It would appear that the Chief Executive of the Society of Homeopaths, Paula Ross, has left the building. This morning, the web page that lists the staff of the Society no longer includes her profile. It were there yesterday, and now it is gone.
And also, separately, a little dickie bird tells me that the Society and Ross “have agreed to part company amicably”. Chilling words that anyone who has worked in a corporate environment will understand.
Paula Ross has done a lot for this blog. I would consider her efforts as being fundamental in making the Quackometer what it is today. She once tried to close me down, and in doing so, made me more powerful than I could ever have imagined.
So, on this day, it is worth retelling that story as my own little homage to her tenancy as Chief Executive of the Society of Homeopaths.
Ms Ross joined the Society in July 2003 after the Homeopaths decided they needed a full time Chief Executive to look after the day-to-day running of their business. This was a significant move for them as they were recruiting a non-homeopath to become an organiser and figurehead. But at this time, the homeopaths in the UK were feeling in the ascendant and very confident. Their membership numbers were growing, they were moving into smart new offices and most importantly, the House of Lords had appeared to give then a route towards statutory recognition. Homeopathy was on the rise.
Coming with a background in ‘executive management’ and a Post-Graduate Diploma in Management from City University Business School (with Distinction), Ross got to work helping with the building move and getting finances into order. But there were a number of problems that needed solving if the ambitions of the homeopaths were to be fulfilled.
Back then, criticism in the UK of homeopathy was only simmering – it had always been there – but, the leveraging effect of the Internet had yet to be fully felt. The largest problem seen by the Society was disunity in the trade. In 2000, the House of Lords’ Select Committee on Science & Technology had been very complimentary of the Society of Homeopaths and classed it as an alternative medicine that might meet the requirements for statutory regulation. However, shortly afterwards, a schism opened in that unity and the Alliance of Registered Homeopaths were formed, taking away members with an ideology that did not want an overbearing Society telling them how they could practice. Without a single unifying voice, it would be very hard for the Society to get the Department of Health to agree to giving homeopaths statutory protection. The ARH were not the only dissenters from providing a single front. There were also a smattering of other fringe groups that would shatter the illusion of united profession. It was vital for The Society to pull this together and they dispatched Paula Ross to the Council of Registered Homeopaths (CORH) – a body set up to decide how to create a single register of homeopaths that could be used as a basis for statutory regulation.
CORH was a disaster that quickly fell into “back stabbing and money grabbing”. There was to be no unified register or common approach to the politics of homeopathy. Ross was not trusted as she was not a homeopath. Over time, the disunity would ensure that the trade was in no fit state to defend itself against the continuous and frequent serious charges of quackery that were to come from academics, medics and the media over the next few years.
The first major assault to attack the Society of Homeopaths came from an unlikely quarter. Simon Singh was a particle physicist who went into broadcasting and writing very successful popular science books on subjects such as the Big Bang and code breaking. Singh was concerned that homeopaths might be consistently offering dangerous advice, and so in cooperation with an intern at the charity Sense about Science and the BBC Newsnight programme, he set out to do an undercover investigation.
Alice Tuff got a story together that she was a student about to visit Africa on a gap year visit and wanted some ‘natural’ protection against malaria as she did not want any potential side-effects from real anti-malaria drugs. Out of ten homeopaths she visited, all ten told her that the homeopathic sugar pills could protect her. A homeopath from the Society tried to defend this outrage on Newsnight.
Now, at this time, I was rather new to alternative medicine blogging, and I found this rather shocking. It was not that there was bad practice out there on the High Street. I expected that. What I naively found alarming was how their supposed regulator, the Society of Homeopaths, wriggled and obfuscated and refused to do anything about what was obviously a very serious problem.
I decided to focus some of my own blogging around this and dig a little deeper. I quickly came to the conclusion that despite the fact that the Society had a very authoritative and convincing code of ethics, they had no intention of upholding it. My view of homeopathy was moving away from it being a rather quaint and harmless pastime into a deeply hostile and deluded cult. And it was quite prepared to say one thing internally and give a different message to the outside world, as was clearly documented by David Colquhoun. It appeared to be the only way to explain the complete lack of action on their part over very serious charges.
I picked a random homeopath out of their register that had a web site and appeared to be breaking their rules over treating named diseases and making claims of superiority. The homeopath, Julia, ran a homeopathic asthma clinic for children. She claimed she could treat asthma with sugar pills. Asthma kills many children each year and so such claims should not be taken lightly. Even more worryingly, I discovered that Julia was boasting of her visits to Kenya where she was working for homeopaths there that claimed to treat people with HIV/AIDS, TB and malaria. Telling people that you can treat such dangerous conditions with sugar pills puts their lives at risk, so I entitled my blog post The Gentle Art of Homeopathic Killing. Julia was not the only homeopath engaged in such activities. I was pretty upset by what I had read and I asked a simple question: “could I expect the Society of Homeopaths to try to stamp out this wicked practice?” I made an official complaint to the Society explaining where Julia had made several claims that broke their code of ethics.
Now, after a quick investigation, the Society of Homeopaths decided that Julia made no direct or implied claims and that no action would be taken.
It was true that no action would be taken against the homeopath, but Paula Ross decided that action would be taken against me. She instructed lawyers to write to my web hosts threatening legal action against them unless they took down various posts of mine. No attempt was made to contact me or to explain what they thought was libellous. They went for what they thought as the weakest link and attacked my service providers.
When my web hosts got in contact with me, I immediately wrote to Paul Ross to ask what the problem was. Ross ignored my letter, and instead I got a letter from their lawyer telling me to keep out of it as this was between the Society and my web hosts. By now, this story was picking up on the web. When Professor David Colquhoun FRS and Ben Goldacre in the Guardian (Threats – the Homeopathic Panacea) highlighted my plight, my original article was replicated over hundreds of other web sites and read by tens of thousands of people. My blog had gone from being a quiet little hobby into an international story.
Now the Society responded to the Guardian article on my claims with a letter to the editor where they made the claim that the reason they had not taken action against any of their members after the BBC Newsnight malaria investigation was that the BBC had failed to provide “a single example”.
That did not strike me as true. I did some more investigation and managed to get hold of a letter from Paula Ross to the BBC production crew that said, “I am in receipt of your summary transcripts.” Those transcripts named a Fellow of the Society and gave a full account of what he said to the intern. There were clear statements of intent to offer treatment and protection from malaria with homeopathic sugar pills. It would appear as if the homeopaths claims about why they did nothing were simply not true. They had a name (of a senior homeopath). They had the evidence.
I wrote to Paula Ross asking for an explanation of the discrepancy and got no reply. Paula was definitely not talking to me.
The legal threats fizzled out. The Society must have realised their actions were misconceived. As Nick Cohen wrote in the Observer, they were “funny little alternative institutes we too causally dismiss as quaint.” The world was now watching them and they saw fit to slink away.
Over this issue anyway. The Society came under fresh attacks a few weeks later for holding a conference in London extolling the use of homeopathic sugar pills to treat HIV. Moreover, it became clear that one of their founding members believed that he could create magic MP3 music files that could also treat HIV and cure cancer. The conference gave a platform to these bizarre and dangerous views. It was becoming quite clear that the homeopaths really did believe that their sugar pills and magic rituals could cure anything, but that they realised that they should be circumspect in saying this out loud.
And in the meantime, I had submitted a complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority about the same advert from Julia that the Society had found did not make claims and did not need investigating. The ASA instead found that Julia had made “unsubstantiated, untruthful and irresponsible” claims. They decided the leaflet did imply a cure for asthma and it denigrated conventional treatment. I wrote to the Society again asking why their investigation had come to the opposite conclusion to the ASA and if they would reconsider the complaint. Of course, they did not.
Subsequently, this apparent wilful inability to uphold their own code of conduct has been demonstrated many times with several different people trying to complain about the behaviour of their members. In an act of humiliation, an article appeared in the BMJ highlighting how the Society’s own website broke their own code of ethics. Paula Ross relied that she would investigate. However, as gimpy blog notes, he himself had pointed out the problems two years before and nothing had been done.
Since then, the Society has clamped down on its press releases and communications. All PR from this period now does not exist on their web site, leaving a rather large hole in their history. What they do talk about is their desire to achieve statutory regulation. They claim they have been in discussion with the Department of Health and that their members are right behind this. Even this strategy is now in tatters as recently the acupuncturists and herbalists have failed in the same goal. These two pseudo-medical therapies were given priority in having a go at attempting to achieve regulatory status as their methods can and do cause direct harm to people. With homeopaths and their sugar pills, it is only their deluded beliefs that cause harm, and the government does not appear to be too concerned about that. It would appear to be very unlikely now that the Society will succeed.
This leaves the Society now in limbo. Whereas at the start of Ross’s tenure, the Society had goals and ambitions, they have now run out of road. They have been exposed as a rather nasty cult and, recently, could not even achieve the legitimacy of presenting evidence to the recent House of Commons Select Committee on homeopathy. They were denied the opportunity to appear before the MPs: a situation that would have been unthinkable ten years ago.
We do not know the reason why Paula Ross and the society have parted company. To be fair, I imagine she has had a very difficult job. Remember, she is not a homeopath and does not necessarily hold the same religious zeal about the magic of the sugar pills. As an executive officer, it is quite possible to see these actions here as her carrying out the express orders of the board of directors. As homeopaths, the directors will have wanted to silence me. They want the recognition that regulation would give them. They believe that diluting a substance to the point where none is left can provide magical medicines that can cure all known illness. Over the years, I am sure there will have been much tension when good business sense clashed with deluded belief. I do, actually, feel sorry for her. The only puzzle is why it has taken such time for paths to diverge.
So, good luck Paula in your new opportunities. Ask your new employers searching questions. If they show any signs of belief in fairies at the bottom of the garden – head for the exit. As for the Society, new directors are about to be elected. I doubt they will be recruiting a new non-homeopath CEO. Closing ranks, is my prediction. It would be a massive mistake. I have argued before that homeopathy could survive quite well in the UK, but it will require excellent and clear sighted leadership. They are not going to find that within their ranks. And now, I think if they did find it elsewhere, the homeopaths are in no mood to listen.