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13. HOMEOPATHY Previous | Next

It’s patently absurd, so why won’t it go away?

SIR John Forbes, the physician to Queen Victoria’s household, called it “an outrage to human reason.” Homeopathy’s claim is that you can take a substance of dubious properties, dilute it to the point where there are no molecules of the original substance left in the sample you have, and your sample will nevertheless have retained healing properties related to the original compound. There is no justification in all of science for this idea -- and yet there remains some slim evidence that homeopathy works.

The key word here is slim. But even the slimmest of evidence makes this scientifically tantalising. Are we missing something about the properties of water? Could there be ways to heal that involve ultra-dilution – possibly avoiding the nasty side-effects of certain drugs?

After months of investigation, my conclusion is a sour and muttered “probably not”. But even after a long journey into the heart of homeopathy, where I saw, among other things, a pharmacy whose shelves contained homeopathic remedies made from flapjack and musical harmonies, I still cannot be 100 per cent sure homeopathy is all bunkum. Part of the reason for that came as I sat in the botany library of the Natural History Museum reading a rigorous scientific analysis of the roots and efficacy of homeopathy, an analysis that might even be able to rescue homeopathy from the clutches of the cranks who currently run the show.

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#1 - Posted: 14/08/2008 10:47

dear sirs,

i am a physician who graduated from the university of chicago school of medicine in 1978.  as an undergrad i was phi beta kappa and magnum cum laude with a b.a. in biology/chemistry.  i have been a practicing physician for the past 30 years.  since 1991, however, my medical practice has been entirely alternative, or complementary as we like to say these days.  my primary focus since 1994 has been classical homeopathy.  perhaps you will consider me one of the "cranks who run tthe show," but i don't run anything except my own life and my own medical practice.

i can tell you this about homeopathy: it does work, and when it works it works beautifully.  that is to say when it works it can effect cures rapidly and smoothly.  it can work in common acute conditions that are adequately treated by main-stream medicine, but most people come to see me for chronic conditions for which there is no truly effective treatment in main-stream medicine.

so, first we establish that it does work.  this cannot be done by researching in the natural history museum or even in university medical libraries.  it will only be understood from within the framework of its own paradigm, not from the point of view of a different paradigm.  please note, establishing that it does work is not the same as explaining how it works.  here we have a phenomenon that has practical application, but for which we do not yet have a suitable explaination.  yes, it's true that the implications of homeopathy fly in the face of our current understanding of matter and chemistry. like all anomalous phenomena, which are the very subject of your book, 13 things...., we first establish that something is a genuine phenomenon, that it has an empirical reality.  in terms of homeopathy we establish that it has a clinical validity.  only after this do we seek to explain the phenomenon.

in terms of its clinical validity, you will no doubt grant me that patients have seemingly been helped by it, but you will say that it could be placebo.  well, first of all every time i give a homeopathic medicine to a patient i fully expect it to work, and the patient has every hope that it will work too.  that being the case, the placebo effect should work every time, so in effect all my treatments should be a placebo success.  well, of course that is not the case,  i can struggle with a case for weeks or months, giving several different medicines, until finally i give the right one, which goes on to work beautifully.  furthermore, i will tell you that it works when the medicines are given unbeknownst to the patient, eg in his meal or when he is asleep.  it also works with animals.  in these cases the receiver has no expectations so how can his results be placebo?  to absolutely establish clinical validity from a scientific perspective, not just relying on "anecdotal evidence", i think the best approach would be to do a prospective study comparing clinical outcomes of 3 groups of patients.  the first group would be treated conventionally, the second group homeopathically, and the third group would remain untreated as a control.  i don't think this kind of study has been done yet but i would relish the opportunity to participate in such a project. 

i have made my living with homeopathy in a country where conventional medical care is paid for by the government, but no third-party payers cover my patients' homeopathy bills.   they must pay out-of-pocket.  homeopathic treatment is difficult and time-consuming, and therefore is not inexpensive.  my patients are not stupid, they only pay for what works.  they may not know that it will work for them when they first come to see me, but virtually everyone who comes to me, does so because they know someone for whom it did work.

this post has been quite lengthy, my apologies.  once we are all on the same page, that is, that we are dealing with a genuine and useful phenomenon, then maybe we can enter into discussions about how it may be explained.  the importance of anomalous phenomena, as surely everyone on this site should understand, is that you can't sweep them under the rug just because you can't explain them or because they seem to contravene current scientific principles.  anomalous phenomena will become the very cornerstones of future discoveries.

 

 

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#2 - Posted: 14/08/2008 19:14

A doctor who failed at scientific method, I am not surprised. Your statement that your remedies should work all the time is absurd. I suspect your patients 'tell' you they are cured just to stop seeing you... in the same manner I told my chiropractor I was cured just to get a gym membership instead (and fix my problem that way.)

 

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#3 - Posted: 16/08/2008 11:34

dear ebnv,

it might interest you to know that medicine is not all that scientific.

  studies have been done which show that only a very small percentage of currently accepted medical therapies have been proven to be effective by proper scientific research. 

also, these days proper scientific research is no longer being done in the public domain.  why?  because it is too expensive.  double-blind and prospective studies,  r&d of a new drug or treatment costs millons of dollars.  the only ones who can afford to do this research now are the very companies who are putting out the new drug or treatment.  could there be a slight conflict of interest? 

most of the standard and accepted therapies of today will be shown to be bunkum in the not too distant future, just as therapies from the past were shown to be just the fads of the time.  only the clinically robust will survive.  when would you say modern "scientifically-based" medicine began?  is it 200 years old, like homeopathy?  homeopathy is huge in india and south america, places that cannot afford the "luxury" of the prohibitively expensive therapies that we see today.

i don't know how things work in your computer-based vocation, but in the health professions things are somewhat utilitarian-based.  if it seems to work, and doesn't harm, go for it.  later on, some company will chalk up the research to explain why it works. 

i assume you must be fairly young, if you think your gym membership is going to keep you away from sickness forever.  sooner or later you will fall into the clutches of the medical system.  i suggest you fully research any treatment that they offer you, to see if it has been scientifically proven by unbiased research.  or you could just put your faith in your doctor - oh btw i have a piece of real estate in florida you might be interested in...

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#4 - Posted: 20/08/2008 16:21

I don't know how to reconcile people's anecdotes about successes of homeopathy with my suspicion (and that's all it is) that homeopathy is just placebo - and the distinctly unclear conclusions that scientific investigations have drawn.  Several people I trust tell me it made an enormous difference to them. So why does a simple clinical trial not produce similarly enormous differences between homeopathy and placebo?

There's reporting bias of course: very few people who've had unsuccessful encounters with homeopathy tell me about it.

I suspect that we won't find out until the people who run the various homeopathy associations (that's who I meant when I said "the crackpots who run the show" johnh) stop protecting their turf and embrace a bit of criticism.

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#5 - Posted: 24/08/2008 14:24

michael, please see my response to this under separate headings.  i am not sure which clinical trials you are referring to.  if they meet my criteria referred to under these separate headings please refer me to them so i can review them for myself. 

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#6 - Posted: 24/08/2008 14:37

i do agree with you that we need to fully delineate what the placebo response is capable of and what it is not.  then we will understand if a cure occurs with homeopathy that it is a genuine phenomenom in its own right.  under the discussion of placebo, you do allude to the placebo response not being capable of great changes in a persons pathology.  that certainly has been my experience as well. 

i wonder if you know how large homeopathy is in the world today?  it always somewhat amazing to me to see a phenomenon like homeopathy blithely dismissed, when it is practiced on such a large scale worldwide today and has survived the test of time for nearly two hundred years.  do we really believe that all these adherents of homeopathy are stupid, deluded?  such arrogance is sad and hints at deeper problems....

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#7 - Posted: 05/09/2008 16:40

I've been away from this awhile, so let me just add in: yes, it is a phenomenon. Homeopathy is popular beyond what scientists expect. And the fact that there are so many anecdotal reports of it working (I imagine far more than of other "questionable" treatments working) that someone has to take it seriously. At the same time, I have found many homeopaths to be difficult to pin down - there's lots of wriggling out of difficult truths. In the book I mention Vilma Bharatan who works at the Natural History Museum here in London. I'm looking forward to seeing what comes out of her work as it progresses. For now, what constitutes an acceptable trial? If homeopaths insist that every case is different, and that you can't do a standard clinical trial pitching one remedy against placebo, what DO we do?

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#8 - Posted: 10/09/2008 22:59

please see the discussion topics in this section entitled "rigorous scientific analysis" and "more on research". 

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#9 - Posted: 10/09/2008 23:07

furthermore, homeopathy is based on a different paradigm altogether.  therefore we should not be too surprised, if the square peg of homeopathy doesn't fit in the round hole of conventional medical research.  once again we end up castigating homeopathy for being different.  why can't it be a good boy and get along with the other children!  hello, it's uniqueness is the whole point.  we have problems with anomalies that are too anomalous!

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#10 - Posted: 16/03/2009 20:58

"it always somewhat amazing to me to see a phenomenon like homeopathy blithely dismissed, when it is practiced on such a large scale worldwide today and has survived the test of time for nearly two hundred years"

 

Female circumcision predates even modern Christianity, is still practiced today has has "survived the test of time". Most folk with an ounce of common sense or basic understanding of science (and morality) realise that this is a wrong and unjust practice.

A friend recently attended a seminar on Homeopathy and the head speaker was accompanied by her infant child. This child had not been innoculated with all the basic vaccines that any parent who trusts a Science that can be understood through it's process and method would allow in order for the child to be healthy.  I see homeopathy as unable to "get along with the other children!" due to the harm it can cause when it's adherents refuse to marry it with conventional medicine.

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