Nov 15 2012

Homeopathic Logic

Homeopathic logic is real logic that has been diluted into non-existence. The solvent is bias and propaganda. I was recently pointed to an excellent example of this – an article written by a homeopath arguing that homeopathy is superior to modern medicine. It’s published in what appears to be an obscure rag, but it does represent common arguments put forth by homeopaths so it doesn’t really matter.

Here is the main point of the article:

There are many differences in both the disciplines of medicines. Let’s just focus on one main difference and that is the fact that none of the homeopathic medicines introduced during the last two hundred and fifty years was withdrawn from the market.

The author, Asghar Ali Shah, uses the term, “allopathy” throughout the article. This is a derogatory term used mainly by critics of science-based medicine, and immediately reveals the author’s bias. In the statement above he is also trying to present homeopathy and mainstream medicine as two “disciplines of medicines,” which is a false equivalency. This is a common tactic of fringe beliefs, to appear as a viable alternative to the mainstream, followed, of course, by arguments for its superiority.

Homeopathy, however, is a prescientific superstition that is at odds with basic science, and not just medicine but physics, chemistry, and biology.

Ali Shah’s argument is that real medicine has side effects, and sometimes need to be pulled from the market, while homeopathic potions do not have side effects and are never withdrawn. Ironically, he is actually making an argument for that fact homeopathic products are both worthless and not science-based.

Homeopathic products (mostly – some products labeled homeopathic may have active ingredients) do not have side effects because they do not have any effects. Most are diluted well past the point of having any active ingredient. What is left is ultimately just a sugar pill – a pure placebo.

Homeopathy is based upon the delusion that you can administer an intervention in the body without any risks or possibility of an unintended effect. No matter what you do to the body, no matter how benign it may seem, there is always the potential for risk. Interventions are judged based upon their risk vs benefit profile, not the absurd criterion of having zero risk. The only interventions that have zero risk are those that have zero benefit, which is certainly the case for homeopathy.

Ali Shah then launches into a list of drugs that were originally approved but then withdrawn from the market. Ironically he starts with thalidomide, which was never approved in the US. The list, it seems, is meant to scare the reader with the dangers of medications. Ali Shah does not understand how such harmful medications can make it to the market in the first place. He concludes that this is not science, but he only displays his ignorance of science (reinforcing the perception that homeopathy is a pseudoscience).

Real drugs have to go through an elaborate and expensive series of studies before they will be approved by the FDA (or most other regulatory agencies). The drugs need to demonstrate that they have a dose range over which they are reasonably safe (not free of side effects or risk), and that they have a specific clinical benefit for a specific disease. Typically during this process the candidate drug will be studied in thousands of subjects.

When a popular drug hits the market, however, it may be taken by tens of thousands to millions of people. Risks and side effects that were not apparent during the pre-market trials may then appear when given to orders of magnitude more people. This is why drugs continue to be monitored even after they are on the market. When problems appear they are reviewed. Sometimes the drugs are left on the market but new warnings or information are added so that doctors can prescribe them safely or properly monitor patients on the drug. Sometimes they are withdrawn entirely from the market.

If anyone thinks they have a better system for testing, approving, and monitoring drugs, I would like to hear it. There is essentially no way to do enough research so that no drug is ever withdrawn from the market.

This is not to say that there are no problems with pharmaceutical companies’ behavior. They are in the business of making money and over the years have been very creative in working the system. That is exactly why we need to have careful regulations, close monitoring of the entire process, and independent studies when possible. We need to have as much transparency as possible, and independent academics need to make sure that drug research is legitimate and is following the proper rules of science. This will always be a work in progress.

The fact that many drugs are withdrawn from the market, however, is evidence that the system works, at least to a degree. If the system were entirely corrupt or incompetent, why would so many drugs be withdrawn, and why would so many drugs not make it through the system in the first place? If no drug was ever pulled from the market, that would be evidence of a failing system.

Ali Shah, however, goes for the Big Pharma conspiracy mongering:

The reason behind this frequent withdrawal of medicines is that these are introduced not to serve humanity but to earn more and more. Medicines production and marketing have become a big business worldwide. Pharmaceutical companies fund research in medicines because of their own monetary considerations.

I don’t think he has really thought his argument through. He characterized homeopathy this way:

Homeopathic medicines, however, are not given directly to the patients. They are first tested on healthy human volunteers before being given to the patients. They work along with the body’s own defense mechanism. Homeopathy treats the whole person and not just the part as mind and body influence each other and imbalance in one system causes imbalance in the other. Besides, homeopathic medicines are highly diluted substances and without any side-effects.

The first point is a false dichotomy. He is implying that medicines are given to patients without being tested? What world is he living in? The reality is, as I described above, there are many human trials before a drug is approved.  Homeopathic products, on the other hand, (at least in the US) are not required to provide any scientific evidence of safety or effectiveness before they can be marketed. They are essentially pre-approved (thanks to a homeopath senator, Royal Copeland,  who was in charge of writing the 1938  FDA act). The fact is – homeopathic remedies are not tested scientifically at all prior to being on the market. To the extent that they have been tested, they don’t work. There is also no meaningful post-marketing monitoring, as there is with real medicine. In any case, homeopathic potions are nothing but placebos, so the whole thing is pseudoscience theater anyway.

Ali Shah throws in the standard propaganda about homeopathy being holistic and “treating the whole person.” This, of course, is nonsense. Homeopathic ideas are not holistic at all. They do not take into account any real knowledge of biology, physiology, or biochemistry. There is no evidence or plausible mechanism by which they can have any effect on the bodies “defense mechanisms” (which itself is never really clearly defined).


Homeopathy is pure pseudoscience and its potions are just placebos.  Proponents cannot defend homeopathy with scientific arguments or evidence for efficacy (although some try, to humorous effect). Instead they propagate a misunderstanding of how science works and the current practice and regulation of science-based medicine. While their potions may be mostly harmless because they are just sugar pills, the scientific illiteracy and distrust of science-based medicine promoted by homeopaths is anything but harmless.

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