Am I the only one who is tired of hearing that, in India, homeopathy is doing wonders for the current pandemic? All of the reports that I have seen are based on little more than hearsay, anecdotes or pseudo-science. If anyone really wanted to find out whether homeopathy works, they would need more than that; in fact, they would need to conduct a clinical trial.
As it happens, there are already ~500 clinical trials of homeopathy. Many show positive effects, but the reliable ones usually don’t. Crucially, the totality of the evidence fails to be positive. So, running further studies is hardly a promising exercise. In fact, considering how utterly implausible homeopathy is, it even seems like an unethical waste of resources.
But many homeopaths disagree, particularly those in India. And it has been reported that several trials have been given the go-ahead in India and are now up and running. This regrettable fact is being heavily exploited for swaying public opinion in favour of homeopathy. The way I see it, the situation is roughly this:
- a few trials of homeopathy are being set up;
- they are designed by enthusiasts of homeopathy who lack research expertise;
- therefore their methodology is weak and biased towards generating a false-positive result;
- while this is going on, the homeopathic propaganda machine is running overtime;
- when the results will finally emerge, they will get published in a 3rd rate journal;
- homeopaths worldwide will celebrate them as a triumph for homeopathy;
- critical thinkers will be dismayed at their quality and will declare that the conclusions drawn by over-enthusiastic homeopaths are not valid;
- in the end, we will be exactly where we were before: quasi-religious believers in homeopathy will feel vexed because their findings are not accepted in science, and everyone else will be baffled by the waste of time, opportunity and resources as well as by the tenacity of homeopaths to make fools of themselves.
But criticising is easy; doing it properly is often more difficult.
So, how should it be done?
The way I see it, one should do the following:
- carefully consider the implausibility of homeopathy;
- thoroughly study the existing evidence on homeopathy;
- abandon all plans to study homeopathy in the light of the above.
But this hardly is inconceivable considering the current situation in India. If further studies of homeopathy are unavoidable, the following procedure might therefore be reasonable:
- assemble a team of experts including trial methodologists, statisticians, epidemiologists and homeopaths;
- ask them to design a rigorous protocol of one or two studies that would provide a definitive answer to the research question posed;
- make sure that, once everyone is happy with the protocol, all parties commit to abiding by the findings that will emerge from these trials;
- conduct the studies under adequately strict supervision;
- evaluate the results according to the protocol;
- publish them in a top journal;
- do the usual press-releases, interviews etc.
In India, it seems that the last point in this agenda came far too early. This is because, in this and several other countries, homeopathy has become more a belief system than a medicine. And because it is about belief, the believers will avert any truly meaningful and rigorous test of homeopathy’s efficacy.