There has been no doubt in my mind for a long time that homeopathy is total bunk. For it to work as it’s supposed to several laws of physics must be violated and our understanding of the human immune system thrown out the window. I have no issue with people self-prescribing these things however the fact that many practitioners advocate their remedies in favour of actual medicine is what draws my ire. Thankfully the Australian government has begun to show an intolerance for such charlantry and recently commissioned a review of the research done on homeopathy. The results are, unsurprisingly, not in homeopathy’s favour finding that in their review of the literature that it is no more effective than a placebo for a total of 68 illnesses.
The study was conducted by the National Health and Medical Research Council, Australia’s peak funding body for medical research that oversees some $700 million in funding per year. Their study included materials from 57 systemic reviews which covered some 176 individual studies. Additionally information that was submitted directly to the NHMRC through its public consultation phase was also included. Studies were only concluded if they were well designed (done by comparing them to international standards for conducting such trials) and placebo controlled. The results showed that, for all well designed and properly controlled studies, there was no evidence to suggest that homeopathy was any more effective than a placebo was. Indeed the only positive results were found in studies of poor quality and design which would likely have led to spurious results that were not supported by data. For the remaining studies there was simply not evidence to make a conclusion one way or the other.
Whilst these results are unsurprising it does beg the question about the regulation of things such as this. Australians spend some $10 million a year on these remedies a figure that continues to climb every year. However the body of evidence is so strong against them that it begs the question about whether they should be sold at all. I think they get a pass since they really have no potential to cause harm in and of themselves however it’s the abstinence from proper medicine that has the real potential to cause harm. So potentially we need to regulate against the practitioners rather than the remedies themselves.
It feels like beating a dead horse at this point but the fact that homeopathy is still around, and becoming more popular, shows that research like this is needed. I know it won’t convince everyone but hopefully those who are on the fence about it will be convinced that homeopathy is total bunk.
You might not think it from reading this blog but I’ve actually been an advocate for some types of complementary medicine in the past. Predominantly this has been related to osteopathy which helped me tremendously with some back issues I had, especially when used in conjunction with more traditional physiotherapy. However that’s where my belief in them ends as whilst many practitioners would have you believe that their treatments can be effective for things other than what they’re directly influencing the science just isn’t there to support it. Indeed even the practitioners I use don’t believe that which is the reason I keep going back to them.
One of my favourite dead horses to beat in this area is homeopathy, the practice of diluting something that causes the symptoms you’re experiencing in water to the point where none of that substance could remain. It’s practitioners then theorize that the water retains some “memory” of it which you body then recognises and somehow manifests a cure for ailments. Homeopathy has been scientifically proven to be no more effective than a placebo in numerous clinical trials yet it’s still a booming industry seeing on the order of $10 million worth of sales in Australia every year. You’d think that without any solid grounds for efficacy it wouldn’t be long for this world but it’s practitioners are an incredibly stubborn bunch.
Thankfully though the government commissioned the National Health and Medical Research Council to do a report on the efficacy of homeopathy for some 68 different clinical conditions and the results are, unsurprisingly, for the negative. The research was commissioned as part of a larger body of work concerning the government’s 30% rebate on complementary therapies which currently includes things like homeopathy. It’s quite possible that this will lead to the exclusion of such therapies from the rebate scheme, something which I wholly support. This won’t stop them from being sold though, they just won’t be subsidised as a complementary form of medicine.
On the flip side though I’m of the mind that people are more than welcome to put whatever they want in their bodies so long as they don’t harm anyone else. This research makes it clear that homeopathy can not treat clinical conditions and so anyone who advocates it as such is, in my mind, actively doing harm to that person. If you’re taking a homeopathic remedy for “general health reasons” and it seems to be working for you great, but consider that your experience is more than likely due to the nature of you thinking it was going to work rather than some magical properties of water that defies all scientific evidence to the contrary. In that case for it to work for someone else they too have to believe that and if they do they’ll likely find it without your help.
Most of the time with alternative medicine I take the stance that as long as you’re not hurting anyone else and it works for you then you’re free to do whatever the heck you want. I do this as I’ve been in more than a couple situations where I’ve caused serious offence to people when I’ve started heavily questioning their beliefs and I’m not the kind of person who takes joy in getting people angry at me. Thankfully its pretty much a non-issue for the company I regularly keep as we’re all well aware of what topics are potential minefields for arguments that’ll lead down a rabbit hole from which no winner will ever emerge.
However I have in the past made my stance known on several pseudo-science issues before and I’m saddling up to do so again. This time I’ve got my sights set on homeopathy because it seems to be the last little bastion of woo I’ve yet to tackle seriously.
I haven’t really had much to do with homeopathy since I firs heard about it 5 years or so ago but I can remember clearly reading up on it to figure out what it was. Whilst at first I was intrigued by the notion that dilution increase potency (because anything that posits something that crazy has to have some fun stuff backing it up) when I read about the actual process required to prepare homeopathic remedies I instantly twigged that it was nothing more than water and any effects people were ascribing to it were just a simple function of the placebo effect. Surely, I thought, given enough time people would come to realise this and the movement would fade back into the obscurity from whence it came and I’d never hear about it again.
It would never be that simple, of course.
Cue my honeymoon trip to Turtle Island off the northern coast of Fiji. The beautiful temperate weather dulling the more harsh sides of personality with the great food and plentiful booze ensuring that I was in no mood to go on a sceptical rampage. What else would happen but a conversation about homeopathic remedies where a surgeon was looking for something to ease his nagging shoulder injuries. I fobbed it off, enduring the conversation for as long as it lasted, and instead focused my attention to other, more pleasurable endeavours (read: the booze). Thankfully it seemed that the only people that really believed in it were a singular couple as the surgeon friend said it did nothing for him.
I guess the point I’m trying to make here is that factually we can’t put any more faith in homeopathy than we do in sugar pills. The research clearly shows that homeopathy is ineffectual in treating the ailments it claims to be able to and any effect is simply the placebo effect in action. If a remedy seems to work for you fine but don’t let me catch you trying to peddle that nonsense to anyone else as you’re far more likely to do someone harm than any amount of good. If the treatment is as good as you think it is then they will find it on their own and I have no problems with consenting adults putting whatever rubbish they want into their bodies (just not other people’s bodies).
You know there are times when I’ve caved into a stereotype just because it was easier to work within those boundaries than trying to define my own. I remember some years ago being told that I took quite a keen interest in my appearance and had myself labelled as a metrosexual. Initially I fought back against this since I hadn’t really defined myself in such a way, still trying to grasp onto the last bit of teenage rebellion that I had in me. After a while though I realised that the label brought with it ideals that I found easy to align with, so I just went with it.
More recently though I’ve been fighting with the idea of caving into becoming a full blown ravenous skeptic. I’ve blogged numerous times in the past about the sceptical movement and how I support their ideas whilst criticizing their technique but it’s becoming more and more apparent that it might just be easier to join the cause and cave into the stereotype. Whilst the benefits of doing so are great (indeed joining their ranks would generate more blog traffic, possibly open up the opportunity to speak at their conventions and give me daily blog fodder) there’s still that little teenage voice of angst whispering at the back of my mind telling me not to conform to their standards. So where has all this cognitive dissonance come from?
Winding the clock back 3 weeks finds myself living the life of luxury on Turtle Island, lapping it up with my wife. I’d be lying if I said the people I was there with were exactly my kind of people, it was far from that. Indeed the majority of them were in their late 30s to 40s and many of them were highly successful people (in fact one of them was the CIO for Westfield Corporation) so the conversations often drifted far from areas I could talk about. One warm night having dinner on the beach the topic drifted to stories of how we all met, and one of them happened to involve a tale about homeopathic medicine. Fortunately the story teller was a cardiovascular surgeon and didn’t believe the stuff would work (and in truth was only trying it because he was at wits end and had resigned to just living with the mild shoulder pain it was trying to fix) but another couple perked up saying that they regularly saw a homeopathic doctor. Instantly two voices cried out in my head: the first telling me to shoot down homeopathy in a blaze of skeptical glory and the other warning me that that kind of conversation wasn’t going to win me any friends, something which on a private island designed for relaxation wouldn’t be looked on kindly from the other guests.
In the end I kept my mouth shut, but that didn’t make the skeptical voice inside my head go away. I quickly came to realise that whilst there’s a giant community of skeptics and endless support from the scientific community in the end being a skeptic isn’t going to win you any friends, save for those who are skeptics themselves. The fact that dulled the sceptical voice in my head was that whilst the couple said they visited such a doctor not once did they actually recommend anyone else go and see one over a regular GP and as such the only harm they were doing was to themselves. If they had started spruiking such nonsense to everyone else I don’t think the skeptical voice would’ve kept quiet and I’d probably be telling a completely different story.
There’s also the fact that the Global Atheist Convention is coming to Melbourne next year. Since I have many friends who would identify themselves as either Atheist or Skeptical I’ve already had a couple invitations to come down for the weekend and spend a day or two touring the event. I am tempted to, since many of the people lined up to speak are interesting in their own right and the Atheist convention may be my only chance to see them speak in Australia for a long time to come. Plus I’ve always wanted to try my hand as a blogging mogul running around a convention trying to break stories to the world like a real journalist 🙂
I think this internal debate will rage on for quite some time and I don’t see any side of it winning out. I’ll stick with my idea of the casual skeptic who makes it their job to point out bullshit when it has the chance to do harm to others whilst quietly letting people do their own thing. Of course you regular readers here will always be told that you should think for yourselves, but you’ve come to expect that of me over the past months that I’ve spent rambling at you 😉