Debating Homeopathy on BBC Oxford Radio

File:Philco radio model PT44 front.jpgThis morning I took part in a debate on the Phil Gayle show on BBC Radio Oxford as part of Homeopathic Awareness Week.

You can listen to the debate here:

Phil Gayle Show: Debate at 1:46:46

I am always in two minds whether to take part in these things. It is easy for a homeopath to ambush with a bizarre study that makes them look like they have evidence. Or for the phone-in to be inundated with well meaning, but misinformed, anecdotes about how “lucky pebbles cured my next door neighbour’s dog”.

But more importantly, the debates rarely get past the ‘It works’, ‘No t doesn’t’ sort of ding-dong. It’s all so rather depressing that the real interesting ideas never get discussed.

It also does not help when the presenter chimes in with their own bad knee anecdote (in which they knew arnica worked – because it just did) or proudly declares that leaches are now back ‘in vogue’ with the medical profession.

It is not as if such a radio programme cannot tackle serious scientific issues. On the same programme there were discussions of the problems diabetics face with undiagnosed eye problems that can cause blindness. There was a running section on the eclipse of the Moon tonight and an interview with Oxford scientists about how the latest discoveries about anti-neutrinos might lead to clues how the the matter-antimatter asymmetry in the early universe formed. And this is on a mainstream local breakfast and commute show – not some specialist digital channel that no-one listens to.)

There is clearly an audience of people here who are perfectly capable of getting past the fact that homeopathy is an illusion and getting onto more substantive issues of why people believe such things, what harms it causes in society and the ethical issues of how doctors can still get away with setting up private practices that exploit these delusions.

The doctor I debated has a string of private clinics in the South of England that offers an “Integrated Medicine” approach at the Natural Practice. “Integrated” and “natural” things are always good, aren’t they? But what is actually offered is a string of superstitious, pseudoscientific, discredited and absurd tests and treatments for people who are willing, or desperate, to pay for them.

The Natural Practice offers not just homeopathy, but acupuncture, hypnotism, cranial osteopathy, reflexology, and nutritional therapy. Some of the practitioners are doctors. Some are not. One called Dr Ruolib Sun offers acupuncture and herbs but does not appear on the GMC register.

Dr George Lewith used to work in this practice until his retirement a few months ago. It is worth reading David Colquhoun’s opinions on what a consultation with Lewith was like after a student wrote to David regarding her disturbing experiences there. Lewith was using a Vega machine to test for ‘food intolerances’. This is despite Lewith himself having written papers showing that Vega machines do not work.

It is not just that Vega machines cannot diagnose allergies and intolerance, but that such devices are indistinguishable from fraud. Practitioners and patients may well believe they work, but the end result is a con. They spit out spurious results, convince the patient, or mark, that they have a string of allergies and intolerances and then allow the practitioner to sell a set of homeopathic remedies, strange diets and other treatments. Patients are left convinced they have a serious illness (that does not exist) and may well make drastic life changes because of this.

My debating partner on the radio, Dr David Owen has been the President of the Faculty of Homeopathy – that is probably the most senior homeopathic post in the UK. Dr Owen, as well as homeopathy, has a keen interest in “Environmental Medicine” which combines vitamin pills with homeopathic sugar pills to treat allergies and sensitivities.

Much more interesting than debates about sugar pills would be to look at the ethics of private medical practitioners offering tests and therapies for conditions using techniques that may be very misleading. But to get to that level of public debate on such a forum would require producers and presenters to get beyond the ‘it works for me’ mentality and start to explore how alternative medicine is a health illusion that may well be harming significant numbers of people.

On this theme…

19 Comments on Debating Homeopathy on BBC Oxford Radio

  1. Bang-on blog. My heart sank when the arnica story popped up – it’s like the royalty of quackery and people feel they’re on safe ground with their anecdotes about it. Keep up the fight

    • Yes, bringing up arnica was a tactical mistake on my part as it is the remedy that everybody thinks works.

      It amazes me that this myth is so strong. What can be more self-limiting and quickly resolving (for most people) than a bruise?

      If I had stuck to belladonna – that daft anecdote bit would not have got in the way of the flow of argument.

  2. Yes, I see both David Owen and Nick Avery, the two senior doctors at the Natural Practise, appear to have connections to Prof Lewith & his So’ton Unit. Small world. From the Natural Practice website:

    David Owen: “He has…over a number of years…. been contributing to the training of doctors at the Medical School in Southampton University where he is a Principle Clinical Teaching Fellow one day a week.”

    Nick Avery: “In 2000 he joined Prof.George Lewith at The Centre for the Study of Complementary Medicine in Southampton and London (later The Centre for Complementary and Integrated Medicine) to develop his expertise in these areas. In June 2009 The Centre amalgamated with The Natural Practice in Winchester.”

    Both Drs Owen and Avery are apparently leading lights of the British Society of Ecological Medicine. Looking at the programme for the BSEM’s conference earlier this year would lead me to regard the organisation with deep suspicion, to put it mildly.

  3. “Much more interesting that debates about sugar pills would be to look at the ethics of private medical practitioners offering tests and therapies for conditions using techniques that may be very misleading.”

    Does homepathy work?
    No.

    Is quackery ethical?
    No.

    Doesn’t look like a much more interesting debate to me, Andy. 🙂

  4. Thank you for keeping the dialogue going. I appreciate any publicity we homeopaths can get! Of course it works when done right. I wouldn’t still be in business if it didn’t.

    • And generations of leechmen and bloodletters would have said the same thing. Are you happy in their company?

      Millions of Aztecs for hundreds of years believed that human sacrifice was necessary to keep the Sun rising. Were they right to be convinced by the widespread support in their society for that belief?

      • “Quack:Noise made when an animal ducks”.

        As when the truth is about to hit it in the face.

        Here is more serius response:

        Homeopathy has been around for two hundred years. When are homeopaths going to move on?

      • My understanding is that the term ‘quack’ originates from the Black Death (bubonic plague). Doctors would walk about in long robes and wear a long beak-like structure on their heads (as immortalised in the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch) on the end of which hung a small bag full of herbs. The belief was that this contraption would at least stop the doctor from getting plague.

        This costume made them look like birds (not very duck-like in my opinion). Since the doctors in those days had neither penicillin nor an understanding of scientific epidemiology, they were powerless to do anything useful.

        It is interesting to note that epidemiological studies have saved lives – notable historical examples are the identification of the Broad Street Pump as the source of cholera (1854) and the identification of the cause and cure of scurvy in the British Navy (1753).

        Quackery of course saves none.

      • Actually, the term “Quack” refers to regular doctors. “Regulars” would “salivate” their “patients” (read: victims) with Mercury. Mercury was commonly called quicksilver. In colloquial Dutch-english, these gentlemen were referred to as “Quacksalvers.” Hence, this derogatory term was originally meant for the allopathic community. I’d suggest you read “A Divided Legacy, Volume III,” by Harris Coulter for a history lesson.

      • Mr Ritz

        Whereas Wikipedia is not infallible, what it says on the subject is inherently more plausible than your version that seems to have been lifted from a defender of homeopathy.

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quackery

        But anyway, I think we know what a quack is, regardless of the etymology of the actual word.

      • Of course etymology doesn’t prove anything, it’s just interesting.

        Someone once tried to calculate at what date Western medicine would be likely to cure more people than it killed. I seem to remember that break-even point was held to be sometime in the late nineteenth century.

        Another episode comes to mind (sorry, no references to hand). During the Crimean War there were a lot of soldiers returning with cholera. I understand that the government ordered a survey of death rates in different hospitals, and that the Royal Homeopathic Hospital came out of it with rather good figures.

        Arguably owing to putting jugs of water by the patients’ bedsides.

        I should be interested if anyone has the correct chapter and verse on this.

  5. Andy Lewis’s final comment summed the issue up neatly.

    In my version:

    The pills are useless.

    An hour spent with a caring homeopath may well induce a patient to feel they have “benefitted”.

    That’s called TLC. Of course it works.

  6. Short but I think you managed to get the important stuff across. It’s a shame that the host didn’t ask the quack more probing questions.

    Also if you’re getting homeoquacks trolling on your site then you’re definitely getting their attention, keep up the good work!

    • That’s a good point. Benneth had not been here for a while and his blogging seems to have died off lately as well.

      Where’s Dana Ullman when you want him?

      Oh, but then again, Andy was chasing him on Twitter with uncomfortable questions. I suspect he won’t want to subject himself to that here as well.

  7. Is there some group of homeopaths who’s paying you, Andy? If they are, I bet it’s not enough. Would you consider “debating” me? Please say yes. I couldn’t buy advertising as good as you’re giving Owen. Homeopaths are lining up, shaking their fists, demanding to know: “How do I sign up for a “debate” with Andy Lewis? We want equal time!” Please Andy, let me know when you can sit down again so I can have a go at it. I AM first in line you know. Although I’ve never been known for my bedside manner, I promise I’ll be gentle . . you bring your “science” and I’ll bring the facts.

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