Posts Tagged ‘homeopathy’

Murder is illegal in this country.

But I couldn’t tell you where it says that in the statute-books without doing a bit of research. I can’t cite the exact law off the top of my head, or provide the precise codified wording which strictly speaking makes it illegal to murder another person.

But it’s definitely illegal. I could look all that up if I wanted to. But even if I don’t want to, I’m still justified in believing that murder is illegal. My indirect observations have led me to place a very high probability of truth on that statement, and I don’t think that’s an indicator of poor calibration.

This is relevant to yesterday’s discussion of how homeopathy doesn’t work.

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Are you a weak atheist or a strong atheist?

Most people who read this blog will have some idea what I’m talking about. And most of them, I suspect, will be one or the other. (Theists and agnostics, you can join in soon.)

To recap briefly, “weak atheism” commonly describes a position which doesn’t accept the existence of God, but doesn’t actively deny it either. A weak atheist won’t say “God does not exist”, but simply doesn’t positively believe in any such being.

“Strong atheism” you can probably surmise for yourself. There is no God, it affirms. It makes a positive statement, an active truth-claim.

I’ve written before about whether any form of atheism can really be wholly without affirmation, as weak atheism is often described. But regardless, it’s accepted by a lot of non-believers that strong atheism is somehow a step too far. We’re not obliged to be convinced by the evidence offered for God’s existence, but we don’t have ground to make truth claims ourselves. We shouldn’t say that he definitely doesn’t exist.

After all, you can’t prove a negative. If you were to claim that there’s a unicorn in your kitchen, I could safely withhold my belief until you offer some evidence. But can I ever really make the claim there is no unicorn? Especially if it turns out to be even more magical than regular unicorns, and can render itself invisible and intangible and otherwise impervious to detection?

I might say I don’t believe in such a beast. But can I ever claim to have proved that it’s not there?

Of course, this may seem a petty distinction. It doesn’t matter to most atheists if they can’t technically prove there’s no God (or unicorn). But a common stance they take is to explain why this lack of disproof doesn’t matter for their position. And I’m not sure they’re going about it quite right.

Let’s take two less contentious claims, and examine whether we need to be “weak” or “strong” in our disbelief of each one:

  1. I have never worn a hat.
  2. The entire Universe was created forty-five minutes ago.

You probably don’t believe either of these statements is true. But, if you had to pick, which would you say is more likely?

I’m guessing you’d go with the first. I mean, it sounds very unlikely, but it’s possible. Maybe it’s just never really come up in my life: nobody ever gave me a hat and suggested I try it on, my ears have always been good at keeping themselves warm, my family never bothered with Christmas crackers and any paper garments that might be kept inside them, that kind of thing. Or maybe I developed an aversion to hats at an early age and made a conscious decision never to let one touch my head.

It’s a bit of a stretch. And easily enough disproved by a picture of me wearing an awesome hat. But it’s less outright ridiculous than the second assertion. What possible reason could there be to suppose that the entirety of creation – all the galaxies already in motion away from each other, the light from the stars already on its way to our eyes, everybody’s memories of years past – were all summoned into existence, created wholly intact, in the last hour?

It’s obviously silly. But how do you disprove it?

There’s not much you can say to that. It’s completely implausible and not supported by a shred of evidence… but there’s nothing you can point to which actively refutes it. The best you can do is note that there’s no reason to suppose it’s true, it goes against every aspect of our understanding of how the world works, and it clearly seems to be something that’s just been made up to make some sort of point.

For the hat thing, though? There are pictures of me wearing a hat. It’s been disproved. Myth: BUSTED.

So, having seen the proof, are you now comfortable declaring it an outright falsehood that I’ve never worn a hat? You don’t have to just be agnostic any more; there’s evidence. Can that claim be rebutted, in a way which the forty-five-minute-old-Universe claim can’t?

I think you’re quite entitled to tell me: “Don’t be silly. You have worn a hat.” You’d be quite rational to base that on that picture of me wearing a hat. But can’t you be just as definite about my other claim, even without an equivalent picture which disproves it?

If you think that making an active negative claim is only acceptable where a palpable disproof exists, then this implies that “I’ve never worn a hat” is a less likely proposition than really really really really young Earth creationism. And that just seems wrong.

For one thing, the evidence you’re basing your truth-claim on might not be that conclusive. Maybe all the pictures that exist of me in hats are photoshopped. Maybe it’s not actually me in that one I linked to above, but just a top-of-the-head lookalike. Maybe there’s a grand conspiracy around it, covering up the truth of my hatless past. Can you prove there isn’t?

Of course you can’t. But despite this lack of disproof, you’re still entitled to actively deny such a situation, not just withhold acceptance. It doesn’t make you dogmatic to believe something sensible, even if you can’t produce knock-out evidence, if it’s a situation where you don’t need knock-out evidence for your claim to be almost certainly true.

It doesn’t mean you won’t be convinced by evidence. Everyone makes many statements of fact every day of their lives, without adding the words “provisionally, according to the best available evidence, but I’m prepared to change my mind if new data arises” to the end of every clause. It isn’t closed-minded to think that some things are true and others aren’t.

So go on, make a few bold claims, with certainty. Actively deny the truth of a claim you can’t disprove, but which has no supporting evidence of any note and which is vanishingly unlikely on its face.

Is there a conspiracy to make you believe I’ve ever worn a hat? No there is not.

Was the Universe only created 45 minutes ago, or less than 10,000 years ago, with every impression of being much older? No it was not.

Can Sylvia Browne communicated with deceased spirits? No she cannot.

Does homeopathy work? No it does not.

Is there a God? No there is not.

Reason is on your side.

This ended up being way longer than it needed to be. I guess that’s what re-writes are for, in principle. Oh well.

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– What’s at the centre intersection of this Venn diagram of silliness? Catholic doctors curing gays with homeopathy. What exactly do they plan to dilute?

– Pretty much everyone except politicians seems to understand by now that the war on drugs is a disaster. Maybe we should just put TV writers in charge and things might start getting better.

– Winner of the Nobel Prize for awesome Paul Krugman has been schooling dishonest Republicans in healthcare lately, which has been quite fun to watch. One, two, three, four.

– BREAKING NEWS. These women have FEET.

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I should warn you up front that if you don’t agree with everything I’m about to say then I’m going to call you a racist.

Why yes, it is quite unusual to have planned in advance to deflect any criticism against me by ignoring the facts and bringing up irrelevancies in the hope of turning the mood of the debate against you. But apparently that’s just how some people roll.

In particular, homeopaths.

The original link to where this all kicked off is broken, as the post itself has apparently been deleted, but it’s been saved for posterity in various places. On May 12th, someone called Sue Trotter posted on a homeopathy message board, outlining a cunning strategy.

We can play the race discrimination card if we get this right. Please bear with me whilst I explain.

If we can find some British Indians/ Pakistanis or Bangladeshi’s they can complain to the ASA explaining that homeopathy is a prefered system of medicine in their countries of origin, used to treat a wide range of illnesses. The current wave of complaints against homeopaths would therefore seem to be an attack on their culture and beliefs and therefore discriminatory.

Wow. Let’s see if I can translate the subtext here:

These skeptics keep demanding evidence that we can’t provide, and complaining to the Advertising Standards Authority when we make unsubstantiated medical claims. But dodging the facts is getting tiring, so let’s find some brown people to throw at them and call them racist if they dare to keep criticising us.

I think I captured the essence of it there.

I don’t want to speak for anyone else, but this strikes me as being perhaps most offensive to the Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis themselves. The most useful thing Sue Trotter seems to think they can contribute to the discussion is simply whatever controversy can be manufactured from their skin colour and ethnic background.

And QueenGoriana said to me on Twitter: “I’m sure my scientist Indian cousins missed the memo which told them evidence-free magic is a defining part of their culture.”.

Sue admits that her plan isn’t necessarily foolproof, and that they “would need to get a smart lawyer to draft the letter”, tacitly confessing that the whole point is to be sneaky and manipulative, and to discourage any sort of honest discussion of the evidence.

It’s not an unprecedented tactic, either. British MP David Tredinnick has previously complained that scientists who criticised healthcare systems that use astrology or phases of the moon were “racially prejudiced“.

Because if you ever say that something lots of Chinese people believe is incorrect, you must hate foreigners.

Read more on this from le canard noir, Sceptical Letter Writer, Brian Hughes’s Storify, Skepticat, and Skepchick.

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Proper posts are on the way.

In the meantime, read Alice’s report on a leaked email that was recently sent to professional homeopaths around the UK.

It emphasises the importance of choosing an argument that “avoids the need to prove the science”, when advocating for the right to market homeopathy as if it were medicine. Instead, it’s all about “patient choice”.

They know it doesn’t work, but people are big enough suckers to keep buying it anyway and the homeopaths want to keep on milking it.


If I had more energy I’d probably get more angry and self-righteous about it. Right now I’m mostly just nonplussed that I seem to have totally forgotten how to write a book. Seriously, it’s been a few months since I tried and I just have no idea. It’s like I’m just dumbly holding my shoelaces and can’t remember how to tie them.

Anyway. That’s not your problem. Hoping to have a nice, long, possibly controversial rant up here tomorrow. Stay tuned.

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Only just noticed this one. The Society of Homeopaths’ “Media Code” guidelines have been leaked, and recommend that its members be unsurprisingly weaselly in dealing with media attention.

Le Canard Noir has the details. In short, professional homeopaths are being urged either to perpetuate dishonesty, or to be as disingenuous as possible in making positive claims about their magic unmedicine.

Just the kind of vacuous insincerity you’d expect them to have to resort to if there was absolutely nothing in it.

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Different people want different things from their medicines.

There are numerous ways to be treated medically for some ailment. Tablets and tinctures, drugs and drips, surgery and suppositories. Each has its own place and its own value, depending on the situation.

But for some people, the thing that matters most to them – the one, vitally important factor on which they base their decisions about what medicines to take – is whether or not you can safely ignore the recommended dosage limits and neck a gallon of the stuff.

Meet Mike Adams.

Although the painful degree of his misunderstanding is evident even from the headline, it takes him nearly a paragraph to get to the first significant misrepresentation in his latest article.

The 10:23 campaign recently organised its second mass “overdose” of homeopathic remedies, in which crowds of skeptics simultaneously consumed much more than the recommended amount of homeopathic sugar pills, which contain no active medical ingredients but claim to be an effective treatment for a variety of conditions.

It’s an unashamed publicity stunt, and an effective one. But despite Mike Adams’s confusion, nobody’s claiming that because you can overdose on homeopathy and not die, therefore it doesn’t “work”.

We already know it doesn’t work, because people have studied it and acquired a great deal of evidence, and the 10:23 site explains this point very clearly, for the benefit of anyone who’s noticed the pill-poppers’ gimmick and is curious as to what their point is.

But the confusion of Mike Adams runs deep. He seems to count it as the worst hypocrisy that these skeptics “wouldn’t dare” to take the same blasé approach to chugging back litres of their own “allopathic”, “scientific”, “evidenced”, “reality-based” medicines.

And when he tries to unravel the skeptics’ motivations, I haven’t seen such bizarrely tangled logic since… well, since I last noticed Mike Adams.

First, let’s get to the understanding of why the idea that you could “overdose” on homeopathic remedies is ridiculous to begin with…

These skeptics, you see, approach homeopathy as if it were a drug (because that’s all they really know). And in their world, all drugs are dangerous if you overdose on them.


We know the idea of overdosing on homeopathy is ridiculous.

If we thought you could dangerously overdose on homeopathy by consuming a lot of it at once then we wouldn’t have had a big party where hundreds of us deliberately overdosed on homeopathy.

The reason we do this with homeopathy and not actual medicine is that actual medicine fucking does something. It has demonstrable physical effects on the body, which often aren’t desirable if you’re perfectly healthy.

His obsession with remedies so ineffective that they can never possibly do anybody any harm is quite inexplicable. Especially since his particular curative fetish drowns hundreds of people all over the world every year.

But homeopathy is safe to take even in large doses, because it has no pharmacological effects on the human body. At all. It’s just water on a sugar pill. We know you can’t overdose on it. The strap-line for the entire campaign is “THERE’S NOTHING IN IT”.

(Adams also contradicts his previous demented tirade, when he attributed to skeptics the notion that “you can take unlimited pharmaceuticals… with absolutely no health effects whatsoever!” Well, which is it – do we think that all drugs are totally harmless or that all drugs will kill you?”)

It gets possibly even weirder later on where he explains “Why I’m challenging skeptics to drink a gallon of chemotherapy”, and gleefully calls for the deaths of thousands. I have literally no idea what Mike Adams thinks “a gallon of chemotherapy” is.

And right now, I have no interest in trying to find out. I’ve got a couple of ounces of toothache, and I’m going to go and treat it with a few yards of chiropractic. I’ll be back in a volt and a half. Seeya.

Update: Steven Novella’s taken his turn at this as well. And my toothache is hours better, thankyou.

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It’d been weeks since I’d had a good laugh at homeopathy, but Nancy Malik is quite a treasure.

If you’ve not encountered her until now, her style of interaction in comments threads and on Twitter appears to be somewhere between that of spambot and troll. She seems to recognise English sentences with slightly greater perspicacity than a computer program should be capable of, but the way she jabbers on along exactly the same themes as always, without ever actually responding to things appropriately or taking on new information or understanding concepts like “evidence”, are also unlike anything I’ve ever seen from a sentient being before.

The latest addition to her repertoire is to apparently troll WikiAnswers, adding spurious questions that nobody’s asked, as an excuse to ramble on with her misleading crap in another new venue.

And she’s still wrong. For exactly the same reasons that she and others like her have been wrong since the 19th century.

But hey, Pam Anderson has used homeopathy “successfully”. How could that possibly be the case, if its apparent effectiveness was in fact due to a combination of various cognitive biases and subtle logical fallacies and not a genuine pharmacological impact?

Edit: Too perfect. Barely hours after posting this, I get a comment from her below, thanking me for my “efforts for homeopathy”. This really is the level at which she operates. You’re very welcome, Nancy.

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Yep, that’s what week it is, apparently. So I hope you’re being especially aware that homeopathy’s a load of crap. I don’t plan to get too deep into it again, but you can read my main write-up of this particular non-medicine here. And if you still don’t believe that homeopathy is complete nonsense, listen to this homeopath explain it to you:

Never gets old.

Oh, and while you’re here, did you know that you’re not allowed to be a Member of Parliament in Britain if you’ve ever been detained in a psychiatric hospital? Seriously. That pretty much sucks. Look at some of the current bunch representing our country. You really think they’re all okay to do the job, but someone who, say, had a brief period of depression twenty years ago and was considered a suicide risk until they had some therapy and spent a few weeks on mirtazapine is too much of a liability? Yeah. Read some more about the idea of a mental health manifesto here.

I’m planning to actually get some writing done tomorrow, so I might have a bit more to say here if that goes well. It may involve anarchism. If anyone reading this knows anything about anarchism, feel free to attempt to inform me ahead of a misguided rant tomorrow evening.

One last thing: WHAT IS THIS I DON’T EVEN (via Melliferax).

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In a report published today, the Science and Technology Committee concludes that the NHS should cease funding homeopathy. It also concludes that the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) should not allow homeopathic product labels to make medical claims without evidence of efficacy. As they are not medicines, homeopathic products should no longer be licensed by the MHRA.

Nice when people get things right.

That Evidence Check report I mentioned yesterday is now available, and Ben Goldacre shares the full release. As he says, looks like pretty sensible stuff. It’s not medicine; homeopathic pills are just sugar; lying to patients about placebos is not okay. That kind of thing.

Ben also made a good point on Twitter earlier – while the problem with accepting homeopathy as medicine is often cited as a “lack of evidence”, in fact we have a great deal of very solid and reliable evidence. That it doesn’t work. It’s like saying “Well, maybe this elephant will be able to fly… It doesn’t look like any of them can at the moment, but we just don’t have enough evidence.”

Le Canard Noir is all over this, of course, looking through the whole thing in great detail. I’m glad that the authors of the report seem to understand this point:

We do not doubt that homeopathy makes some patients feel better. However, patient satisfaction can occur through a placebo effect alone and therefore does not prove the efficacy of homeopathic interventions.

And, as anaglyph reminded me yesterday, you don’t even need a particular placebo effect to just start to feel better over time, and be tempted to confuse correlation with causation as you simply regress to the mean.

Also reporting on this is gimpy, who quotes a comment from a homeopath named Carol Boyce that made me grind my teeth just a little:

Mr Stewart made a valiant attempt to to [sic] bring balance to the proceedings but was hopelessly outnumbered.

A question needs to be asked in parliament about the conduct of this Evidence Check and it’s [sic] inherent bias.

It’s almost impossible to hear a phrase like “bring balance to the proceedings” and not imagine that this must be a good thing to do, restoring some necessary fairness. But nonsense doesn’t deserve to be fairly balanced with science, and if nonsense is all you have on your side then it’s entirely right that things should be biased against you. That’s another thing that’s meant to sound like it’s inherently negative and unfair and unacceptable, “bias”. And there are many cases where bias is unjustified and should be fought against. But there are some cases where it’s proper and necessary.

I’m biased strongly in favour of eating pasta instead of rat poison. I’m also biased strongly in favour of spending tax money on medicine instead of homeopathy.

This is all being covered in more depth by various intrepid investigative blogojournalists (there just isn’t a comfortable “blogger+journalist” portmanteau), and I’m pretty sure Martin Robbins is planning to have his own round-up of events soon too. (Edit 23/02/10: Yep.) I’m still only really a commentator a rung or two below, only joining in the chatter a little later once all the big players have done the real legwork, but that’s okay. This way I get to be lazy and still feel like I’m joining in.

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