How Can You Criticise Homeopathy When You Have Never Studied It?

Anyone who has ever entered into a debate with a homeopathy about the nature of their trade will have sooner or later bumped into this objection to their arguments. At one level, it is a simple deflection away from whatever point you were trying to make and an attempt to turn the conversation to your apparent lack of credentials and authority to question the subject. Without doubt, the homeopath will have paid for their three or four years of correspondence courses, or may even have obtained a BSc from a minor UK University. They have letters after their name and certificates on their walls. You do not. So shut up.

But this form of defense is really begging the question. There is an implicit assumption in the response that Homeopathy is a subject in which it is possible to gain a reliable body of knowledge and an expertise. Very often though, at the heart of all criticisms of homeopathy, is an implicit attack on this assumption. You do not need a degree in mythical mono-horned equine mammals to doubt the existence of unicorns. A detailed knowledge of their ecology, behaviour and biology is of limited use when you doubt their very existence. A lifetime’s study of invisible Imperial textiles is unnecessary to point out that the Emperor has no clothes.

An interesting article in the current edition of the Alliance of Registered Homeopath’s journal Homeopathy in Practice comes mighty close to admitting this. Mike Bridger writes that,

There is much talk now about how homeopaths are not busy enough to make a living; the reason given is recent media hostility aided by powerful, organised lobbying from a rabble including pseudo-scientists, journalists and a not-so-good magician.

Who could he mean?
Mike puts the blame at the homeopath’s door for their recent turbulent times. There is a most interesting passage in his article,

Instead of a coherent and credible voice we are steadily turning into a veritable dawn chorus of approaches, systems, methods and madness that sit uncomfortably under the umbrella we call ‘homeopathy’. It is a cacophony of noisy speculations, so singly indefinable that it is almost impossible to raise a critical objection to anyone, and if so, the questioner risks being taunted and accused of obstructing other people’s views by being critical, right-wing, right-brained and probably paid by Swiss drug companies to boot. We should be careful. Ironically, the veneer of that all embracing, ‘lovey-dovey, kisses and cuddles’, Californian approach, that so marks the alternative scene, actually masks a hidden and tyrannical agenda.

This is quite a remarkable and insightful statement as it matches so well one of the consistent and penetrating criticisms made of homeopathy by the ‘rabble’. Few critics want homeopathy banned. What they would like to see is critical self appraisal of their practices, knowledge and outcomes. Without this, homeopathy is nothing but crude pseudoscience, wishful thinking, and in some circumstance, a clear danger to their customers. When homeopaths cheerfully try to offer sugar pills to prevent malaria or treat HIV they are at best playing Russian roulette and at worst, guilty of manslaughter.

That tyrannical agenda is most obvious in how organisations like the Society of Homeopaths treat outside critics. My own experience of their legal threats can only be described as distinctly abusive. But importantly, in this passage we start to see why homeopathy cannot be taken seriously as a body of knowledge that one can become expert in. Homeopaths have no yard stick by which to determine what is right and what is wrong. All the competing ideas are equal within the body of homeopathy. Sure, some may disagree with others’ methods, but there is no mechanism by which the superiority of one approach may be discovered. Objective evidence is rejected and criticise too far and you will be seen as being a threat, as former homeopath Edzard Ernst is seen.

Bridger expresses this rather well,

Nothing is quite so dictatorial and controlling as the rendering of meaning into meaninglessness. There are two types of dictatorship; one form controls and regulates a rigid inflexible system; the other is so fluid and undefined that it is impossible to oppose or criticise because it has absolutely no substance. It is like trying to catch the mist. The latter is so open that anything goes but nothing can change or progress. The unwritten rule is not to be critical or try to define. No one has to publicly burn the books; you simply deify the inane and render critical thought unfashionable. Politically, this is a sophisticated form of authoritarianism; medically and clinically, it is the seeds of psychosis.

No critic has ever put it better: homeopathy is the deification of the inane. Thank you, Mike, for that.
Arguing with homeopaths is indeed catching the mist. Try to point out that trials show homeopathy does not work, and they will tell you that the ‘wrong sort of homeopathy’ was being used in the trials. Shift to other trails where you think that the ‘right’ sort was being tested and the mist will shift again.
This is important as several Universities in the UK are teaching homeopathy as a BSc. Inherent in the assumption of a degree course is that you are teaching a well established body of knowledge that has withstood the rigours of academic research and criticism. Homeopathy cannot claim this and so these courses, such as at the University of Central Lancashire and the University of Westminster, are justifiably condemned as unscientific and meaningless.
Bridger says,

It is becoming quite hard now to define the word ‘homeopathy’ with any kind of precision. More worrying, either no-one wants to or we’re scared to. Some trends in homeopathy defy substantiation or any clear rational on the basis that logical thought is a little passé. Unless a prescription is ‘intuitive’ or whispered in the ear by a spirit guide then no one’s interested. If the spirit guide dares suggest a polycrest rather than a small unproven remedy then he’s likely to get the sack and be replaced by a brave from another tribe. (I am not suggesting that spirit guides are male, by theway.) This is not an indication of a spiritually evolved practitioner but evidence of a necrotic brain.

Leaving aside the obvious error that only ‘some trends’ in homeopathy defy substantiation, Bridger is quite right to suggest that homeopaths have necrotic brains. A future post will show how these dead minds are not the best to have teaching undergraduates. To conclude this first criticism, Bridger says,

It is very difficult to treat madness and even more difficult to point it
out but, as a profession, if we are to survive, we need to.

Hear hear.

Where the article goes wrong is to suggest the homeopathy needs to return to some sort of simplistic fundamentalism. Bridger misses the point and I guess, like all other homeopaths, he believes that the answer the question is already known. We just need to listen to the right homeopaths – mainly, the founder Samuel Hahnemann. Of course this is wrong. What is needed is to listen to the evidence.

Far from the critics of homeopathy not knowing what they are talking about, Mike Bridger makes the case better than anyone that it is indeed homeopaths who are completely unqualified to discuss the merits of their own trade. It is the homeopaths themselves who are failing to study the subject. Without critical appraisal you can know nothing. Their knowledge is illusory and lacks substance. And for that reason, all the important decisions regarding public funding of any of their activities, such as in the NHS and Universities, should be completely removed from their hands. They do not possess the tools to make good decisions about their fate and the fate of those they wish to cure.
Thank you Mike Bridger.

On this theme…

6 Comments on How Can You Criticise Homeopathy When You Have Never Studied It?

  1. If you really wanted to wind up a homeopath, simply restate their question:

    “How can you criticise evidence-based medicine, drugs and vaccination if you haven’t got a degree in pharmacology?”

  2. Oh come on Andy, you know perfectly well that homeopaths cannot speak with one voice. Look at the divide between those who use remedy machines and those who prefer classical Hahnemanian methods. The classicists insist their method works and remedy machines do not, whereas the machinists insist their version works as well as the classic option. Because this is a discipline founded on the principles of selective bias, subjective measurement and wishful thinking objectivity cannot be applied. Self-analysis will never yield a meaningful outcome because the basic premise is so flawed. Mike Bridger is a stopped clock, but one with digits going to thirteen. This apparent fleeting moment of clarity is just an illusion in a profession that can never accurately measure outcomes.

  3. AL said:

    “as several Universities in the UK are teaching homeopathy as a BSc [like Australia’s ‘Bachelors of Health Science – Naturopathy’].”

    Yes, and here in North America, the ‘unethical sectarian pseudoscience’ known as naturopathy has created — at the federally-accredited university level[US] — a “clinical sciences” board exam which includes…
    .
    .
    .
    .
    .[wait for it]
    .
    .
    .
    .
    .
    homeopathy (see http://ccne.ca/ )!!!!!

    The reason I left a CT ND program was, primarily, due to its homeopathy — its claims that the profoundly nonscientific sectarian must be presented to the public as scientific — which I find ethically repugnant.

    -r.c.
    http://naturocrit.blogspot.com

  4. Andy, great post!

    What you have cited from Bridger’s article is really a very concise description of the state of dialogue in (some parts of?) the alternative medicine community.

    The whole argument that you can’t criticise a discipline like Homeopathy is delightfully circular and self contradictory. At least if you cling to some remainders of “reality” or “truth”.
    To see this, of course, you have to be part of the elite rabble indoctrinated by the dogma of university science courses.
    Since dilution and shaking are an integral part of the homeopathic process, obviously, chemistry and physics are needed for a complete understanding of what’s going on. Now, physics and chemistry will, without much debate, deny any specific effect. Thus, an escape hatch is needed by the homeopaths: usually, in the form of the bold claim that some yet undiscovered “New (Quantum) Physics” will save the day.
    By the standards that have just been described, any speculation of that kind is not only absurd, but completely out of bounds: Only physicist are allowed the luxury of these speculations! – Unfortunately, practically none of them (with a few rather sad exceptions) see any need for these speculations.

  5. I recently took the fight against crack-pot medicine to the Far East, and the most worrying aspect of this is that homeopathy is taking the form of extremism over there, i.e., homeopathy should replace conventional evidence-based medicine. Having recently locked horns with one such homeopath, I guess I should not be surprised that I got the “handbag” treatment. A full blown hissy. Fantastic. I have blogged about this wee experience.

Leave a Reply