Homeopathy 3

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?

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10 Responses to Homeopathy 3

  1. Gareth says:

    I imagine it would depend on the kind of placebo. If you were given real medicine in pill form, but also injected with a placebo (or opened up on the operating table, without any real surgery taking place), you’d probably improve faster. Different kinds of placebo work faster than others.

    I think one other thing is worth adding on homeopathy — a few people I’ve spoken to who’ve been treated by homeopaths comment on how much more pleasant the experience is. The clinics seem less clinical, and the homeopaths seem to take a much greater interest in the patient, asking a lot more questions about their life in general. This, at least, is what I’m told, though it may vary from homeopath to homeopath.

    This, of course,bolsters the placebo effect: people get a greater sense that the homeopath has come to a deep understanding of what’s wrong with them and how to treat them. It’s easy to say that this is something conventional doctors should try to emulate. And to an extent they should; but it’s a bit unfair. They have far more patients, and far more paperwork — there’s just not enough time to make each patient feel special in the same way.

    But is there any way they could?

  2. Deena Mills says:

    I just wanted to check in and let you know that I’m really enjoying your homeopathy posts. It’s very interesting to read about your skeptical foray into this subject.

    One thing that occurred to me when I first learned just how dilluted homeopathic remedies are was this: if water has a memory, then wouldn’t every single drop of tapwater be a homeopathic remedy for every ailment? I mean, there is only so much water (and its composite elements) on the planet and it has been around for a long time so wouldn’t every molecule of water have come into contact with just about every other type of molecule there is at some point?

  3. grammarking says:

    Cheers Deena,

    I’ve heard this before, particularly over on think humanism (IIRC the exact quote was “why doesn’t it remember Isaac Newton’s faeces”), but I don’t think it’s relevant. The claim made by homeopathists is that the process of succussion and dilution is what imprints the energy signal onto the water. Now all the water in the world may have been in contact with a lot of stuff, but I doubt most of it’s been “succussed” with a lot of stuff, depending on what counts as succussion. So although it’s obviously a load of rubbish, it’s kind of a moot point. That said, if you can count just a bit of a shakeup as succussion, then you’re absolutely right.

  4. Alan Henness says:

    This succussed thing is interesting (sort of!). What Hahnemann stated was that successive dilutions had to be succussed by striking the test tube (or whatever) sharply against a leather pad filled with horsehair – nothing else would do! He claimed it was this that imparted the memory into the water (although I suspect this was only made up later as he had no idea of the molecular structure of water in his day!).

    He had done no experiment to work out how many times were necessary, nor the force required – there was no science involved. So, is it likely that water, being sloshed around in a river and battered against rocks or waves crashing against a shore would cause the same effect? What is it about his horsehair pad that is so special that that, and that alone, imparts the memory of the one chemical he intends and no other? Remember also that no water is pure and you can be sure that the purveyors of homoeopathic preparations won’t be using the most pure water they can find, nor will they be using the most sterile of containers…

    Even with the purest of silica glass, there will still be dissolved atoms of silicon and other contaminants that get succussed at the same time as the intended chemical. What do they do?

    There are so many things that are just so improbable: the Law of similars, the Law of infinitessimals, the Law of sucussion and none of these stand up to any scientific scrutiny.

    However, if you really want to hear first hand from a homoepath, why not read the posts by Nanck Malik (a homoeopath in India) here: http://www.thinkhumanism.com/phpBB3/viewtopic.php?f=14&t=2229. Some of it will amaze you.

  5. Alan Henness says:

    The quackomoter is a good site. They have a thread about ‘The Society of Homeopaths: The Failure of Self Regulation’ at http://www.quackometer.net/blog/2008/10/society-of-homeopaths-failure-of-self.html.

    Also, David Colquhoun website, DC’s Improbable Science at http://dcscience.net/ has some interesting articles on homoeopathy including ‘Hahnemann would have thought modern homeopaths were barmy’ (http://dcscience.net/?p=243) and several on universities offering courses on quackery.

  6. Erlend says:

    What is the problem with homeopathy?
    If people want water instead of medicine, let them do so..

    Ouh, I just had a great idea, I should start selling homeopathic medicine.. BUT!! my medicine would not be tap water.. it would be FROZEN water! the crystal like grid of the ice would act as a energy absorber, channeling all sorts of fancy energies directly into the cells..

    To bad I’m too honest to actually do it.. I’m sure it would be a hit 😦

  7. Colin says:

    I think this is a great summary of homeopathy…good thoughts…it is wierd that a placebo can be marketed as more than that…
    Have you looked at other forms of Alternative Medicine, i’d like to hear your thoughts on accupuncture, as far as i’ve heard its based on meridians which again cannot be proved scientifically…

  8. grammarking says:

    Thanks Colin. I haven’t really looked into acupuncture at all. I’ve had people recommend it to me but not having done any research I couldn’t comment. I would presume, however, that it’s just a kind of surgical placebo, until proved otherwise. If you go over to the think humanism forums (links above, or on the blogroll I think) there are threads on complementary therapies there.

  9. grammarking says:

    Colin, I’ve been linked to this article on acupuncture. It doesn’t cite many studies but it looks quite good.

    http://www.skeptic.com/eskeptic/08-10-08.html

  10. […] in healthcare is a bad thing. But if anyone is thinking about this in a bit more depth, I have a post on this blog about why we shouldn’t allow homeopathy to claim efficacy, even if we know it’s a […]

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