The other day, I received a request from THE GUARDIAN: could I write a piece on homeopathy in relation to the Australian report which had just come out; they gave me ~700 words and all of 3 hours to do it. I had an extremely busy day, but accepted the challenge nevertheless.
My article was published the next day and the ‘headliner’ at THE GUARDIAN had elected to call it There is no scientific case for homeopathy: the debate is over.
What followed was a flurry of debate – well over 2200 comments – which was more than a little ironic, considering the headline.
Essentially, my article had repeated the well-rehearsed arguments which have so often been made on this blog and elsewhere:
• Our trials failed to show that homeopathy is more than a placebo.
• Our reviews demonstrated that the most reliable of the 230 or so trials of homeopathy ever published are also not positive.
• Studies with animals confirmed the results obtained on humans.
• Surveys and case reports suggested that homeopathy can be dangerous.
• The claims made by homeopaths to cure conditions like cancer, asthma or even Ebola were bogus.
• The promotion of homeopathy is not ethical.
The comments that followed were mixed, of course; those that disagreed with me used a range of counter-arguments; in no specific order, these were the following:
- For several reasons, I cannot be trusted.
- I even once stated that I have treated my wife homeopathically.
- The Australian report was neither thorough nor reliable.
- The Australian expert panel were bought by Big Pharma.
- Homeopathic treatment must be individualised and can therefore not be tested in RCTs.
- Just because we don’t understand how homeopathy works, we should not conclude that it is ineffective.
- 200 years of positive experience with homeopathy clearly prove that it works.
- The huge popularity of homeopathy worldwide demonstrated its effectiveness.
- The fact that some very clever people support homeopathy shows that it works.
- Homeopathy works in animals and little children, therefore it cannot be just a placebo.
- The Queen and my aunt Doris use homeopathy.
- Placebos work.
- Patients must be able to choose; patient choice is an important principle in all health care.
- There’s more to evidence than just RCTs.
- Homeopathy works like vaccines.
With such an abundance of counter-arguments, the debate is clearly NOT over! Or is it? Let’s see how solid the arguments really are.
1) I cannot be trusted
Ad hominem attacks are no arguments at all; they are merely a sign that the person using them has no real arguments left.
2) I treated my wife homeopathically
This is true. At one stage in my life, I treated anyone who couldn’t run fast enough to escape me with homeopathy. What does that show? It simply shows that I can make mistakes too.
3) The Australian report was flawed
Perhaps it was not entirely faultless (no report ever is), but it certainly was rigorous – more so than any previous document in the entire history of homeopathy. If it excluded certain types of evidence, like the observational studies (which are so much loved by homeopaths), it did so because such data are wide open to bias.
4) The panel was not independent
Yes, it was! It even included a homeopath. The Australian National Health and Medical Research Council is internationally highly respected, and to defame it without evidence is, in a way, just another ad hominem attack.
5) Homeopathy must be individualised
This is a half-truth: classical homeopathy is mostly individualised, but lots of homeopathic prescribing is not individualised. And in any case, we have recently seen how totally unconvincing the results of strictly individualised trials of homeopathy are. This argument turns out to be a red herring.
6) We currently don’t understand how homeopathy works
What we do understand perfectly well, however, is the fact that no explanation exists which would not require throwing over board big chunks of the laws of nature. But even if we accepted that the mode of action is unknown, this would not change the lack of homeopathy’s clinical effectiveness. Lots of treatments work without us understanding how.
7) Experience shows it works
Experience is a very unreliable indicator of effectiveness; there are simply far too many confounders such as placebo effects, regression towards the mean or natural history of the disease. This is why we need evidence to be sure, and historically medicine finally started making progress when this lesson had been learnt.
8) The amazing popularity of homeopathy is proof of its effectiveness
This is the ‘argumentum ad populum’ fallacy. Think of the popularity of blood-letting to see how wrong this argument can be.
9) Homeopathy is backed by some very clever people
So what? Clever people are not always correct – look at me (just joking!)
10) Homeopathy works in animals and little children which proves that it is more than a placebo
First, animals and children do also show placebo-responses.
Second, the animal owner/parent might respond to placebo and thus mimic a placebo-response in the patient.
Third, the evidence for homeopathy is not positive neither in animals nor in children.
11) The Queen swears by homeopathy
Yes, so much so that, as soon as she is really ill, she makes use of what the very best of conventional medicine has to offer.
12) Placebos work
For sure! But that does not mean that we should prescribe placebos. If an effective treatment is given with compassion and empathy, the patient will also profit from a placebo effect – in addition to the effect of the treatment. Merely administering placebos means withholding the latter and is thus not in the best interest of the patient.
13) Patient choice
Yes, patient choice is important. However, it only applies to the choice between treatments that are demonstrably effective – if not choice becomes arbitrariness.
14) Evidence is more than just RCTs
True, there are many study designs other than RCTs. They all have their place in research – but when the research question is to test whether a treatment is effective beyond placebo, they are all open to different types of bias. The one that minimises bias best and thus produces more reliable findings than any other study design is the placebo-controlled, double-blind RCT.
15) Homeopathy works like vaccines
No! The ‘like cures like principle’ appears to be similar to the principles of vaccination, but this appearance is misleading. Vaccines contain small amounts of active material, while the typical homeopathic remedy doesn’t. Vaccines use the substance that causes the illness, e. g. (parts of) a virus, while homeopathy doesn’t.
So, is there still a debate? Obviously there is – the Guardian headliner was wrong – but it is a debate without reasonable arguments. And in the public domain, the debate is dominated by enthusiasts who endlessly repeat nonsensical notions which have been shown to be wrong over and over again.
In a nutshell:
Yes, there continues to be a debate.
No, there is no reasonable debate.