Skeptics with a K: Special #005

From the archives! Back in February, Marsh visited Radio 5 Live to talk about homeopathy shortly before the publication of Evidence Check 2: Homeopathy; and during the aftermath of our own 10:23 Campaign.


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  1. #1 by Chris on July 8, 2010 - 19:47

    That was delightfully awkward.

  2. #2 by Roger Martin on July 8, 2010 - 20:45

    Wow, so much woo woo woo I thought she were an old steam engine passing through!!

    She had to get the last words ‘..there is plenty of evidence’ at the end. She was cautious not to say it cured her cancer and as Marsh said remission can occur.

  3. #3 by Kelly on July 8, 2010 - 23:06

    I am absolutely sick of presenters taking the woo side! Showing balance, when none is due.

  4. #4 by Sam Freeman on July 9, 2010 - 10:51

    @ 7:21 the antagonist says “but unfortunately medicine doesn’t work by individual experiences, you need to be a little more open minded and take on the experiences of many many people, and the best way to take on the experience of large groups of people without falling in the bias that our minds naturally fall into because we are human beings is to look at it through clinical studies, through real trials”

    notice that he was very careful not to use the word ‘science’ because to look at these situations as bigger pictures with scientific method without bias would yield much less profitable results.

    earlier @ 6:31 he said “surely that’s not a medicine worth selling” and there in is the point. I agree completely, and have no worries about the NHS not wanting to pay for it, the very idea of Boots selling ‘homeopathic remedies’ is ridiculous.

    Personal health and wellbeing __are__ a matter of individual experience and the natural bias of our human minds would put us in good stead if only we were more aware of our individual bodies and less aware of the social norms which no the whole are damaging, both physically and mentally.

    I’m more of a cynic than a skeptic and am absolutely sick (as Kelly put it) of skeptics being skeptical of easy targets. Its easy to scoff and shun such a flowery concept as homeopathy, but what of the seemingly accepted practices of the contemporary medical industry?

    If the only potency in those sugar pills is that of placebo then good – if folk can think them selves better then surely that is to be encouraged, it certainly isn’t going to kill any one. Unlike ‘modern medicine’. See for example ‘Death by Medicine’ (2005, Journal of Orthomolecular Medicine, 20:1, pp. 21–34).

    Here’s just one sentence from that peer-reviewed article by Gary Null, PhD; Carolyn Dean MD, ND; Martin Feldman, MD; Debora Rasio, MD; and Dorothy Smith, PhD:

    “a survey of clinical trials revealed that when a drug company funds a study, there is a 90% chance that the drug will be perceived as effective whereas a non-drug-company-funded study will show favourable results only 50% of the time.”

    Do you direct much skepticism at the ramifications of things like that?

  5. #5 by Jon d on July 9, 2010 - 10:59

    I listen to radio 5 in the car and in many ways it’s a good station… But for this sort of thing it’s not so great. It’s main remit is news and sport and afaict interviews are really just filler between thie half hourly news bulletins until some sport happens or some important news breaks. The presenters run the interviews to allow people to express differing opinions but they’re not really interested in working out what’s right or not, the presenter’s job seems to be to make sure both interviewees talk for approximately equal amounts of time to provide ‘balance ‘*. It’s a valid enough way of running interviews on matters of opinion but it’s frustrating on matters of fact. I don’t know how useful that sort of wishy washy interview is when you’re arguing with someone who’ll say anything.

    *Possible exception Peter Allen on drivetime.

  6. #6 by Marsh on July 9, 2010 - 11:17

    @Sam Freeman: Yep, we do direct skepticism at drug companies too.

    But homeopathy certainly does kill people – Penelope Dingle was told it would cure her cancer, and because it’s so accepted a form of treatment she didn’t realise it was just placebo, and so she believed the ‘qualified’ homeopath who told her it would work, and died. She’s not the only case. People don’t die of the effects of homeopathy, but they do die from believing it will cure them – see Bob Marley, Gloria Thomas, and a whole host of people in various parts of Africa who were told homeopathy would treat their AIDS and prevent malaria. The deaths are there, unfortunately.

  7. #7 by Derek on July 9, 2010 - 12:19

    Marsh, well done getting to “You need to be open-minded…” before the homeopath. I was waiting for that to come your way and nearly exploded when it came from you!

  8. #8 by Mike Boyce on July 9, 2010 - 18:35

    When homeopaths argue, as in this interview (and as they do to refute unfavourable trial results), that remedies need to be carefully individualized (even to the point of taking medical histories from the patient’s family), they automatically invalidate, by their own standards, the usefulness of all the non-individualized remedies sold in Boots et al

  9. #9 by Sam Freeman on July 10, 2010 - 02:13

    Good points, all, and gladly read – especially Mike Boyce.

    There is place for all things, and homeopathy is but a part of a wholistic perspective/system of understanding which is often pit against other perspectives/systems – usually in ways which do not seem to seek a better understanding of each other, more’s the pity.

  10. #10 by Roger Martin on July 10, 2010 - 07:29

    @ Sam Freeman

    Part of wholistic or holistic treatment, it makes no difference magic sugar pills DO NOT WORK, with the exception of placebo. Write a warning on the side of the pills saying that they have as much active substance in them as a kilo of sugar and see if people still buy them. Other than placebo the only use for homeopathic sugar pills is to sweeten cups of tea, expensively.

    I would say that the term homeopathic should be struck off, made illegal or whatenot and term the whole thing Placebo medicine. Do you think people would visit something called an NHS Placebo Clinic?

    @ Mike Boyce, excellently put sir, if you buy magic sugar pills from Boots you do not get a two hour consultation about health and family history, they just take your wonga lol

    It is absolute nonsense only a naive, uninformed mind would believe water or sugar with nothing else in it can cure anything. When you are chronically ill, you can look almost anywhere for a cure, and can be easy victim to modern snake oil salesmen. Wait long enough and someone will come out with homeopathic fairy cakes with homeopathic icing to cure over-eating.

  11. #11 by Mike Boyce on July 10, 2010 - 10:35

    @Sam Freeman, @Roger Martin: Thanks for the mention.

    Much is said about “Big Pharma”, not so much about “Big ALT-Pharma”.
    Manufacturers of homeopathic “remedies” have vested interests as much as any drug company: I don’t think they’re in business for the good of Humanity!

    It is hard not to sympathize, to some extent, with Gemma (?): Her’s is like many other stories we hear of desparate people who think that homeopathy has saved them; they seem to forget so quickly (more than likely concentrating on the memories of the terrible side effects of the treatment) the role that their chemo- and radiotherapy might have played in their remission/putative cure..
    Of course, we don’t hear homeopaths talking much about those people who’ve turned to homeopathy and have not got better.

    I notice Gemma did manage to get in a couple of the obligatory references to “natural”: Actually, homeopathic remedies are better than natural, they’re “supernatural”.

    The long and the short of it is: If Homeopathy thinks it should be considered on a par with conventional Science-based Medicine, then it should be willing to play by the same rules and not be given special dispensation from the laws of evidence and the laws of Nature (“Ye canna change the laws of Physics, Cap’n”).

  12. #12 by Sam Freeman on July 10, 2010 - 15:33

    just in case my motive to post here is unclear, I’d just like to say that I advocate neither Homeopathy nor conventional Science-based Medicine.

    @ Roger Martin; with all respect your comment seems itself to be uninformed – believers of that treatment system do not believe that there is nothing else in the water – just as believers of the other system in question here believe that their Prescribers knows what that are doing when they prescribe remedies.

    I don’t know about any of yous, but I believe in openness and respect for differing beliefs. For me this as imperative as I seek greater understanding of all I come across in pursuit of greater truth.

    Many of these comments seem to me, in my naivety, to carry less a skeptic position, and more a “we’re right and your wrong (and silly) for it, so nerr” tone. I had never before reading this page heard the term ‘woo’ used as it is on this site.

    As for the laws and Physics of Nature, they are consistent mainly in their changing faces through history. At any given time, the commonly held popular view of what’s going on in the Universe is somewhat behind the views of those, at that time, who devote their life to studying the Physics and Nature of it.

    : )

  13. #13 by Roger Martin on July 10, 2010 - 18:40

    @Sam Freeman

    Fact is homeopathy DOES NOT WORK!!! It is at best a placebo.

    You are wrong in saying that ‘believers’ know there is nothing of substance within the magic sugar BUT they do believe in the water memory crap!!!

    Homeopathy can lead to people becoming ill and not seek medically approved and tested treatment. What of people like Penelope Dingle? Sure people die of conventional medicine but that is in the attempt to cure them not sell some quackery that DOES NOT WORK beyond placebo.

    Would you advocate all alternative therapies be given a chance on the NHS? Witch Doctors believe that raping child virgins cures AIDS/HIV shall we have that on the NHS, there is as much evidence that it works as there is homeopathy. What about powdered tiger penis or rhino horn for impotence?

    Do you use alternative medicine? Do you cast spells with eye of newt or something?

    I would like any snake oil salesman homeopathic ‘healer’ read Mike Boyce’s common sense argument and reply sensibly. If it is a personalised holistic and wholistic approach then homeopaths should be screaming for Boots to remove their one-size fits all range from their shelves, no one should be able to just go and buy a remedy without consultation. But they won’t because it gives homeopathy fake kudos in having the largest chemist chain stocking a king quack remedy.

  14. #14 by Roger Martin on July 10, 2010 - 18:52

    @Mike Boyce Second post was brilliant too.

    Yes big pharma makes loadsa dosh outta drugs but they also pay huge sums researching them for efficacy and safety.

    Homeopaths tap glasses of water until there is nothing in it and sell it on to the public. Where are the large sums of self funded research?

    Mainstream drugs only seem to get public funding for research if things go wrong on the whole.

    Personally I am of the belief that magic sugar pills were created to give the impression that you are buying a medicine. Diluted water would be fine wouldn’t it but then you couldn’t charge a fiver for a bottle of water…unless it was a club night at a fashionable night spot…..stick the alleged remedy into some sugar, make it look like a medicine so that the proles will buy it.

    Also another thing that gets me about homeopathic pills is that even if you accepted that they worked, where is the research showing that ingesting with sugar has no change on the effectiveness of remedy? In proper medicine a drug is created and then it is decided what is the best delivery method IV, pill, ingested liquid, a humble massage lotion or whatever.

    Where is the research that shows;

    1) Homeopathy actually works
    2) That shows that it is as effective in sugar as water.

    I mean, what quality standards are there for the sugar? lol

    The whole thing is a joke, and a sick one what’s more

  15. #15 by Sam Freeman on July 11, 2010 - 13:16

    Hello Roger,

    re post #13 (that’s an unlucky number you know – but now I am teasing : )

    No, I have never consulted a homoeopath (though I have talked to a few), I do not cast spells (unlike all those people praying to their Gods), and I would not look to Boots or the NHS for a cure to anything.

    If the only way to get what I thought I might need was through a Medical Doctor then I would register with one, then see what they had to say, go away and do some research on their advice if it had not been pre-empted, and only then, if it felt right to do so given all the evidence I had seen, would I accept their prescription. And if, to take the extreme as seems to be the way here, I were to die in the mean time, then so be it; why are people so worried about staying alive beyond their bodies capacity? Most illness is the result of things we do to ourselves or each other. Prevention is usually possible. I opt of that.

    But why make this personal?

    fact is, friend, that homoeopathy does make people feel better, probably the same people who would not bother to post here, but I too would like to see what they might say.

    One problem, which might them off, might be that using Caps to emphasise one’s point really does diminish the reception of that point of view. Saying something louder does not make it more true. If one really wanted to hear about an opinion that differed from one’s own then perhaps one ought not to make repeated insensitive attacks against such.

    As you said in post #14 (that’s two times seven, and these are both prime numbers, you were obviously onto a better thing here) “Where is the research…?”

    I ask: Based on what research do people put blind faith in “medically approved and tested treatment” ?

    I’d be here too long to address all the issues I take with your argument, but I would like to make clear (perhaps I should put Caps Lock on?) that I do agree with much of your sentiment.

    (p.s. I hope everyone reading did notice that 13 is also a prime number to when I was poking about two times seven…)

  16. #16 by Michael on July 11, 2010 - 17:59

    Why even bother to comment and fight this quackery. She ended with “There IS evidence”. And Ravenscroft was supporting her claims against the evidence of the top clinical scientists in the world. What is the fucking point?

  17. #17 by Michael on July 11, 2010 - 18:06

    Quote 13 and 15. Have you read Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science? Within there he calls drug manufacturers evil and shows how they get their drugs onto the market.
    Homeopathy and CAM don’t need to as they are not medicine.
    When these things work they are no longer called CAM they are called medicine.

  18. #18 by Nick G on July 12, 2010 - 08:43

    Sam Freeman – “Most illness is the result of things we do to ourselves or each other.”

    But then, you can only say that because (modern) medicine has defeated polio, small pox, cholera, influenza, tetnus, malaria, plague and most of the other nasty diseases that were likely to send people (particularly -18 month infants) to a very early grave.

  19. #19 by Derek on July 12, 2010 - 12:44

  20. #20 by Sam Freeman on July 13, 2010 - 15:38

    I wasn’t going to post here again, but I’m having fun, so here we go…

    Please bear in mind all the caveats that I’ve already made with regard to my position to the original subject here et cetera : )

    I thought cholera is defeated by sanitation, as in conditions relating to public health, esp. the provision of clean drinking water and adequate sewage disposal, rather than medicine (modern or otherwise).

    and if defeated why are so many still dying of malaria? (thousands each day – cite google search results for : how many people die from malaria each day) Or as a side step from that point, is it not the case that there are different flavours of malaria not all of which can be vaccinated for?

    My enthusiasm for researching these topics is slim, so I wont go on much more.

    I do wonder though, on a different note, how sceptical (or skeptical is you prefer) most of us have been about the the validity of the perceived goal of modern medicine, if take that as being keeping people alive. I am not uncomfortable with idea of people dying, what ever age they may be.

    [[ insert a minute hesitation here before pressing submit comment : ) ]]

  21. #21 by Nick G on July 13, 2010 - 18:05

    Sam Freeman –
    Yes to be fair I said medicine when science would have been a better word. I take that criticism on board. Nonetheless, one of the most important discoveries in the fight against Choleara was physician John Snow’s realisation that it was carried by water rather than the air – a realisation reached through a sensible evidence-based methodology and which of course demonstrated the need for greater sanitation.

    And yes, many people die from malaria each year, but this isn’t a political rather than medicinal problem. Malaria can be eradicated – the Netherlands managed to do so in the 60’s – it’s just that the places which experience most of the deaths are places which are too poor to do so: 90% of malaria deaths occur in Sub Sahara Africa.

    Indeed, this is where we neatly dove-tail with the arguments made by the 10:23 campaign: in circumstances where money is tight it is totally immoral or people to take advantage of scientific illiteracy in order to peddle bogus treatments. Granted, it is only slightly better for drugs companies to charge extortionate amounts for the real treatments that actually work, but there is a difference there and one we should appreciate. The fight against the drug companies is a noble one, but it is a complex one that has many nuances. The fight against homeopathy is a simple, straightforward one which can act as a banner for those who support evidence based medicine and policy.

    (and my original point still stands by the way.)

  22. #22 by Dave The Drummer on July 18, 2010 - 21:35

    Well done Marsh. That was a great job you did there. Calm, concise and to the point. Best one yet.

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