There Was A Pun In This Title, But It’s Been Diluted Out Of Existence…


My last blog post deviated somewhat from the normal topics of science, pseudoscience and the skeptical movement, so here I shall attempt to remedy the situation, with one of our old favourites: homeopathy.

Over the last few days I have been involved in a lot of reading and writing, but it has almost all been about lawyers, teachers, union representatives and what-to-do-if-you-find-yourself-homeless-and-out-of-gin.

However, amongst all of the information milling around my brain, there lies a single nugget of interesting information. Like the mythological active ingredient in a homeopathic remedy, it has been diluted and succussed, shaken and stirred, among an ocean of dreariness, yet it is somehow still present, and somehow still active, and somehow still able to form the basis of this post.

Now, homeopathy isn’t really my strong point. When it comes to the evidence-free beliefs of the world, I prefer the downright-wacky to the pretending-to-be-scientific. I’d much rather debate with someone who was trying to tell me that donkeys used to talk and people lived to 900 than with someone who claimed that a vial of water would heal all of my ills – simply because, since both claims are ludicrous, I’d rather deal with the funnier of the two. I am by no means a scientist (only an interested layperson), and so find it more than a little tedious to have to not only explain how homeopathy has no scientific mechanism, but also root around for scientific papers displaying its inefficacy, and brush up on disciplines I know nothing of. On top of that, homeopathy discussions that I have witnessed invariably end with the homeopath claiming that, essentially, ‘it worked for me!’.

This is one of the problems faced by proponents of science. ‘It worked for me’ is an appealing, but useless claim. The scientific method is large and faceless – it seeks to lose the individuality of those studied, removing biases and looking for large-scale patterns. A dozen people could get better in the course of a homeopathic treatment, but in a massive study, this will mean nothing – hundreds or thousands of other people will have no effect, and so the improvement in the dozen will be put down to error or coincidence – statistical insignificance.

On the other hand, homeopathy, and other quack treatments, work by placing the individuality of the subject foremost. They will offer ‘tailored’ treatments, or massively-long consultations, to make the patient feel special. Often, this is all that is needed to start a person’s recovery. This also provides a ‘get-out clause’ – if an individual is reassured, and has a slight improvement, they will not care about the hundreds who had no benefit. Individual experience, however misguided, is a lot more powerful than the faceless truth of science.

Of course such experiences mean nothing scientifically, but often serve to reinforce homeopathic beliefs – “I’ve read about lots of people whose sniffles went right away with a homeopathic course of belladonna!”, one of them was my grandmother!

So what will happen if an individual takes a homeopathic course of treatment for their eczema, finds nothing, and writes about it? It is scientifically useless as a study, yes, but on exactly the same level of evidence that homeopaths demand. It’s a kind of scepticism I’m rather partial to – it proves nothing, is ultimately pointless, but shows that homeopathy can’t even survive on its own playing field – that of the individual. It will appeal to the same kind of person which homeopathic ‘evidence’ tries to appeal to, and provides a good entry point to a discussion of why it had no effect. Basically, it makes for a good story.

Well, that’s what Peter Beech has been doing in his ‘Diary of a Homeophobe’; it makes for very interesting reading! This man is not desperate to prove the truth of homeopathy. He is a sceptic, and not, it seems, one who is secretly yearning to be proven wrong. He describes his experiences as “the travels of a hardened doubter through the unicorn-infested magic forest of pseudoscience.” Of course, his belief will have no effect on the efficacy of treatment. He may remain untouched by the placebo affect, but if homeopathy works, it will work whether he believes it or not – just like morphine, or penicillin, or a large bottle of White Lightning.

Mr Beech has only been on the ‘treatment’ for a month (or two Guardian blog posts), and has so far only had a deterioration in his condition – although, as any homeopath worth their (very diluted) salt will tell you, this is simply a ‘healing crisis’ on the path to recovery.

Nothing decisive can be said of his reaction so far – homeopaths claim that having your skin become enraged and start practically leaping off your body is a natural step to being fully-healed, whilst critics argue that such a flare up of eczema is nothing if not a direct consequence of giving up real, medically-proven, eczema treatment.

Now, as I’ve said, this ‘experiment’ is useless scientifically (after all, it is only aiming for the same level of evidence that a homeopath would demand in support of their belief), but it is very interesting if you want a glimpse into how the woo-believer’s mind works. Just have a look at the comments.

One noticeable difference the author mentions is how his skin reacts to alcohol. Previously, a drinking-induced flare-up could (to an extent) be mitigated by his steroid cream. Now, of course, he simply has to endure it. He refuses stop drinking on three counts:

“I know what you’re thinking: ditch the booze. I’ve cut down a touch, but there are three reasons why I won’t give up altogether. One I’ve already mentioned: all other variables must remain constant if I’m to properly assess the efficacy of homeopathic treatment. Secondly, I am not unreasonably looking for a treatment that allows me to continue to live my life in as normal a way as possible. Thirdly, I’m a member of generation binge.”

This is what provoked some very revealing comments from the believers in homeopathy.

One reader, MissEmbillina, points out

“If you do give it up, you’ll doubt the efficacy of homeopathy (or won’t be able to judge it). And if you don’t quit the booze, the homeopathy doesn’t stand a very good chance of working..”

Whilst it is true that still drinking is having horrible effects on his skin, why shouldn’t the homeopathy still be effective? The western-medicine steroid-treatment was still effective, so why shouldn’t homeopathy be? Isn’t it supposed to be just as good? If giving up alcohol would improve his condition whatever treatment he was on, then I think it is cheating a little if he gives it up while taking homeopathic supplements, then declares ‘it must be the evening primrose!!’

Commenter Muminhk asserts that when her child was nine months old (the PERFECT age to be a guinea-pig for unproven medicine! You can’t even refuse consent!) he was given homeopathic treatments for eczema, and it cleared up! Of course, she doesn’t credit the wheat and dairy-free diet he was on…  Both of which are extremely common allergens to people with eczema.

“…(m)aybe it would have cleared anyway, maybe not. but i am glad he never had to have steroids. western medicine doesn’t tend to cure eczema, it treats the symptoms. stick with the pills and have faith. you may find that if you change your lifestyle until it is cured then you my be able to live normally again. if the pills don’t work try chinese medicine i’ve heard that works too but didn’t want to subject a toddler to vile potions and needles!!!”

There you go then. Change your lifestyle while taking homeopathic treatments, if you really want ‘them’ to work! [Note: actually, perhaps I shouldn’t be so mocking. I once took homeopathic hangover cures and they worked perfectly once I changed my lifestyle and stopped drinking!]. If they still don’t work? ‘Have faith’! Zakk Swezey hasn’t complained of feeling ill for ages now!  And if your ailment still doesn’t go away? You could try Chinese medicine, but that’s a bit funny and exotic, lots of ‘vile potions’ that you wouldn’t find in a homeopath’s delightful little jar of water!

Yes, most of the pro-homeopathy comments are along these lines. I am quite relieved that at least homeopaths aren’t critiquing his science (I haven’t yet seen many pro-homeopathy comments arguing that his sample size is unsound, and he needs to be more scientifically rigorous), but they do seem to display a fine case of the blinkers. They complain that he should change his lifestyle (completely ignorant of the fact that he is trying to identify the efficacy of homeopathy, not of lifestyle change), or that ‘it worked for me!!’. This article only shows the intellectual dishonesty inherent in any evidence-free assertion – Peter Beech is a one-man study, that kind most favoured by antimedicine. He has done nothing different to the normal ‘it worked for me!’ story, but it hasn’t worked, and all that he is given is excuses (and an eczema flare-up).

But while it is true that he will not win any converts, perhaps those who may consider homeopathy a viable alternative will listen – homeopathy lost the war years ago on a scientific battleground, and here is a clear example of it losing on the individual battleground.

This whole ‘experiment’ interesting, because it highlights a particular problem with the pro-science movement. A lot of people don’t like science, they like stories – and let’s face it, woo has some bloody marvellous stories – ultimately, good science is crucial, but useless if no-one listens. Peter Beech’s endeavours may be terrible science – it is no more valid to use personal experience to disprove homeopathy than it is to use it to prove it – but sometimes, in order to get people to listen, you need to tell them a story.

And put your comfort, quality of life, looks and health on the line.

Gosh. It’s dangerous being a sceptic.

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  1. #1 by Orang Putih on September 14, 2009 - 08:13

    Shortly before I left for a year in Java I went to hear Ben Goldacre talk about the placebo effect. Sensible people now accept that this is behind many of the quack’ medicines but if that is so it must also play a large role in conventional medicine. That is really interesting. May I suggest Col. Molerat turns his sceptical eye on the drug companies and the world of conventional medicine and treatment, just to se what he uncovers.
    I am writing this from Java and here the main alternative to conventional medicine is ‘jamu’ traditional cures, often in the form of a drink. These can be bought in many of the cafes along with a tea or coffee and I once tried one. I’m not sure what I was being cured of but I certainly felt a lot better when I had finished it and could drink something less foul tasting. Some Jamu are downright dangerous and some may have herbs that are of some use in certain cases. As jamu are used by an estimated 80% of Indonesians big business has started to move in and may be backed by government legislation making it more like the market in Europe and the US. Indonesia is also an Islamic country and ironically Islam sees jamu as superstitious increasing pressure for regulation. One can’t help having some sympathy for home grown, poor people’s nonsense when it is threatened by institutional greed.
    Finally isn’t a molerat a strange choice for a skeptic? Mole rats are the most highly social and unquestioning of mammals. The have their role in the colony and that is what they do and what they are? Wouldn’t a curious crow be better? And why limit yourself to Colonel like Gadaffi? I suggest a name change, General New Caledonian Crow.

(will not be published)