On the Muppet Show Tonight…

In his Guardian article, Ben Goldacre wrote about how homeopaths respond to criticism:

With alternative therapists, when you point out a problem with the evidence, people don’t engage with you about it, or read and reference your work. They get into a huff. They refuse to answer calls or email queries. They wave their hands and mutter sciencey words such as “quantum” and “nano”. They accuse you of being a paid plant from some big pharma conspiracy. They threaten to sue you. They shout, “What about thalidomide, science boy?”, they cry, they call you names, they hold lectures at their trade fairs about how you are a dangerous doctor, they contact and harass your employer, they try to dig up dirt from your personal life, or they actually threaten you with violence (this has all happened to me, and I’m compiling a great collection of stories for a nice documentary, so do keep it coming).

The homeopaths have responded to this article in a number of ways. But today we learned that Ben can add another tantrum type to his list: complaining to the Press Complaints Commission. When I read this, I spat out my cornflakes with laughter. Apparently, two homeopaths have complained to to the PCC. Muppets. Or as Ben put it at the end of his article,

But when they’re suing people instead of arguing with them, telling people not to take their medical treatments, killing patients, running conferences on HIV fantasies, undermining the public’s understanding of evidence and, crucially, showing absolutely no sign of ever being able to engage in a sensible conversation about the perfectly simple ethical and cultural problems that their practice faces, I think: these people are just morons.

The irony is suffocating.

But what is even more moronic, is the grounds for their complaint. Apparently,

“Goldacre seems to think that homeopathic remedies are prepared by diluting substances. He omits the critical component of shaking (‘succussion’) between serial dilutions without which they would, indeed, be merely water rather than potentised substances.”

Of course Goldacre thinks this. There is not a shred of evidence, that can withstand more than a second’s scrutiny, that would suggest that so-called succussed water is any different from ‘mere’ water. The person who can show there is a difference will be the next Nobel Prize winner.

This is at the heart of my $100 Homeopathic Challenge. If a homeopath can tell what a succussed homeopathic remedy is when the label is removed, then they win. Full Stop. The test can be done cheaply and in a few weeks. Does any homeopath want to put down their pen, stop writing to the Press Complaints Commission, and demonstrate the difference?

These homeopaths are not the only ones making fools of themselves. We also hear from, Jayne Thomas, Vice-chair of the Society of Homeopaths (pictured), complaining about Chief Scientific Adviser, David King and his criticism of the health service and the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency supporting homeopathy. Jayne trots out the same old nonsense about patient choice, no side-effects, the failure of doctors, high training for homeopaths and a strict code of ethics. But what is really moronic is how the Bristol Homeopathic Hospital Customer Satisfaction Survey is trotted out as evidence of efficacy. This must have been explained to SoH a hundred times: it was uncontrolled and had poor methodology – no conclusions on efficacy can be drawn. And yet, Jayne Thomas keeps on repeating the tired old story.

And finally, and rather innexplicably, Jeanette Winterson forces the Guardian to issue a correction. But what the correction is, I cannot see. They write,

A comment piece critical of homeopathy, A kind of magic? (page 4, G2, November 16), responded in part to an earlier article by Jeanette Winterson with the headline In defence of homeopathy (page 15, G2, November 13) and referred to her view that there is a role for homeopathy in the treatment of HIV in Africa. Jeanette Winterson has asked us to make clear, in case there is any doubt, that she does not believe that homeopathy can replace anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs) and she does not support homeopaths who make claims that may deter those with HIV from taking ARVs.

Now, I never got the impression from her artcile that she thought anything else. However, I did think she was being naive to assume that homeopaths could be trusted to behave in complementary ways. Homeopaths define themselves against real medicine – they call doctors ‘allopaths’ and use this term in derogatory ways. A few minutes perusing homeopathy web forums will convince you of this. As the Society of Homeopaths say on their home page – “Homeopathy is a complete system of medicine, suitable for everyone.”. No need for a real doctor then. You will find no discussion of how homeopathy should be used in a complementary manner on their “What is Homeopathy?” page.

It does look like Winterson has been putting some pressure on the Guardian to print this ‘clarrification’ as she does not want to be associated with AIDS-denialists or other murderous notions. But for me, what is not on, is that the Guardian has not published a letter from Edwin Cameron, Supreme Court of Appeal of South Africa, after he felt Jeannette Winterson had misrepresented him in her article.

On this theme…

14 Comments on On the Muppet Show Tonight…

  1. “But what is really moronic is how the Bristol Homeopathic Hospital Customer Satisfaction Survey is trotted out as evidence of efficacy.”

    Well, it would be if the target audience of the letter included people capable of understanding that the Spence paper provides no evidence whatsoever that homoeopathy works.

  2. “Goldacre seems to think that homeopathic remedies are prepared by diluting substances. He omits the critical component of shaking (‘succussion’) between serial dilutions without which they would, indeed, be merely water rather than potentised substances.”

    For some reason I have a mental image of an 18th-century gentleman in powdered wig berating Ben thus: “Humbug, Dr Goldacre, humbug – you neglect to mention the Magic Shaking which is performed during dilution! It is this Magic Shaking, sir, which – for reasons far too arduous to ever explain – turns the plain water into a Very Great Medicine. By omitting any mention of the Magic Shaking you make us sound like fools and charlatans, sir!”

  3. It is incredible, isn’t it? By some bizarre logic, the complainers must think that if Ben did mention the magic shaking, your average Guardian reader would have gone, “Ahhh! So that’s how it works. Shaking. Why did you not mention it earlier?

  4. Maybe Dr Goldacre neglected to mention the magic shaking part becasue to any scientist diluting any substance, shaking (thorough mixing) is an automatic part of the dilution protocol anyway, and if you read “dilution” you automatically assume that anyone with 2 neurones to rub togther knows this. On most lab benches there will be a little gadget that you place the test tube/vial on, et voila, it shakes it. Perhasp we should start calling these “succussion machines”.

  5. You couldn’t make it up, could you?

    Top comment from Rob. I shall now always picture Hahnemann and his followers as an episode of Blackadder III, with Stephen Fry in Regency dress reciting Rob’s lines.

    For some reason it reminds me of that famous quote about Hahnemann warning his followers not to carry homeopathic remedies in their waiscoat pockets “lest by over vigorous movement they might over-potentize the remedy” and endanger the patient. Ho ho.

    Like many others, I suspect, I was unable to read any further in the Guardian article after the bit about succussion, because I was rolling on the floor in helpless laughter. That was after I’d drenched the table (and the wife) in coffee which came out of my nose when I read the relevant sentence.

    Also very taken with Bench Scientist’s new use for the vortexer. Perhaps I should try making homeopathic remedies in the lab to sell to the students.

  6. Watch your cornflakes and don’t have any hot beverage in your hand when you follow this link;


    The “Korsakoff Method”, for the uninitiated, means dumping the liquid contents of a vial and just putting in more liquid to pick up the residue on the vial walls without bothering to do anything like an accurate dilution. Clearly this is a great boon to productivity and no annoying messing about with checking whether the products still work when you completely alter the basis of their manufacture.

    Yes, people, they just make this stuff up as they go along.

  7. When I flush my toilet, my poo gets very shaken up. It then gets diluted in the municipal septic system. The treated water is discharged into the water table, from which we draw drinking water. I’m I just full of shit?

  8. Nancy

    Forgive me for neglecting your self imposed salutation but I can see no evidence on your web site that you actually ARE a doctor – neither a medical doctor nor a Ph.D from a real university.

    Nice verbal play on redefining CAM. Alas you are seemingly unable to put the “S” in front of it as I am able to do for what your profess.

    Could you possibly point me in the direction of any empirical evidence which shows that homeopathy works. It would be great if this evidence conformed to randomised blinded trials as I am sure this would prove the validity of all the wonderful claims you make on your website.

    I would prefer proper research rather than anecdotal evidence if that is OK with you (I assume this exists as you seem very emphatic in your claims). I am not strong on anecdotal evidence as my granny claimed to have seen a ghost but I am not sure I believe her (and in any case she did drink a lot).

    I have a very open mind and would welcome sight of such evidence. I have a first degree and three years Ph.D research so I might be able to understand your evidence. I certainly look forward to receiving it.

    As an aside (and based on your assertion that “homeopathy cures”)I wonder if you let me know of any major diseases that homeopathy has eradicated from the world. Like you I am not a medical doctor but I believe there are some diseases (like smallpox) which conventional science/evidence based medicine seems to have pretty much eradicated. It would be really useful to understand how your profession has worked towards eradicating this sort of illness.

    Look forward to hearing from you.

    (I think this thread sadly traduces the Muppet Show. At least that was funny and made no paranormal, supernatural or metaphysical claims)

  9. Regular full time medical training for a minimum period of 5 1/2 years (BHMS) is absolutely necessary for becoming qualified to practice homeopathy in India as it gives a complete understanding not only about the structure and functioning of the human body but also a thorough understanding of the homeopathic philosophy and its practical utilization while treating diseased persons. And to do M.D. in homeopathy further, you have to spend three more years after BHMS.

    Putting S before CAM will make it to Serious Conventional Allopathic Medicine (SCAM).

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