May 04 2015

Homeopathic Rant

Every now and then we get a public peek into the mind of a crank or pseudoscientist. This is not to say that they don’t utter complete nonsense often, but usually in public they try to put a sanitized and rational face on their quackery. An unfiltered rant can be refreshing and illuminating.

Recently a homeopath, Mary English, wrote such a public rant against Simon Singh, who is a science communicator and promoter of rationality. What has English so riled is the fact that Singh is threatening to sue the National Health Service (NHS) for wasting taxpayer money by funding homeopathy.

Singh is an open critic of so-called alternative medicine. He has written about homeopathy before, explaining why it is complete unscientific lunacy. He famously was sued by the British Chiropractic Association for daring to say that they embrace “bogus” therapies (because they do).  He works for a charity, the Good Thinking Society, which has challenged the UK powers-that-be to reconsider their support of homeopathy:

In February 2015, The Good Thinking Society, working with Bindmans LLP, wrote to Liverpool CCG (Clinical Commissioning Group) in order to highlight and challenge the CCG’s decision to approve spending on homeopathic treatments – a decision we believe to be unlawful, and contrary to the best interest of local patients. In April 2015, Liverpool CCG conceded our challenge and agreed to make a fresh decision on the issue.

He and his colleagues are doing good work. They are also on very solid ground when it comes to homeopathy. As I have explained many times before, homeopathy is a 200 year old pre-scientific magic-based philosophy of treatment. It cannot possibly work (without rewriting some basic laws of physics and chemistry) and the clinical evidence shows that it does not work. Further, the UK government itself reviewed homeopathy and produced a thorough report in which they said the same. They concluded homeopathy is witchcraft that should receive no government support.

Politicians, however, failed to adhere to the advice given in their own review. This, to me, seems like a pretty solid case for calling the government out on their continued support of this failed and dangerous pseudoscience.

In my experience, homeopaths and fans of homeopathy simply cannot understand this position. The fact that seemingly intelligent science-promoters sharply criticize homeopathy must cause them some cognitive dissonance. They resolve that dissonance by finding ways to dismiss the opinions of homeopathy’s critics. Their typical arguments are: they don’t have direct experience with homeopathy, they are not proper experts, they are closed-minded or just mean, or they are shills for “Big Pharma.” They do it so much, in fact, that these strategies are becoming more and more transparent, especially playing the “shill card.”

Mary English gives us an excellent example of all of these strategies, in a somewhat childish rant that exposes them quite well. For a bit of further background, English is not only a homeopath, she is an astrologer and specialist in “Indigo children.” (This is an excellent example of “crank magnetism” – if you believe one form of nonsense, you are probably vulnerable to every form of nonsense.)

Let’s get right to the money quote:

If you get your evil way, you will put out of business the three remaining homeopathic hospitals, who do REALLY good work with clients/patients that CAN’T be helped by conventional medicine.

Bollocks to rationality, you shouldn’t use it when it comes to discussing people’s health.

She believes that rationality has nothing to do with health care. That comment really speaks for itself, but let me explore it a bit. This is not an uncommon belief among promoters of alternative medicine, although they express it in many different ways. They will often say they know that a treatment works because they have “seen it work” – an appeal to anecdotal evidence above more rigorous forms of evidence. They say that they don’t need science to know if a treatment works. They don’t have to know how a treatment works (even if it seems to break basic laws of physics). They will make unscientific statements such as – who are you going to believe, people or numbers on a page (referring to published studies).

These are all anti-scientific, anti-intellectual, and anti-rationality sentiments, just expressed in various ways. English at least cuts to the heart of it by rejecting rationality outright.  To illustrate further, she writes:

People want compassion, care, warmheartedness, mindfulness, helpfulness….and various other emotional help when they’re ill, not ‘rational debate’….since when did rational enquiry ever fix a broken leg, or repair a heart attack or sort out someone’s depression, or ME or ADHD, or make them feel better or recover?

Yes, people want compassion. You know what else they want? Treatments that actually work. It’s true they don’t usually care what philosophy (science or otherwise) the treatments are based on, they just want effective treatments for their health problems. A 2012 survey found that 65-79% of people endorsed various phrases expressing that they want their medical treatments to be based on standards and scientific evidence, such as:

“What medical science shows about each option’s benefits and risks.” (71%)

Also, the statement, “since when did rational enquiry ever fix a broken leg…” is just precious. Rational scientific enquiry is responsible for all of the medical advances we have made over the last century.

The fact is, people want and expect that health care will be based on some objective transparent standard, and that can only mean a scientific standard. That is, in fact, what we have, or at least aspire to. People assume health products have been tested. They assume licensed health professionals are not witch-doctors.

All Simon Singh, the other good people at the Good Thinking Society and other similar organizations, including my own science-based medicine, are trying to do is hold regulatory agencies to their own stated missions. We want one science-based standard of care. The FDA should regulate homeopathy like the law tasks them to do (and hopefully they are on the verge of doing so). The UK should abandon homeopathy, as their own review advises them to do.

What promoters of pseudoscience want is a double standard, or no standard. They pretend this is about being compassionate, but that is simply not true. True compassion toward patients requires due diligence to ensure that you are doing what is best for them. That means holding yourself to some objective standard.

Simply dispensing your own personal belief system, and denigrating any attempt to impose a science-based standard, is selfish and self-indulgent. It is not compassionate.


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