MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

Recently I have focussed several posts on well-known homeopaths and proponents of homeopathy; they include 6 prominent defenders of this therapy:

Dr Peter Fisher, the Queen’s homeopath,

Dr Michael Dixon, GP, chair of the NHS Alliance, the College of Medicine  and holder of many other posts,

Prof Michael Frass, intensive care physician at the University of Vienna,

Christian Boiron, general manager of Boiron, the world’s largest homeopathic manufacturer,

Christophe Merville, lead pharmacist at Boiron,

Dana Ullman, US homeopath and entrepreneur.

This inevitably begs the question what these people might have in common. After some consideration, I think, there are the following common denominators (you might see others; if so, please let me know):

  1. Most have conflicts of interest, yet try to hide this fact as best as they can, a circumstance which could be seen as less than honest.
  2. Most are quick of accusing critics of homeopathy of dishonesty and harbour conspiracy theories of various kinds.
  3. Most seem unable to think critically.
  4. They never criticise each other, not even for demonstrably wrong remarks or actions.
  5. Most use fallacious arguments regularly.
  6. Most rely on cherry-picking their evidence.
  7. Most display anti-scientific tendencies, yet rely on ‘cutting edge science’ as soon as they can interpret it in favour of homeopathy.
  8. They seem to be unable to learn in the light of new evidence.
  9. They seem never able to change their mind about things related to homeopathy.
  10. This gives them a distinct flair of fanaticism and arrogance.
  11. Most seem to have an odd attitude towards medical ethics.
  12. Most try to mislead the public by claiming things which are evidently not true.

The last point is, in my view, the most striking, important and disturbing issue. I ask myself what reasons these individuals have to tell untruths and whether ‘telling untruths’ is the same as ‘telling lies’. The first part of this question seems to be answered by the fact that most have powerful conflicts of interest; that is to say their livelihood depends on misleading the public about homeopathy. But are they lying or telling untruths?

This is a potentially important difference, I think.

An untruth is a statement which is false. By contrast, a lie is a false statement made with deliberate intent to deceive. So, are the untruths issued by the above-named homeopaths lies or untruths?

I would not dare to decide on the answer of this question…but hope my readers have some suggestions.

17 Responses to Six prominent proponents of homeopathy and 12 remarkable qualities

  • Anybody who lies can always claim they were mistaken, incompetent etc, there is no external means of distinguishing between lying and uttering untruths unless they admit to lying. I am not a lawyer but the law appears to take a pragmatic approach to this problem. If it can be shown that you should have known a particular fact and you gave false information that benefits you, then you are guilty of lying or perjury. Homeopaths clearly benefit from untruths, they have been informed about their errors and yet continue to issue the same untruths. Either they are so intellectually deficient that they do not understand the arguments, are incompetent or are lying. I leave it to them to decide which they find to be the lesser damage to their reputation.

    One area is clearly lying, quote mining and editing someone else’s statement requires dishonest agency.

  • So, are the untruths issued by the above-named homeopaths lies or untruths?

    We have on record in their own words that Boiron does not do much testing because its customers aren’t asking for it. That flies in the face of their advertisements. While there can never be absolute certainty, I think that a (criminal) court of law would have to be quite creative to decide that Boiron is honest, even if it is mistaken. Furthermore, Boiron makes all of its income selling candy-with-health-claims and avoiding research to back these up. Their situation is the same as that of Dudley LeBlanc and Hadacol. They are liars. I think that is pretty much a given.

    Peter Fisher is a rheumatologist. While medical studies in the past did not necessarily encourage critical thinking, it defies reason to assume that he does not know that he is telling untruths. Appearances are definitely not favouring his innocence. I would give him the disadvantage of the doubt.

    While that may be only an impression in my own head, and a wrong one at that, I cannot shake the impression that MPH studies seem to be neutral to hostile where reason and evidence are concerned. I would not consider it out of the realm of possibilities that Ullman, at least initially, was genuinely convinced of the benefits of homeopathy. But now? After decades of confrontation with reality-based detractors? Not impossible, but exceedingly unlikely, I think.

    I would not consider it almost-impossible that Michael Dixon is genuine or was at a certain point. Doctor studies in his time did not routinely encourage critical thinking, and playing chair left, right and centre does not necessarily lead to improved skills in that area. In combination with some hostility to science/reasoning, and blinkers to blind him from undesired parts of the literature, I think I would give him the benefit of the doubt.

    My own (very short) experience with academia has taught me that it is possible for complete ignoramuses to become professors or even that lack of skill and integrity can sometimes be non-negotiable requirements before being considered for the badge. So, I would be inclined to give Michael Frass the benefit of the doubt, even more so because “intensive care” may be more concentrating on the here and now than on the longer term. So, even if one would expect him to be experienced, that experience may not necessarily have taught him the right things. As a result, contrary to Peter Fisher, I would give him the benefit of the doubt, in combination with a form of resignation.

    Christophe Merville is an underling of Boiron’s, not in a position to tell the truth even if he knows it. He has, therefore, all appearances against him. He is a liar, because job security requires him to lie, even if he doesn’t. He should not even be included in a discussion, for that reason.

  • They are not liars any more than Catholic priests who teach the doctrine of transubstantiation are liars. Homeopathy has been disconnected from real science for decades (if it ever was connected), its resurgence since the 2950s has been in the form of a new-age cult. That’s the only interpretation I can find which accounts for the observed facts. Statements by homeopathy proponents are forms of religious truth, not empirical fact, and the more outspoken anti-science homeopathists have a great deal in common with creationists, especially those who seek to promote pseudoscientific justifications for creationism.

    It is I think wrong to accuse most of them of lying. Willful ignorance, yes. It is possible that they genuinely believe they are being honest, though in Dana’s case that would require a truly remarkable absence of critical faculties.

    • Heh! I mean, of course, 1950s. Though I suspect that another thousand years of failing to prove that like cures like won’t shut them up any more than the last 200 years of failing to prove it.

      • Have you not received your registration package for Homoeopathy in the 31st Century (Marsport, Confederated Kingdom of Mars) for 3015-02-22 (Old Earth Date)? I’d hurry, the teleporters are getting booked up.

        Even given clear examples of conflict of interest I would not be totally convinced that all of these people are consciously lying.

        If you have a look at Cognitive Dissonance Theory it suggests a very strong likelihood that these people have convinced themselves that homoeopathy works since they have been ‘selling’ it for so long. And when your personal prestige and income depends on a myth you may not be too inclined to question it.

        • If you have a look at Cognitive Dissonance Theory it suggests a very strong likelihood that these people have convinced themselves that homoeopathy works since they have been ‘selling’ it for so long. And when your personal prestige and income depends on a myth you may not be too inclined to question it.

          Perhaps, but is there evidence to support the position that says that they are therefore unable to see the contradictions? If so, would that not prove beyond the reasonable doubt that they are mentally incompetent, should be defrocked, and be institutionalised?

          I understand very well that someone may be unwilling to admit/submit to reality. I think there are few humans who have not been in that position once or twice in their lifetime. I submit, however, that there is a big difference between being unwilling to admit contradictions and being incapable of seeing or understanding them. The first indicates intent, the second incompetence.

          On the more important matter: you are wrong. 31st century Mars is not a kingdom, it is an enlightened tyranny. There.

          • I think there is evidence to show precisely that. The literature on cognitive dissonance is replete with examples of people faced with veritable beasts whose retort is “there ain’t no such animal”.

        • “If you have a look at Cognitive Dissonance Theory it suggests a very strong likelihood that these people have convinced themselves that homoeopathy works since they have been ‘selling’ it for so long.”

          In other words, the first person they lie to is themselves.

    • They are not liars any more than Catholic priests who teach the doctrine of transubstantiation are liars.

      If Catholic priests are not lying when they beat us over the head with transubstantiation, I submit there are as few liars in the west as there are homosexuals in Iran. Of course they are liars.

      Anyone who knows what meat tastes and feels like, knows that the transubstantiation is a poor-taste fright-night bedtime story for children.

      The point here, in my opinion, is that ‘intent’ is not unimportant in our society. It is, I think, unreasonable to condemn (or convict) people for ignorance, even if they “should have known”.

      However, giving people like the six individuals Prof. Ernst mentioned the benefit of the doubt, or even absolution, is not dissimilar from telling people that invisible pink flying unicorns do indeed exist.

      These people should know, not because these are the facts, but because they claim they are specialists and should be trusted.

      They deserve the disadvantage of the doubt, even if they genuinely don’t know. In their case, this is not ignorance, but incompetence.

      I see no reasonable argument for allowing self-declared and/or proven incompetents to practice. Incompetence should never be allowed by society as a positive argument for fit-to-practice decisions, even if incompetence is exactly what the profession is all about.

      Just as we no longer allow dogs to run off-leash outside well-designated and fenced-off areas, or drunks to drive a car, homeopaths should be prevented from spouting their nonsense, as any other dangerous person (which should include priests, Catholic or other).

      There is precedence for this: Bernie Madoff is in prison. For life. And he didn’t even kill anyone. Do we really think that money is more important than people’s safety?

      • No, I do not think they are lying. They have a compartmentalised mindset – “non-overlapping magisteria” as it were – in which religious “truth” is as true for them in Church as gravity is true for them in the physical world. They view the spiritual and the physical worlds as separate, with different ways of knowing. The Anglican Church has always been very bad at this, with the result that we have even Bishops who essentially don’t believe anything in the Bible to be literally true. The only way to understand the mindset of purveyors of quackery, in my view, is by study of other religious belief systems.

        • No, I do not think they are lying. They have a compartmentalised mindset – “non-overlapping magisteria” as it were – in which religious “truth” is as true for them in Church as gravity is true for them in the physical world. They view the spiritual and the physical worlds as separate, with different ways of knowing. The Anglican Church has always been very bad at this, with the result that we have even Bishops who essentially don’t believe anything in the Bible to be literally true.

          Well then, should they not be institutionalised? I also know about NOMA, and compartmentalisation. However, to the best of my knowledge, there is no evidence that this renders quacks incapable of understanding. There is a big difference between “not wanting to understand” and “not being able to understand”. In my opinion, the first are moral monsters, whereas the second have a mental health problem.

          I do wholeheartedly agree with the similarities between religion and quackery. While not all quackery is religion, all religion is quackery. Quackery is simply the more inclusive term. They are all different flavours of the confidence game.

          More, and more definitive, evidence needs to be found, and some people are working on it. One of the more matter-of-fact projects seems to be the Clergy Project (http://clergyproject.org), a project directed at clergy who are publicly defending religious beliefs, often earning a living with such claims, but who privately don’t believe any of it (anymore).

          Another, this one part of the official record, is the well-known Dr. Oz who admits he is lying at a meeting chaired by American senator Claire McCaskill: http://www.commerce.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?p=Hearings&ContentRecord_id=c1698871-3625-4f67-b0e5-a06d3bab6ca1

          The Dr. Oz case is particularly poignant because we have someone here who is obviously at or near the top of the game in healthcare as well as at or near the top of the game in quackery. The senate hearing makes it abundantly clear that he *knows* he is conning his public.

          We should, of course, also not forget Bernie Madoff and others like him. Bernie Madoff is in prison, and he didn’t even kill anyone. Why then, should we let quacks continue with their sordid games, regardless of whether they personally believe the nonsense they proclaim?

          Less well-known is the case of Han van Meegeren. Although he himself had admitted to forging paintings, he had experts claiming he did not. To me, this is a cautionary tale: being careful to not wrongfully accuse someone is a Good Thing, but to let this desire cloud our judgment is not.

          I admit this is relatively meagre evidence, but where is the evidence that quacks are genuinely believing the nonsense they promote? Their good word?

          People have the right to be protected, that’s why they pay taxes. It’s also why we have consumer protection laws. From this standpoint, it is irrelevant whether the quacks believe (or not) the nonsense they profess: they are endangering the public, and they must be stopped, on that basis. We do not need new legislation, we simply need adequate application of existing legislation.

          Once the public is protected, we can turn our attention to the quacks themselves: is there intent to deceive or not? To me, NOMA and others seem to be equivalents of the phlogiston theory: superficially plausible but totally unproven, and therefore mere speculation. Maybe that view is incorrect. I don’t like to accuse people of swindling, and I’d love to be proven wrong, but this seems to be what the facts are pointing to, and compartmentalisation type explanations without evidence to back them up are not going to do it.

          • @Bart
             
            As ever, you make strong demands, but on this occasion I agree with you 100%. I have thought for a very long time that vets who administer homeopathy to animals should lose their licence to practise. I feel the same about qualified medical doctors who prescribe homeopathic medicines, but the situation here (and with other forms of woo) is slightly different from that with vets. Human patients can normally understand the explanation they are given about their treatment.  

            If their doctor tells them they are using a treatment that sounds like nonsense (from the doctor’s explanation) or can be found to be nonsense (by googling and turning up blogs like this one) they are in a position to refuse, or change doctor. Of course, the same applies to the owners of sick animals, but are we not more likely to expect vets to be relatively straightforward and less woo-prone in what they do?
             
            The underlying problem with all forms of snakeoil is that some patients (and animal owners) are sufficiently ignorant/misguided as to ask for witchcraft. This raises the question of state provision of woo at the cost of the taxpayer. Here’s where a clear line should be drawn. No state will provide astrology or psychic services at taxpayers’ expense (at least I hope this is true!). If our regulators absolutely forbade state provision of SCAM and struck off doctors who try to prescribe it, then practitioners would be obliged to work entirely independently of national health schemes, as many already do. That reduces any problems that arise to patients’ misadventure, and normal consumer protection laws would apply.
             
            The bottom line is that qualified medical practitioners who refer patients to long-unproven remedies deserve to be struck off. If they truly believe in the efficacy of what they are prescribing they should resign from medical practice, set themselves up as witchdoctors and put their careers where their mouths are.

          • As ever, you make strong demands, but on this occasion I agree with you 100%.

            I think, in this specific case, it is easy to agree because we are not talking about opinion but about facts. Whether or not a quack believes her or his own claims is irrelevant when one is considering the harm caused by these claims.

            In this case, it is, I think, merely a matter of not applying double standards. I can’t help but ask the question: why is Bernie Madoff in prison, and why is Dr. Oz running free? If someone could explain that to me in a way my limited brain can comprehend, I would be grateful.

            So far, the only explanation I have been able to find, is that our society thinks that a person’s money is more deserving of protection than a person’s life in combination with that same person’s money. This, to me, makes no sense; no sense at all. Even quacks know this. After all, it is the basis of a great many of their bogus trials: conventional treatment, they claim, has less worth than conventional plus quack treatment.

            It can be very hard to prove that a treatment does not work. As a result, defrocking healthcare providers on that basis will not have much effect. So, what about prohibiting treatments that have not been shown to have an effect? Yes, in most countries, there is such a thing as therapeutic freedom, but does this really have to include modalities for which there is no evidence and no plausibility?

            The underlying problem with all forms of snakeoil is that some patients (and animal owners) are sufficiently ignorant/misguided as to ask for witchcraft.

            If you desire some snake oil, I think there can be no better source than this: organic, unprocessed and free range: http://www.serpessence.com

            This raises the question of state provision of woo at the cost of the taxpayer. Here’s where a clear line should be drawn. No state will provide astrology or psychic services at taxpayers’ expense (at least I hope this is true!).

            You hope in vain. The Dutch government has taken it upon itself to provide free training for clairvoyance: http://www.standaard.be/cnt/dmf20150612_01727763
            And why shouldn’t they? If one does favours to purveyors of religion, should one then also not do favours to purveyors of other baseless nonsense? It is just a matter of not applying double standards.

            then practitioners would be obliged to work entirely independently of national health schemes, as many already do.

            I disagree here. These practitioners claim to be healthcare providers. If we take them at their word, this means that they are illegally practising medicine. They should not be obliged to work independently, they should be obliged to make a choice between abandoning their practices or joining the prison population.

            The bottom line is that qualified medical practitioners who refer patients to long-unproven remedies deserve to be struck off.

            I agree 100%.

            If they truly believe in the efficacy of what they are prescribing they should resign from medical practice, set themselves up as witchdoctors and put their careers where their mouths are.

            I disagree. This is similar to refusing Bernie Madoff any official titles and functions and, instead of putting him in prison, allowing him to set up office providing alternative financial services and my question remains: why is he in prison and why is Dr. Oz running free?

      • I agree that those who use homeopathy on animals should lose their license to practise. That also applies when the animals are human. There is no place in a reality-based medical system for irrationality. I’d extend that to banning chiropractic and acupuncture, too.

        But that’s still missing the point. In a world where people are brought up to believe in the validity of religious “truth”, and are very often coached in compartmentalising religious and empirical truth to preserve belief, it is not reasonable to expect believers in delusional pseudomedicines to be properly aware of the fact that their beliefs are indeed bullshit.

        Some undoubtedly are evil. But many are very well-meaning, not terribly intelligent, and lack the self-awareness to be able to challenge their own beliefs. The public should be protected from these people, but the people themselves are not usually, in my experience, consciously misleading anyone. You know what Feynman said about the easiest person to fool.

        Of the few who I believe to be engaged in deliberate and knowing propaganda, I would certainly include Dana Ullman, William Alderson and the appalling anti-vax propagandist Lynne McTaggart. But some of the homeopathy shills are simply unhinged. Check this sorry example: https://twitter.com/22venkateshN – not a liar, just “differently sane”.

  • In this context, Harry Frankfurt’s ‘On Bullshit’ is, at worst, interesting:
    http://www.stoa.org.uk/topics/bullshit/pdf/on-bullshit.pdf

  • In today’s papers there is a story about a homeopathic vet who has just been prosecuted by the RSPCA for failing to treat a dog with a broken back. Doesn’t say if she tried to fix the poor thing with some water.

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3350467/Homeopathic-vet-left-dog-broken-agony-ten-days-Pensioner-fined-4-500-RSPCA-animal-paralysed-surgery-complaint-public.html#comments

    The comments section on the article show a resounding majority against homeopathy

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