Confessions Of A Homeophobe

Homeopathy is something of an easy target for sceptics and comedians alike (link and link), but many people continue to spend a lot of money on homeopathic remedies, and so repeating all the reasons why these people are wasting their money could still be a worthwhile exercise.

Belief in homeopathy is a perfect example of people struggling to understand statistics, and the importance of a large sample size. This is possibly because small sample sizes – or in other words, anecdotal cases – bring with them a greater level of human interest than large sample sizes. As Stalin once said, “One death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic”. Being told that homeopathy doesn’t work seems like nonsense if you know someone who took a homeopathic remedy after being told that their cancer was incurable, and then weeks later they went into remission. That seems like pretty good proof.

But it’s not. It’s really not.

If I flip a coin 1,000 times, I’d expect it to land on heads roughly 50% of the time. It might not be exactly 500, but it will be close. If I flip it 100 times, again, I’d expect around 50% to land on heads, but again it might not be exactly 50. And the percentage will probably be further away from 50% than it was with 1,000 coin tosses. If I flip it 10 times, it’s quite feasible that I could flip 10 consecutive heads. If I flip a coin just once, it will either land on heads 100% of the time or 0% of the time.

Apply this principle to miraculous recoveries from illness. For every person who defies odds of 1-in-1 million to recover, there were 999,999 who died, as expected. But because those 999,999 were fully expecting to succumb to their illness, their stories, while very sad, are unremarkable. The one person who recovered, on the other hand, will be proclaimed as a living miracle. If they happened to have tried a homeopathic remedy, that remedy will be proclaimed as a miracle cure.

People who claim to have been cured of cancer by homeopathic remedies are few and far between. Occasionally one crops up in the usual storm of sensationalism (link). Most claims of homeopathy working, however, deal with more mundane problems. Headaches, backaches, sore throats and colds. Problems that aren’t really that serious. Problems that conventional medicine may well have failed to treat. Such problems tend to be very sensitive to the placebo effect. The placebo effect is in fact quite a powerful phenomenon – essentially, it is when the patient’s symptoms improve purely because they believe they are going to. Quite a lot is understood of the pathways involved in the placebo effect, and entire books are dedicated to the subject (e.g. Dylan Evans – Placebo). When homeopathy works, it is working simply as a result of the placebo effect.

A meta-analysis published in Lancet in 2005 (link) looked at the various studies into the efficacy of homeopathy, and found that, as expected, it simply does not work at any level above placebo. It really doesn’t. That is the simple and straight forward truth.

There have been some papers that claim to have found that homeopathy does work. One such paper was published in Paediatrics in 2006 by Jennifer Jacobs and colleagues (link). It concludes that homeopathic remedies successfully treat acute diarrhoea in children in Nicaragua. A victory for homeopathy?

Not quite. The next issue of Paediatrics contained a fairly damning review by Sampson and London, which concluded:

“In summary: 1) The study used an unreliable and unproved diagnostic and therapeutic scheme; 2) There was no control for product adulteration; 3)Treatment selection was arbitrary; 4) The data were placed into odd groupings without explanation, and contained errors and unexplained inconsistencies; 5) The results were not clinically significant and were probably not statistically significant; 6) There was no public health significance; 7) Selection of references was incomplete and biased to support the claims of the article, and references were quoted inaccurately; and 8 ) Editorializations were inappropriate.”

Since then, Jacobs and her team have conducted trials in various countries, with varying results. The publications have been limited to low-impact journals such as The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, which in 2007 published a study into the efficacy of homeopathic remedies In Nepal (link). Unsurprisingly, the study found that homeopathic remedies do indeed work, but the publication is barely worth the paper it was printed on. Not only does it suffer from the same problems that the Nicaragua study suffered from, but it was funded by a company from Boiron. I’ll let you Google them.

So, with the scientific literature very quickly summarised with the inescapable conclusion that homeopathy doesn’t work, I’m now going to write about two more things: Firstly, why it’s fairly obvious that it doesn’t work; And secondly, why this finding isn’t simply “what doctors want to find”.

Homeopathy is a form of alternative medicine that was first proposed by Samuel Hahnemann in 1796. The principle is that a condition can be cured by a small amount of the thing that causes it. Scientifically, this isn’t actually a completely crazy idea. Many vaccines are based on small, inactive or subtly different forms of the antigen that causes the disease. The vaccine for smallpox was cowpox, for example. However, homeopathy takes this idea and runs with it to incredible conclusions. Firstly, they don’t actually use the thing that’s causing the illness – so the cure for ‘cancer’ wouldn’t be a diluted bit of tumour. They look at the symptoms. They then take something that would cause that symptom, and dilute it. For example, if you’re suffering from insomnia, they will give you a very diluted solution of caffeine, because caffeine keeps you awake.

And by very diluted, I mean very diluted. Not the kind of diluted that shampoo is when you fill the nearly-empty bottle with water. This is dilution of astronomical proportions (I hope that the very small number of regular readers are picking up on these little references).

At some of the strongest dilutions (which means the remedy is more potent, incidentally), you would require a sample of homeopathic solution larger than the entire universe to be statistically likely to have just one molecule of the active ingredient present. In other words, it really is just water. It’s not a diluted form of the thing causing the illness – it’s just water. And this is where the real pseudoscience comes into it. Water has memory, homeopathists claim. It remembers what was once in it, and as a result of that, it works. It only remembers the active ingredient (caffeine or whatever) of course, and not all the other things that had previously been in it. This is all due to a fairly complex shaking ritual. I really don’t want to go into the detail of that, because life is too short, but James Randi explains it all very well (link).

If what homeopathists are claiming is true, they should be falling over each other trying to prove it, because if they do, they will have fundamentally changed our understanding of physics. Forget what the Large Hadron Collider is doing: if homeopathy works, we can forget a lot of what we think we know about physics.

Finally, is it possible that the only reason why people ridicule homeopathy so much is that doctors and pharmaceutical companies want to carry on making money out of conventional medicine? Of course it’s not. Conventional medicine is, quite simply, medicine that works. I apologise in advance to anyone who knows anything about this, because you can probably guess what example I’m about to give. Thousands of years ago, people used to chew on willow bark to treat headaches. More recently, it was found that willow bark contains salicylic acid. A derivative of this is acetylsalicylic acid, which is more commonly known as aspirin. If alternative medicines can be shown to work, conventional medicine will gobble them up in a heart-beat and make them part of normal treatment. If homeopathy can be shown to work, the major pharmaceutical companies will rub their hands in glee at the prospect of making billions of pounds out of water. Doctors, scientists and pharmaceutical companies have nothing to gain whatsoever by disproving homeopathy. It simply does not work.

And another argument that is often heard is that even if homeopathy doesn’t work, it doesn’t do any harm for people to believe it does. It comforts them. It gives them hope. Well, that may be true. But what if those people choose homeopathy at the expense of proper medicine? In those instances, homeopathy doesn’t bring them hope – it’s assisted suicide.

And the harm doesn’t stop there. Clinical trials of homeopathy often take places in poorer countries such as Honduras and Nicaragua, and more recently have even started to be used to treat HIV/AIDS (link). Testing remedies that do not work, on children with HIV/AIDS in underdeveloped countries, is completely unethical and absolutely appalling.

In conclusion, there is absolutely no satisfactory evidence that homeopathic remedies have any efficacy whatsoever other than the placebo effect, and there is a wealth of evidence to the contrary. This is hardly surprising, given the scientific implausibility of homeopathy. Furthermore it is my opinion that not only does homeopathy do no good whatsoever, but it actually causes great harm.

But then maybe I’m just a homeophobe.

Song

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7 Responses to “Confessions Of A Homeophobe”

  1. Nancy Malik Says:

    Real is Homeopathy. Homeopathy for everyone.

  2. ‘Read. *Link* Ciao’ Rude.

  3. Nice, the James Randi link is particularly good.
    To come up with much beyond “It’s water!!!” on the subject of homeopathy is pretty impressive. 😉

  4. well, GLEE is the best musical tv series out there, nice characters and nice songs :*;

  5. Brilliant!

  6. Quintin Freytas Says:

    Homeopathy, you see, isn’t a drug. It’s not a chemical. So you can drink all you want and you won’t overdose on it. That’s not a defect in homeopathy — it’s a remarkable advantage! It means that while 200,000+ Americans are killed each year by toxic pharmaceutical drugs, no one is harmed by homeopathy. Not even those who are desperately trying to be harmed by it!^

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