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 thisĀ  – 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.


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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