This week, the Canadian consumer affairs programme Marketplace devoted its episode to looking at the claims, practices and regulation of homeopathy. It is a pretty damning account and the homeopaths are up in arms about it, as we shall see. This prime time programme is likely to do the homeopathy trade a lot of harm in Canada. And the main reason is that it did a good job of exposing the central ludicrousness of the nature of the treatment – the huge dilutions.
The biggest threat to homeopathy is that ordinary consumers actually understand their claims. Large numbers of people I meet are under the impression that it is a form of herbalism – using natural substances to treat illness. This is not true. Last week, I gave a talk to the Boston Skeptics Society and I took along a Canadian friend of mine. We had an argument afterwards, over a few fine Sam Adams Winter Ales, as he simply could not believe that the remedies were so diluted – to the point where no original ‘medicine’ exists. He is not alone in disbelieving just how absurd it could possibly be. It is a reaction I have seen many times from people who could not believe our shops, and the regulators of such products, could allow such nonsense to be sold as medicine.
Anyway, the programme. Afterwards, we can look at the homeopaths reaction.
Now, the programme makers became aware of a campaign by homeopaths to "derail the merits"of the programme. The campaign was initiated by the Ontario College of Homeopathic Medicine and quickly spread worldwide. It now appears that this is the standard response of homeopaths. Instead of addressing the concerns, the homeopaths bombard the programme makers with complaints, as has happened with the most recent BBC Newsnight investigation.
For completeness, here is their campaign in full.
What Can the Homeopathic Community Do?
First of all, we need to recognize that all the bad press in the world is not going to destroy homeopathy. Condemnation of homeopathy has been going on for nearly 200 years and it will continue for the foreseeable future.
In practical terms, though, there are many things that individuals can do to establish some facts in the face of this controversy. The more of us doing so, the greater impact we will have. We recommend the following:
1. Check your TV listings for the Marketplace timeslot in your area and record the programme if you can, so that you can quote it accurately if necessary.
2. Spread the word. Tell your friends, colleagues, patients, etc. about the show and share with them your thoughts and recommendations about how they can respond.
3. Write a testimonial about how homeopathy has worked for you and send it to firstname.lastname@example.org for inclusion on the CSH website. Ask your friends, colleagues, patients, etc. to do the same. Over the coming weekend, we will use these testimonials to draw attention to the effectiveness of homeopathy.
4. Be prepared to leave a comment on the CBC and Marketplace website immediately after the programme airs. Go to www.cbc.ca/marketplace/blog/ and check out the comment function right now. Sign up now to create a user’s account so that there will be no delay when you are ready to send your comments. Once the programme has aired, you can leave a comment by clicking on the title, which will take you to a summary page concluding with a link “Share your comment”. This leads to a comment box, which requires that you sign in. CBC monitors and reviews all messages so you may want to read the Submission Guidelines page before planning to send your comments.
5. Know what you are going to say so that you can post a response without delay. Choose to focus on a single point per comment, elaborate on it, and conclude with a strong, affirming statement. Often the most effective messages are short, concise, and to the point. Send as many of these as you can.
6. Familiarize yourself with the issues. We suspect that the programme may contain some of the common criticisms and mis-information that have been published in the past. We have compiled a list of these erroneous statements and will e-mail them to you upon request. If it’s helpful, you can make use of our material in your comments to the CBC.
7. Watch Out for Follow-up Enquiries
If you are a practitioner, be prepared for phone enquiries from the media. Most will be asking you for a comment regarding the Marketplace programme.
If you feel comfortable discussing your opinions over the phone, be aware that your response will be taped and can be quoted verbatim. Therefore, you are advised to prepare your response in advance. Say no more than you have prepared. Do not allow the journalist to draw you into an extended conversation. Simply repeat your prepared statement or invite questions to be submitted in writing.
Alternately you can start a conversation with a journalist with the agreement that you will talk only “off-the-record”, i.e., to provide information that is not for publication. All ethical journalists will respect your terms and will not quote you.
However, some journalists may pose as a potential patient, asking questions that are intended to reveal some questionable information or breach of ethics. This occurred to several homeopaths in the UK following the publication of the erroneous meta-study in the journal Lancet. Therefore we urge caution when talking to strangers about homeopathy, homeo-prophylaxis, and vaccinations.
8. Keep Your Cool
How we all react to this criticism will determine how much traction this story maintains in the coming weeks and months. We urge you to be calm, be polite, be underwhelmed. Take the moral high ground. Convey that this Marketplace programme is no more than a mild irritant for homeopaths who are providing an important service in your community. It is disappointing that the CBC journalists chose to ignore the reality that is the basis of homeopathy, but that doesn’t affect what we know to be true.
The strength in homeopathy is that it works. We practitioners know it works because we see it every day in our patients and they obviously know it works because they refer their family and friends to homeopathy and they keep coming back when they get ill. Nay-sayers can say “it aint so” until they are blue in the face, but that doesn’t change the fact that homeopathy does work, even if we still don’t know how it works. Full stop. End of discussion. Let’s say what needs to be said to set the record straight and then get back to doing the important work that we do with homeopathy.
Please feel free to share this message with anyone who might be interested.
Now of course, this ‘response’ was prepared before the homeopaths had actually seen the programme. But beyond just the simple charges that homeopathy is nothing but sugar pills, the investigators uncovered life threatening practices in the homeopathy trade, most notable that of offering replacements for childhood vaccines and the treatment of cancer.
These are serious allegations that deserve a serious response. Not an online spam campaign. It would be reasonable to argue that the programme makers had been unfair if they had cherry picked a few homeopaths with extreme views. However, their campaign, and their lack of serious response is strong evidence that this is not true. Dangerous beliefs are mainstream in the world of homeopathy. There is no such thing as ‘progressive’ homeopathy, where believers moderate their practices to ensure they do not put people’s lives at risk by making claims that cannot be substantiated robustly.
As such, the programme is quite right to put the spotlight on the regulators in Canada who appear to be doing precisely the wrong thing by allowing claims to be made and homeopathy remedies to be sold as if they were real medicines. This gives an undue legitimacy to homeopaths that they do not deserve. Until such time that homeopaths learn to moderate their claims and act within the boundaries demanded by the scarcity of evidence available, then homeopaths can expect to be subjected to continuous high profile scrutiny.
It is a point that I find hard to believe that homeopaths have not yet understood.