Homeopathy Awareness Week: Spinning homeopathy, not arguing for it

[BPSDB] Some – what I consider outrageous – spinning of homeopathy in the Guardian,  by three committed homeopathy-friendly physicians (Professor George Lewith, Professor of health research at the University of Southampton, Dr Michael Dixon, Medical director at the Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health and Dr Peter Fisher, the Clinical director, Royal London Homoeopathic Hospital).

They come about as close as they can to claiming evidence for homeopathy while actually admitting that is no real evidence for its effectiveness. The origins of homeopathy were in the days when medical science was just beginning. In those two centuries science has gone on to confirm the atomic nature of matter, has discovered the cellular and organic basis of life, the existence of bacteria and viruses, the mechanisms of heredity and the causes of inherited diseases. It has invented advanced methods of diagnosis and treatment, and intensive care. Yet homeopaths are still using weasel words like “cautiously positive”.

The second part of the letter is a non sequitur that sets a trap for the reader. It is of course morally wrong for patients to be denied clinically effective treatment or amelioration, where it exists. But that’s irrelevant to homeopathy if homeopathy has not been shown to be an effective treatment. What is probably true is that homeopathic treatments (rather than the pills) help patients feel better, but so does any treat.  In actual fact, homeopathic pills and potions are based on magic, so why should they be favoured over (say) giving patients tickets to the theatre, another kind of pleasing and voluntary suspension of disbelief that cheers people up? The difference is that homeopathic practice mimics the protocols and procedures of medicine without  the reality, so it is easy to confuse with medicine. It is cargo-cult science.

Lewith and co. also claim that Evan Harris and Edzard Ernst “assume that we have effective treatments for all conditions and all patients.” I doubt that that is the case, although Harris and Ernst can no doubt comment on that themselves. We know that effective treatments do not exist for all conditions and all patients. That’s why there is medical research. That still does not imply that homeopathy is useful though, in the absence of evidence that it is effective.

David Colquhoun considers that homeopathy is boring, and of course it is, like flying saucers and ghost pictures and astrology that depend on the repetition of memes without any depth of theory or reference to reality. The contrast between the intellectual richness of science and the shallow repetitions of pseudoscience is striking. But while there are shills rooting for homeopathy, it is still necessary to keep pointing out the truth. As Professor Colquoun points out, homeopathy is a business like the tobacco industry that, if frustrated at home, turns abroad and looks for more vulnerable victims to assist its expansion.

We are all patients of the medical profession at some time in our lives – I have been very lucky not to have needed the services of doctors and hospitals very much in my life, but I have had one of the potentially fatal diseases that some homeopaths claim to be able to cure. Some of my family, on the other hand, have received the full benefit of scientific medicine. As a taxpayer, I would like to see my money used in the NHS to best advantage – that means for effective treatment. (I have no problem with patients paying for homeopathy, snakes’ entrails or reiki if they choose). And I would be very concerned if I , or someone I knew, was referred to someone who holds the sort of views expressed by Dr Lewith and his colleagues. Not necessarily because they may consider homeopathy useful or even possibly effective, but because they are educated and accomplished doctors and yet they argue for their vested interest in this inept way.

Which brings me to what was originally going to be the intention of this post: to use the Guardian letter as an example of how spin is used to disguise a weak or non-existent argument. That will now have to wait for another post, as I have rambled on to other points.