Dec 12 2007

Homeopathy Apologetics from Dana Ullman

In this stunningly absurd article Dana Ullman summarizes his new book: The Homeopathic Revolution. He begins with a bit of revisionist history by which he accuses the medical profession of revisionist history-making. He writes:

Historians commonly remark that whichever country wins a war or whichever worldview dominates another, the history is told through that country’s perspective or that dominant point of view. This is certainly true in the history of medicine.

The notion that what is accepted in modern medicine as scientific is the result of spoils having gone to the victors is positively post-modern. Ullman argues that mainstream medicine won a culture war against homeopathy and now uses its dominance to suppress homeopathy. The argument defies the history of science itself.

It is certainly true that cultural contingency has played a role in the history of science, but never-the-less that history is dominated by the survival of ideas that are scientifically valid over those that are not. We accept relativity today and not the ether not because Einstein won some political popularity contest over his predecessors, but because the theory of the ether failed to account for experimental data, and the theory of relativity (both special and general) made predictions that so far have turned out to be true.

I will acknowledge that over the very short term power and resources are an advantage. The old guard may impede the overturning of one idea and the acceptance of a competing idea. But this has never been true in the long term – a new generation of scientists always comes up to overthrow the old guard and bring in new ideas. Also, over the last few centuries of science, scientific progress has accelerated to the point that ideas no longer have much of an opportunity to calcify into place. The “long term” advantage of being a better scientific theory is becoming shorter and shorter term all the time.

Homeopaths like Ullman, however, having lost the scientific war of ideas over the last 200 years are trying to rewrite history to claim that their defeat was not a scientific one but one of culture and power. Nonsense.

Homeopathy – the child of Samuel Hahnemann, was based upon many ideas that were never vindicated by science. Hahnemann believed that substances became more potent when diluted, that they could be diluted without limit and without losing their chemical activity, that the body would not permit two substances that cause the same symptoms to exist at the same time thereby allowing for “like to cure like”, and that superficial personality characteristics determined biological function. All of these notions were contradicted by the later developments in chemistry, biology, physiology, and medicine. Science has moved past Hahnemann just as much as it has moved past the ether, animal magnetism and N-rays.

In fact, ironically given Ullman’s ludicrous claims, it is only cultural inertia that allows homeopathy to survive at all. If homeopathy had to fend for itself in the free market of ideas and meritocracy of science, it would be gone tomorrow.

Next Ullman tries to ridicule the mainstream criticisms of homeopathy, but only manages to either attack straw men or completely misrepresent homeopathy in order to defend it. For example:

The fact that homeopaths interview a patient to discover his or her unique symptoms has been spun to make homeopathy seem like a quirky system that revels in inane facts about a patient. However, the detailed symptoms and characteristics of the patient that homeopaths collect may seem inane only to people who are not familiar with the unique and critical nature of these individualizing features of each person. Homeopathy provides a sophisticated method by which a patient’s characteristics are applied to selecting and prescribing the most effective homeopathic medicine.

There is no spin here -homeopathy does “revel in inane facts about a patient.” I wonder why Ullman does not mention or defend any specific “inane fact” – I suspect that is because in so doing he would reveal his position to be nonsensical and to justify homeopathy’s critics.

For example a homeopathic history may include the question: “How does music affect you? What type of music do you listen to?” or “How do you stand and react to contradiction?” Homeopaths would have us believe (under the highly marketable banner of “holism”) that such inane facts are necessary in order to know which homeopathic remedy is best to treat your headaches. What is the basic science behind such claims? Zippo. Doesn’t this contradict the notion of like cure like? Yes, but this is homeopathy – don’t ask too many nasty “reductionist” questions.

Ullman’s follows with a rant against mainstream medicine – which is nothing more than a logical fallacy (tu quoque, or you too) intended to be a distraction from the real issues: that the evidence strongly shows that homeopathy does not work and that there is no scientific justification for any of the claims of homeopathy.

Utterly predictably, Ullman goes after Big Pharma, writing:

There is big big money to be made in drug sales, and brilliant marketing has led too many of us to ignore or excuse this bully side of medicine.

Right – the pharmaceutical industry is a business. Ullman also quotes extensively of Marcia Angell, who is also critical of the pharmaceutical industry. However, he takes Angell out of context – she is largely criticizing the industry from a liberal political perspective, arguing that it should be nationalized. This is a political fight about how best to organize healthcare – not about science. And of course, Angell is highly criticized from the libertarian right (such as by Elizabeth Whelan), who very nicely defends the pharmaceutical industry without being an apologist for it. Ullman doesn’t quote Whelan, however.

In short, Ullman is exploiting a political fight about the industry and misrepresenting that to argue that drugs don’t work. He writes;

Sadly and strangely, physicians do not see that there is something fundamentally wrong with the present medical model. Instead, once an old drug is found to be ineffective or dangerous, doctors and drug companies simply assert the “scientifically proven” efficacy of a new drug.

Ullman is arguing (like so many pseudoscientists do) that the fact that homeopathy is using the same treatments as it did 200 years ago is a virtue, and that drugs do not work because old drugs are always being found to be ineffective or dangerous. This is a complete distortion, however.

It is patently not true that older drugs are found to be ineffective as a rule. I prescribe many drugs that are decades old and still work quite well – non-steroidal anti-inflammatories, penicillins, tricyclic anti-depressants, ergotamines, the classic anti-seizure drugs, etc. The list of drugs that have been around for decades and are still considered efficacious is long.

Ullman, however, is misinterpreting the fact that newer drugs are often improvements on older drugs – they are more effective and/or have fewer side effects. This does not mean the older drugs don’t work or are toxic – it just means the newer drugs are better. Ullman’s statements are so willfully absurd that any reasonable practicing physician could not take them seriously.

Because Ullman cannot plausibly argue that homeopathy is scientific (although this never stops a homeopath) he must try to drag down modern medicine and claim that it too is not scientific. He writes:

Modern medicine uses the double-blind and placebo-controlled trial as the gold standard by which effectiveness of a treatment is determined. On the surface, this scientific method is very reasonable. However, serious problems in these studies are widely acknowledged by academics but remain unknown to the general public. Fundamental questions about the meaning of the word “efficacy” are rarely, if ever, raised.

It’s not just reasonable on the surface, it pretty good in practice also. Of course there are many limitations to clinical trials in practice – they are only as good as the methods used, results are often difficult to interpret or contradictory, and many studies have significant design flaws. This is why we interpret the literature, not a single study, and often a medical question has to evolve in the literature until truly reliable studies are done.

He says that questions of efficacy are rarely considered. As someone who has sat in a room with researchers all discussing how to design upcoming trials, this statement strikes me as childishly naive. In my experience clinical researches agonize over the question of how to measure efficacy. For example, in one of my areas of clinical research, ALS, the research community has looked at dozens of outcome measures trying to figure out how best to measure efficacy. In fact, each trial is not just a test of the specific treatment but a test of how to best do clinical trials for ALS. It is a central question that is endlessly debated and tweaked. “Rarely, if ever, raised.” What world is Ullman living in?

In the end Ullman’s article, like all of his writing about homeopathy and modern medicine, is just silly. He attacks a cartoon charicature of modern medicine, crafted for ideological purposes. His statements about the history, science, and practice of medicine are so at odds with reality that anyone directly familiar with scientific medicine is justified in ignoring and dismissing his ramblings for what they are – an ideological distraction from scientific reality.

The article is also an excellent example demonstrating that homeopaths have no interest in genuinely engaging with mainstream medicine. You cannot engage in honest discussion with someone who’s views you so thoroughly distort and misrepresent. What homeopaths apparently want, as Ullman demonstrates, is a change of venue. They want to reframe the conflict between scientific medicine and homeopathy so that it is not about science (since they have already lost the scientific war) but about culture, politics, and ideology. That’s the fight they want, because in that venue lies and distortions are an advantage, and homeopaths are much better at that than scientists who are dedicated to honesty and transparency.


Orac’s take on Ullman’s article

14 responses so far

14 thoughts on “Homeopathy Apologetics from Dana Ullman”

  1. DLC says:

    Bumper sticker ideas:

    Homeopathy — the famous solution of zero.
    Homeopathy — it’s a Zero-Sum game.
    Homeopathy — It’s so easy, there’s Nothing To It.

    Unfortunately this Non-Science Non-Sense will be with us until we manage to teach the basics of chemistry in the 4th grade, and keep hammering the point home. It would also help if we could get the FDA to ban any and all treatments or supplements that cannot show a positive effect above that of a placebo, on the level of confidence you expressed in your podcast of 11/28/2007.

    I know — it’s wishful thinking. . .

  2. daijiyobu says:

    Re: “a cartoon caricature of modern medicine.”

    The biggest distortion / strawman I can think of that CAM {particularly homeopathy, and specifically naturopathy, which requires huge amounts of homeopathy} gets away with all the time, to the extent that even medical doctors of this modern era now can be found to use the term, is labeling modern medicine allopathy and modern medicine’s practitioners allopaths.

    It is what I call CAM’s false ‘reverse sectarian accusation.’ Allopathy, of course, is a philosophical position and in that sense, it is an accusation of interpretive bias / sectic taint / narrowmindedness.

    Modern medicine though, looks to as I call it ‘the things themselves,’ in terms of scientific evidence and science is, properly as a methodology, a generator of provisional & objective evidence.


  3. HCN says:

    I saw a link to this book while checking out the UK blogs dealing with homeopathy, so I am kind of spamming with this comment today. I found this somewhere on Paul Wilson’s Hawk/Handsaw blog:

    I think I now understand the rank stubbornness and refusal to answer simple questions. Here are some select quotes:

    “The real importance of the miasm theory, it seems to me, is the insight it gives into Hahnemann’s character. We shall not understand the man unless we realize that for him, homeopathy was much more than a mere medical theory; it was a divine revelation. I am not exaggerating here. We know from his own writings that the idea of homeopathy came to him as the solution to a religious dilemma.”


    “But whose authority are we to acknowledge? Presumably Hahnemann’s; but surely Hahnemann was a man, and therefore no more exempt from error than other men? Not so, Kent implies, for Hahnemann had discovered a divinely ordained law. Homeopathy is an inspired science, which is the only true kind of science; all the rest is mere opinion. It is therefore not merely foolish but actually impious to question Hahnemann. By implication it is also impious to question Kent.”

    The key quote is “Homeopathy is an inspired science, which is the only true kind of science; all the rest is mere opinion.”

    So in reality, homeopathy is more like a religion than a kind of medicine. There is no reasoning with someone who is invested in this kind of religion. This is why we cannot get straight answers to anything that goes counter to their beliefs, like the actual amount of substance in a 30C remedy. It is much like asking a creationist how Noah managed to fit two of all this planet’s animals on an ark, and then place them all back where they belong (llamas in the Americas, giraffes in Africa), because the answer will always be “God didit”.

  4. Annemieke says:

    “If homeopathy had to fend for itself in the free market of ideas and meritocracy of science, it would be gone tomorrow”

    I am really curious why you say that.
    Is it because you think the homeopathic principles are not powerful enough to survive? Is it because you think their marketing skills are not good enough?
    Or is it because you think they lack innovation?

  5. Annemieke,

    Out of the choices you offered- homeopathic principles are not only “not powerful enough” they are non-existent. The “meritocracy of science” means that ideas are tested against reality and only those that work survive. Homeopathic ideas have no relationship to reality, they are scientifically dead.

    Homeopathy survives through marketing and using cultural and political avenues to circumvent science – to change the rules. Doing an end-run around science in order to sell nonsense to the public does not serve society, it only serves the profits of those who sell homeopathy.

  6. daijiyobu says:

    Re: HCN quoting Campbell per homeopathy’s knowledge as achieved via divine revelation…

    I don’t think there is a more powerful ‘science-stopper’ than claiming that most utmost of subjective absolutes.

  7. superdave says:

    1) The quotes you pulled from Ullman’s article are literally laughable.

    2 ) As you have brought up in the podcast, the holistic vs. non holistic argument is non existent. Except in very obvious cases, like when I broke my hand, just about every doctor I have been to has always asked basic questions about my diet or stress levels.

    3) I think the ether is the perfect topic to bring up to any pseudo-scientist because it was a concept that was basically unanimously agreed upon by science and in a very short amount of time was completely abandoned when evidence against it mounted. It proves without a doubt that science is willing to accept contradictory notions when there is proof.

  8. daedalus2u says:

    Actually it took a long time for some to abandon the ether. Millikan didn’t accept the quantum explanation for the photoelectric effect for decades. Even when it was his own data that gave the strongest support for it and had already convinced virtually everyone else.

    But Millikan was intellectually honest, and reported his data as he measured it, not as he wished it to be.

    The source of a hypothesis is irrelevant to how well that hypothesis fits the data and how well it corresponds to reality. The original idea for the structure of the benzene ring came in a dream about a snake catching its tail. Of course if benzene were not actually a ring, a dream about a snake catching its tail would have been a useless distraction, not a source of revelation.

  9. Freddy the Pig says:

    daijiyobu – As far as I know Allopathy is actually early Nineteenth Century medicine (which was not much different from medieval medicine) – bleeding, calomel (which contained mercury), the 4 humors etc. Homeopathy probably was better than allopathy since the homeopath did nothing to you (other than lighten your wallet) while the allopath actively tried to kill you.

    The current use of the term Allopath to describe scientific medicine goes beyond a straw man to being outright slander.

  10. decius says:

    Thanks to mr. Ullman for the clarification: the usage of fraudulent rhetorical tactics -akin to those employed by the ideologues of creationism and ID- empower us to discern the merely deluded quacks from the wilfully malicious charlatans. Therefore, we can henceforth count him among the latter, with no fear of hurting his precious feelings.

    I commend you, Steve, for devoting so much of your time to stem such seemingly unstoppable cascades of cognitive dung, propelled by sheer dishonesty and, arguably, greed.

Leave a Reply