Mar 18 2010

Homeopath Benneth Jumps the Shark

You may recall I recently discussed the incoherent rant of homeopath John Benneth, attacking defenders of science-based medicine. His tactic was clear – rather than discussing the scientific evidence, he chose to launch a personal attack against those who have the audacity to disagree with him.

This kind of behavior seems to becoming more common as the defenders of nonsense are being called out in public. Most recently an exhaustive review of the evidence for homeopathy led the UK Science and Technology Committee to conclude that homeopathy should not work, it does not work, and all public support for homeopathy and homeopathy research should be halted.

The simple fact is that homeopathic remedies are not remedies at all. They are nothing but water, with (in most cases) any active ingredients diluted to such a degree that nothing but water remains. Further, clinical studies, when viewed in total and not cherry picked, show that homeopathy (not surprisingly) does not work. The underlying principles of homeopathy, such as like cures like, is nothing but magical superstition.

This is not merely my personal opinion – this is the consensus opinion of the scientific community. This is the opinion of honest scientists and regulators who have taken the time to thoroughly review the science.

But homeopaths like Benneth do not want to make this about the science, because in that arena they lose – they have already lost. So they desperately, pathetically, and sometime petulantly want to make this personal.

Their goal appears to be this  – make it seem as if this is a contest not about scientific evidence but about personal integrity, then attack some identified critic of homeopathy as if taking them down means homeopathy works. Make criticism of homeopathy seem like a sinister conspiracy, or simply protecting professional turf. Make criticism of homeopathy into a culture war – and if at all possible invoke the specter of “big pharma,” attack medicine itself, and if you are truly desperate call your critics Nazis. Making up lies is apparently acceptable.

John Benneth does all of this and more.

Apparently Benneth thinks he can just make stuff up as needed (not surprising from a homeopath). He claims I make money from treating patients (while also claiming I don’t see patients). He is unaware and likely does not care that I am a salaried academic – I do not directly derive income from treating patients, and my salary is much less than I would make as a private neurologist.

He claims that there is a well-funded anti-homeopathy movement. No, Mr. Benneth – the world does not revolve about you and your silly beliefs. There is a pro-science-based medicine movement – we care about high quality science in medicine.

We are also not (alas) well-funded. The New England Skeptical Society (which he mentions by name) has no corporate or government funding (no ties to Big Pharma), nor does science-based medicine, or the Institute for Science in Medicine. The NESS is funded entirely by individual donors and merchandising.

I challenge Benneth to provide evidence for the sinister conspiracy he alleges.

Benneth further launches into a massive non-sequitur – claiming that mainstream medicine cannot cure anything, it only provides “poisons” – by which he means approved pharmaceuticals. He repeats the canard oft-cited by cranks that mainstream medicine is the third leading cause of death in the US. Harriet Hall did a nice takedown of this fallacy – in essence, it focuses only on risk and not on benefit. But scientific medicine is about risk vs benefit, and it is clear from the evidence that science-based medicine has benefit in excess of risk.

I will ignore the bulk of Benneth’s personal libel – suffice to say it is beneath contempt. He does make an attempt at an evidence-based argument, but he completely botches it. He argues that there are many studies showing an effect for homeopathic remedies on plants, animals, and cells in culture. This, he argues, rules out the placebo effect.

This is both wrong and misleading. First, Benneth mischaracterizes the scientific argument as – because homeopathy cannot work any study showing an effect is due either to the placebo effect, fraud, or incompetence. I would add bias and chance, but further this is an oversimplification of the scientific position – the conclusion that homeopathy does not work is based both on the lack of plausibility and the poor quality and overall negative nature of the empirical evidence. (See here for a more thorough discussion.)

Benneth then makes a patently illogical argument – that because the placebo effect is ruled out (false premise) that the critics of homeopathy are wrong. But what about fraud (as with Jacques Benveniste’s lab), incompetence, bias, and chance? This is why we do not cherry pick, but look for a pattern of reproducibility – something which is lacking with homeopathy.

Let us also look further at the placebo claim – this is one I frequently hear. This is a simplistic misconception about the placebo effect, that it is entirely a mind-over-matter result of expectation. In fact, as it is operationally defined in medical trials, placebo effects can include anything other than a physiological response to the treatment, including observer expectation. Someone has to be observing the plants, cells, or animals and their bias counts too. (See here for a more complete discussion.)

And, after reviewing the published studies, I do not accept the premise that the evidence supports the efficacy of homeopathy in treating plants. The literature shows mostly small and uncontrolled studies – no solid reproducible effects. Certainly nothing that would justify rewriting the physics textbooks.

Conclusion

John Benneth shows how desperate and deluded the homeopathic community has become. Sure – his absurd, fabricated, and mean-spirited rant is an extreme example, but the basic approach and arguments he uses are common among those who defend homeopathy against legitimate scientific criticism. I encounter them myself frequently.

As much as Benneth would like to make this personal as a diversion and misdirection, he has only succeeded in publicly embarrassing himself. The question of whether or not homeopathy works is determined by the evidence – any thorough review of which leads to the unavoidable conclusion that it does not. Homeopathy is nothing but pre-scientific magic. Its modern proponents can scream all they want “ignore that man behind the curtain” – but it’s too late, the curtain has been pulled wide.

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47 responses so far

47 Responses to “Homeopath Benneth Jumps the Shark”

  1. Nigelon 18 Mar 2010 at 8:13 am

    Comaprisons to Nazism is nearly always an admission of intellectual defeat. Here, here Dr. N. You, the 10:23 campaign etc are rattling cages. I like it.

  2. Rachael Dunlopon 18 Mar 2010 at 8:25 am

    I had my first taste of his personal attacks a few days ago, when I dared to comment on his ‘homeopathy for breast cancer’ video on YouTube. He responded to my critique by calling me a fraud and a ‘miscreant’. Other commentators were told ‘they were next’ and he even threatened one such with legal action. Then, you guessed it, he deleted all the comments except a few that were positive.

    I also saw on Twitter that he is preparing another application for the JREF million dollar challenge. Can’t wait for that (again).

  3. Justin L.on 18 Mar 2010 at 9:15 am

    Dr. Novella, it’s not fair to come after Benneth with all that evidence. Instead, you should have responded in a way he would understand. For example, you could have made fun of his mustache, and then complained about the listening devices Big Homeopathy has installed in your home.

  4. OxRodon 18 Mar 2010 at 9:17 am

    If you mixed Homeopathy with Holy Water plus Sunkist Soda would you have God God God God Vibrations?

  5. jamespion 18 Mar 2010 at 9:19 am

    I get the impression that his mother has some kind of terminal or debilitating illness, because at one point he mentions that he’s been “curing” her with homeopathy, and the sense of slightly hysterical desperation in his tone throughout the video makes me feel that he is struggling with cognitive dissonance. It’s like the disjointed ranting is him shouting down his own doubts – maybe his treatments aren’t effective but he doesn’t want to face it. I feel sorry for him.

  6. yaklubon 18 Mar 2010 at 9:35 am

    Have any legitimate studies been carried out test the effectiveness of homeopathy when used as a complement to traditional medicine? To me, homeopathy studies, in the limited research I have read, always seemed to suffer from cognitive confirmation bias but I have not encountered research where it has been studied as a subset to or in conjunction with other medicine.

    I also feel it is sad when you encounter individuals who become threatening when their theories are questioned. That in itself defies the premise of scientific research – to arrive at conviction through challenge. I am not a scientist myself but I am a business person and I see some parallels between those people and individuals in my world who claim to have truly “innovative” business ideas but provide no guidance on how to make the financial model work. In fact, even back of the envelope calculations of their “ideas” pan out to be financially unfeasible from the perspective of any rational investor. When I explain this to them they become hostile and paranoid that I am now going to steal their brilliant “idea”. Why would I want to steal a bad idea? Either that or I am labeled as a non-visionary.

  7. skepticaton 18 Mar 2010 at 9:41 am

    This John Benneth, whoever he is, sounds like exactly the kind of homeopath I approve of. A thoroughly nasty piece of work that nobody in their right mind could take seriously. Just what homeopathy needs.

  8. Kimbo Joneson 18 Mar 2010 at 10:12 am

    @skepticat Problem is a few aren’t in their right mind and are louder than the rest.

  9. DevoutCatalyston 18 Mar 2010 at 10:16 am

    “It’s modern proponents can scream all they want “ignore that man behind the curtain”…”

    That’s not what I hear. What they’re all saying, in unison, is:

    “You cursed brat! Look what you’ve done! I’m melting! Melting! Oh, what a world, what a world!”

  10. [...] read Dr. Novella’s response to John Benneth’s personal attacks read this entry from the Neurologica blog. In this blog Dr. Novella weaves together a more concise and eloquent [...]

  11. superdaveon 18 Mar 2010 at 11:19 am

    I am not saying this to be derogatory but when I first encountered him on youtube he clearly struck me as a person who was losing his sanity. I have seen little since then to change my mind.

  12. Mueroon 18 Mar 2010 at 12:14 pm

    After watching the last video, I thought Benneth was just a quirky true believer. But this most recent video makes me believe this guy is truly diagnosable with a psychiatric disorder. I almost feel bad for the guy now, because always being in a state of fear at the worldwide conspiracy against him must be tough, although finding the truth when everyone else in the world is wrong must satisfying.

    My favorite argument is this: Steve Novella hasn’t found a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, therefore homeopathy works. I’m going to start using crazy non sequiturs like that all the time in my everyday life, to see how well it works.

    The one time he actually seems like he might be talking about real science, he says, “I’ll post many of the links [to the studies] in the descriptive field of this video.” Note that he never provides these links and even removes this line from the transcript in the descriptive field.

    This has nothing to do with his (crazy) arguments, but what is up with his videos? Taking 16:9 video and distorting it to 4:3? And why does it have stereo audio with only the left channel containing actual audio? I feel like this guy is a failure at everything, and the only reason he’s managed to avoid homelessness or death is that people feel sorry for him enough to help him out.

  13. SpicyCupcakeon 18 Mar 2010 at 12:28 pm

    I am thrilled that there are people out there that fight this sort of thing head on. Luckily I’m in an area where homeopathy is not pervasive. The city I live in has in the past decade taken an initiative of revival (like many towns) and focused on art. It has made a great change for the better as far as the beauty and variety of the town’s culture. The flip side is that of course the town cannot truly support the amount of artist that has been effectively imported. Since they come from areas where different forms of natural medicines including herbalist, energy healing, and homeopathy; they tend to make money with such services.

    The positive news is that I have a unique window of opportunity here. I don’t have to try to disillusion people as much. I can just explain to people what it is before they get a chance to have confirmation biased and other confirmatory devices in human reasoning to create belief they don’t want to let go of once you explain what homeopathy is. To be trite “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.)”

    My yet to be stated premise in all of this is, I love there are people out there fighting implausible beliefs at their source. However when you come to a point that the source is not going away and not changing their view or rhetoric in the face of overwhelming evidence, is it not a better long term strategy of simply informing people prior to exposure. Yes this has its own limitations and I do not propose relenting the assault of evidence toward the source since this does achieve certain goals. However time spent arguing on YouTube about homeopathy tends to only get people that were already on one side or the other and looking for that controversy in particular. I feel like the same amount of skeptical people going out and meeting others who have not heard of the issue, and then having conversations that slip in that bit of knowledge prior to the miss information will do much more.

    People like to share neat facts with their friends and if those facts are “this is what homeopathy is, isn’t that silly?” instead of “oh yes they do have a cure for your cold, here’s homeopathy!” then we’ve won twice! NOTE: I do relent that improved critical thinking skills are the real prevention for many of these problems. That is a more fundamental problem and a less practical blanket answer for most skeptical issues (in my opinion), but not in the scope of what I’m trying to deal with at this time.

    In conclusion: What do you think is the most effective way for the average or fledgling skeptics that are armed with information but possibly not the developed skills and experience to handle straight forward debates with subtly fallacious arguments?

  14. skeptologicon 18 Mar 2010 at 12:35 pm

    Please talk about this nut on Skeptics’ Guide this week. I need a good laugh and I’d love to hear Jay’s comments!

  15. Science Momon 18 Mar 2010 at 2:55 pm

    @ 3:54 He wants to pose as someone who MIGHT help you if you have enough money and he has enough time. This guy should be as far away from medicine as possible.

    I don’t know, that sounds like an apt description of a homeopath to me. So Dr. Novella, what say you to the underwear gig for Macy’s?

    SM

  16. pious fraudon 18 Mar 2010 at 3:11 pm

    Benneth really tips his hand to the source for his emotional hatred of Steve when he says(@4:45): “how dare this man ridicule and discredit my feeble attempts to try to save my mother…”

    WARNING! WARNING! … This person my not be thinking clearly….WARNING!

  17. MollyNYCon 18 Mar 2010 at 3:40 pm

    Hysterical in both senses of the word.

  18. tmac57on 18 Mar 2010 at 3:51 pm

    Benneth asks:”Why does homeopathy stimulate the growth of wheat?”
    Because its water? Maybe?

  19. Oracon 18 Mar 2010 at 4:06 pm

    A certain undead Führer may arise again tomorrow

  20. ccbowerson 18 Mar 2010 at 5:33 pm

    I now realize tap water CURES everything! Having barely detected levels of so many medications, the effect must be powerful. Or maybe tap water is very harmful by the same rationale? Now I’m confused…

  21. schnuderon 18 Mar 2010 at 5:37 pm

    So who wants to point out to him that the big pharmaceutical companies are the same ones who make and market homeopathic remedies? Any volunteers?

  22. ccbowerson 18 Mar 2010 at 5:47 pm

    “So who wants to point out to him that the big pharmaceutical companies are the same ones who make and market homeopathic remedies? Any volunteers?”

    - Of course… I’ve heard that they like money, and they charge more than the cost of water for homeopathic treatments. This is even more so with vitamins and supplements, since that those are much bigger money-makers. The bulk of the blame has to go to our governments which allow this nonsense with terrible laws.

  23. darylon 18 Mar 2010 at 7:44 pm

    I couldn’t believe it, but he actually says (@5:45, referring directly to Dr Novella)…

    “He knows. Not only is his medicine ineffective for a host of neurologic conditions, it is murderous. It is mass murder. It’s genocide. It’s the American holocaust.”

    I guess these kinds of people are lucky that you aren’t the litigious type. Or more likely they are clued up to this fact and they therefore feel free to speak with seeming impunity.

    Regardless, there is some truth in what he says. If you water plants, they will grow better than if you do not.

  24. bkoffendon 18 Mar 2010 at 8:11 pm

    I have never heard such clap trap as I heard in the John Benneth diatribe. This kind of stuff makes me want to scream. What an incomprenhensible idiot!

  25. halincohon 18 Mar 2010 at 10:15 pm

    I can’t just laugh this guy off. There is absolutely no reason why he should get away with this libelous rant. It’s like watching a rabid, blind dog backed into a corner. He yaps and tries to bite, spewing foam and venom, but each time he lurches he bites his own tail. It’s ferocious incompetence is not laughable, it’s a tad dangerous, and mostly tragic.

    I’m so sorry that you Steve, and you Rachel, have had to undergo such personal attacks.

    Steve, Rachel, it seems these personal attacks have worsened as the skeptic movement has gained strength. Have we seen the worst of it or have you privately been threatened as well? If so, what can we, as a community, do to help?

    Enough is enough. Put the dog out of it’s misery.

  26. Michael Kingsford Grayon 19 Mar 2010 at 5:49 am

    # MollyNYCon

    Hysterical in both senses of the word.

    I agree that he has no functioning brain, but you are suggesting that he has a womb?

  27. BillyJoe7on 19 Mar 2010 at 6:06 am

    I don’t know how you guys do it.
    I couldn’t listen to that video beyond the second “nothiiiingg”.

  28. Shamihalaon 19 Mar 2010 at 10:10 am

    Wow, what an enormous chip on his shoulder this guy has. What an unprofessional, embarrassing way to respond.

  29. chaos4zapon 19 Mar 2010 at 1:40 pm

    @spicycupcake

    Your post reminds me of something that I find a little irritating, that people involved in “art” seem to be more prone to magical thinking and non-sense than most other crowds. I believe this is accurate, but never really understood why one is almost always paired with the other. This is the reason I can barely stand to be around the “Art” types. They have this, often subtle, condescending way to them, like they understand the world on a much deeper level than you. It bothers the heck out of me. Of course, this is the same type of mindset that purveyors of junk science are prone to as well. There is something about that conspiracy theory, I know something most don’t, my mind is fully open to everything in the world…mindset that people love to associate themselves with. I just don’t get why creativity and keeping your feet firmly planted on the ground are so rare to find hand in hand. I know not all art types are like this, but in my experience…I have certainly seen enough of it to assume, at the very least, a loose correlation.

    Another of your points I wanted to comment on is the idea of informing people of the facts before they become subject to confirmation bias. I agree that education is always the best tool a skeptic has, but it is almost always not that simple. Even if your friends and relatives have not yet made up their minds about specific junk modalities, the unjustified fear and distrust in science and medicine in general is so widespread that it makes it difficult to have any impact on people. The skeptics never seem to be starting on a level playing field. It’s as if you first have to convince people they can trust science and science based medicine before you can inform them in any way about any specific modality, without being dismissed out of hand. When I get into a conversation about such things, I like to adopt the Bryan Dunning approach (not sure if the idea was first his, but it’s where I first heard it). That method basically focuses on pointing out that everyone is a skeptic (on some level) and the primary difference between the believers and the skeptics is that skeptics do not have sacred cows and we apply the same rules to everything, not just those things that we find it convenient to scrutinize. I find this is the most effective approach when dealing with friends, family or any lay person, but even its success is depressingly limited. At most, it usually helps you not come across as condescending with your discussion points and that can help get your foot in the door. Still, I personally believe that education and better, more responsible regulation are the things that will really steer the ship of thought back towards the shores of reason. I don’t want to sound as if I do not think the skeptic movement can’t achieve anything at all, that is simply not true. At this point, what we can do as far as one on one discussion just seems painfully limited. There are some great examples of big wins for the grass root skeptics and I am always pleased to see that. With the skeptical movement growing larger and larger every minute, I am hopeful that someday we will be able to finally provide what’s deserved by every human on earth: The ability to question, think and arrive at the best possible conclusion. We need to get back to progress and get people away from this desire to regress back to magical thinking and simple “fill in the blanks with whatever makes you feel good” methods of rationale.

  30. mvoetmannon 19 Mar 2010 at 5:17 pm

    In the beginning of the video, it was funny. Like a satire. He is spitting outrage and foaming at the mouth. “Noth-iiing”.
    But as I watched it through, I started feeling very sad, instead.
    It is obvious, that this is a deeply troubled man, who have chosen you as his target.

  31. Robbon 19 Mar 2010 at 6:07 pm

    I left a comment saying, “As a Jewish person, I’m beyond offended by the title of this video.”

    He rejected the comment and instead me to be his “YouTube Friend”. (!!)

  32. OedipaMaason 19 Mar 2010 at 6:17 pm

    Do you really have a patent medicine doctor’s bag?

  33. llewellyon 20 Mar 2010 at 1:53 am

    He claims I make money from treating patients (while also claiming I don’t see patients).

    Of course. You use the all-seeing all-knowing spy satellites of Big Pharma to diagnose patients remotely.

  34. Janklaason 20 Mar 2010 at 2:22 am

    I may need a little help here. I am conducting a running battle in our local weekend newspaper against homeopathy.

    So far the going has been fairly easy, but it appears that I have now awaken the giant. In today’s newspaper they quote the results of a February article in International Journal of Oncology where it is stated that hoeopathic medicine has been proven to be effective against breat cancer cells.

    In previous letters I have stated that there is no scientific proof that homeopathic medicine is any better than the placebo effect, but this article appears to be from a proper scientific journal. I did note that two of the collabotators on the research were from an Indian centre for homeopathic research, which may indicate some bias (or not!).

    Any comments?

  35. HHCon 20 Mar 2010 at 10:45 am

    Mr. Bennett’s prejudices against medicines actually traces back in history to have a “kernel of truth”. Historically, the root of studying drugs, came from the study of poisons. Many centuries ago, there were work groups of poisoners quite proud of their skills.

  36. DLCon 20 Mar 2010 at 8:51 pm

    Well you see, as Homeopathy has to rely on Water Memory to work, and as the Communist Conspiracy has seen to it that the water has fluoride added, the commies are trying to prevent homeopathy from working properly, because now all water will have the memory of having had fluoride added!
    I see it all so clearly now!
    excuse me while I pull out my blackboard and do some word-circling and letter games. . .
    /nutjob

  37. SquirrelEliteon 20 Mar 2010 at 10:23 pm

    OedipaMaas,

    I don’t know about the “patent medicine doctor’s bag”, but I wouldn’t mind having a “little black bag”, provided it hasn’t been deactivated. Unfortunately,we probably still have a few centuries to go before our medical knowledge reaches that state of sophistication.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Little_Black_Bag

  38. Bronze Dogon 21 Mar 2010 at 1:04 pm

    And here I was, about to make a joke about wanting Henry Killinger’s Magic Murder Bag, but I read the link and feel both out-geeked and out-humaned.

  39. therlingon 21 Mar 2010 at 5:32 pm

    I’d like to laugh at Benneth, but I find it’s actually quite sad and disturbing to see a man who clearly is in need of professional mental help. I can’t imagine anyone would want to be treated for any medical condition by a person who conducts himself in such a manner.

    Benneth has clearly libeled Dr. Novella. However, were he to be sued for this it would likely only add to his feelings of persecution and allow him to play the martyr.

  40. Eternally Learningon 22 Mar 2010 at 11:15 am

    Two things stuck out at me about this article; first, he states that medical mal-practice is what is the 3rd highest cause of death in the USA. This, to me at any rate, is just laughable. “MAL –Practice,” not “Practice.” The “Mal” part means bad, as in not performing medicine in the proper manner. Second, am I the only person who almost Sh** themselves when he said that studies were done at the university of Bologna? I know it’s awfully childish of me, but I couldn’t help myself!

  41. CommiusRexon 23 Mar 2010 at 6:52 am

    @ Eternally Learning

    Not to detract from your main point, but the University of Bologna dates back to 1088 and is the oldest extant university in the world. It’s a shame if such a venerable seat of learning is being perverted by quacks. No-one outside of North America would find anything amusing in the name Bologna, by the way…

  42. Calli Arcaleon 23 Mar 2010 at 1:17 pm

    It is unfortunate for such a fine institution to arouse hilarity when its name is heard by unsuspecting Americans and Canadians, but sadly, inevitable.

    For the sake of readers outside this continent, “baloney” is another word for the meat product known as bologna, which in turn gets its name from the city of Bologna. In certain parts of the word, “baloney” is also a colloquial term for nonsense.

    So while I would not expect to see a fine institution such as the University of Bologna supporting homeopathy, it would seem quite fitting were a fictitious University of Baloney to do so.

  43. Eternally Learningon 23 Mar 2010 at 2:33 pm

    @CommiusRex

    Ok, so only 330 million people would conceivably find that funny as well? I guess I can take that. I certainly meant no disrespect, but I just wasn’t expecting that, and it caught me off guard almost as if he had said that the studies were done at the University of Rubbish. I might also point out that he pronounced it like the meat and not the way I understand it to be pronounced in its native tongue, not to mention the fact that I acknowledged in my comment that I knew I was being childish.

  44. tmac57on 23 Mar 2010 at 3:33 pm

    ET- I guess your “Bologna Detector” has a hair trigger.

  45. Calli Arcaleon 24 Mar 2010 at 11:04 am

    Well, I thought it was funny, Eternally Learning. ;-) No disrespect towards the University of Bologna, and all, but homeopathy is certainly baloney.

  46. NotintheMoodon 27 Mar 2010 at 4:25 pm

    I always wonder . . .if Homeopaths believe that water has memory and dilution makes it stronger, that you have to agitate the water in order to make it work . . . What do they think happens when you flush the toliet?

  47. stardocon 28 Mar 2010 at 3:23 am

    Dr. Steve, you should send Mr. Benneth a single strand of your hair. Fortunate man that you are, you can afford it, and Benneth clearly needs it. He could powder the strand, dissolve some portion of it in water, and then dilute the solution a few billion fold.
    Mr. Benneth could then imbibe a sip of the resultant dihydrogen oxide and and presumably cure himself of the extremely toxic reaction which seems to overwhelm him at the mere mention of your name.
    You would also put the placebo effect to a severe test: If Mr. Benneth failed to improve would that not amount to yet another failure of homeopathy?

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