for mainstream and alternative “treatments”, in terms of having to demonstrate that they work.

Once that principle is firmly established, we can move forward.

And if you can’t show it works, then your Alternative Therapy of choice can still be your personal luxury –  if you want.  And if you are prepared to pay for it. Though I suspect that in the current economic climate there will be less people wanting to pay than a few years ago.

Which brings me to a final question:

I wonder what the other careers of choice are for an unemployed homeopath?