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If you read nothing else on the topic, read Ben Goldacre’s best ever piece, A Kind of Magic? (Guardian, 16 Nov 2007). This started as response to “In defence of homeopathy” in the same newspaper on 13 November. On the same day, the Lancet carried a rather more academic piece by Goldacre “Benefits and Risks of Homeopathy” , The same issue of the Lancet carried a commentary ” Pressure grows against homoeopathy in the UK“, as well as a sadder report, “Homoeopathy booming in India“.

There is going to be plenty of commentary on these pieces. There is one bit of “A Kind of Magic” that is particularly important, and that is about how to do a proper trial. It is one of the most persistent myths of all sorts of quack that, for reasons that are never explained, their particular form of magic is not susceptible to being tested in the normal and well-established way. This is simply not true, and the fact that the myth is repeated again and again is perhaps the best reason to doubt that homeopaths are really genuine in the beliefs that they claim to have. If they were really so confident they would do the tests. But they don’t and won’t. When the government supplied money for doing tests, the money was distributed by a committee of “experts in alternative medicine” (though it beats me how you can be an ‘expert’ in something that isn’t true), all the money was given to projects that were incapable of answering the main question, namely ‘does it work better than placebo?’.

How to do the test

Here is Goldacre’s description of how to do the test. It has been said before, but it must be said again and again. Until homeopaths take this seriously, there is no option but to regard them as frauds.

“You could do a randomised, controlled trial on almost any intervention you wanted to assess: comparing two teaching methods, or two forms of psychotherapy, or two plant-growth boosters – literally anything. The first trial was in the Bible (Daniel 1: 1-16, since you asked) and compared the effect of two different diets on soldiers’ vigour. Doing a trial is not a new or complicated idea, and a pill is the easiest thing to test of all.

Here is a model trial for homeopathy. You take, say, 200 people, and divide them at random into two groups of 100. All of the patients visit their homeopath, they all get a homeopathic prescription at the end (because homeopaths love to prescribe pills even more than doctors) for whatever it is that the homeopath wants to prescribe, and all the patients take their prescription to the homeopathic pharmacy. Every patient can be prescribed something completely different, an “individualised” prescription – it doesn’t matter.

Now here is the twist: one group gets the real homeopathy pills they were prescribed (whatever they were), and the patients in the other group are given fake sugar pills. Crucially, neither the patients, nor the people who meet them in the trial, know who is getting which treatment. ”

Winterson and the Maun Project and AIDS

This particular round of discussion was started by Jeanette Winterson’s “In defence of homeopathy“.

It is an interesting article because, like the whole world of homeopathy, Winterson herself is split between homeopathy as a harmless placebo and homeopathy as a dangerous “treatment” for dangerous diseases. On one hand she claims that she is all for proper anti-retroviral treatment of AIDS, yet at the bottom of the article it says “Jeanette Winterson is donating the fee for this article to the Maun homeopathy project. ” .

“Since 2002, The Maun Homeopathy Clinic has been running free homeopathy outreach clinics in Maun, a fast growing town in the north of Botswana, where over 35% of the people are infected with HIV or AIDS, one of the highest rates in the world.”

Hilary Fairclough, much praised by Winterson for reducing her high temperature with pills that (didn’t contain) any snake venom, describes herself as “clinical director” of the Maun project. She is, of course, qualified in neither science nor medicine, but is registered with the now notorious Society of Homeopaths. The Maun project newsletters have all the usual accounts of amazing cures. They quote

“The homeopaths are so loved here, and at the clinics we see daily miracles.”

Do they really believe in miraculous cures? I’m inexorably reminded of an earlier generation of missionaries who went to Africa, to impose on the poor benighted natives a different brand of irrationality. At least the missionaries did some education too, and didn’t, on the whole, kill people.

The ladies of Devon who contribute their money to this project, rather than proper treatment, are, sadly, contributing to the gentle art of homeopathic killing.

Referring to Goldacre’s article in the Lancet, Winterson says ” where is the scientific sense is saying that because we don’t understand something, even though we can discern its effects, we have to ignore it, scorn it, or suppress it?”. Needless to say, no pharmacologist has ever said anything of the sort. Quite the opposite. Goldacre comments

“The article does not say that, and I should know, because I wrote it. It is not an act of fusty authority, and I claim none: I look about 12, and I’m only a few years out of medical school. “

Winterson’s article goes on about ” boosting the patient’s immune system so they are better able to fight off the opportunistic viruses that follow behind HIV”.

Sorry, but there is not the slightest reason to think the sugar pills do anything whatsoever to the immune system: that is no more than a ritual form of words, a mantra recited by every homeopath.

Winterson also falls for the latest fashion in homeopathic gobbledygook, to describe it as nanopharmacology. It isn’t nano, it’s zero.

She also gives support, though it is intriguingly ambivalent, to the forthcoming conference of the Society of Homepaths, You can download the flyer for this conference, It defies belief. As well as Winterson’s homeopath, Hilary Fairclough, it features Harry van der Zee and Peter Chappell.

“Harry believes that using the [Chappell’s] PC1 remedy, the AIDS epidemic can be called to a halt, and that homeopaths are the ones that can do it. “

That is a direct claim for a cure. It is as good example as any of the Gentle Art of Homeopathic Killing, in the now immortal words of the quackometer blog.

Peter Chappell’s web site says (no, really, seriously),

“Right now AIDS in Africa could be significantly ameliorated by a simple tune played on the radio across Africa. Or there is a slower solution using pills, and drops that works very well, but is harder to deliver. ”

“The second creative idea is again is implied by those above, and relates to the ability to deliver healing aurally, instead or orally, so healing downloads and ehealing is possible and practical. Instead of taking pills containing resonance information, you listen to a very short piece of music which contains the same information.

Just beat that, if you can.

You can get free samples here. Try the tuberculosis tune. Sounds like pretty standard 50s or 60s jazz (anyone recognise it?). Don’t be fooled though. It’s explained that

The music is not the download
The music is simply the carrier and alerts you to listen. The download is engrafted on the music by a special process. That is the new technology.

University of Westminster: a new course?

I hope that the University of Westminster is proud of the fact that its degree in homeopathy is recognised by the Society of Homeopaths , who are sponsoring this nonsense. Perhaps the university should consider an advanced third year module in “downloading therapeutic resonance music”.

Read more

Andy Lewis’s quackometer “Will Homeopathy and iTunes Cure AIDS?

Nick Cohen “The cranks who swear by citronella oil

Jeremy Laurance in the Independent (17 Nov) “Homeopathic treatment of Aids attacked by medics

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24 Responses to Homeopathy: “a kind of magic” that kills

  • We seem to be having a Bad Science carnival today. I wish there were more room in newspapers for articles like Ben’s.

  • I think Hilary Fairclough, clinical director of the Maun project and registered with the SoH might be in breach of the SoH ‘code of ethics’ regarding the following, from the Maun website:

    “He complained about bad headaches, asthma, pain in chest, bad cough with bloody mucus and shortness of breath. He stars coughing as soon as he tries to speak, gets tired easily and had to drop from the football team, to which he had great passion.

    After two appointments he was perfectly healthy: ‘I can run again and play football’, he said, ‘it feels great. Thank you!’”
    http://www.homeopathybotswana.com/people.htm

    Sounds to me like a claim to have cured asthma, a named condition.

  • Ben Goldacre’s great article in the Guardian today has said all the important things about Jeanette Winterson’s ‘Defence of homeopathy’. She of course used all the usual arguments, and in so doing argued against herself. She says that homeopathy is not ‘linear’ and that the ‘remedy picture’ is given after careful consultation, but at the start says she was ‘cured’ of her symptoms following a phone call and what appears to have been an express delivery.

    She mentions the ‘memory of water, which I am sure that homeopaths and their followers everywhere will have found very exciting If there were any reality in that and if there were any effects, then it would make many people ill most of the time, with countless and infintely varied residues.
    If people want to spend money on unproven therapies that is fine, but just don’t call it science, don’t pretend it can help any serious diseases and don’t give us any pious and patronising justifications.
    And one day when a proponent of some cranky mumbo-jumbo says to me that their therapy is special because it is ‘holistic’ I will make a lot of noise in telling them what I think. All these things are part of the culture that allows any old thing to be dressed up and sold as truth.

  • Instead of taking pills containing resonance information, you listen to a very short piece of music which contains the same information. “

    Just beat that, if you can.

    I see your quack and raise you Jeremy Sherr FSHom on acquiring ethical approval for testing homeopathic remedies on terminally ill AIDS patients

    You have to find willing partners and get a protocol through an ethics committee, and you need to talk their language. I hope it will work but if not, I will just go and do it on a small scale myself – I am determined to do that.

    I still cannot get over his attitude that if he doesn’t get ethical approval he will go ahead and do the experiment anyway. It simply beggars belief that these people will criticise the ethics of proper medicine when it is clear they have absolutely none of their own.

  • OK Gimpy, it’s a close run thing which is battier between resonance iTUNES and homeopathic plutonium.

  • Resonance is also going to save us from pandemic bird flu, according to this site: http://www.birdfluhealing.com/bird-flu-treatment.php . Looks like it’s the same guy.

  • Cindy Crawford on the Oprah Show: It is VERY pleasing that Cindy Crawford chose to HIGHLIGHT the fact that she calls herself a “big fan of homeopathy” and that she uses it to treat a wide variety of ailments of her children and her animals. This is fabulous…and it adds just one more person who is smart and successful and
    who could choose to use ANY form of healing…but SHE chooses HOMEOPATHY.. .with good reason. The bottomline is that she emphasized that
    she doesn’t leave home without her homeopathic medicines. Fab again.

  • The link that Claire identified is extraordinary. If it were not so potentially harmful I would think that all this nonsense might be a big joke just to wind us up. Trouble is I feel that snake oil merchants take themselves so seriously they probably don’t find anything funny.

  • ” It is VERY pleasing that Cindy Crawford chose to HIGHLIGHT the fact that she calls herself a “big fan of homeopathy””

    Huh? Do you hate Cindy Crawford and wish her an untimely death due to medical neglect and use of homeopathy? What has the poor woman done to you?

    I hope you were being ironic.

  • I’ve just looked at the link that Claire identified. That sound you now hear is me sat at in front of my computer with my jaw dropped in disbelief going “Wha…wha…wha..”

  • Barking Birdflu, Batman…!

    You couldn’t make it up.

    Gimpy is fast becoming the No 1 Badscience expert Ninja on the sub-varieties of homeopathic barking-ness. You ought to write a book, Gimpy – what a cast of loons you’d have.

    I do love the way the SoH manages to say piously that they “can’t regulate these people” (like Peter Chappell) as “they are not SoH members” – which of course implies that the SoH can / do regulate the ones who are.

    Hwa Hwa hwa hwa hwa….! (manic cackling)

    Plus I am pretty sure that in the SoH, as in most organisations, becoming a “Fellow” implies that you have been a long-standing Member. So an “FSHom” would have to have previously been an “RSHom” for a number of years.

    As far as I can tell from a bit of reading, the SoH seem to like to think of themselves as the “true custodians” of the sacred word of Hahnemann within the homeopathic “spectrum”. As usual, the parallels with religious sects are almost irresistible. But the idea that there are people MORE barking than the SoH lot… I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

  • And, of course, even if FSHom is an honorary title, such titles can generally be withdrawn.

  • Yeh but, No but. Peter Chappell, star of the upcoming SoH AIDS conference, was once a FSHom but is now not.

    Did he not pay his membership? Well, we have found out that you do not need to be a member to be a Fellow? So, that cannot be it. Was he kicked out? Or did he jump? He is definately controversial with his PC remedies. Too controversial for SoH? But if so, why the conference. Maybe he wanted to break free of the SoH Code of Ethics so that he can treat named diseases? But no-one else in SoH gives a damn about the code.

    A genuine puzzle.

  • Cheers Dr Aust, I feel reassured that I now have an mp3 that can prevent bird flu. Has anyone else listened to it? I’ve never realised Jazz could help with viral infection.

  • HMDS, perhaps you’d also like to give some thought to asking why, since homeopathy claims to be so marvellously effective all those well-fed and self-satisfied homeo-tourists bothering the poor and the ill of Africa have never yet managed to demonstrate successful treatment of the HIV/AIDS which is the ostensible, and doubtless tax-deductible reason, for their delightful safaris to that benighted continent.

  • It looks like the coroner in that Australian inquest into the death of Gloria Thomas would agree with your title, ‘Homeopathy “a kind of magic” that kills’:
    http://www.smh.com.au/news/National/Parents-may-face-charges-over-baby-death/2007/11/19/1195321686002.html

    “…The inquest at Glebe Coroner’s Court has been told the cracks in her skin caused the infant agonising pain and were a potential source of entry for the bacteria that killed her.

    Parents Thomas Sam, a homeopath, and IT professional Manju Samuel treated her with homeopathic remedies rather than her prescribed medication.

    State Coroner Mary Jerram terminated the inquest on Monday after finding there was a reasonable prospect the evidence presented to the inquiry could convince a jury to convict “a known person or persons of a serious crime”…”

    Tragic for everybody concerned.

  • The Australian inquest referred to above has been discussed here: http://www.hpathy.com/homeopathyforums/forum_posts.asp?TID=6923 . Unbelievable.

  • On another blog this site http://www.smeddum.net/content/myths.htm was cited as a reference. On the first page it has this quote

    “ Medicine is not only a science; it is also an art. It does not consist of compounding pills and plasters; it deals with the very processes of life, which must be understood before they may be guided. ”
    Paracelsus (1493-1541)

    Which is exactly what CAM isn’t trying to do.

    Look at the Astrology section. I used to be an astrologer. It is this sort of thing that persuaded me to give it up. Basically they are trying to incorporate the new planet Eris into astrology. But what should its influence be, malign or a positive one? The astronomers who first discovered it, named it Xena. So astrologers were going to assign it the properties they associated with Xena: Warrior Princess. ie feistiness, independence, strength and class it as a positive influence. But at the International Astronomical Union conference in 2006 it was changed to Eris which means that it is now a magiln influence.
    This is put forward as being very progressive, “Hey, we’re keeping up with science”, new planet, new set of lines on the chart. If astrology worked, then whatever powers/influence the planet had would be evident and astrologers would have discovered it long ago. I wondered if they are going to try and incorporate every object over 200 km in diameter in the solar system, there is approx 80 of them, so astrology now has the chance to fulfil its destiny and become fully accurate. Working out all the possible conjunctions of 80 bodies should be fun. Or better still, how about the exoplanets? Currently 265 are known. That would be one heck of a chart.

    Here is http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eris_%28dwarf_planet%29#Surface_and_atmosphere which is much better than the twaddle on smeddum.net.

  • http://gimpyblog.wordpress.com/2007/11/26/the-nice-people-at-the-sheaf-trust-practice-dangerously-delusional-activities/#comment-761 . On the ethics of running a trial (3000 participants) using homeopathy as prophylaxis against malaria. Scary.

  • A bit off subject perhaps, but I just listened to DC’s radio clash with (I think) Jane Thomas over the SOH’s homeopathy and AIDS symposium. At one point Thomas referred to a 1999 study on the efficacy of homeopathy in treating HIV +ve patients, claiming that a homeopathic remedy increased CD4 counts.

    I think she must have been referring to this paper (Rastogi DP, Singh VP, Singh V, Dey SK, Rao K. Homeopathy in HIV infection: a trial report of double-blind placebo controlled study.
    Br Homeopath J. 1999 Apr;88(2):49-57.
    PMID: 10335412). This is one of only 15 publications in Medline with the key words HIV and homeopathy, and judging by the abstracts it’s the only one in the whole homeopathic literature that includes some kind of objective lab measure of efficacy (CD4 counts).
    If anyone can get hold of a pdf of this paper, I would be interested in reading it. I would like to see how the study holds up compared to some of the dozens of trials of other HIV treatments.
    In particular, there have been many attempts to treat HIV with a variety of innovative, unconventional and even bizarre approaches that at least have (or had) a kind of plausible scientific basis.
    Some appear to be effective (IL-2 treatment as adjuvant for antiretroviral drug therapy for example), others have not shown any beneficial effects. The point is that they have all been tested in a rational way, and it takes more than one study (run by the inventors) to make a reasonable claim for the efficacy of a treatment.

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