Homeopaths Through the Looking-Glass

Homeopathy is fun. Pretending you can cure minor self-limiting ailments with magic water and sugar pills obviously brings countless hours of pleasure to lots of people and I, for one, would not want to take their ball away. Hey! You can even make some money out of it too, as lots of people like to join in and pay money to play patient and be part of the fantasy. But like all fantasy games, there really ought to be some pre-arranged agreement on limits; someone to shout a code word, or hold up a red card, when it looks like things might be going a bit too far, and where someone might get hurt. All participants can then step back, have a laugh, a cup of tea, and re-start tomorrow with some more bumps and bruises.

I have written many times on this blog that there appears to be nobody in the homeopathic community who really wants to take on this role of referee. Without someone to blow the whistle, people may actually get so deep into the homeopathic game that they really start believing they can cure serious illnesses, like malaria and AIDS. And, as part of the role playing is to pretend that real doctors are nasty, conspiratorial and in it for the Big Pharma money, some of the patients may also start crossing the safety boundaries.

There are a number of homeopathic members’ clubs out there that have ethics codes and complaints committees, but after the BBC Newsnight/Sense about Science malaria sting which resulted in little visible change, one has to wonder how effective these procedures are? As Simon Singh, the science writer and broadcaster, said at the time,

I was shocked that there was such willingness to give advice and sell products that would leave people exposed to a highly dangerous disease… Beforehand I suspected that one or two homeopaths might offer pills to protect against malaria, but it turned out that ten out of ten were guilty of such irresponsible practice. This makes me think that there is something fundamentally wrong with the way homeopaths are regulated.

Now, Peter Chappell, you may remember, claims to be able to do wonders for just about everything, including AIDS and cancer, with not only his own magic homeopathy concoctions, but downloadable homeopathic MP3 files. Peter sports the designation FSHom (Fellow of the Society of Homeopaths) in a number of places, so, I rattle off a quick letter to them to see what they make of his practices. The Society of Homeopaths complaints officer, Patricia Moroney, replies that Peter is ‘no longer a member of the Society of Homeopaths and therefore is not bound by our Code of Ethics and Practice. He is not entitled to FSHom.”

My mistake.

In my defence, Peter Chappell carries the FSHom designation all over the web. Surely the Society of Homeopaths will be furious that he is still promoting himself as FSHom, whilst outrageously breaking their own code of practice, and try to do something about it? So furious in fact, that there could be no way that they would still be promoting his book on the society web site, under “Recommended Reading”, and describing him as FSHom and ‘a Registered Member and Fellow of the Society”? And so furious that there is no way that they would be holding an AIDS symposium on the 1st of December (World AIDS day) which will specifically give a platform to Peter Chappell’s ridiculous healing ideas?

The second complaint I made was regarding Julia Wilson RSHom who holds a homeopathic asthma clinic and says that she has worked in a Kenyan homeopathic AIDS, TB and malaria clinic. In my opinion, her advertising literature advocated specific homeopathic cures for asthma that are superior to real medicine. The Society of Homeopaths found that no breach of their code had been made.

Let me repeat what I believe to be one of the difficult sections of the leaflet.

Conventional medicine is at a loss when it comes to understanding the origin of allergies. … The best that medical research can do is try to keep the symptoms under control. Although creams and puffers can provide temporary relief, they are not offering your child a cure.

Homeopathy is different, it seeks to address the triggers for asthma and eczema. It is a safe, drug free approach that helps alleviate the flaring of skin and tightening of lungs…

Leaving aside the self-contradictory nature of these claims about suppressing symptoms, it appears to me that Julia is saying that homeopathic approaches can do things that medicine cannot and that it offers a better approach. Julia, in her defence, says that ‘absolutely no cure is implied’. Please re-read the above to make your own mind up. Specifically, she says to the SoH complaints officer that ‘my leaflet makes no claims, stated or implied, that homeopathy can treat asthma…Absolutely no cure is implied’ and SoH accepts this. “No further action will be taken”. What do you think?

The response to my complaint also pointed out that the leaflet made clear that ‘it does not claim superiority over conventional treatment, it is at pains to make it clear that homeopathy can be integrated with conventional treatment’. The only section that goes anywhere near such a statement is ‘Homeopathic treatments are safe for children – and they work alongside conventional medicines such as creams and puffers.’ Is that ‘going to great pains’ and advocating ‘integration’? I think not. Is this why she talks of a ‘drug free approach’?

As for her involvement in the Kenyan homeopathy clinic that claims to be a centre for treating AIDS and malaria, “[I] did not, at any point, claim to cure malaria, HIV/AIDS or TB. … Not only would such a claim contravene section 72 of the Code of Ethics & Practice, it would of course, be counter to the very way in which homeopaths practice’. It is well worth visiting the Abha Light Foundation’s web site and attempt to understand if that is what Abha believe too.

I wish I could point you to a relevent page on the SoH website that publicised the outcomes of the above investigations, but their ethics and complaints procedures appear to be private and closed. It is worth comparing and contrasting this with the GMC and their conduct enquiries in doctors’ standards. Full details of their current investigations and decisions can be found on their site. I would argue that the GMC was better protecting patients’ interests by being open and public.

In closing, when dealing with homeopaths, it does look like we have to be very careful about words. Their world view is so far from reality that we can never be sure we are talking about the same thing. Many homeopaths do not recognise illnesses like AIDS, malaria and TB and their pathogenic origins . They see these illnesses as being symptoms of underlying imbalances in mystical energies, miasms, or fairy dust, or something. These ‘life-force problems’ are what homeopaths claim to be treating – not the disease. When they talk about ‘treating’ and ‘curing’ they are talking about the ‘underlying reason’ and the ‘whole person’. Such pseudo-scientific subtlety will be lost on most people. And so, what look like contradictory thought process to us, make perfect sense in their Humpty Dumpty world. In a world where words mean whatever you want them to mean, it is difficult to see how any complaint against you could ever be upheld.


21 Comments on Homeopaths Through the Looking-Glass

  1. Great stuff. I’ve been reading through a lot of the SoH’s submissions to parliament recently. It is interesting that in all the oral and written evidence they have repeatedly asserted that their Code of Ethics gives them and their members respectability and accountability. So far it seems no member of the Commons or Lords has cast doubt on this assertion. Perhaps you should put your concerns to the members of the Science and Technology committee.

  2. What do I think of Julia Wilson’s claims regarding asthma? As is increasingly the case regarding such people, words fail me. How much prominence does she give to the fact that asthma took the lives of almost 1,400 people in 2005, a good proportion of whom were under the impression their condition was not that serious? I found this article in a 2006 issue of BMC Complementary Therapy – http://www.biomedcentral.com/1472-6963/6/76
    unsettling, dealing with CAM use in asthma. It’s very sad if some asthmatics feel they’re not getting information about triggers (and diagnosis) in their NHS care, but I’m not sure homeopaths are the ones to make good this deficiency, given that their methods of diagnosis and treatment in allergy and asthma do not stand up to scrutiny.

  3. Of the senior management mentioned in this document http://www.homeopathy-soh.org/about-the-society/documents/OrganStructure07.pdf
    only two are RHom. The Chief Executive, Paula Ross, Membership & Publications Manager, M. Gurney, Communications and Marketing Manager M. Oxley, Resources Manager, S. Waller, Finance Manager, P. Johns and Professional Conduct Officer O. Moroney are not registered homeopaths and so not bound by the code of conduct. Only Senior Education Advisor, L. Wicks and Registrar G. Baran are on the register.

  4. But then, is a claim being made to cure asthma? If homoeopathy triggers the body’s defences to cure itself, then it’s a different ballgame, surely?

  5. To Anonymous above:
    The overall impression given by the leaflet (“Although creams and puffers can provide temporary relief, they are not offering your child a cure. Homeopathy is different”, testimonials that “A week afterwards, Harry’s eczema had cleared up. His face has been totally clear ever since” and “she’s had fewer [asthma] attacks as a result”, and “Homeopathic treatments can put a drugfree smile on the faces of asthma and eczema sufferers”) is certainly at odds with the homeopath’s claim to the SoH complaints officer that “my leaflet makes no claims, stated or implied, that homeopathy can treat asthma”.
    It is true that when read with coldly clinical precision the leaflet doesn’t quite make any specific claim: it gives an overwhelming impression of being able to successfully treat asthma and eczema while carefully preserving just enough wiggle room in the wording to be able to claim that no such thing is being said. In that way it is exactly like the advertising used by most fraudulent peddlers of most quack medicines.
    I don’t know where you get the idea that homoeopathy triggers the body’s defences to cure itself. Not from a homeopath, I hope – they’re not supposed to mention “cure”.

  6. I suppose your “wiggle-room” is executed in the practioners’ leaflet to avoid their being castigated for claiming to cure specific conditions. But then, what else are they supposed to do? You can’t forbid them to make such specific claims, then complain when they avoid doing so!

    On the body’s curing itself – yes, that’s the whole point, as I understand it, of homoeopathy. It doesn’t aim to cover up or overpower symptoms like conventional drugs; it’s supposed to work with the body, not against it. It’s been explained to me that an accurately prescribed remedy is an artificial stimulus to the body so like the patient’s real complaint, that his immune system responds to it with appropriate self-healing measures So the patient heals himself.

  7. “You can’t forbid them to make such specific claims, then complain when they avoid doing so!” Perhaps I didn’t express myself clearly but that wasn’t what I complained about. My complaint was that, for all practical purposes, she is claiming a cure for asthma and eczema. Someone reading the leaflet will be likely to reasonably conclude that going to her clinic sounds like just the thing to clear up their or their children’s asthma. Her claim to the SoH that it “makes no claims, stated or implied, that homeopathy can treat asthma” is absurd.

  8. The opinion of the SoH complaints officer that a cure wasn’t being implied is different from the Advertising Standards Authority’s opinion of a different but similarly worded leaflet:

    The Authority considered that the claim “After the remedy she was completely back to normal … no asthma” implied the advertisers could cure asthma, and noted that the advertisers had not sent evidence to support that claim. The Authority reminded the advertisers that testimonials did not constitute substantiation and should be backed up with independent evidence of their accuracy.

  9. Andy, I think what you have shown is that by any rational reasonable and objective standards their disciplinary procedure will simply protect their member even if it requires them to say that black is white to do so.

    As someone has said at Ben Goldacre’s site, these people are beyond reach of debate and are simply “the enemy”. The best use that can be made of this material is to present it to outside authorities to show the real face of homeopathy’s governing bodies. I think more complaints made in the way you have described and collated with their inevitably inadequate outcomes will make very useful reading for Healthcare Trusts, MPs and anyone else who might need to be shown the truth. Ultimately it all can be used to show what a sham is the notion of self-regulation when the entire activity is nonsense

  10. I still don’t get the point you’re making. The complaint is that homoeopaths shouldn’t claim they can help people get better, isn’t it? If that’s the case, how do you suggest they should advertise? Surely people go to them because they hope these homoeopaths can help them (when, presumably, conventional medicine hasn’t)? If those same people go away happy with their treatment, they won’t be a drain on the NHS, so everyone’s a winner. What, then, have you got to complain about? I wish I could get my head round this.

  11. “I still don’t get the point you’re making.”
    Simply that homeopaths should not advertise that they can treat conditions which they cannot. I’m not singling out homeopaths over this: it is dishonest (and normally illegal) for anyone to sell a product or service which doesn’t work.

    “The complaint is that homoeopaths shouldn’t claim they can help people get better, isn’t it?”

    “If that’s the case, how do you suggest they should advertise?”
    They should stop claiming to cure diseases which they cannot. Preferably they should clearly state what the evidence shows – that they cannot treat anything other than minor self-limiting conditions which often go away on their own anyway.

    “Surely people go to them because they hope these homoeopaths can help them”
    Yes, encouraged in that belief by misleading advertising.

    “If those same people go away happy with their treatment, they won’t be a drain on the NHS, so everyone’s a winner.”
    Only in those cases where the person does get better – which they might very well have done without visiting the homeopath. In cases where the patient doesn’t get better neither the patient nor the NHS (to whom the patient returns) has benefited, and the patient is out of pocket. In cases of serious disease, seeking homeopathic treatment could delay the patient going to a doctor and cause their condition to worsen.

    “What, then, have you got to complain about?”
    Dishonest advertising. And fear-mongering about side-effects of effective medication including vaccines, which can cause people to avoid successful conventional treatment.

  12. Hi,
    On your post:”Simply that homeopaths should not advertise that they can treat conditions which they cannot. I’m not singling out homeopaths over this: it is dishonest (and normally illegal) for anyone to sell a product or service which doesn’t work.”
    How did you prove yourself that homeopathy does not work? Did you get this conlcusion from your personal experience? Obviously you are not a homeopath and since your knowledge and understanding on the subject is limited I don’t see how can you claim your position to be valid? There are many homeopaths out there who unfortunately are not practicing true classical homeopathy hence their treatment is not exactly according to homeopathic philosophy, but there are many allopathic physicians who are equally poorly trained and do ten times more harm by prescribing massive doses of drugs, perform surgeries when these can be avoided, etc.
    You can not bannish something simply because you don’t understand it.

  13. All these comments are very interesting and show a wide diversity of knowledge and support for/against homeopathy. My position is that I use homeopathic medicines for myself, my animals and a limited number of other people, ONLY if they approach me; I will not attempt to treat a serious condition and will politely refuse, while suggesting other, more qualified people who can be asked for an opinion. I always explain how I expect the medicine to work, which remedies I would give them and why, and ask for feedback. I am also very honest about my current level of knowledge and experience. I refuse to accept any money, which probably makes me quite unpopular with some professional homeopaths, but I just don’t feel it’s ethical for me to do that when I can’t guarantee the outcome. I have had quite a few successes with animals and humans and I am delighted by that. It suits me to broaden my knowledge and experience gradually over time and I suppose I tend to see myself a little like the old woman with her potions who likes to help out other sick creatures where she can. I think any knowledge I have should be freely passed on to anyone else who can use it, the power to heal should not be ‘owned’ by anyone. I think a lot of the problems with homeopathy come from some people’s insistence that it should compete with or replace orthodox medicine; as a system of folk medicine, it will naturally evolve and become popular or not, according to its efficacy. I suppose respectability is an issue, because folk medicine is regarded as akin to ‘witchcraft’ and homeopaths are trying to get away from those associations. Another of my interests is physics, I do read a lot, and I am quite happy that there is a scientific explanation for how a homeopathic medicine could store a therapeutic effect which could then be released throughout the body. This explanation involves the molecular structure of water; I read a book called “Electricity, Water and Health” by Professor Alan Hall; although it was not about homeopathy, the explanation seems to apply. I believe that it is possible that if a plausible scientific/reductionist explanation of how homeopathy may work were to be established by mainstream medicine, then there would no longer be a requirement for treatment to be effective 100% of the time for the system to be accepted; mainly because it would be clear that no fraud or intention to mislead would exist among practitioners, in the same way as orthodox medicine. Lots more to say, but I’ve had my turn!

  14. I guess skeptics will always be skeptics. I experienced some benefits of homeopathy, and I no longer doubt it really works. Although there still is not a real scientific explanation for its mechanism, I am sure – for having experienced it myself in a very obvious way – that homeopathy, when correctly practiced, can "cure" (homeopaths DO use the word "cure" by the way) many health conditions. I also think there can be complementarity between regular medicine. But, in cases of illness that are not "extreme" (no immediate life danger), I would always prefer homeopathy over regular medicine. One of the reasons is that it is cheaper, in my experience it is more effective (not for all conditions, but for a lot of them) and it has no side effects. It's true homeopaths invented some terminology that is rather obscure and where terms are not rigorously defined. I guess they needed a language of their own because, we have to admit that point, nobody ever revealed the true mechanism of homeopathy, while at the same time the medical results were so positive. I am still very curious about who and when will succeed in providing us a scientific explanation annex theory. It won't be me, I am afraid.

  15. i have myself cured several cases of Malaria and many homoeopaths before me and after me as well. we can so you documented cases of Malaria cured by Homoeopathy

    • In the absence of any medicine does malaria kill 100% of all sufferers?

      Will you be the only homeopath ever to stick around for a proper examination of his claims?

      Come on then “Dr” Chheda, grow a pair of man-plums and give it your best shot.

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