Oct 30 2014

Homeopathy for Ebola

New Zealand Green MP, Steffan Browning, stepped in it recently when he signed a petition asking the World Health Organization (WHO) to develop and distribute homeopathic remedies to end the Ebola epidemic. Unfortunately this is not an Onion article.

Browning later tried to do damage control by stating that his support of the petition was “unwise” and he blamed it partly on it being late at night when he signed it.

Asked whether he thought homeopathy could cure Ebola, Mr Browning said: “It’s not for me to go down that track at all. The World Health Organisation, world health authorities are doing that.”

This is a common political response. Ask a Republican eyeing national office what they think about global warming or evolution and you might get a similar answer. It is a disingenuous dodge to essentially say, “I’ll let the scientists decide.” when they have already decided. It’s simply a way to stake out a neutral position and not piss anyone off.

Politicians today, however, cannot simply avoid questions of basic scientific literacy. Participating in government requires a civic scientific literacy. This, in fact, is an excellent example why that is the case.

Should we be expending any resources  testing and distributing homeopathic potions to address the Ebola crisis? It doesn’t take much scientific literacy to know that the answer is a clear no. We shouldn’t waste a dime on homeopathy, nor should we test homeopathy on Ebola patients when we could be testing real medicines.

Homeopathy is 100% nonsense. It is a pre-scientific belief system that runs contrary to many areas of basic science. Its potions follow rules more akin to witchcraft than science, and are essentially fairy dust diluted out of existence. Further, when tested in clinical trials, homeopathy simply does not work.

The problem is that today’s homeopaths are essentially pseudoscientists. They are doing it wrong (profoundly so) but don’t realize it or don’t care. They cherry-pick weak studies, use terrible trial design, and ignore the well-controlled trials that are negative. Because double-blind trials don’t give them the results they want, they increasingly rely on less rigorous studies or studies that are not even designed to test efficacy.

They also point to preliminary studies looking at the properties of water, mostly showing extremely transient effects, and then argue that this means water has “memory” that could contain complex biological information and survive the process of serial dilution, placement on a sugar pill, storage, ingestion, digestion, absorption, and transportation in the body. This is like building a skyscraper out of gelatin, and I’m not so sure the gelatin isn’t really just water.

As an example of their grasping at any straw, the cite historical data to claim that homeopathic treatments are effective in epidemics.  The cases they cite, often more than 100 years old, are essentially the anecdotes recorded by homeopaths. Forgive me if I am not impressed by the scientific rigor of a 19th century homeopath. This data is, to put it briefly, utterly useless, but this is really the best homeopaths have. I would also point out that mainstream medicine was quite useless, even harmful, in the 19th century, and so comparing yourself to this standard is also not very helpful.

As I always like to point out when discussing such topics – this is an example of the harm that pseudoscience in medicine does. I am frequently asked why we should not tolerate unscientific treatments like homeopathy if they make people feel better. First, this is begging the question. The evidence shows they don’t make people feel better beyond transient and illusory placebo effects.

But more importantly, tolerating pseudoscience in medicine is an insidious and pernicious thing. Tolerate magical treatments for symptomatic relief of self-limiting problems, and the infrastructure of nonsense you allow to thrive will then want to waste time and resources trying to treat a deadly infectious disease with their magic potions.

They will also convince cancer patients who have a very good chance of survival with modern treatments to choose their nonsense instead, resulting in the needless progression of the cancer and often a horrible and painful death.

Browning and other politicians need to do better. Sometimes they do, as with the UK parliament that reviewed the evidence for homeopathy and concluded that it was “witchcraft” and a complete waste of government resources. Politicians shouldn’t just say they will defer to scientists as a way of dodging a question they perceive as controversial. They should actually listen to scientists.

Homeopathy is not controversial. It is clearly unscientific and worthless. No politician should be afraid to say so plainly.

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