I don’t want this blog to become a tirade against pseudoscience: there are too many interesting, real science and technology stories out there to cover. Also, medicine is not usually my beat. However, in the UK, the support of pseudoscience—in the form of homeopathy—has recently become law. To me this speaks of a shift in this country away from science and towards superstition and wishful thinking: it’s therefore worth writing about.
The law that came in on 1 September 2006 basically allows homeopathic remedies to advertise that they can cure “minor symptoms or minor conditions in humans,” defined as those that “can ordinarily and with reasonable safety be relieved or treated without the supervision or intervention of a doctor.” Such products must be shown both not to cause harm and are required to prove efficacy. Seems reasonable enough.
Except that the proof of efficacy does not have to be based on science, but instead on homeopathic ‘provings’. Essentially, these are supposed to show that a particular ingredient can cause symptoms. This ingredient is then diluted and can supposedly prevent those same symptoms. The Sense about Science website has a really nice briefing document explaining the methodology behind homeopathy and showing how it diverges from the scientific method (it also explains why homeopathy is not like innoculation or vaccination).
Among the scientific papers this document points you to is an article from last year’s Lancet that looked at 220 trials: half for conventional medicine, half for homeopathic. Rather than explain the findings myself, let me quote the authors’ interpretation.
“Biases are present in placebo-controlled trials of both homoeopathy and conventional medicine. When account was taken for these biases in the analysis, there was weak evidence for a specific effect of homoeopathic remedies, but strong evidence for specific effects of conventional interventions. This finding is compatible with the notion that the clinical effects of homoeopathy are placebo effects.”
This begs the question, if these products are harmless placebos, why does it matter how they are labelled? For me, there are three key issues. First, the government should not encourage its citizens to pay good money for ‘medicines’ when they are getting placebos rather than cures. Second, by allowing such products to be officially labelled as medicines, credibility is given to the homeopaths that prescribe them, when all they are doing is inducing placebo responses. Finally, by encouraging our people to go to homeopaths for their aches and pains rather than their doctors, more serious diseases causing the minor symptoms may be missed.
I personally have supported the Sense about Science campaign for evidence-based medicine: to me this should be one of those ‘lines in the sand’ for everyone who believes that the scientific method is the best way we currently have to determine what is and isn’t real.
Originally posted on Sunny Bains unedited.