Purely a figment of your imagination

What amuses, annoys, concerns or otherwise interests me – Noodlemaz

Fish in a barrel


This is a guest post from Ian (@teachingofsci), which I think is a calm demonstration of why so many who try to engage with proponents of alt med end up seriously lacking a feeling of calm.

I have had similar situations in which I’ve tried to converse with otherwise intelligent, rational, friendly people, who have shouted that they will not read anything I ask them to read before we can continue the conversation with a bit more information behind us. If people are unwilling even to look at evidence that might not support their view, what’s the point, really?

Different people have different ways of going about skeptical activism, and advocating rational thinking – often with an ultimate goal of protecting gullible and vulnerable people from those who would profit from their ignorance, and perhaps simultaneously endanger their health. I don’t believe there’s a right way, but sometimes this kind of tactic can prove useful. Enjoy!

Following the BBC exposé showing that some companies and pharmacies are still selling homeopathic ‘remedies’ as if they worked as vaccines for serious illnesses (summarised at the Nightingale Collaboration), I saw some retweeted comments from @JessPinkus. Some of them were quite aggressive, and her stream included one directed to @drwollastonmp suggesting doctors recommend vaccines to make a profit. I found this quite ironic. She and many other fans of alternative medicine often raise the ethical issue of potentially damaging treatment for children. Medical professionals always consider this risk, which in most vaccines is vanishingly small. But she exaggerates this for real vaccines yet fails to apply the concept to homeopathy. It is legitimate to raise the side effects of vaccines, but only if compared to (a) vaccine benefits and (b) risks of (ineffective) homeopathy.

It’s reasonable to say that as the daughter of Tony Pinkus (of Ainsworth’s ‘Pharmacy’) she has probably been brought up with a fairly biased view of the usefulness of homeopathy, and feels she is defending her family. She pointed out that even though unvaccinated she has not suffered from pertussis, failing to recognise the protection she is offered by everyone else’s herd immunity. I’d like to place on the record that I am sure she is sincere.

That doesn’t mean she’s right.

After swapping a few tweets, I invited her to send me pro-homeopathy info, which I would read and comment on. In exchange I suggested she read and comment on Ben Goldacre’s 2009 piece in the Guardian. I would then blog about both sources and responses. She agreed and I shortly received an email with her comments and three documents as pdfs.

She then tweeted that she didn’t want me blogging it, didn’t want me to include her email and didn’t want her name mentioned.

Well, perhaps she misunderstood and thought I meant her email address, which obviously I would never share. But just in case she meant the text as well – despite agreeing to the original proposal – I shall summarise her response rather than quote it.

Comments on “Against” Evidence

I should emphasize that my correspondent did not actually engage with any of the ideas in the article. She wrote that she hadn’t read it properly, because she had read loads of similar things before. Instead her email made several points, which I have paraphrased.

  • Medical companies have a vested interest in keeping people ill to sell more drugs.
  • Homeopathy cures people and their symptoms disappear (correlation not causation, regression to the mean).
  • Drugs companies fund groups including the BBC (my emphasis) to criticise homeopathy (conspiracy theory).
  • Homeopathy is popular which proves it must work (appeal to popularity).
  • We can’t criticise homeopathy by asking for data, because that can’t contradict the experience of patients (anecdotal evidence).
  • Homeopathy is a choice and people should be allowed to make their own choice (she did not specify an informed choice).

I think the links sum up my thoughts quite clearly…

“For” Evidence

The three papers that were attached included a highly speculative model of how homeopathy might work, and a study looking at measured changes in EEG graphs when subjects were exposed to remedies. The last was effectively an advert from the Society of Homeopaths, but fails to make clear that their ‘meta-analyses’ only reference positive studies. They have still failed to produce evidence to contradict the 2005 Shang study, as Alan Henness has explained in the BMJ Rabid Responses.


I didn’t change her opinion. She didn’t even read the article I sent. I should have heeded the excellent advice implicit in the classic xkcd cartoon.

I did, however, get a fresh reminder about how so many people prefer anecdotes to evidence. It also encouraged me to look at this specific case with interest. While defending her father she linked to the letters published by the BBC. I feel these show very carefully chosen wording, perhaps designed to evade responsibility while still giving a clear recommendation for ineffective products. He presumably had this adjudication from the ASA in mind. (For other claims by Tony Pinkus you can see an article on homeopathy being used in Cuba.)

The real point I failed to get across is that the use of homeopathic medicines – even if the choice is truly informed, which is the last thing adherents want – really does have side effects. It limits effective medical care, and it affects society in the form of endangered children and adults. Despite appearing cheap, its failure to have any non-placebo effect means it is far less cost-effective than actual medicine. And if we allow homeopaths to use the language of ‘patient choice’ unchallenged they will continue taking advantage of the vulnerable.—

You can see Ian’s blogposts over on his site, here.


Author: noodlemaz

I prefer to think of myself as a realist rather than a pessimist, but perhaps that's just optimistic. Honest, atheist, scientist, feminist.

2 thoughts on “Fish in a barrel

  1. That reminds me, I really should finalise and publish my blog post on homeopathy and leptospirosis in Cuba…

  2. Pingback: Herd Immunity | Teaching Science

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s