The stillborn homeopathy campaign, Homeopathy Worked for Me, that attempted to collect 250,000 signatures but managed just a few percent of that, has now resorted to producing a laughably daft critique of Ernst & Singh’s Trick or Treatment.
William Alderson, a homeopath, has produced a 142 page response to the book that attempts to show that the book has “has no validity as a scientific examination of alternative medicine”. Entitled, Halloween Science, the critique is a collection of misunderstandings, quibbles, strawmen and just plain daftness.
The approach that Alderson is taking here is to produce so many half baked critiques that to debunk the whole work would take 500 pages or more. Even if I was to show that the first few pages contained nothing but nonsense, the charge could be made that the rest of the book must contain some well targeted criticism. The whole book is destined to become an exemplar of the Dunning-Kruger effect.
Nonetheless, given that I have a life, I have no choice but to pick out a few examples and display their total inadequacy to you. The rest I shall leave as an exercise to the reader. No doubt, as with any work, there may well be weaknesses in Trick or Treatment and Alderson may well stumble over a few of them. Whether this undermines the main argument of the book though is a different matter. In that regard, Alderson fails to plant any fatal punches.
For the easily bored, or for those with delicate foreheads (for you will be sure to be banging yours on the desk if you attempt to read the full tome), Alderson gracefully produces a précis of his magnum opus.
So, a quick example: early on in Trick or Treatment, Ernst and Singh show how early versions of clinical trials established effective treatments for sailors’ scurvy. By trialling different proposed remedies and comparing outcomes, the British Navy was able to eradicate the curse of scurvy by allowing sailors access to lemons and oranges, a good source of vitamin C.
Alderson contends that in doing so the authors are “confusing two types of intervention”.
In fact, we need to be clear that the condition which lemons, oranges or vitamin C are actually curing is the absence of vitamin C in the diet. In other words the treatment in this case is actually the ending of a harmful intervention (deprivation of vitamin C), and this harmful intervention is the one and only cause of the illness. In this respect dietary deficiency diseases and poisonings are totally different from infections or chronic diseases, where there are multiple causes. The point can be illustrated by reference to another of Ernst and Singh’s examples: loss of blood as a result of bloodletting simply requires one to stop depriving the patient of blood, whereas a haemorrhage requires an active intervention to be initiated to solve the problem. Nobody would call the former action a ‘cure’, yet that is precisely what Ernst and Singh are doing in the case of scurvy.
You might want to read that again, because, yes Alderson is really saying what you thought he did.
Before I highlight his error here, it is worth noting Alderson’s misplaced obsession with theory in medical treatments. He claims that Ernst and Singh ignore theory when they say that “by experimenting and observing, [we] can determine whether or not a particular therapy is effective.” Alderson contends that “Ernst and Singh [believe] the scientific method is about “experimenting and observing”, not about experimenting, observing and theory.” The observant might notice the Alderson is attacking an argument that the authors do not make. Ernst and Singh do not attempt to define science as being about “experimenting and observing” but that we can determine what facts are true about the world by such processes. We can understand if an intervention has an effect on a disease without having a theoretical understanding of the diseases nature. That may well come later.
Alderson obsesses about theory because, like a lot of homeopaths, he delights that homeopathy provides a theory of disease – imbalances in vital forces (or something) and a theory of cure – ‘like cures like’. Like all homeopaths, he does not understand that you cannot have a theory until you have a set of observations that need explaining by a theory. No such observations exist for homeopathy. In two hundred years, homeopaths have failed to produce a similar demonstration of efficacy as this primitive trial with lemons.
So, back to our scurvy problem. What Alderson is missing is that when citrus fruits were proposed as a cure for scurvy, that this was not based on any theory of disease. Indeed, it was completely unknown what caused the terrible disease amongst sailors. It could have been an infection or diet; some though the disease was caused by sailor’s laziness and so made sick sailors work harder. Physicians at the time had no knowledge of vitamins and the book makes this clear. The sailors’ trials tried different suggested remedies including cider, sulphuric acid, vinegar, sea water, garlic paste and, of course, oranges and lemons on twelve afflicted patients. The two given fruit recovered very quickly, the cider drinkers somewhat and the rest made no progress. As trials go, it is pretty primitive, but understandably compelling.
Even with this result, it would take a long time to establish that that the reason lemons worked was because of a dietary deficiency. Alderson is quite wrong to suggest that somehow the trial only worked because of the nature of the cause. In fact, the nature of the trial makes no assumptions about the cause of the illness; it merely seeks to determine what intervention has an effect on the illness. The trial has about as much need of theory as a ruler does of General Relativity. Alderson fails to state why this so called failure or ‘confusion’ had any bearing on this or any other trial.
The rest of Halloween Science is riddled with the same error and similar misunderstandings. What is unforgivable is that that Ernst and Singh go to some six pages explaining very carefully the same point I have made above. William Alderson does not, or chooses not to, understand.
Of course, the whole Alderson book is a mere fig-leaf. Its clumsy rhetoric and lengthy nitpicking is a disguise of the embarrassment that homeopaths have over the fact that they cannot produce any reliable evidence for the efficacy of their treatments and the validity of their hypotheses (not theories). This pamphlet may well please the homeopaths who continue to avoid acknowledging the genuine and urgent criticisms of their shabby trade (such as their refusal to condemn the practices of their colleagues who dish out sugar pills in Africa in order to ‘prevent’ malaria or treat HIV infection). More competent readers will not be impressed.
It is probably worth mentioning the section in Halloween Science that discusses the attempts by the Society Homeopaths to sue my internet service provider when I dared to criticise them.
William Alderson, a member of that society continues to misrepresent what happened in the most shocking way.
Ernst and Singh said in their book,
Worse still, when the Society of Homeopaths, based in Britain, was criticized for not taking a firm stand against inappropriate use of homeopathy, it decided to suppress criticism rather than to address the central issue. Andy Lewis, who runs a sceptical and satirical website (www.quackometer.net), had written about the Society and the issue of homeopathic malaria treatments, which resulted in the Society asking the company that hosts his website to remove the offending page. In our opinion, the Society needs to improve in three ways. First, it ought to police its practitioners more thoroughly. Second, it ought to act publicly and promptly when serious complaints are made. Third, it should listen to its critics rather than silence them.
You can read my criticism here. It is harsh – but the issue was very important.
At its most basic level, the Society fail to uphold their own code of conduct, never censor anyone for clear breaches and allow their members to offer dangerously misleading advice to the public. (Example here)Those charges demand a serious response. The Society have never done so.
Alderson responds to this rather serious charge by just quoting the Society asserting what good eggs they are. He then repeats the lie that the Society could not take action against any members as no information had been given to them. This is simple untrue as you can read here. To say that the society had nothing to “police” is an utter distortion. The Society is riddled with members who either support or who actively engage in immoral and dangerous uses of homeopathy on Africans with malaria or AIDS.
Alderson then claims that the Society was justified in calling in their lawyers because my remarks were not criticism but defamatory. I wrote to Paula Ross asking for an explanation. None was ever forthcoming. They simply wanted to silence me.
And the Society and their members made no meaningful attempt to stamp out dangerous practices. Indeed, they went on to host a conference on treating AIDS with sugar pills and have been financially supporting members experimenting on Africans with AIDS. Let me now defame them: despicable scum.