MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

As we all know, homeopathy was invented in Germany, and the Germans have always been very fond of it. Perhaps this is the explanation why there has been so little criticism of homeopathy in this country.

But this situation seems to be changing as we speak. Our initiative ‘INFORMATIONS NETZWERK HOMOEOPATHIE’ had an unprecedented response, for instance, in the German press. Even the German ‘Heilpraktiker’ (German alternative practitioner) have deemed it necessary to defend their favourite therapy against our arguments.

On their website they published a press release in response to our activities. Here they recycled an argument which is as old as it is fallacious. Nevertheless, it is surprisingly popular and therefore it is perhaps worth having a closer look at it. The fallacy goes something like this:

  • conventional medicine is also largely unproven;
  • but this does not bother anyone;
  • only if an alternative medicine lacks evidence, the ‘ideologists’ of medicine kick a fuzz;
  • nobody knows, for instance, how analgesics work;
  • another example is Aspirin which was used much before, in the 1970s, scientists found out how it works;
  • the list of such examples could be extended ad lib,
  • so, insisting on sound evidence for homeopathy merely displays the double standards of a few weird ‘ideologists’.

(For those who read German, here is their original text: “Schulmedizinischen Methoden dagegen hat man mangelnde wissenschaftliche Belegbarkeit zum wiederholten Mal nachgesehen… Aber niemand weiß bis heute wie ein Betäubungsmittel wirklich funktioniert… Aspirin wurde über Jahrzehnte angewendet, obwohl erst im Jahr 1970 der Wirkmechanismus vollständig geklärt werden konnte. Die Liste der Beispiele ließe sich noch beliebig fortsetzen.)

Sounds convincing?

Yes, many lay people (such as Heilpraktiker) are convinced by such nonsense.

I did say ‘nonsense’, so I better explain. Perhaps I can make this brief, merely using a few bullet points:

  • true, not everything is proven in medicine, but we are working very hard on it, and we have made huge progress, both in terms of increasing our knowledge and (much more importantly) improving patient care;
  • in homeopathy, we have made no progress whatsoever;
  • critical thinkers kick a fuzz wherever the evidence is flimsy, regardless whether this is in alt med or in real med;
  • we do know how analgesics work (perhaps Heilpraktiker don’t but that’s their problem);
  • true, we did use Aspirin before its mode of action had been discovered (and a Nobel Prize was awarded for it);
  • we would use any therapy without knowing how it works, regardless of its label;
  • all that matters is whether it works;
  • Aspirin was and is used because it works;
  • homeopathy should NOT be used because it does not work.

SIMPLE, REALLY!

12 Responses to A popular argument in defence of homeopathy

  • There is a common and fraudulent use of a paper in BMJ Clinical Evidence: http://clinicalevidence.bmj.com/x/set/static/cms/efficacy-categorisations.html

    I’d be interested in your take on this. Dullman referenced it on your blog comments, here’s Milgrom doing the same: http://www.lionelmilgrom.com/who-and-what-benefits-from-homeopathy.html and here’s the quack-mungous Avilian: http://avilian.co.uk/2010/06/10/british-medical-journal-now-only-11-of-nhs-treatments-backed-by-evidence-was-13/

    To my reading, the paper says it cannot be interpreted as they interpret it, and in any case problems with real medicine validate quackery in exactly the same way that plane crashes validate magic carpets, but this is a repeated trope and I am sure you have a view on it.

  • Fallacious logic such as the above is used by alt meds everywhere and by alt meds of all belief systems. It is a consequence of lack of reliable robust evidence to support their trade.

    It is sad that skeptics have to rebut these ridiculous arguments on a daily basis. I don’t expect mainstream journalists to be expert in science but why cannot they see these sham arguments for what they are?

    We should closely examine the events in Spain to see what triggered an apparent ridicule of this nonsense in the mass media.

  • It´s almost unbelievable that on XXI century still strong so many vastly accepted “science” myths.
    Together with homeopathy comes the chemophobia, the anthropogenic global warming, fear of mass extinctions, alien search, fear of GMO and so on.
    After the scepticism of the XIX century who could imagine such a turn back on human intelligence?

    • Bit if a grab bag there, since global warming is real and scary and we’re already in the anthropocene mass extinction – it’s unlikely the Great Barrier Reef will survive the century, for example.

  • Even if we still did not know how aspirin works, it has been clear that it does work, work about the same way on everybody (though there are details that must be taken into account), and I can always check whether I have really bought an aspirin, which is impossible in case of homeopathy where I can try to find out if I had not bought tap water or anything else equally specific, but I cannot check whether it has been succussed etc.

  • “critical thinkers kick a fuzz wherever the evidence is flimsy, regardless whether this is in alt med or in real med”

    I don’t think that’s true. If there was equal scepticism of all interventions whose claims off efficacy were supported only by non-blinded trials and subjective self-report outcomes then a lot of psychological and rehabilitative interventions would be viewed as dismissively as homeopathy. That’s not the case.

    Anyone following the dispute around ME/CFS, CBT, GET and the PACE trial will have seen how skeptics have been dismissed as anti-science for years. Recently a growing number of respected researchers have begun to speak out about concerns that patients have been raising since before the PACE trial even reported results, but still, in the UK, there has been a strange refusal to engage with these concerns: http://www.virology.ws/2016/02/10/open-letter-lancet-again/

    A lot of those who consider themselves to be ‘critical thinkers’ are actually consensus seekers who prefer to defer to authority than truly engage honestly with the evidence. At the moment, attacking alternative medicine is the done thing. That’s good news in itself, but I think that a lot of the criticism it attracts reflects current intellectual fashion rather than a real intellectual rigour.

    • 1) with some therapies, blinding is not easy or even impossible,
      2) with come conditions we have no objective outcome measures,
      3) with most rehabilitative or psychological intervention we have a minimum of plausibility – not so with homeopathy.

    • Comments on ‘alternative medicine’ should not be characterised as ‘attacks’; ‘a war’; or even ‘criticism’.
      ‘Medicine’ constantly moves onwards (perhaps not in even increments if you go with Thomas Kuhn) and the scientific method adjusts and corrects errors, false starts, misplaced optimism. ‘AM’ is left behind.
      To state the blindingly obvious is not an ‘attack’.
      Pointing out the earh is a globe is not an ‘attack’ on believers in a flat earth, nor their belief.

      As soon as an ‘AM’ modality demonstrates plausible evidence of efficaciousness it becomes ‘medicine’ and ceases to be ‘alternative’.
      That’s what happened to willow bark.
      As soon as ‘medicine’ is properly shown not to be efficacious, it is discarded.
      That’s what happened to internal mammary ligation.
      To sugget ‘AM’ is ‘attacked’ is to drag a straw man with red herrings in all his pockets across the trail.
      Fallacies squared.

      • “Pointing out the earh is a globe is not an ‘attack’ on believers in a flat earth, nor their belief.”

        Oh you silly thing. Of course it is. True Believers’ entire egos – and often incomes too – are totally predicated upon those beliefs. Thus any threat to the belief system is an attack upon the person too; strip him of the former, and there’s precious little left. The only surprise here is why you would think he wouldn’t (and shouldn’t) go nuclear to defend it.

        Of course, a rational person would embrace this slash-and-burn clearance of all her old and wrong assumptions, creating a clean foundation upon which to learn and build something new and exciting and better. But true believers are not rational, only frightened and impotent, raging against a world they do not understand and cannot control. As long as they hold to their pathetic platform of self-serving lies and willful incapacity for introspection or self-criticism, they will never be able to understand you. OTOH, even the most rigorously rational thinker is still only a handful of carefully collected thoughts away from the panicky instinctive meat animal that still lies beneath, so it shouldn’t be too hard to put yourself in those ghastly woo shoes and shuffle about to remind yourself precisely what makes them click.

        As Sun Tzu said, “Know Your Enemy”; and the enemy here is not the people per-se, but rather the flawed thought processes that drive them, and the fears and conceits they fight so blindly, so relentlessly, to protect. Get a solid handle on those, and perhaps you’ll better find those chinks in their armor through which to shine some light. But never forget that while you may be working for some abstract improvement of the human race, they are battling for the very survival of their entire identity, livelihood, and sense of self worth. If you believe for a moment they’re going to pull any punches in what for them is a very real war – honestly, the most foolish person is you.

      • I am perfectly happy for my comments on alternative medicine to be described as an ‘attack’. For people to make money by claiming to sick and desperate patients that they can provide them with effective treatments, when there is no good evidence to support these claims, is a vile form of behaviour, and something that should be fought against.

        Alternative medicine is not simply people proposing implausible theories, it is something that is being directly applied to real people. People who deserve better. There is an innate political component to concerns about alternative medicine and I don’t think that the use of terms like ‘attack’ or ‘criticism’ is straw-manning, but rather, a recognition of the moral imperative many people feel to try to prevent the mistreatment of other human-beings.

        Anyway, disagreeing with the way I phrased my concerns is not the same as identifying a fallacy in my argument, is it?

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