This is the latest column for Humanitie, the magazine for the Humanist Society of Scotland. Be sure to read it alongside Tim’s contribution at the Friendly Humanist. A quick note for anyone who has the paper copy – our names got switched around in the printing process so Tim’s column is under my name and vice versa, but I can assure you that I wrote this one.
During the recent 10:23 campaign, over 400 skeptics (I spell it with a ‘k’ because otherwise it looks like septic) took an overdose of homeopathic pills, as a way to show the British public what homeopathy actually is: water.
Homeopathy fails on just about every count. It makes no sense that something that causes a condition should also cure it. Some say this law –and I use the term loosely – would never have been conceived of if Samuel Hahnemann, the creator of homeopathy, didn’t have an allergy to cinchona. It’s absurd that a remedy becomes more potent the more diluted it is. It’s far-fetched that water retains the signature of a substance that’s been in contact with it by performing the magic ritual of bashing it against a leather-bound Bible. It’s laughable that such a signature could be transferred to a sugar pill simply by dripping the remedy onto it. And even if all of this could be shown to be true, that’s the easy part! They would still have to prove that these remedies are effective, not just above the placebo effect, but above the effects of other medicines used to treat the same conditions. Proving yourself in a well-constructed placebo-controlled trial shows only the most basic level of effectiveness, and homeopathic remedies can’t even do that.
But here’s my beef with homeopathy. I don’t mind that the water isn’t magic or even that it’s horrendously overpriced. My biggest problem is that they’re allowed to advertise their water as effective when the evidence shows no such thing. There are only a few things that homeopathic remedies can treat: thirst is one of them, and wealth is another.
I could, if I wanted to, walk into a shop and buy some bleach, go home and drink it. But it would say clearly on the packaging that it was harmful, it would be my own fault. People are buying homeopathic remedies thinking that they’ll work because that’s what’s implied on the packaging and that’s what they’ve been told by homeopaths. We can’t blame them for that. Ben Goldacre writes in Bad Science that he sees homeopathy as a tax on scientific illiteracy, and I disagree wholeheartedly. It would be like blaming someone who got onto a dodgy plane because they were too scientifically illiterate to know enough about aerodynamics. It’s not wrong to be ignorant, as long as it’s not wilful ignorance. If people know what homeopathy is and how it’s supposed to work, and they still buy it, then it’s their own fault and I hope they pay through the nose for it, but if they’re buying it because they’ve been duped by false advertising, then it’s the manufacturer’s fault. So none of this ‘traditionally used to treat’ malarkey, let’s make it so that the packaging for homeopathic remedies must say in no uncertain terms that there is no active ingredient and that the best evidence shows that it doesn’t work. That’s why the 10:23 campaign was so necessary.