Yes, this post might come as a surprise to some.
And no, I am not changing sides in the debate in the debate about homeopathy.
But I have long felt that, when sceptics criticise homeopathy, they often wrong-foot themselves by using arguments which are not entirely correct.
Here I want to list seven of them (more details can be found here):
Homeopathy is one single, well-defined entity
During the last 200 years, many different variations of Hahnemann’s classical homeopathy have emerged, for instance clinical homeopathy, complex homeopathy and isopathy. Strictly speaking, they should be differentiated, and it is not correct to generalise across all of them.
In the 200-years’ history of homeopathy, homeopaths have done no good at all
Hahnemann and his followers can be credited with considerable achievements. Foremost, they realised that, 200 years ago, most of the conventional treatments in common use were not just useless but often outright dangerous. Their criticism of ‘heroic medicine’ helped to initiate crucial reforms and to improve health care for the benefit of millions.
No theories to explain how homeopathy might work have ever been put forward
There are several theories which might go some way in explaining how homeopathy works. But all of them are currently just theories, and none provides a full explanation as to the mechanism of action of highly diluted remedies. Yet, to claim that homeopathy is totally implausible might be a counter-productive exaggeration.
There is nothing in it
Many sceptics claim that homeopathic remedies are devoid of active ingredients. Yet, not all homeopathic remedies are highly diluted; some can contain pharmacologically active compounds for affecting human health. These preparations cannot therefore be classified as implausible.
There is no credible evidence at all that might support homeopathy
Several well-conducted clinical studies of homeopathy with positive results have been published. It is therefore not true to claim that there is no good trial evidence at all to support homeopathy. The much better point sceptics should make is that the totality of the reliable evidence fails to show that highly dilute homeopathic remedies are more effective than placebos.
Homeopaths aim at deceiving their patients because they have nothing to offer to them
It would be wrong to claim that all homeopaths aim at deceiving their patients, and it would be misleading to say that homeopaths have nothing to offer to their patients. Many patients of homeopaths primarily treasure the long, compassionate consultations that homeopaths have with their patients and see the homeopathic remedy as secondary. Seen from this perspective, homeopaths do offer something that many patients value highly.
Patients who use homeopathy must be stupid
It would be arrogant, insulting and counter-productive to claim that everyone who uses homeopathy is stupid. Patients consult homeopaths mostly because they have needs which are not met by conventional medicine but which they feel taken care of by homeopathy. Seen from this perspective, the current popularity of homeopathy in some countries is a poignant criticism of conventional medicine. To dismiss it a stupidity means missing a chance to learn an important lesson and to improve mainstream health care.
I know, my stance here can easily get misunderstood (see for instance some of the comments here). But please don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that homeopathy is a useful therapy, nor am I suggesting that we should not criticise it or stop public funding for it. All that I am trying to convey here is this: when we criticise homeopathy, we ought to make sure our arguments are factually correct – if not, we only give ammunition to our opponents.
In a nutshell: I don’t wish to undermine our arguments, but want them to be more effective.