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CBC Marketplace on Homeopathy

by Steven Novella, Jan 17 2011

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.

Conclusion

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.

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38 Responses to “CBC Marketplace on Homeopathy”

  1. Ricky says:

    Good post!

    My favorite counter, why are oil companies not using the same method? The more you dilute the oil the more gas mileage you would have. :)

    • Max says:

      Is homeopathy not wacky enough as it is, that we need to make a strawman of it?
      http://www.ritecare.com/homeopathic/guide_potency.asp

      “Many, new to homeopathy, mistake potency or dilution with strength. There is actually no correlation between potency and the strength of a homeopathic medicine. A homeopathic medicine at 30C potency is not stronger than the same medicine at 6C or 3C. The difference is in their action. While a 6C potency is better suited for a local symptom, a 30C or higher potency is more appropriate for general conditions such as allergy, stress or sleep disorders.”

      Low dilutions are taken for acute symptoms up to multiple times per day, while high dilutions are taken for chronic symptoms at longer intervals, like once a week.

      • MadScientist says:

        But I don’t think that’s what the original inventor of the voodoo claimed. Then again, when people make bullshit claims they can (and do) say anything, so there’s nothing unusual in everyone making up their own rules of homeopathy just as there’s nothing unusual about people starting new religions.

      • jacs says:

        Great fun to find the term “The Korsakovian method” in the link mentioned! Apparently alcohol is used as a solvent. Reminds me of my medical studies (I am now a radiologist) and the Korsakoff Syndrome. Usually caused by alcoholism and subsequent vitamin B1 deficiency, the typical symptom is a complete lack of near memory. During a conversation the patient will confabulate to cover for this complete lack of memory. You could get just about any kind of answer and were it not for the obvious tragic result of a longstanding abuse it was very tempting to find such a conversation quite hilarious.

        Do we see a new definition of the “memory effect” in homeopathy here? :)

  2. Max says:

    I started seeing ads for oscillococcinum on local NBC. I think it’s an ad campaign by Boiron. Because homeopathy is FDA-regulated, the ads actually mention flu, not just something vague like supporting the immune system.
    I’m thinking of getting in on the market with my competing product called abracadabra.

  3. BillG says:

    “The skeptical movement is an offshoot of the Communist party” – “Skeptics in the pub”.

    Being a pub crawling commie would still be more dignified than belonging to a bunch of losers at some homeopathy organization.

  4. Seth says:

    So, skeptics are Communist agents working for capitalist overlords. Makes about as much sense as every other homeopathic claim.

    • Stevo says:

      Using the logic of homeopathy where the more dilute something is the more effective it is, then the less evidence there is for something means the more true it is.

    • Pontus says:

      Good point. And still of course the real question is that even if skeptics were capitalist communists (and more or less mostly drunk), how does that make the theories of homeopathy more credible?

  5. MadScientist says:

    My greatest objection to the recent surge in homeopathy is the deceptive labeling. Imagine Ordinary Joe walking into a drug store and seeing all those things with incomprehensible names – just like normal drugs. Now Joe isn’t a chemist or physician or pharmacist – how does he tell which are real effective non-prescription drugs and which ones are bullshit? The government needs to be pressured to put an end to the bullshit. In Australia the quack promoters seem to be paying economists to do “cost effective analyses” – what’s that? It’s simple: write a ‘report’ claiming that using homeopathic remedies can save the government millions of dollars per year in the cost of treating real diseases.

  6. Max says:

    The Canadian program starts by showing Center For Inquiry members “overdosing” on homeopathic sleeping pills.
    Of course homeopathy pushers say you can’t overdose on homeopathy, so they’d either laugh at attempts to do so, or boast that it proves that homeopathy is safe.

    http://www.nutrimart.com/homeopathy_FAQ.htm
    “You cannot overdose on homeopathic medicines. If you take fifteen tablets or five tablets (or 100 tablets for that matter) AT ONE TIME it is one dose. You will stimulate your curative response one time. So, it is not a tragedy if more than six tablets fall into the cap, just take them rather than risk putting a contaminated pill back into the bottle to contaminate the others in the bottle.”

    • Max says:

      At least one of the CFI members appeared to follow James Randi’s example by “overdosing” on Arsenicum album, as if it’s supposed to cause arsenic poisoning.
      Of course homeopathy says that “like cures like”, so Arsenicum album would be used to TREAT arsenic poisoning.

    • tmac57 says:

      It is,in essence,a stunt to draw attention to the fact that Homeopathic concoctions are just inert substances,like sugar pills.Many people do not realize this,and assume that they are some sort of natural,or herbal medicine with active ingredients.When they can get the Homeopaths to come out and be forced to admit this fact,some people are surprised,and will have a seed of doubt planted.Others,obviously,will just continue to fall for the “Well it works for me!” line.

    • Lars says:

      But what constitutes “one time”?
      How long do I have to wait between pills to make it an actual OD? A second? An hour? That’s the problem with this type of magical thinking: there are inconsistencies everywhere.

  7. Funny – they don’t have a comment page on that blog….

  8. Chris Howard says:

    Great post Doc., this is something very close to my heart, as well. Does anyone know what we would have to do
    In order to get the FDA, or other consumer protection agencies, to get involved? Surely those organizations have processes, by which, interested parties could petition them, no?

  9. Excellent piece by CBC! Nothing makes me more upset than predators who make money off the gullible. Dr. Novella, how about targeting chiropractic and acupuncture next?

  10. Mike McRae says:

    Nice post. However, I do question one claim early in the piece, mostly because it’s one of those common claims which appears to simply be taken for granted as true without any supporting evidence.

    Steve claims, ‘It is also an area where acceptance is often based upon simply not understanding what homeopathy really is.’ While I can’t dismiss that this will occasionally be true, I’m curious to know what ‘often’ translates into. This seems to be an extension of the belief that once people know the chemistry of homeopathy, they’ll accept it must be ineffective. Yet this relies on the assumption that people ‘often’ given priority to the impact of scientific knowledge on forming their beliefs.

    There’s ample reason to think that it’s more common for people to indulge in alternative medicines – such as homeopathy – for non-scientific reasons, such as culture and social beliefs. Merely providing the public with the chemical facts in such cases is fairly useless.

    I know the rebuttal to this is to suggest that there will at least be some people who will change their behaviour, but as skeptics, shouldn’t we have a better idea of what this proportion might be?

    • tmac57 says:

      Mike,while I don’t know of any data to support this, I will say that everyone (besides skeptics)that I have ever discussed this with,did not know what homeopathy really was.I will admit that this is purely anecdotal, but I would bet that it is also very common.I’m not sure anyone is ready,or willing to do a scientific study of how many people really understand that these nostrums are totally inert.

      • Mike McRae says:

        I’m quite sure that’s the case (that the average pharmacy-sold homeopathy client is unaware of its chemical nature), however modern skepticism is based on the very idea of cultural biases, avoidance of assumptions and knowing the details beyond gut feelings and intuition. And yet here it seems fine – anecdotes, personal hunches and bold assertions seem to be acceptable.

        In any case, you missed my point – it’s not a case of whether most people know, but how such knowledge would impact on their behaviour. In my experience, the weight of social thinking (i.e., why would they sell it if it didn’t work?…science doesn’t know everything…my Aunt Maude swears by it etc.) is typically far stronger than atomic models of the universe and chemistry.

        There’s a current groundswell of action regarding homeopathy – maybe it’s high time that activism pushed for more data to base their actions on.

      • Mike, here in the U.S., an emphasis on “evidence-based medicine” was one part, albeit small, of the Obama health care legislation. I don’t know how it will play out, but that’s certainly a regulatory and legal angle.

    • Chris Howard says:

      Great point. I agree, but I’d say that the social/cultural category could, possibly, be filed under “true believers” so no amount of scientific evidence will change their minds. I think the best we can do is present the data, and stress the possible effects it can have on ones health, and hope for the best. As I understand it, the EU regulates a bit differently than the FDA. I believe the EU has a labeling process, which basically says “the jury’s still out” scientifically, with regard to things like GM foods, etc. While the FDA has a “hasn’t been shown to cause harm, yet.” approach.
      So I think, we here in the U.S., would have to show specific instances of a CAM treatment causing harm. It would be nice to have a lawyer chime in, because I’m not qualified to know, and I’d like to know, myself.

      • The Midwesterner says:

        Laws vary by state but as a general rule for an individual to sue, that person must show they’ve been damaged in some way – lost money, lost health (permanently or for a specified amount of time), lost a family member. The dollar value claimed must be over a certain amount. (Otherwise you go to small claims/concilliation court.) You must also show that the person/organization causing the harm was liable, either because they did something that caused the harm or neglected to do something that resulted in the harm. Despite what you hear in the news about huge jury awards, juries are incredibly stingy and believe strongly in “stuff happens” so most people who sue don’t come away with much money, which is all an individual can ask for. Only a state or the federal government can sue to get an organization to stop doing something, such as selling a product considered to be harmful or advertising in a deceitful or fraudulent way.

        Disclaimer: I’m not a lawyer but work in the legal field. For specific advice, consult an attorney familiar with the laws of your state.

      • Chris Howard says:

        Good to know. Thank you.

    • Michael says:

      Exactly right for many, Mike.

      Otherwise, bears wouldn’t be slaughtered for various parts to be dried and ground up and sold as treatments for various ailments.

      Not to mention hundreds, or thousands of other animals, many of which are endangered.

      To further reinforce this, in Vancouver, Canada, a proposed hospice is being fought tooth and nail by residents of a nearby condo because: They are afraid of ghosts.

      No kidding. Real, actual, 21st century adult humans living in a first world country are fighting a rezoning application because they are afraid of the spirits of the dead causing them to be unlucky at best, or causing them harm at worst.

      As Mike points out, and as one of the people who are afraid of ghosts points out herself, its simply cultural. This condo is largely people of Asian descent. Many are immigrants.

      I’ve never been to any Asian countries, so I don’t know if she is correct, but I would find it interesting to see how many people in her old society don’t believe in ghosts. Do well educated people there believe in ghosts, and luck?

      We are extremely social animals, and various societies often enforce various ideas, that may or may not stand up to reason.

    • NDNC says:

      Great Reply…

      The truth is, people who use homeopathy successfully, don’t care what the skeptical community thinks. This dovetails with the ideas of health freedom and the notion that conventional health care, for all its benefits, has run-a-muck in so many ways. The idea that a handful of intellectual scientists should dictate or control every aspect of health care and medicine is rather limited and unrealistic. The culture of medical research is locked and narrowed to the point where the very processes that once made it successful, may lead to its failure.

      I think the conventional medical research community needs to take a serious look at itself, and apply some critical skepticism in that direction. The fact that the skeptical scientific community would invest any time “attacking” something like homeopathy, makes me seriously question the validity and credibility of Novella’s premise. I have to wonder if maybe there isn’t more to the story, more to the idea of “homeopathy.” Why else would Novella be looking at it so closely? The fact is consumers have made their decision on this by purchasing it and re-purchasing it. It appears that homeopathy has a fairly secure place in the hearts and minds of those who use it. I think the scientific medical community should get its own house in order before orchestrating negative campaigns against modalities they don’t fully understand.

  11. J. J. Ramsey says:

    So skeptics are supposed to be both commies and pharma shills? Wait a minute. Since when would a self-respecting pinko want to help an eeevil capitalist organization like the pharmaceutical industry? :)

  12. Gary says:

    Which drug companies are paying people to attack homeopathy? Who do I talk to? I will blog for money!

  13. Kylenk says:

    Well written/said! The fatal weakness of homeopathy is that it is so easily falsifiable. Hopefully, with the publicity you and other science-based medicine advocates are propounding, homeopathy will go the way of phrenology.

  14. Michael says:

    The article states:

    “…telling both sides and letting the audience decide. This is a reasonable journalistic default for political and social topics…”

    I couldn’t disagree more. I believe much of what ails the US (and increasingly, Canada) is the poor “journalism” practise of dumping two persons or ideas on TV and saying “There! Fair and balanced.

    What we are really getting, is sixty second increments of sound bites and meaningless blather.

    The majority (if not all) the news shows have gone from reporting news in a fashion that is for the public good, to creating a half hour, or hour of entertainment that creates advertising revenue.

    But what can you expect from major journalistic powerhouses that bring us such intelligent news as “Balloon Boy” and “Rocket over LA”. Two events that with less than thirty seconds of reasoning should have resulted in one case of fraud and another of hysteria.

    At least one TV personality took on “terror babies” (not that it should have ever been addressed as anything other than a stupid politician). TV news needs much more of this, people asking hard questions rather than just putting one idiot up against another, and calling it fair and balanced.

    We need shows (which is what TV news has become) that are willing to call stupid people acting stupid, stupid. Death panel healthcare should never have been a suitable subject for debate. TV news channel shows should have shut it down and not even given it a voice. Except that the number one SHOW of SHOWS, FOX “news”, deliberately does exactly what I am railing against, creating a climate of stupidity, ignorance and disinformation.

    I’ve given up watching the news on TV, its too often dumbed down to the most common denominator. My local channel has become a complete joke, often leaving me questioning the very facts of simple articles because of extremely muddy writing.

  15. This post was going to be a ground breaking argument against homeopathy that would settle the case against it and seal it in a coffin, six feet under where it belongs.

    Unfortunately it was a little too diluted so we’ll need to settle for this.

    Humbug.

  16. Kenneth Polit says:

    Homeopathy is crapola, mixed with a little placebo effect. Everything else is a lie. This is just another scam, like those bracelets.

  17. John Greg says:

    The last time I got into a discussion with a homeopathy true believer about water’s memory I could not restrain myself from asking, all in a rush, whether water’s memory was long-term or short-term and did it ever forget, and was water’s memory selective or indiscriminate, and were some waters more, or less, prone to Alzheimer’s disease.

    They just got befuddled and red, and walked away.

    /I wish that were true — but it will be one day; it will be!!!

    :)

  18. Brandon Z says:

    “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.”

    Soo… all social science is also bunk? Whoa. Did I just waste my whole life believing we can make certain reliable claims about the truth of falsity of social topics? Oh no! I would like to point out that in many cases the medical science that this post seems to celebrate is in many cases far less solid than scientific claims about social topics.

    By way of a ‘for instance’, one can look at the preponderance of studies about social behavior that are ‘ significantly likely to double your chances of X horrible disease.’ Many of these diseases are so rare, and the pool of subjects in the study so huge that a the estimated probability increased by the behavior will raise your risk from .05% to .1%. This is doubling, and it is statistically significant due to the size of the subject pool- but I think until we actually understand the possible benefits of behavior X, we may want to be careful what trade-offs we encourage our doctors to recommend. But this is the state of much medical research today.

    I also think it is important to stress that homeopathy is not in the same league as many other traditional medicines, that simply have never been tested under scientifically rigorous conditions in no small part because of the institutional biases inherent in medical research: (1) it’s hard to get funding for unpatentable remedies, and (2) it is hard to publish negative results