You may have noticed that my patience with homeopathy, homeopaths, and other providers of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) has diminished. In fact, I do not think much of quacks of all shades and no longer muster much understanding. It is better, so I mean after approximately 30 years of discussions with snake oil salesmen and other charlatans, to offer such people Parole. Facts are facts, and no one should be allowed to ignore that without contradiction.
That was not always the case.
When I began as Chair of Complementary Medicine at Exeter in 1993, I was optimistic. It was clear to me that my task of scrutinizing this field would not be easy and could occasionally bring me into conflict with enthusiasts. But I was determined to build bridges, to remain polite, and to muster as much understanding as necessary.
And so I began to build a multidisciplinary team, conduct research, and publish it. My goal was to do as rigorous science as possible and, if avoidable, not to step on anyone’s toes in the process. Especially with regard to homeopathy, my general attitude was quite positive. Accordingly, my articles were as favorable as the evidence allowed. My goal was to emphasize the good aspects of homeopathy wherever possible.
What, you find that hard to believe?
Then you are in good company!
Homeopaths like to claim that I was out to malign not only homeopathy but all of SCAM from the beginning. That this assumption is not true, I tried to demonstrate in an article entitled ‘Homeopathy and I’. In this paper, I merely extracted typical passages from my publications. From them, you can probably see how my attitude slowly changed over the years. See for yourself (sorry for the length of the list):
- 1. homeopathic remedies are believed by doctors and patients to be almost totally safe (Ernst E, White A. Br J Gen Pract 1995; 45: 629-30)
- 2. it might be argued that arnica … is ineffective but homeopathy may still work (Ernst E. BMJ 1995; 311: 510-1)
- 3. homeopathy, I fear, has soon to come up with … more convincing evidence (Ernst E. Forsch Komplementarmed 1995; 2: 32)
- 4. future evaluations of homeopathy should be performed to a high scientific standard (Ernst E. Br Homeopath J 1995; 84: 229)
- 5. the best way forward is clearly to do rigorous research (Ernst E, Kaptchuk TJ. Arch Intern Med 1996; 156: 2162-4)
- 6. the most pressing question, ‘Is homeopathy clinically more effective than placebo’, needs to be answered conclusively (Ernst E. Br J Clin Pharmacol 1997; 44: 435-7)
- 7. there is evidence that homeopathic treatment can reduce the duration of ileus (Barnes J, Resch KL, Ernst E. J Clin Gastroenterol 1997; 25: 628-33)
- 8. the published evidence to date does not support the hypothesis that homeopathic remedies … are more efficacious than placebo (Ernst E, Barnes J. Perfusion 1998; 11: 4-8)
- 9. the claim that homeopathic arnica is efficacious beyond a placebo effect is not supported by rigorous clinical trials (Ernst E, Pittler MH. Arch Surg 1998; 133: 1187-90)
- 10. … the trial data … do not suggest that homeopathy is effective (Ernst E. J Pain Sympt Manage 1999; 18: 353-7)
- 11. … the re-analysis of Linde et al. can be seen as the ultimate epidemiological proof that homeopathic remedies are, in fact, placebos (Ernst E, Pittler MH.J Clin Epidemiol 2000; 53: 1188)
- 12. … homeopathy is not different from placebo (Ernst E, Pittler MH. J Clin Epidemiol 2002; 55: 103-4)
- 13. … the best clinical evidence … does not warrant positive recommendations (Ernst E. Br J Clin Pharmacol 2002; 54: 577-82)
- 14. the results of this trial do not suggest that homeopathic arnica has an advantage over placebo (Stevinson C, Devaraj VS, Fountain-Barber A, Hawkins S, Ernst E. J R Soc Med 2003; 96: 60-5)
- 15. this study provides no evidence that adjunctive homeopathic remedies … are superior to placebo (White A, Slade P, Hunt C, Hart A, Ernst E. Thorax 2003; 58: 317-21)
- 16. … this systematic review does not provide clear evidence that the phenomenon of homeopathic aggravations exists (Grabia S, Ernst E. Homeopathy 2003; 92: 92-8)
- 17. … the proven benefits of highly dilute homeopathic remedies … do not outweigh the potential for harm (Ernst E.Trends Pharmacol Sci 2005; 26: 547-8)
- 18 Our analysis … found insufficient evidence to support clinical efficacy of homeopathic therapy (Milazzo S, Russell N, Ernst E. Eur J Cancer 2006; 42: 282-9)
- 19. … promotion can be regrettably misleading, or their effectiveness? (Ernst E. J Soc Integr Oncol 2006; 4: 113-5)
- 20. … homeopathy is not based on solid evidence and, over time, this evidence seems to get more negative (Ernst E, Pittler MH, Wider B, Boddy K. Perfusion 2006; 19: 380-2)
- 21. the evidence from rigorous clinical trials … testing homeopathy for childhood and adolescence ailments is not convincing enough for recommendations in any condition (Altunc U, Pittler MH, Ernst E. Mayo Clin Proc 2007; 82: 69-75)
- 22. … context effects of homeopathy … are entirely sufficient to explain the benefit many patients experience (Ernst E. Curr Oncol 2007; 14: 128-30)
- 23. among all the placebos that exist, homeopathy has the potential to be an exceptionally powerful one (Ernst E. Br J Clin Pharmacol 2008; 65: 163-4)
- 24. … recommendations by professional homeopathic associations are not based on the evidence (Ernst E. Br J Gen Pract 2009; 59: 142-3)
These quotes speak for themselves, I think. But what was the reason for the change? As far as I can judge in retrospect, there were three main reasons.
1. The data became clearer and clearer
When I started researching homeopathy, at least the clinical evidence was not clearly negative. In 1991, Jos Kleinjen had published his much-noted systematic review in the BMJ. Here is its conclusion:
At the moment the evidence of clinical trials is positive but not sufficient to draw definitive conclusions because most trials are of low methodological quality and because of the unknown role of publication bias. This indicates that there is a legitimate case for further evaluation of homoeopathy, but only by means of well performed trials.
Subsequently, more and better clinical trials were published, and the overall picture became increasingly negative. Kleinjen, who had become somewhat of a hero in the realm of homeopathy, re-reviewed the evidence in 2000 and concluded that there are currently insufficient data to either recommend homoeopathy as a treatment for any specific condition or to warrant significant changes in the provision of homoeopathy.
The 24 citations above reflect this development quite nicely. Today, there is no longer much doubt that highly-diluted homeopathic remedies are pure placebos. This is perhaps most clearly expressed in the now numerous statements of high-ranking international bodies.
2. The lack of understanding on the part of homeopaths
So the evidence is now clear. But it may not fully explain why my patience with homeopaths diminished. To understand this better, one must consider the utter lack of insight of today’s homeopaths (think, for example, of the incredible Ebola story).
It is of course understandable that a homeopath would be less than enthusiastic about the increasingly negative evidence. But homeopaths are also physicians or at least medically untrained practitioners (lay homeopaths). As such, they have an obligation to acknowledge the overwhelming evidence and act accordingly. That they quite obviously do not do so, is not only regrettable but also highly unethical and shameful. In any case, I find it difficult to have much patience for such people.
3. Personal attacks
In the many years that I have now been scrutinizing SCAM, I have become used to being attacked. The attacks and insults I have received, especially from homeopaths, are legion. For example, when we published our arnica study, we were threatened with letter bombs. However, one should keep one thing in mind: ad hominem attacks are a victory of reason over unreason. If one is personally attacked by one’s opponent, it only shows that he has run out of rational arguments.
Perhaps the most impressive example of an attack was not directed against me personally, but across the board against all who dare to doubt homeopathy. Christian Boiron is the boss of the world’s largest homeopathic manufacturer, Boiron. In an interview he was once asked what he thought of homeopathy critics; his answer: “Il y a un Ku Klux Klan contre l’homéopathie” (There is a Ku Klux Klan against homeopathy).
Yes, many of these attacks even have something comical about them; nevertheless, they are not likely to increase my patience with homeopaths. This does not mean, however, that I will soon hang my opponents from the nearest tree in the old KKK tradition. I’ll gladly leave such tasteless ideas to Christian Boiron.