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Attacks on homeopathy miss the point

February 5, 2010

There’s a lot of anti-homeopathy stuff in the media at the moment. I totally understand why, but think that people who attack homeopathy are a little reductionist in their understanding of health.

From personal experience, homeopathy does work. I assume this is due to the placebo effect, which I think acts as a form of sympathetic magic. In other words, every time you take the pill, you are evoking the sense of well being that the homeopath created in the consultation. In my experience, homeopathic consultations are really good, as it is the only time some one listened to me talk about health, and made observations based on this. Normal doctors have usually been pretty dismissive about what I think is going on in my own body. They are the professionals, they’ll tell me what’s wrong with me. Generally, this has left me feeling disempowered, and still sick.

For me, taking a homeopathic pill is a ritual to remind your psyche that you are taking measures to address a problem. I think this triggers homeostasis – the tendency of your body to heal itself and return to a state of equilibrium. Since so much of ill health is tied up in our mental and psychological states, addressing this makes a real difference.

But I disagree with buying homeopathic remedies off the shelf and thinking they will work.

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16 Comments leave one →
  1. Melanie Charlton permalink
    February 5, 2010 2:01 pm

    I completely agree with you Walton. My dad was cured of persistent migraines when he went to a homeopath. He had a full 45 minute consultation and all aspects of his body and mind were talked about. That in itself is a ‘healing’ process.
    I also agree with the placebo effect and think that our bodies have amazing capacity for self healing – its all in the mind.

  2. Michael permalink
    February 5, 2010 2:04 pm

    Nice to see the blog back! I don’t think any scientist is missing the point as everyone is well aware of the value of the placebo, however these “remedies” are sold as if they are medicines, which they simply are not. The placebo argument applies equally to witch doctors, visits to the church, prayer, and any other type of quack therapy you can think of, of course.

    The problem with homeopathy lying and not coming clean about the placebo effect is that it deflects from proper research being done into the placebo and how to harness it.

    All this is aside from the fact it is simply dishonest, anti-rational, and anti-intellectual.

    Wouldn’t we all be in a better position if homeopathy admitted their only effect was one of placebo, so once they recognise this they could help to push for better consultations from allopathic doctors? That way you get chemicals that work when you need then as well as that lovely glow from someone being nice to you and spending some time with you.

    The point is, while homeopaths keep insisting that their water potions have any value, no one can take them seriously.

  3. February 5, 2010 2:20 pm

    It’s not the scientists missing the point so much as journalists like Hadley Freeman in The Guardian, lazily failing to distinguish between homeopathy and nutritional supplements, and taking part in the ‘overdose’ campaign to ‘prove’ homeopathy is ineffective. Homeopaths would agree you can’t overdose, so they aren’t proving anything.

    The issue is that homeopaths don’t think they are lying, they believe they remedies work as they claim. The same goes for faith healers. I am sure faith healing works sometimes too.

    My point is that the scientific argument is a reductionist one, and we need a more nuanced understanding of health. If western medicine is so great, and science based, why does is routinely fail to heal us? It is particularly bad at common ailments like the cold, eczema,alopecia and food intolerances, which while not life threatening severely impact on people’s well being. If these illnesses are psychosomatic, then we need to develop a kind of medical practice that takes the psyche into account. For all its flaws, homeopathy and faith healing do this. Western medicine treats people like a malfunctioning machine that needs a part replaced.

  4. Anique permalink
    February 5, 2010 2:20 pm

    I agree Walton, I have used them successfully now for 6 years, and I have never been healthier, go figure. After years of abuse by doctors with AB’s and other equally vile medication.

    In response to Michael. If homeopathy is not allowed to be sold as medicines then nor should conventional medicine, it should be labelled poison – isn’t that what it does, kills everything in hopes it doesn’t kill you too?

  5. Michael permalink
    February 5, 2010 2:32 pm

    Anique: no, licensed conventional medicine does not, in general, work as you state. It goes through rigorous trials to show that the drugs *alone* has a beneficial effect on the condition being investigated, without causing too serious or too frequent side-effects. Properly applied, the methodology is very good.

    Your own experience, however, counts for nothing statistically. It’s only one. Go figure? OK, I figure you’d have been feeling perfectly healthy anyway. Might not be right, but there’s no method we can find out whether it’s true in your one example, just like we can’t tell whether homeopathy played a part, on a sample size of one person. It’s the same as “my grandfather smoked for 75 years and died peacefully in his sleep” suggesting that cigarettes aren’t bad for you or “someone was eaten by a shark in the waters of Cape Town last year” meaning that it is very unsafe to swim in the water. Or expecting to get the jackpot in the lottery.

  6. Michael permalink
    February 5, 2010 2:38 pm

    Walton, I’m certainly not saying that Western medicine is perfect or that alternative medicine is without any merit; I’m just saying that alternative medicine is dishonest. I simply can’t believe that they don’t understand the science. And if they admitted it, they could say “OK so the potions are only symbolic, but look at the benefits we can confer by our methods, *despite* the inefficacy of the potions alone – surely *that* is worth studying?” which I think would be better for all of society.

  7. Michael permalink
    February 5, 2010 2:41 pm

    Oh – and I’ve not really seen what the press are saying, but when do journalists ever get the point about anything? If they are saying the remedies alone do nothing, without mentioning that people feel better despite that, then they are missing an important point.

  8. February 5, 2010 2:49 pm

    Michael: I completely agree that much of the alternative medicine field is dishonest. I get really upset about. For instance, when I took the decision to take anti-malaria meds, some people said ‘take sweet wormwood instead’. The problem is, there is no kind of consensus on how it works, whether it works on all strains of the parasite, what the dosage and side effects are and so on. People seem to assume that because it’s ‘natural’ it is automatically better – I want the facts.

    I also agree that one person’s experience is statistically insignificant. However, subjectively it is highly significant. In the end, we can only make judgements on our own experience. Also, Anique is not alone in saying homeopathy has worked for her – there’s three on this blog alone, so I suspect there is a statistically significant number.

    I know how conventional medicine claims to work, but don’t believe this kind of rigorous testing is the norm. For example, Lariam (which I am taking) has suicide and madness as a reported side effect. It’s been around since the 1970s. But look for academic articles on it, and there is very little. The has been no consistent enquiry into Lariam side effects. I think it’s conventional medicine that’s dishonest, by claiming to be science based when often it takes short cuts and is motivated by profit rather than the desire to heal.

  9. Sarah permalink
    February 5, 2010 2:52 pm

    Modern medicine can and does save lives. It is wonderful in an emergency, but it is not so great at maintaining the everyday health of a person. Pharmaceutical based medicine teaches doctors which drug to prescribe for which disease. It does not teach how to work with the body to bring it into balance. Our bodies have evolved for 1000s of years with virus, bacterias, plagues, etc. our immune systems know what to do. I choose to support my body, not suppress it with drugs. Homeopathy works with the body. Children and animals respond favourably to correctly applied homeopathic remedies. I promote healing the whole person, not the dis-ease, and this is why Bechamp’s works makes more sense to me than Pasteur’s, and I don’t mind being called a quack or charlatan by those who can’t see a bigger picture.

  10. Michael permalink
    February 5, 2010 2:54 pm

    Walton, the profit is certainly a corrupting aspect. I think the testing was less rigorous in the 70s, but I didn’t even think you could still get Larium any more because of the side effects; certainly last I heard anything definite about it they were recommending that anyone who has ever had any kind of mental problem (including depression) should definitely not take Larium. I thought it had been taken off the market since, but clearly not!

  11. February 5, 2010 3:00 pm

    I was prescribed Lariam, and I met a number of people taking it. The official US position is that side effects are rare, based on only 2 studies: one of US soldiers, one of Peace Corp volunteers. However, there are all sorts of problems with the research, such as the population (mostly fit young men – how does it effect other people), and also the circumstances it was taken in: it was compulsory, and people reporting side effects were told they were imagining it, so it was probably under reported.

    The British view is more cautious: I found a BMJ article making the above criticism, and saying there was anecdotal evidence that side effects were more common, but that there has never been a trustworthy study on this. Certainly, I had violent nightmares and thoughts of suicide after taking it.

  12. Michael permalink
    February 5, 2010 3:00 pm

    Sarah, why does your body need anything to bring it back into balance? As you said it has evolved to deal with these things alone. Certainly, if you see pill-popping as a way of life, you are better off taking harmless placebos that taking drugs every day.

    However, if I had something very seriously wrong with you, say cancer, I’d take the morphine / diamorphine every time.

  13. Michael permalink
    February 5, 2010 3:43 pm

    One more thing… there is also a difference between believing it does you good and it actually doing you good. I’m certain there are indeed a statistically significant number of people who say homeopathy works for them – after all it is a multi-billion dollar industry so it must have fans! – but that is not the same as homeopathy actually working, remedies aside, which I assume we can all agree do nothing. I don’t know of any study that says homeopathy, as a whole, actually works, compared to allopathic (I guess they do exist). Of course it can’t be a rigorous double-blind scientific test, because all you are measuring is the placebo effect.

    So people feel like it is doing them good – of course. But actually how much good does it do when you measure that (as far as is possible)? I dunno, does anyone here?

    Actually I’m just thinking of some experiments that could test the whole therapy quite well, but they would involve switching remedies without the knowledge of the homeotherapist and so on, so maybe not the most ethical!

  14. February 5, 2010 3:47 pm

    Homeopathy doesn’t work in any rational measurable way because it’s magic :-)

    But then, I believe Magick works.

  15. Ant permalink
    February 5, 2010 9:02 pm

    I think these therapies invite you to have a slightly different relationship between your concious and your subconcious, a bit like religion. That can be very powerful for a large class of people. However I do support the overdose-performers Walton not because I would discourage homeopathy nor because I think they demonstrated anything (I don’t think they claimed it was science) but because they drew attention to £4m of public money spent on products whose producers (business-people I assume) do not make their claims verifiable. My mind is not made up though – perhaps that £4m is cleverly spent helping that class of people I refered to earlier, but clearly many people are not convinced and without verifiability even on offer (never mind the quality compared to Larium studies), who can blame them?

  16. Michael permalink
    February 6, 2010 1:10 am

    Walton, romantic; but nonsense, unfortunately.

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