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Passing through my third-life crisis peacefully in South London, finding out new stuff, and then getting cross and excited about it.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Denialism, Homeopathy & 10:23




This week I signed up properly to the 10:23 campaign. It seeks to raise awareness of exactly what homeopathy is. You can contribute in a number of ways - sign a petition, get yourself a Twitter Twibbon as I have, or simply outline basic facts about homeopathy in a humorous way - although beware others have already done this very well indeed.

So, I planned to put up a quick post to register my support, and leave it at that. But then I saw this via MJ Robbins, and it got me cross enough to write something in more depth.

I've written a couple of things recently about climate change denial and the need and duty for skeptics to be careful whenever using the label. I think the word "denialist" retains it's usefulness, but only in cases where:

a) there is overwhelming and incontrovertible evidence on one side of an argument
b) an individual in question repeatedly demonstrates their unwillingness to view that evidence impartially

I think these are uncontroversial conditions, and while there will be disagreement over exactly when they apply because they are subjective, but that just highlights the need for caution. When in doubt, skeptics should hold back on dropping the denialist bombshell.

There are several reasons for insisting on such precision. The first is the simple need for sensitivity when drawing analogies with those who question the Holocaust. A second is that when the label is used without precision, it bundles those who just don't know up with those who seek to ignore and undermine evidence. This was at the heart of my worries when James Randi caught it in the neck.

And then there is Jack of Kent's point about public engagement failure. The more the phrase "denialist" is used without due caution i, the more it will cause the wider public to switch off from the debate, thus missing the finer details about why one side is wrong.

And so, to the Safe Medicine blog.

First, I didn't like the tone of the whole piece. It presents the 10:23 campaign as trying to ban homeopathy, which isn't true. The campaign seeks to raise awareness and present facts about how homeopathy is supposed to work and what is in homepathic remedies.

Also, much of the substance of the letter focuses on freedom of choice and democracy, as if popularity of a product alone constitutes sufficient justification for its sale. I don't think this is an important factor when talking about medicine; I'm not sure it's even a relevant one. The blog in question is called "Safe Medicine", and the safety of products is clearly more important than popularity, as efficacy and scientific plausibility should be.

But the thing I wanted to draw out was the use of the term "Homeopathic denialist". It is used to apply to everyone on the 10:23 campaign, as well as being applied to Sense About Science and others in separate blogposts.

Here are two direct quotes from the blogger's letter to Boots:

"It is a treatment that has been proven to work for over 200 years in the treatment of disease, and there are much scientific research that now confirms that it is more effective than placebo."

"Although homeopathy has been observed many times to have a strong therapeutic effect, the way it works is not completely understood by science."

Both sentences suggest that there is research supporting homeopathy - but no one is in denial about this. The contention made by people like Ben Goldacre and Quackwatch is that there is other research, which is frequently more comprehensive and of better methodological quality, that shows no positive effect. I have found nothing on the blog that disputes that this is the case.

The other main point in these quotes is that science does not understand how homeopathy works. Yet, science absorbs and uses other phenomena that it can't fully explain at the time - electricity is one obvious example, general anesthetics is another one. Science learns to manipulate the phenomenon and seeks the explanation for how it works along the way. This has certainly not happened with homeopathy, as it remains resolutely outside mainstream science. And "over 200 years" is an extraordinarily long time in which not to find an explanation that accords with existing scientific knowledge.

So I would contend that the contents of the blog itself suggest there are no grounds for calling someone a "homeopathic denialist". There exist genuine questions over the efficacy and value of homeopathic treatment, and I don't believe applying such a dramatic label to those who disagree with him will help the writer of the blog appeal to those who want more information.

And the very existence of the phrase "homeopathic denialism" should serve as a warning bell to skeptics that they should always think twice before using similar labels themselves. 

5 comments:

  1. The Safe Medicine blog is written by Steve Scrutton. Steve Scrutton is notorious for making ubsubstantiated statements about homeopathy and the failure of conventional medicine - which he calls "CON-med". Scrutton takes the very Hahnemannian line that conventional medicine is to be avoided at all costs. Read http://www.nhs-conmed.co.uk/ to understand his "wisdom". And at the same time as attacking the NHS, he wants homeopathy on the NHS!

    Scrutton is on the board of the Alliance of Registered Homeopaths.

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  2. I wouldn't worry too much about Steve Scrutton's rambling. The homeopaths adoption of the 'Denialist' meme is just another example of their cargo cult thinking.

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  3. It amuses me that they think that it works but Big Pharma ingores it. Don't they realise that Big Pharma would be all over it if it worked. It's so cheap to produce, tap water, a tiny bottle to put it in and a bible to bash it on, not exactly massive overheads. Think of all the money saved on R and D.

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  4. Martyn - well, not tapwater. My understanding is the homeopathic remedy companies use double distilled water. Some individual homeopaths use bottled water - I've heard of them using Evian. Neither of which are terribly expensive. Some homeopathic remedies contain alcohol. Which can range from surgical spirit to Sainsbury's vodka.

    Succusion - the big companies use machines to do this.

    Also, do bear in mind that some "homeopathic" remedies are prepared in a completely different way - "energy waveform" are "beamed" onto blank sugar tablets by radionic machines. This type of homeopathic remedy is, strictly speaking, illegal in the UK, but one estimate I've seen suggests upto 25% of UK homeopaths use these remedies...

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  5. Part of the problem for me is that this sort of thing is held up as evidence:

    http://www.homeopathic.com/articles/view,134

    As far as I can tell, even with my lack of scientific knowledge, is that this has no direct correlation with homeopathy. Even the article itself states "although homeopathy is not mentioned anywhere in the article"....

    Despite this, this has been plugged on twitter using the 1023 hashtag as 'proof' of homeopathy. When I queried the tweet's author as to its applicability, the reply was "as Dana Ullman states in the first para of the article, it may explain how and why remedies stay active at extreme dilutions."

    Well... it doesn't. Yet this is proudly trumpeted as 'proof', and without people checking the research that they are pushing they could be under the belief that a scientist has proven it.

    In case you didn't know, Dana Ullman has said that doctors are unknowingly committing "medical child abuse" by prescribing them drugs. Which is one way of looking at it I suppose.

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