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 [email protected] 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.
“Until such time that homeopaths learn to moderate their claims and act within the boundaries demanded by the scarcity of evidence available”
What scarcity of evidence? Which false claims should the regulators not just allow but actually conspire with the homeopaths to make? It’s okay for this spectacularly elaborate fraud to be assisted by government so long as only money and non-life threatening medical opportunity cost are involved, is it?
Naturally, I do not suggest that regulators should conspire with homeopaths to make any false claims. But I do not rule out in principle that a homeopathic consultation can have no positive benefits. However, I would say that it is unknown what boundaries could safely put around that consultation. They will be very tight – but I would not assume them being zero.
I have known an acupuncturist, for example, who makes no claims about efficacy, but offers an improved sense of ‘wellbeing’ and essentially an hour’s counselling. Whilst, current homeopaths might make such a compromise difficult with their hostile views to mainstream medicine and their lack of awareness of themselves, in principle, such a progressive homeopathy might just emerge.
It’s a long shot, but not impossible.
The woman from the manufacturer (Boiron?) seemed happy to accept that the active ingredient could not be detected.
It would be interesting to ask what sort of quality control is applied during manufacture. How would they know if there was a problem in the process and the product was substandard?
Good point. I guess the answer is that they simply don’t have any method of control
I’ve seen a promo video by Boiron working through their production process. This mentioned “rigorous quality control” along with shots of people in white coats doing “sciencey” things.
What they were controlling, to what tolerance and why weren’t mentioned. I’d be fascinated to learn if that was just marketing or if they really do some cargo cult QC.
Is this the video?
Attention mes amis!
“How would they know if there was a problem in the process and the product was substandard?”
By detecting the active ingredient in the product? Wouldn’t any active ingredient detected mean that it failed homeopathic testing?
This is particularly worrying when the Korsakov method is used to make the potions: this doesn’t use new containers for each dilution, but simply re-uses the first one, pouring the unwanted dilutant out each time. This probably doesn’t matter if they are starting with a mother tincture (as they call them) of something like ‘Berlin Wall’ or ‘Venus in Transit’ (source), but I’d be more worried about contamination from belladonna or arsenic trioxide mother tinctures.
I see the suppliers that Zeno links to include a remedy that based on Ventolin, the (real) anti-asthma medicine. By the Law of Similars, this suggests to me that the remedy is supposed to give the homeopath’s victim, sorry, patient asthma?
Truly theirs is a wondrous art. They dilute their medicines, but they concentrate their stupidity!
Thanks for the article and the links to the program. Sad to see that these quacks are a worldwide phenomenon and that they have succeeded in gaining the approval of the Canadian gub’mint. Drug Identification number – ha ha ha ha ha! Of course they are laughing too, laughing all the way to the bank.
Le Canard mentioned:-
“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.”
To turn your own phrase round:-
I find it hard to believe that you have not yet understood that homeopaths have no need of no stinkin’ evidence. That they “know” is sufficient. They seem to me to have a religious belief that nothing can overturn.
 By religious I mean that there is an apparently irrational belief or set of beliefs that they have convinced themselves to be true in the absence of direct supportive evidence and despite the utterly implausible nature of the claims due to the lack of any known mechanism by which the stuff might work. I am NOT intending to imply any “belief in any god”. That is a whole other can of worms. Of course by using the word religion I am intending to imply that religion and homeopathy are essentialy the same pathology. They are both in my view just good memes, ideas that happen to find a happy home in many our brains and get passed from one brain to another like a virus. Luckily some brains have a better (or is it just different?) immune system (or anti-virus software?) than others.
I guess I can expect a 5am raid now that I may have offended or insulted a religion or religions but since I haven’t yet had blue hair I feel reasonably safe for the present.
James – I suppose one the questions I am asking is about why homeopaths have failed to realise the consistent nature of the attacks on their trade and not asked why this is not happening to other forms of alt med so much.
I can imagine that the vast majority of homeopaths’ trade is dealing with minor and vague symptoms where there is little direct threat to health. (Bar the spreading of homeopaths dangerosu beliefs about mainstream medicine.) Surely, someone must be suggesting within the world of homeopathy that they just let the malaria and HIV treatments go, even if it is for political purposes, rather than realisation of the harm they cause, as it will help protect their bread-and-butter practices.
Reiki healers do not get the heat that homeopaths get. Even osteopaths get away with all sorts of absurdity without Newsnight stings. At the very least, homeopaths are hopelessly naive and lacking in insight as to what is happening.
I guess the answer is that they are too engrossed in their dogma and too stuck behind their conspiracy theories and knee jerk reactions to criticism. It makes them very easy targets. And I would suggest to them that they would have taken the sting out of the tail is they had dealt with the problem visibly four years ago. By now though, everyone knows how to press their buttons and they will suffer for decades because of this.
I thought Marketplace did a great job but omitted one thing: the completely unfounded theory that like cures like. Yes, the solutions have no active ingredients, but even if they did, they wouldn’t cure anything (more likely harm than cure). So people ought to know that homeopathy is based on two equally laughable premises.
I agree. By emphasizing the level of dilution, it makes it sound like it might work if the ingredients were indeed active. I’d much rather see homeopaths being first confronted with the absurdity of the law of similars, and making it clear that there’s no physiological basis for it. For me, that’s the central problem with homeopathy. Their ideas about dilution just pushes them further out of the ballpark and into orbit somewhere.
If the media is going to be prepared to accurately portray the lack of evidence for homeopathy, there needs to be a cheat sheet for media contacts explaining the implications of the studies cited on the following page:
Is there a cheat sheet or components of one.
Not that I know of. What is needed is a brief summary of each of those articles, followed by the purported relation to homeopathy and an analysis of whether the study’s methodology was good.
Shlaw, from your linked page, it says the following of the Shang meta-analysis;
“But they did not—and will not—reveal which eight—making a mockery of the research principles of transparency and reproducibility”
Will you admit that this is a big fat lie and post an apology, a retraction and an explanation of why this lie has been told?
As for the rest of that page, it’s the usual load of old cock that we have become sadly familiar with.
On this topic see:
Hmm, have I misunderstood? Is Shlaw one of the good guys pointing an accusing finger at the homeopaths and quoting one of its defenders as evidence?
I despise nonsense. However, I think that skeptics aren’t being media-savvy enough. Even the Marketplace clip of the Vancouver skeptics could have used more professionalism.
Homeopaths are responding with a (relatively) coordinated effort because their livelihoods are at stake. The linked page is aimed to argue for homeopathy and it’s page on evidence includes a list of studies which supposedly support the practice.
What the media could use, should they decide to pursue this story (and given the response Marketplace has received, they might), is a good cheat sheet going over the evidence in a straightforward way. Skeptic North gets close with their evidence check: http://www.skepticnorth.com/2010/08/evidence-check-bryce-wylde%E2%80%99s-21-favourite-papers/
However, it leaves out studies covered in the Extraordinary Evidence page: Bracho, Kleijen, Linde, Cucherot, Frenkel, Bell, and Shang are not discussed clearly. If I had time and remembered my science undergrad a little better, I would make such a sheet. As such, it’s just an observation on my part that CFI and other skeptic organizations have a way to go in providing easy to digest information for journalists.
As an example, the entire “what’s the harm” angle was barely touched on by Marketplace and that’s the whole point, as I see it.
Kleijnen, Cucherat and Linde simply do not say what the homoeopaths claim they say. The homoeopaths claim that they show positive results, but Kleijnen and Cucherat are at best inconclusive, because of the trial quality issues. Linde (1997) concluded that while there was no clear evidence that homoeopathy is effective for any particular conclusion, the effects were not entirely attributable to placebo; hovever even this slightly positive conclusion was retracted by Linde (1999), which reanalysed the same data with respect to study quality and concluded that the earlier paper has “at least” overestimated the effects of homoeopathy. Linde (1999) did not come to any specific conclusion about the efficacy of homoeopathy because it was looking at the effects of study quality on the results, not at whether homoeopathy works.
Homeopathic remedies can only be tested through the science of quantum physics.
These scientist study the energetic characteristics of matter at the subatomic level.
If you wish to test a drug you go to the chemist; part of the science that was studied in school.
I understand that this program made people question and fear. There is nothing to fear.
Homeopathic remedies are created under stringent lab conditions and requirements. There are no flavours of the month, neither are there any recalls; the remedy that assisted in healing one 200 years ago, is the remedy that will help you heal from the same disease conditions today.
“Homeopathic remedies can only be tested through the science of quantum physics.”
When you typed that, did you have a straight face?
Christine Gamus said:
Would you care to explain what this means?
Oh, oh, oh, oh!
I studied quantum physics, tell me how I should best proceed to test homeopathic remedies. Please?
Aside from the empty appeal to quantum-flapdoodle (please do say how “Homeopathic remedies can only be tested through the science of quantum physics,” as long as it’s nothing to do with Lionel Milgrom) the contention that, “neither are there any recalls” for homeopathic products is also false.
Two examples: Zicam Cold Remedy (FDA warning letter) and Hyland’s Teething Tablets (FDA news release).
Man, I love Marketplace. And homeopathy drives me nuts. But homeopaths must be credible; the Homeopathic Community is suggesting testimonials – apparently written by the same people who profit from the sales of the stuff – qualify as “proof” of effectiveness, and can be used to counter the effects of this program.
Sheesh. Is there anything more unreliable than testimonials? You have conflicts of interests, placebo effects, and so on.
I loved the comment from the woman who was treating her child with homeopathic remedies – something along the lines of “it works, it just takes longer.”
Ugh, right. Couldn’t that just the natural course of the illness coming to an end?
One last thing; when the spokesperson from Boiron suggested that perhaps we don’t yet have the technology yet to “measure” the active ingredient, Erica should have told her: YOU are ones making money here – the onus is on YOU to show your products contain active ingredients. Not us.
And Big Pharma doesn’t offer testimonials as proof of effectiveness? Sheesh. In the mid 1990s 95 human and pet bug (flea, mosquito) repellents were taken off the market because of adverse health effects. They were, of course, thoroughly tested before being released to the marketplace.
Check out the number of times over the past few years that news media has reported problems with heart, osteoporosis, arthritis, etc., medications that were industry and government approved.
Check out the thousands of medications that have plant ingredients. The birth control pill was made from plants in Asia until a synthetic version was made. What you see on the label may just be a botanical (scientific) name for quite a common plant. You might see fancy-sounding “Symphytum officinale”, but it is only Comfrey. I guess comfrey would look a little too homeopathic for you, but where do you think the ingredients in “modern” medicine come from anyway? Outer space?
Undesired effects of real medicines, or even of flea and mosquito repellents, are nothing to do with the question of whether homoeopethy works.
Your last paragraph seems to indicate that you don’t understand the difference between homoeopathy and herbal medicine.
If as the Boiron rep said ” science is unable to detect active ingredients in remedies…yet”,how,as already suggested can they do quality control?
What if “someone” received a miss labled remedy…could you not sue them…how could they defend themselves?…since they cannot tell one unlabled remedy from another?
This is an awesome idea for a test case, against an individual manufacturer, but essentially against the whole industry. Simply show that you bought a homeopathic ‘remedy’ for toothache, yet within the same packet of tablets, found instead remedies for belly-ache, leaving teeth painful and rotten (due to the sugar pills). The homeopaths will never be able to distinguish between the two.
A particularly useful, probably necessary approach would be to ensure you use a manufacturer that uses the same sugar pills for their tooth- and belly-ache ‘remedies’. Can’t be too hard to find one.
I like the way you think…
I’m actually quite frightened by this whole homeopathic phenomenon: it’s akin to what the “organic” movement has done to food (mainly, turn food from a necessity into a commodity). In this case, owever, it takes money from legitimate research and medicine and puts it in the hands of these sometimes well-meaning but deluded charlatans. These folks basically are getting away with stealing money under fraudulent circumstances. Why is homeopathy even allowed???
Here’s a challenge for the homeopaths: your crap actually works? Fine, then let’s see your homepathic birth control. …and if there actually IS homepathic birth control, I want to see each and every homeopath put their teenage daughter on it, exclusively. We’ll see just how effective it really is.
Presumably this would need to be made from very, very tine penises. I know a number of homeopaths who appear eminently well-suited for creating this remedy.
I suspect that it would involve a large amount of bollocks.
Homeopathy is thousands of years old and it is the foundation of western medicine, which is very, very young and quite inexperienced in comparison.
I see a Chinese herbal practitioner as well as a “normal” doctor. The Chinese herbal doctor cured my Hepatitis A and got my liver back to normal in two-and-a-half weeks, and cured my daughter’s and a friend’s son’s mono in about the same length of time. My “normal” doctor and doctors at the hospital all said there was no cure for either ailment. My Chinese doctor had treated about 50 Hepatitis C patients – and had cured them all! He said that they were in the earlier stages and that later stages would be too far advanced to respond to a herbal cure. He estimates that governments could cure something like 50% of Hep C patients with the use of natural remedies.
I had Hep A 15 years ago. The remedy was a tumbler of liquid taken three times daily for two weeks. The liquid was a tea made from 21 different items – bark, leaves, seeds, flowers and also stones. It was easily the worst thing I have ever taken in my life, but it worked. The strange thing is that I haven’t even had a cold since that 2-week “alternative” treatment.
If alternative treatment works, why on Earth would anyone want to ingest often highly toxic pharmaceuticals?
The universally used birth control pill is made from a plant material which was used in India and elsewhere long before westerners “discovered” it. We are very good at stealing such “alternatives”, synthesizing them, mass-marketing them as modern discoveries, and not returning any of the profits to the real discoverers of traditional medicine.
And on top of that we have the absolute effrontery to call alternative medicine “quackery”!
Homoeopathy is not thousands of years old (even if it was, that would be irrelevant, of course). It was invented by a German doctor called Sam Hahnemann in 1796.
You complain about “often highly toxic pharmaceuticals”. What makes you think that “natural” substances are non-toxic?
Where has your Chinese herbal practitioner published his astounding results?
And you evidently don’t understand that herbal medicine is not the same thing as homoeopathy.
As Mojo is hinting, me thinks you are confusing naturopathy
a system of treatment of disease that avoids drugs and surgery and emphasizes the use of natural agents (as air, water, and herbs) and physical means (as tissue manipulation and electrotherapy)
“naturopathy.” Merriam-Webster’s Medical Dictionary. Merriam-Webster, Inc. 29 Mar. 2011.
a system of medical practice that treats a disease especially by the administration of minute doses of a remedy that would in healthy persons produce symptoms similar to those of the disease
“homeopathy.” Merriam-Webster’s Medical Dictionary. Merriam-Webster, Inc. 29 Mar. 2011. .