Yes, I know I have been writing about homeopathy a lot recently. I am consciously making this one of my main topics of interest for 2011. Homeopathy is one phenomenon where the disconnect between public and official acceptance and the level of pseudoscience is greatest. It is also an area where acceptance is often based upon simply not understanding what homeopathy really is. If scientists keep beating the drum about how unscientific homeopathy is, perhaps we can have some effect on public belief and policy. Perhaps this is just wishful thinking, but then so is all activism.
Today I have some good news to report. The Canadian program, Marketplace, did an excellent piece on homeopathy. (You view it on YouTube in two parts: part I and part II.) Usually such mainstream media attention to homeopathy and similar topics falls into the trap of false balance – telling both sides and letting the audience decide. This is a reasonable journalistic default for political and social topics, but not for science. In science there is a level of objectivity and the logic and evidence is not always balanced on two sides of an issue. We don't need to “balance” the opinions of an astronomer with the illogical ravings of an astrologer.
Fortunately, the Marketplace program did not default to the false balance mode. Rather they took the far more appropriate consumer protection angle – which is the format of this particular show. I was especially happy about this because I have been saying for years that consumer protection advocates need to realize that fake medicine (so-called complementary and alternative medicine or CAM) is a huge consumer protection issue. Regulations meant to protect consumers from fraud and harm are being systematically weakened in the favor of product manufacturers and distributors and practitioners. It is a scandal worse than anything Ralph Nader has taken on in the past, and yet he seems to be nowhere on this topic.
My sense is that consumer protection advocates have been successfully put to sleep on the issue of CAM because of the successful propaganda of CAM proponents – selling it in the context of “health care freedom” and “patient-centered medicine” and other rhetoric that is essentially nothing but a bait and switch. The Jedi-mind trick has worked, and consumer protection advocates are asleep. Well now it's time for the sleeper to awaken (if I may mix my sci-fi metaphors).
The Marketplace episode was hopefully the stirring of this sleeping giant. Watch the show for yourself – they do an excellent job of explaining just how silly the underlying claims of homeopathy are. While they leave much out, it was a decent primer for those who have no idea that homeopathy is not simply “natural” medicine, but literal sugar pills with nothing on them. They also point out that relying upon sugar pills as if it were medicine can be very dangerous.
My favorite scenes are ones in which the reporter confronts homeopaths, the head of Boiron, a French company that makes homeopathic products, and a regulator pushing for licensure of homeopaths in Ontario. Their fumbling reply to very simple and straightforward questions is very telling. Their obsfuscations are reminiscent of con artists. At one point, when asked how homeopathy can work, the Boiron executive retreats to – your science cannot yet detect how homeopathy works, and then “it's a mystery.” The politician promised evidence to back his claim that homeopathy works, but then never came forward with that evidence.
The show also did a great sting – they simply called a homeopath in Canada, the investigator saying she had breast cancer, and the homeopath (who did not realize, apparently, that she was being recorded for television) confidently proclaimed that her homeopathic concoctions can cure breast cancer, and would start working in 15 days. There was no hedging or uncertainty – just a simple, “homeopathy works” – for cancer. Another practitioner was confident it would work to prevent polio – so no need to take the vaccine.These scenes effectively destroyed the “shruggie” response of “what's the harm.”
Marketplace also used the local skeptics, CFI Vancouver (I recognized some familiar faces from our recent SGU appearance in Vancouver) as a resource. Their influence on the content of the show was obvious, but also they were featured in a mass homeopathy overdose – a stunt meant to show how ineffective homeopathy is. Well done, guys.
Homeopaths knew this show was coming, and they were already preparing their counter-offensive. In a communication to fellow homeopaths and supporters they encouraged spamming the Marketplace website with pro-homeopathy comments. The comments are indeed full of the usual pro-homeopathy, pro CAM propaganda – anecdotes, false statements about the evidence, appeals to conspiracies and “Big Pharma”, appeals to authority, and exhortations to “keep and open mind.” It's the same recycled nonsense over and over. The comments certainly need a non-homeopathic dose of skepticism.
Homeopaths have also responded with a full frontal assault against skeptics. They apparently have figured out that organized skeptics are about the task of revealing their con to the public, and the best defense is always a good offense. Get a load of this characterization of skeptics from this blog supported by the National United Professional Association of Trained Homeopaths and other Canadian homeopathic professional organizations:
The skeptical movement is an offshoot of the Communist Party. (Really: see the top two links below.) Its top organizers were hired by pharmaceutical company and medical industry representatives to recruit malcontents in bars to spread hate propaganda against non-conventional medical systems. One of the first such skeptic groups referred to itself as “Skeptics in the Pub”. Not surprisingly, their rants against Homeopathy sound like the drunken cacophony of soccer hooligans.
The entire blog post is an attempt at poisoning the well – skeptics are mean, and their motives are suspect. It's interesting how the author feels they can just make up whatever libel they wish, based upon the flimsiest of justifications. Skeptics are communists? Really? I bet most skeptics would be very surprised to hear that, especially the libertarians. And of course the pharma shill gambit – hired by pharmaceutical companies. How about naming names, unnamed author of this hit blog? Who, exactly, in organized skepticism received money from a pharmaceutical company? I can tell you that this blog, and also Science-Based Medicine, receive no money from any company or industry group. We are completely independent. We just have the sense and scientific background to recognize that homeopathy is a scam.
It is no surprise that homeopaths are using the same sloppy scholarship and utter disregard for intellectual integrity to attack their critics that characterize homeopathy itself. But still the utter contempt for the truth and the sheer stones of these charlatans is something to behold.
The CBC Marketplace episode on homeopathy was well-done and presented the correct overall impression -homeopathy is a scam, it is a con on consumers, who are being sold a bill-of-goods with misdirection. In response homeopathy are desperately trying to attack their critics and defend their nonsense, but in so doing are just revealing themselves to the be charlatans that they are.
To those anonymous authors of the “Extraordinary Medicine: the truth about homeopathy” website that seems intent on attacking skeptics – here is an open challenge. Put aside the vague innuendo. If you have any evidence that organized skeptics are an arm of a political party or are hired guns by industry, then name names and show the evidence. Otherwise put up or shut up - remove those libelous and ridiculous claims from your website.