Homeopaths Attempt to Rubbish Ernst and Singh with Dismal Critique

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.

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UPDATE

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.

22 comments for “Homeopaths Attempt to Rubbish Ernst and Singh with Dismal Critique

  1. Peterd102
    April 22, 2009 at 1:16 am

    I didnt get far in that drivel before I gave up – I have better things to do than read that. Once I had gone through a few of their “major flaws” and realised they were rubbish I got tired of it, like I am with the rest of the farce that is homeopathy.

  2. Bob
    April 22, 2009 at 6:13 am

    “11. Ernst and Singh fail to take different definitions of terms into account
    Some alternative therapies have definitions of disease, cure and effectiveness which are significantly different from those used by orthodox medicine. These differences and their impact on clinical trials are not identified or discussed.”

    So we can have alternative definitions of ‘cure’ and ‘effectiveness’? This explains a great deal about homoeopathy.

  3. Le Canard Noir
    April 22, 2009 at 6:37 am

    Exactly. One of the great homeopathic canards, evident is spades in this document, is that RCTs can only measure certain types of outcomes, i.e. conventional definitions of ‘effective’, or whatever. Homeopaths claim a different view of these concepts (whatever) but fail to realise that RCTs are perfectly good tools for measuring the outcomes you wish to see, whatever they are. Homeopaths could claim that their treatments give their patient better weather if they wished. The RCT could measure that. As long as you state your own definitions of ‘cure’ inadvance of the trial and say what you will count to measure that outcome, then you are fine.

  4. Anonymous
    April 22, 2009 at 7:51 am

    When you cited the Dunning-Kruger effect I immediately went off to look at it and it is indeed fascinating – as were the related Lake Wobegone & Dunning effects, and the essay on depressive realism. New to me, and, as I am a well above-average sort myself, both illuminating and confirming. Thank you!

  5. Mojo
    April 22, 2009 at 9:39 am

    “The stillborn homeopathy campaign, Homeopathy Worked for Me, that attempted to collect 250,000 signatures but managed just a few percent of that…”

    The other day I noticed another homoeopathic petition:

    http://www.webnewswire.com/node/451420

    Perhaps wisely, this one has set itself a target of 10,000 signatures worldwide. Remind me, how many did “Homeopathy Worked for Me” actually manage?

  6. Le Canard Noir
    April 22, 2009 at 10:26 am

    So, from 250,000 in the UK, t0 10,000 worlwide.

    Remember, it was not just a petition, but a survey: The question was:

    1. HOMEOPATHY WORKED FOR ME

    YES

    Note. No option for a NO answer. Clowns.

  7. Anonymous
    April 22, 2009 at 11:48 am

    "When you cited the Dunning-Kruger effect I immediately went off to look at it and it is indeed fascinating – as were the related Lake Wobegone & Dunning effects, and the essay on depressive realism. New to me, and, as I am a well above-average sort myself, both illuminating and confirming. Thank you!"

    I hate to deflate your opinion of yourself as an above average sort, but it is not the "Dunning effect" but the "Downing affect".

    :D

    BillyJoe

  8. Mojo
    April 22, 2009 at 12:22 pm

    “No option for a NO answer.”

    WHY ARE THEY DENYING MY EXPERIENCE???

  9. Warhelmet
    April 22, 2009 at 1:05 pm

    Oh. The main problem with appeals to a “theory” of homeopathy is that homeopaths can not agree on the fundamental nature of homeopathy. It’s Alderson’s theory of homeopathy that he’s talking about.

  10. Paul Hill
    April 22, 2009 at 1:11 pm

    “So we can have alternative definitions of ‘cure’ and ‘effectiveness’? This explains a great deal about homoeopathy.”

    “Cure”==”I got paid”
    “Effective”==”They came back, I got paid again”

  11. Le Canard Noir
    April 22, 2009 at 1:24 pm

    There are some rather marvelous parts in Andersons rant where he complains that Ernst and Singh do not define ‘effective’. He says homeopaths may have different views and discusses the old homeopathic nonsense of ‘aggrevations’. That is, it a patient gets worse it may be an ‘aggrevetation’ – a sign that the homeopathic remedy is still working.

    Forgive me William, but if a homeopaths definition of effective is ‘could get worse, could get better, could stay the same’, I will take Ernst’s definition.

    Amazing that homeopaths claim to be patient centred and yet how many patients would be satisfied with a definition of effective that meant that your symptoms actually got worse?

  12. HolfordWatch
    April 22, 2009 at 2:11 pm

    One of the oddest criticisms was that William Alderson appeared to be reproving Prof Ernst and Simon Singh for displaying epistemological modesty. I’m taking some sentences of David Brooks‘ out of context because the article was annoying but this captures it well: “The correct position is the one held by self-loathing intellectuals, like Isaiah Berlin, Edmund Burke, James Madison, Michael Oakeshott and others. These were pointy heads who understood the limits of what pointy heads can know. The phrase for this outlook is epistemological modesty, which would make a fine vanity license plate”.

  13. pvandck
    April 23, 2009 at 11:31 pm

    Can I remind everyone that many of the votes on the HWFM survey were mine – and I lied every time. When I was younger and even more stupid I did try a course homeopathic remedies, twice. I have to report that twice nothing is still nothing. I was not so stupid as to be deluded on those occasions.
    Re William Alderson and his book as summarised here, several individual words come to mind. For example “thick”, “ignorant”, “deluded”. And this assumes he actually believes what he writes, which so just not science. As I said, assuming he believes what he writes, otherwise a few other individual, less than flattering words come to mind.
    Seriously, I’m waiting for the book that provides the one incontrovertible, fully documented and referenced case… out of the millions that must exist in their 200 years worth of meticulously kept records.

  14. John H
    April 28, 2009 at 9:56 am

    What a crap “survey” that is.

    No opportunity to say that my several open minded stabs at a sugar pill cure were worse than useless. Ultradilute beeshit does not cure allergic reactions – Zirtek does. Arnica is useless for burns – sticking the burn under a cold tap works just fine. That cold remedy thing with loads of o’s, c’s and s’s in it is rubbish (I cannot be arsed looking it up as it is meaningless).

    Call me cynical but I reckon anyone who answers that will be inundated with quack mailshots, having already demonstrated that they are gullible twats who can be parted from their readies.

    I would like to fisk that paper but:
    a) life is too short
    b) it is copyright so the IPR remains with the wooster

    And that will be one of the few instances of the word “intellectual” used in the context of HY that you will ever see.

  15. BadlyShavedMonkey
    April 29, 2009 at 2:23 pm

    Just noticed the photo at the top of the page. Other than Steve Jobs, are SCAMmers the only people in the world who wear polonecks?

    Maybe that’s too sweeping, are SCAMmers the only people in the world who wear a poloneck and a simpering expression?

  16. Vagina Dentata
    May 3, 2009 at 11:57 pm

    I think I might add: ‘never trust a man in a cotton poloneck’ to my other rule for life: ‘never trust a man in a bow-tie’.

    On the ‘confusing different types of intervention’ (which I had to read repeatedly because I had no idea what they were saying until I realised they were morons). Given that deprivation of vitamin C is seen by them as a ‘intervention’ this then implies that without this ‘intervention’ most normal diets provide adequate vitamin C. So they wouldn’t support their nutritionist brothers and sisters in their brand of quackery?

  17. Anonymous
    May 10, 2009 at 1:11 am

    “Arnica is useless for burns – sticking the burn under a cold tap works just fine.”

    Some homoeopaths advise sticking your burnt hand in hot water. Like cures like and all that. I’m not joking. And they swear it works for them.

    (Annoyingly, when I told my wife that, she replied that she always treats her sunburn with a hot shower and it feels much better)

    BillyJoe

  18. Twaza
    June 3, 2009 at 7:30 am

    I was impressed by William Alderson's approach to nutrient deficiency diseases: to remove the intervention that results in the deprivation of the nutrient. So, as a bit of displacement activity I have been checking up on how homeopaths treat scurvy.

    Muriaticum Acidum is used by at least some homeopaths to treat scurvy — see http://abchomeopathy.com/r.php/Mur-ac/mouth

    So, I wonder what version of homeopathy William Alderson is defending?

    My curiosity pricked, I googled "homeopathic anaemia" and found a "plethora" of eyebrow-raising articles.

    Here are two typical examples of bizarre bogosity.

    First: from the chapter on anaemia in http://www.vithoulkas.com/content/view/1245/lang,en/

    ————————
    Ferrum phos
    Follows Calcarea phos. as soon as improvement of the general health sets in. There is a want of red blood in the system. This remedy, by its power of attracting oxygen, colors the new blood-cells red and enriches them after they have been supplied by Calcarea phos. Schussler in a recent letter says: "Iron, which enters into the formation of young blood-cells, is never absent in the blood-stream of chlorotics. Therefore I .have lately abandoned iron, which I recommended in the first editions of my Therapeutics for chlorosis and other anaemic conditions."
    ————————

    I have been wondering for some time what homeopaths regard as progress. Is this it?

    Second: from the article on Homeopathic Medicines for Brain Affections. This caught my eye because it discusses treatments for a disease I have previously been ignorant of: brain anaemia. I shall quote one of eight treatments. If you want to see the others, go to http://www.hpathy.com/diseases/brain-symptoms-treatment-cure.asp

    I am thinking of trying Zincum metallicum myself because it is useful for people who have a "swashing sensation in the head", a problem I tend to suffer from when trying to understand homeopathy.

    I would also recommend it to homeopaths when they suffer from "cerebral softening".

    ————————
    #Zincum metallicum
    A useful remedy in old chronic cases of cerebral anaemia, especially if brought about by the excessive use of the bromide of potassium. It is also a useful remedy for brain affection in the course of scarlet fever or summer complaints. Paralytic condition from cerebral softening may need Zincum. Rhus corresponds to senile changes in the brain. There is a swashing sensation in the brain when moving the head. It also suits paralytic troubles from brain diseases.
    ————————

  19. BadlyShavedMonkey
    July 26, 2009 at 1:50 pm

    Alderson has appeared here;

    http://www.bmj.com/cgi/eletters/339/jul08_4/b2783#217596

    Beware! Reading his letter may cause permanent brain damage.

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