Regular readers may be getting more than a little sick of this topic but I’ve been thinking about it a lot the past week or so. Today I’ve had discussions (arguments?) with several people on it, and it’s been good to question my own thoughts. Firstly, one person claimed that it works, and when I brought up all the studies that show it doesn’t, retorted to “it does for some people”. Hmm…
The second conversation was much better. One of my friends said she uses homeopathic remedies and doesn’t care if it’s just the placebo effect (it was in fact her that brought the placebo effect up, not me). She was unaware of just how diluted the remedies are, and seemed a bit less sure of it when I told her it’s really just water, but nevertheless it is a valid objection. Even if we assume it’s just the placebo effect, what does it matter? As long as it works, why do we care? What’s the big objection, and why don’t we use placebos more in conventional medicine, if they’re so effective? Here’s my response:
1. The standard objection is that there are trust and integrity issues with a doctor issuing homeopathy/placebos in place of real medicine. Apparently, though, there is limited evidence that placebos can be effective even when the patient is told it’s a placebo. So this is only a partial objection.
2. Homeopathy/placebo only treats the symptoms. This is highly ironic, since this is the same objection put forward by homeopaths about conventional medicine (apparently homeopathy cures your illness on the mental plane, which is the real root cause of your illness – so basically they mistake an illness for symptoms of some bigger mystery, really scientific). So whilst the symptoms may be reduced via the placebo effect, the underlying cause (virus, bacterium, foreign body, whatever) would still be there, the problem isn’t solved. However, if the problem is just pain from something like arthritis, or a cold, or something which’ll go away on it’s own and isn’t really a serious problem, then if the remedy/placebo speeds up the process or reduces the pain, where’s the problem? It’s not leaving any underlying cause untreated. I suppose what I mean is that if the illness itself isn’t a problem, just its symptoms, then what’s the problem just treating the symptoms? So this is still only a partial objection.
3. Placebos are much much cheaper than conventional medicine. This may seem like a strong point for homeopathy, but it’s not. People spend very good money paying homeopathists to listen to their problems and prescribe these remedies which costs much more than what it essentially is: tapwater. They’re ripping people off, whether they think they are or not. Argubly the same objection can be used against conventional medicine, but I’m not trying to defend CM, some conventional practices are disgusting, I’m objecting to homeopathy.
4. Homeopathy works through the placebo effect, but that’s not how it’s marketed. Allowing homeopaths to market it as something other than what it is is ethically unsound, and promotes bad science. Maybe I wouldn’t have such a big problem with it being a placebo if it was marketed as one, or if it wasn’t marketed as something else. This is kind of linked to no. 1, but I want to place particular emphasis on the fact that I disagree with lies and bad science being peddled to the public.
5. Remember that conventional medicine makes good use of the placebo effect too, in addition to its real medicinal properties.
6. The use of homeopathic remedies to prevent disease puts lives at risk. This example from BBC’s Newsnight shows homeopaths prescribing anti-malaria remedies in place of conventional drugs, people going off to malaria zones and coming back with malaria. Relying on placebos in general is a bad idea.
I think these three posts give a pretty comprehensive insight into my thoughts on homeopathy, but I look forward to Homeopathy 4 when I’ve thought some more about it tomorrow.
EDIT: Hmm… food for thought. If you took a placebo/homeopathic remedy side-by-side with conventional medicine, would the placebo effect reduce pain/suffering further?