I doubt we will ever see an X-Factor moment where a homeopath is forced to brutally confront the totality of their own delusions as they are exposed to a direct and uncompromising truth assault by a quackbusting Simon Cowell. Their emotional commitment to their healing fantasies is far stronger than their intellectual commitment to reason, truth and evidence. But I would have hoped that a homeopath’s disregard for truth was limited to the truths of science, however, events in the last week or two have made me wonder.
Last week, Ben Goldacre wrote an article in the Guardian newspaper (Threats – the homeopathic panacea) about how the Society of Homeopaths had attempted to silence this site over its criticism of the Society’s ability to protect the public from harmful advice from its members. This was highlighted by the BBC Newsnight/Sense about Science investigations into homeopaths giving advice about malaria prevention. As you might recall, at no point did the society try to contact me to explain their grievances – they used legal chill on my website hosts to silence me. The Society saw fit to respond the Guardian article and sent the editor a letter. To the best of my knowledge it has not been published. However, it is published on the Society web site and is the first insight into their thinking.
However, before exploring that, a number of things jumped out. In their letter of 22nd October 2007, they said (with my emphasis),
We contacted the programme makers directly to ask for their evidence that any Society members had given dangerous or misleading advice to members of the public. They were unable to provide a single example. The Society’s professional conduct procedures cannot be invoked without a specific complaint, an alleged offender or any evidence. In these circumstances, The Society was unable to investigate a specific case.
Elsewhere on their web site, they state that,
The Society of Homeopaths takes any alleged breach of its Code of Ethics & Practice very seriously and we must follow a due process when dealing with any allegation.
The research conducted by Sense About Science failed to identify the homeopaths interviewed. Not all homeopaths are registered members of The Society. Nevertheless, any alleged breach by a registered member, of The Society’s Code of Ethics & Practice, will be investigated by our Professional Conduct Department.
Now, what I do not understand is how these statements can be made in light of the fact that I have an email from Paula Ross, Chief Executive of the Society of Homeopaths, addressed to the programme investigators (dated 22 August 2006), that starts,
“I am in receipt of your summary transcripts.”
The transcripts contain two conversations between an undercover investigator and a named homeopath who just so happens to be a Fellow of the Society of Homeopaths. I will not name him, but I am happy to do so if the Society dispute this.
In the transcripts, the investigator asks if the named homeopath is able to offer a homeopathic alternative to her doctor-prescribed anti-malarials. The homeopath confirms that he is able to, and offers a consultation on that basis. In a subsequent transcripted conversation, when asked by the investigator why the Health Protection Agency web site says that you should not take homeopathy for malaria, the named homeopath laughs and replies “Of course they did. Right, if you are influenced by that go with whatever will make you comfortable.”
The investigator, still acting as a client, asks why the Faculty of Homeopaths says pretty much the same thing. The homeopath replies, “the faculty are all medics so they must more or less toe the medical line.” The homeopath constantly portrays this as an either/or choice for the client: either they stick with their side-effect inducing ‘orthodox’ treatments or go with homeopathy. The homeopath tells the investigator to do some research on the Society of Homeopath’s web site and on the What Doctors Don’t Tell You web site. When asked to confirm again that there is a homeopathic alternative, he replies, “The answer to that is yes, but not approved by orthodoxy. Plain and simply.”
(You can see a summary of all the transcripts here.)
So, what the hell is going on here? It is possible that the Chair of the Society of Homeopaths, Andy Kirk, who wrote letter to the Guardian, may not have been aware that the Chief Executive, Paula Ross, was in possession of the transcript evidence and had been given the name of the Fellow of the Society who gave the advice. Presumably, their complaints officer, Patricia Moroney, was also not in possession of the evidence. This would be fairly shambolic – a word I used in the first sentence of my ‘banned’ article.
It may also be possible that Paula Ross came to the conclusion on her own that the transcripts did not contain sufficient evidence of wrongdoing. However, the Society is quite clear that “we must follow a due process when dealing with any allegation”. Was due process not undertaken? Again, they are quite clear: “the Society was unable to investigate a specific case.” It is worth pointing out that Paula Ross is not a trained homeopath, nor is she trained scientifically. She is an English graduate who has a Post-Graduate Diploma in Management.
There are, of course, far worse interpretations of this situation. Unfortunately, it looks like we may never know why these contradictory statements have been made by the Society. Did an investigation take place? If not, why not? If it did, why no apparent action? And why make statements that suggest that it was the failure of the BBC/SaS team to hand over evidence and names that prevented the Society from taking action? They quite clearly did hand over the evidence required. I have written to the Society and Ms Ross twice now over the past week to help me clarify the issues and they have seen fit not to reply.
One reason they might not have replied is contained in their letter to the Guardian. Rather than highlight what they thought was defamatory in my blog post, they say,
Dr Lewis, in his article, stated as fact highly offensive comments about The Society and it is for that reason that The Society decided it had no option but to take action.
Due to the unpleasantness and surprisingly vitriolic nature of the postings on the Quackometer website and others, The Society has taken a conscious decision not to respond to these bloggers.
So first, offensive is not the same as defamatory. And, as Richard Dawkins put it so well, “offense is what people take when they can’t take argument”. Offense is so often the refuge of the unquestionably right. What I find offensive is the fact that a Fellow of the Society of Homeopaths is quite prepared to let a gap year student or young tourist travel deep into Africa with nothing but a magic fairy pill to protect themselves against a common and often fatal disease. And more deeply offensive is that his so-called regulatory body sees no reason to take any action at all and is even prepared to state untruths about the matter in a national newspaper and on their website. And unpleasant? I hear dying of cerebral malaria is unpleasant.
Vitriolic? Vitriol suggests I was abusive. That I was not. What I was, was shocked and angry at what I was discovering and I was forthright in my opinions. I was not the only angry person. It is always worth re-quoting Dr Peter Fisher – the Queen’s Homeopath – on the affair, “I’m very angry about it because people are going to get malaria – there is absolutely no reason to think that homeopathy works to prevent malaria and you won’t find that in any textbook or journal of homeopathy so people will get malaria, people may even die of malaria if they follow this advice.”
The vitriol undoubtedly came from a stream of emails from around the world to the Society following their attempt to silence me. I do not condone this abuse – reasoned argument is much stronger and it has given the Society a fig-leaf to hide behind. But their quoting of this vitriol is typical of homeopathic thinking – it has confused the nature of cause and effect. The vitriol was the result of their actions, not the prompt for them to take action.
And so, as Nick Cohen discussed in yesterday’s Observer, we live in a society that sees organisations like the Society of Homeopaths as “a funny little alternative institute we too casually dismiss as quaint”. But homeopathy is founded on a cavalier attitude to reason and truth and that makes the practice dangerous. Their propaganda tells us that homeopathy is safe, natural and effective. This is not true – and truth matters most when dealing with life and death issues. I do not favour heavy handed legislation to stamp out these practices – I still believe homeopathy could just about evolve into something genuinely useful. But maybe the zeitgeist is changing. Holding dangerous beliefs, that show such a lack of care for consequences, should be as seen as socially unacceptable and as selfish and as irrational as running a gas guzzling 4×4 for city school runs, or as dangerous and irresponsible as drink driving.