Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Open-minded homeopaths - I don't think!

Last week in 'Mixing Sciences Badly' I touched on the subject of homeopathy, which is one that I should approach much more often and much more directly.  The article was written as a comment on Richard Dawkins' web site, where it was totally ignored by everyone.  However, posting it here on Something Surprising was a little more successful.  The first comment was made by a Dr Nancy Malik, who is a doctor of nothingness - or should I say of homeopathy, which after all is tantamount to nothing at all.

Being a well educated lady (apparently), I think you would expect a well reasoned scientific or rational response.  Instead, relying on the well known 'argument from authority', she posted a link to her own site, where she listed a few Nobel Laureats who have expressed views that could be taken to be supportive of homeopathic treatment, but should have known better.

I left a comment there.  Surprisingly, she approved my comment on her moderated blog post, and then a few others posted comments there too.  Unsurprisingly, most of the other comments were left by her supporters, and as you can imagine, it didn't take long for someone to comment about skeptics not being open-minded.  One other skeptic, @SkeptiGuy, was permitted to speak.

My later reply has not been approved, and indeed I think I have now been blocked.  Clearly open minds are rarer in the homeopathic community than they would like us to believe.  Therefore, I present my claim for the evidence for my open-mindedness about homeopathy here for your delectation (or derision).  I was sure I had saved what I wrote, but since I can't find it I will have to paraphrase.

Since one of your other correspondents has raised the subject of open-mindedness, I think it is only fair that I explain my position on the subject of homeopathy. 

I have personally observed what I thought to be a cure effected by homeopathic treatment on three separate occasions.  Once it appeared to help my wife, once my young son, and once myself.  I always found it to be a pleasurable experience to visit my homeopath.  She listened carefully to what I had to say, she empathised and she seemed to understand. 

I was quite interested in how the remedies might work and my homeopath even suggested several times that I should consider a change of career to become one myself  I did not dismiss the idea completely out of hand.

My current comments on the topic can hardly be called closed minded in the light of that testimony, can they?

In spite of those experiences, I now realise that the homeopathic remedies could not have been the reason for the three recoveries from illness after all.  'Regression to the mean' is a much more likely explanation.  Doctors know that about half their patients just get better without treatment, and that patients often go to their doctor (or alternative practitioner) at the time when their symptoms are at their worst.  This is why there are so many anecdotes about recoveries that seemingly began from an alternative remedy.

Double blinded tests have shown that homeopathy is no more effective than placebo and nobody has provided any plausible mechanism by which it might be expected to work.  Soon I will come back to this topic.  The 'memory' of water is one of the implausible mechanisms that I am aware of, and I have some views on that subject.  Even at the time when I believed in it, I remember saying that whatever it was, it was not chemistry.

Dr Malik also demonstrates a surprising level of ignorance of the peer review process.  She went on the mention a number of 'peer reviewed' publications.  What I think she means is that these articles were published in journals that require a pre-publication peer review.  At that stage, the science is not studied in the amount of detail that she seems to expect.  It is more a matter of checking for obvious flaws, obvious fraud, or failure to provide enough detail for others to reproduce the study.  Only after the paper is published does the real peer review begin.   If other independent researchers can reproduce the results then that is a very good sign that the results are good.  If they can't, they have the opportunity to say so.  Sadly though, repeatability is one thing that can never be claimed by 'studies' of homeopathy.

That is not to say that all homeopaths are charlatans.  I think many of them really believe in it, and they are caring people who believe that they are helping.

Only a few of them are money grabbers who actively or passively cause suffering and death in patients who could have been treated effectively by real medicine.  And remember the words of Tim Minchin - "There is a name for alternative medicine that works.  It is called . . . 'medicine'!"

Dr Malik and her contributors are free to engage in an uncensored and open-minded discussion here if they like.  However, I doubt that any of them are sufficiently open-minded to face the possibility that they might be deluded.


Dr. Nancy Malik said...

Till 2010, there have been 224 human studies published in 98 peer-reviewed international medical journals including 17 meta-analysis, 2 systematic reviews and 1 Cochrane Reviews in support of homeopathy.

Kenny Wyland said...

I just went to your site and picked the first article you list for Homeopathy studies ("Double-blind, placebo-controlled homeopathic pathogenetic trials") and gave it a read.

To find SO many problems with the article you place FIRST in your evidence for homeopathy doesn't bode well...

First, I haven't been able to find ANY peer reviews of this study.

Secondly, the study had a TINY sample size. The two experimental groups of 10 and 11 people with 3 placebos in each. The sample size was SO small that they grouped the two placebo groups together to try to have enough numbers to really compare. Crossing those boundaries in their math makes me question, what would the study have shown if they didn't confuse their findings in this fashion.

and lastly, but most amusing of all, they found that the PLACEBO WAS BETTER. They put together a ridiculously small sample size and confused their math by polluting their experimental and control groups... and the best they could do was show that the PLACEBO PARTICIPANTS WERE CURED MORE OFTEN.

And this is the study you cite FIRST for Homeopathic trials. Amazing.

Plasma Engineer said...

Just a quick note to clarify that Kenny is agreeing with my point of view and employing good scientific skills to evaluate the so-called 'scientific' claims of homeopathy. Thanks for your time and effort Kenny - well done.

(I blame the (otherwise excellent) Blogger system for not making the Reply option a bit more obvious. that would help people to reply to previous comments rather than to the blog post itself.)

Plasma Engineer said...

Dr Malik - please could you explain the second paper in your list of references in terms that scientific (but not specialist) readers would understand? We would all appreciate the benefit of your explanation.

Without that assistance to understand the context of a pretty obscure and highly technical paper, I regret that your peer reviewed publications are not much help.

Plasma Engineer said...

Dr Malik - please could you explain why the third most important link on your page of references does not work?

I am puzzled to hear why such important evidence appears to have been withdrawn.

Plasma Engineer said...

And finally for tonight, Dear (Dr) Nancy . . .

Taking at random, number 10, Homeopathic patho-genetic trials produce specific symptoms different from placebo, at

"Results: On average, 6 symptoms typical for Arsenicum
album were experienced by participants taking arseni-
cum album, 5 symptoms typical for Natrum muriaticum
by those taking natrum muriaticum, and 11 non-specific
symptoms by those in the placebo group."

How exactly is the 'typical for' claim consistent with a double blinded trial? And it suggests that 11 symptoms were experienced from the 'real' remedies, and 11 from the placebo. Somehow though, the placebo driven symptoms are 'not typical' and therefore can be ignored.

Is this the best you can do?

Andrea Newman said...

I really wana thank you for providing such informative and qualitative material so often.

naturopathic doctor

Andrea Newman said...

I really wana thank you for providing such informative and qualitative material so often.

naturopathic doctor