MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd.

Some of you might have followed my recent discussion with a homeopath. It followed a typical path, and I decided therefore to try and analyse this exchange here. Perhaps others can learn from this example when debating with homeopaths or other providers of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM).

THE START

These conversations often start ‘out of the blue’ by some falsehood being trumpeted on social media. In the present case, the encounter commenced by someone tweeting this message to me: “…remember that asthma trial whose results you faked?” As I did not even remember having ever met the man, I was perplexed. And as I have not faked the study in question nor any other results, I did not think his remark was credible or funny. My mention of the fact that the aggressor was being libellous seemed to bring an end to this unhappy dialogue.

But not for very long. When the man insulted me again – this time very publicly in a UK newspaper – I decided to look into it a bit closer. The aggressor turned out to be in charge of the well-known UK homeopathic pharmacy, Ainsworth, and thus had an overt conflict of interest in defaming my often critical stance on homeopathy. Intriguingly, he had also published his own study of homeopathy. When I assessed this research, it turned out to be both incompetent and unethical. I had hoped that he would defend his work and discuss its limitations with me in a rational fashion. Yet, at this stage, he remained silent.

I then decided to write a further post in the hope of getting some sort of response from him. Alas, my hope was disappointed again. Even when I challenged him and his ROYAL WARRANT directly, he remained silent.

THE BUILD-UP

It needed a seemingly unrelated post of mine for him to find his voice:

Dear Ezard
We can all go round in endless circles arguing whether the Earth is Flat, but eventually someone has to venture out in a boat to the horizon to determine the fact. A cursory reading of Hahnemann encourages every student of homoeopathy to gain their own experience empirically. We all know you and your friends on this blog are standing on the shore proclaiming the Earth to be flat, but when are you going to pedal out,to bravely cite actual cases you have treated with homoeopathy as evidence of your position? What the audience reading this wants to know is what experience and knowledge any of you actually have of the subject you spend so much time criticising?

At this stage a had grown a little weary of Mr Pinkus and his innuendos. My response was thus a little impatient:

Dear Tony
I don’t think highly of people who
1) are too daft to spell my name correctly,
2) imply I have no experience in homeopathy,
3) pretend that I make a secret of it, while, in fact, I published this multiple times (i.e. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Scientist-Wonderland-Searching-Finding-Trouble/dp/1845407776),
4) accuse others of being flat earthers, while evidently being one themselves,
5) do all this without declaring their massive conflict of interest.
Best regards
Edzard

What followed was Pinkus’ increasingly irrational attempts to defame me by revealing to the world that I (and other critics of homeopathy) lacked sufficient clinical experience with homeopathy and therefore were not competent to discuss the subject. Explanations by myself and others that,

  • firstly I did have knowledge and experience of homeopathy,
  • and secondly no experience is required for a critical evaluation of any treatment,

all fell on deaf ears.

THE END

The conclusion of this odd discussion was Pinkus’ triumphant declaration of victory:

I came to this blog to see if anyone in the discussion had any serious intention to discuss the subject of homoeopathy. In order to do this there are certain prerequisites for a sensible debate and one of these is actual knowledge and experience of the subject matter under discussion. To this end I asked if anyone has case they treated in order to discuss the merits and demerits of the experience. No one offered one. I repeated the request and the silence changed to attacks on me even asking.

Any scientist worthy of the challenge, and certainly someone who proudly styles himself as a Professor of CAM with experience and knowledge, would be only too glad to share this with others. Sadly though I have met with rebuke and insult but no evidence to support the opposition to homoeopathy saving some incoherent rant about the needlessness of empirical experience. The cornerstone of Hahnemann’s work on homoeopathy and the one thing he advocated to other doctors. “Don’t take my word for it, prove it to yourself”

When you find the need to attack me to defend your incessant argument that homoeopathy is implausible I really cannot take you seriously.

Here we have a blog hosted by a chap who claims to be an expert on the subject but now claims he hasn’t practiced it for over 40 years. Won’t say what he did when he practised, what he learned and when asked to give at least once case he treated, refuses and creates some diversion to cover his ignorance of the question. Now that’s what I call a charlatan.

I understand you have made a living out of this but it must be a miserable existence old chap

______________________________________________________________________

I find this exchange rather typical for an argument with  SCAM-fanatics. It follows a fairly standard strategy:

  • aggression form a complete stranger,
  • attempt of a rational defence,
  • more aggression and insults
  • attempts to debate the published evidence,
  • silence from the aggressor who seems unable to defend his evidence,
  • more aggression at an unexpected opportunity,
  • further attempts to rationalise and discuss the facts,
  • the aggressor questions his opponent’s competence,
  • more attempts to rationalise and provide valid explanations,
  • conclusion of the discussion with aggressor trying to occupy the moral high ground.

Of course, this is eerily similar to playing chess with a pigeon.

So, what, if anything, can we learn from this?

Mainly three things, I think:

  1. Either you don’t argue with fanatics at all,
  2. or you realise from the beginning what is about to happen; in this case, have fun exposing irrationality in the hope that others might profit from your experience.
  3. In any case, do not expect that your aggressor will be able to learn anything.

10 Responses to Discussing with a homeopath is like playing chess with a pigeon

  • I’m fascinated that Pinkus spells it ‘homoeopathy’, but disappointed he didn’t spell it ‘homœopathy’.

  • I’ll take Door #2, Alex. (North Americans will get the reference.)

    I speak to flat-earthers, SCAM artists, followers of a god (your choice) and other believer in woo because someone who is unsure or vulnerable may be listening. Maybe they will consider reality rather than the alternative if they hear both sides.

    The voice of unreason must be challenged.

  • It is certainly true that it will not be possible to talk sense into all people, and it might not be realistic to expect a great rate of success when talking to people like Mr. Pinkus, Mr. Ullman, Mr. Kennedy, etc.
    However, we should keep in mind that many examples exist where even “fanatics” have been able to change their minds.

    One important question for people intending to promote critical thinking should be: do we use an effective strategy?

    After several frustrating discussions with a close relative about supernatural phenomena, I wondered if I did something wrong in the way I was presenting my skeptics viewpoint.
    This is how I came across the book “A Manual for Creating Atheists”, where philosopher Dr. Peter Boghossian presents an approach to promote critical thinking based Socratic questioning (“Street epistemology (SE)”). Anthony Magnabosco, Reid Nicewonder and others use this method in street conversations and publish the clips on Youtube.

    Although the focus of the book is faith/religion, the concepts also apply well for other forms of belief, e.g. the belief in SCAM procedures. It was very interesting for me to learn the quoting specific facts can be very ineffective and can even lead to the enforcement of irrational believes.
    In contrast, SE is more focussed on addressing flaws of the general epistemology of a person, rather than a specific form of believe. This approach can be far more effective.
    Since I learned about SE, I have tried to change the mode of communication more towards this direction and hope to be more successful in the future.

  • Mr Pinkus May well know the remedies he sells have no value.
    But the evidence of his bank balance tells him the selling of the remedies does.

    He might honestly believe what he tells us.
    He might be a quack and a fraud.

    How can anyone tell?

  • Another common trait here is the demand for his choice of evidence. Anti-vaxxers demand a vaxxed vs unvaxxed trial. Mr Pincus demands discussion of a single case where you tried homeopathy.

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