Homeopathy: witchcraft or pseudoscience?

by endlesspsych

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Dr Tom Dolphin, deputy chairman of the BMA’s junior doctors committee in England, told the BMA Junior Doctors conference: “Homeopathy is witchcraft. It is a disgrace that nestling between the National Hospital for Neurology and Great Ormond Street [Hospital] there is a homeopathic hospital paid for by the NHS… At a time, when the NHS is struggling for cash, we should be focusing on treatments that have proven benefit. If people wish to pay for homeopathy that’s their choice, but it shouldn’t be paid for on the NHS until there is evidence that it works.”

The motion in full is as follows:

“That this Meeting believes that, given the complete lack of valid scientific evidence of benefit:
(i) homoeopathy should no longer be funded by the NHS; and
(ii) no UK training post should include a placement in homoeopathy.”

The motion was supported by BMA chairman Dr Hamish Meldrum, and if passed at the BMA’s annual representatives meeting in Brighton next month, will be mandated as an official BMA policy, which is a move we at the Twenty-First Floor welcome. Cutting funding in homeopathy could save the Scottish NHS around £1.6 million: to put that figure into context, that’s 61 Nurses, 41 Midwifes or 31 GPs. At a time when we are already seeing cuts to NHS funding in Scotland, can we really afford to fund nonsensical placebos?

Well, David Coyle, winner of STV’s “write factor” campaign, seems to think so. He makes his case in his article “Homeopathy: Is It Witchcraft or Science?“.

The article starts with a phrase that is essentially equivalent to “I’m a skeptic… but…” which straight away indicates that reason and the principles of the Enlightenment are probably in for a rough ride. David, it seems, wants to use the fallacious tactic of criticising modern medicine and drugs as a means of supporting or defending the use of homeopathy.

I treat a lot of things with some degree of scepticism, and homeopathy is no different. But then neither is traditional medicine. Now I get the feeling that if I took a homeopathic remedy to cure a headache, I certainly wouldn’t get any worse for taking it. I don’t know if it would get any better, but I wouldn’t have any fear of any side effects. But if I took an over the counter pain killer, I’m going to be checking the leaflet to see if I need to make sure I’ve eaten before I pop the pill, or if I need to stay away from heavy machinery.

He goes on to discuss the side effects of various drugs and mentions that “some doctors even advocate ECT”: well, David, some doctors even advocate homeopathy, so quite where that leaves your point I have no idea.

So if homeopathy is “witchcraft”, what does that make a profession that makes up formulations of chemicals that can cause more problems, or harnesses the power of lightning and passes it through flesh and bone. It’s all a little bit Dr Frankenstein, don’t you think?

Um… no… because there is one crucial difference between modern medicine (or, just, you know, MEDICINE) and homeopathy which David’s next missive indicates he has failed to grasp:

Like I say, I’m not sure if homeopathy works, but I know plenty of people who have tried it, and say that it has worked for them. You can’t really argue with the evidence of your own experience.

No, no, no, no, no.

The reason that we have this pesky little thing called science, that annoying little detail called ‘evidence’, is precisely because we CAN’T simply trust the ‘evidence of our own experience’. We, as human beings, are ridiculously prone to biases and errors of reasoning: we ascribe an effect when one is not there, and additionally, some believe placebos can heal us of severe conditions, and all sorts of other nonsense. Luckily, we can use double blind RCTs to control for these biases.

And guess what, David? All properly conducted trials on homeopathy show that it doesn’t work. Not one bit.

The BMA are happy enough to use medicines or techniques that seem to work, even if they aren’t quite sure how they work, and often cite research trials as evidence. Research trials that are often funded by companies with vested interests in marketing a new drug. So why do they find it necessary to brand homeopathy as some kind of voodoo.

I should damn well hope the BMA cite research trials as evidence of efficacy: can you imagine a world in which drug companies were allowed to peddle any old thing as a cure or remedy (much like homeopaths)? Health care without evidence would be little more than a lottery. There are issues with research trials being sponsored by pharmaceutical companies and people (like Ben Goldacre) are making a strong case for mandatory trial registration to overcome the file drawer problem (the bias towards the publication of positive results).

Surely the point is that people get better, or recover. There’s no point in treating symptoms, and leaving it at that. Treat the cause of the symptoms. We’ll all be better off for it. Perhaps homeopathy could sit alongside traditional medicine and work in tandem with it. Who is it going to harm? Certainly not the patient…

David, David, David…
The point is people using homeopathy do not get better: they only think they do – that’s the power of the placebo effect. As for who it harms: perhaps you could ask the AIDS patients in Africa who have been persuaded to forgo ARVs in favour of homeopathy? Or the child who died in agony because her parents used homeopathy instead of actually getting her treatment?

If these fail to convince you, how about some enlightened self-interest? Your taxes are going to fund a treatment with no efficacy, or proof of its effectiveness. In short, your bank balance is being harmed in order to provide people with magic water.

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