Homeopathic research – a complete waste of time?

As regular visitors will know, Early Day Motions are the nearest thing that Parliament has to a parish noticeboard, and like the contents of most such noticeboards EDMs are, for the most part, dull and rather mundane but occasionally useful for identifying the House of Commons’ resident idiots, as is the case here:

That this House welcomes the campaign by the Homeopathy Research Institute (HRI) to place homeopathy research on the national agenda as a credible scientific field of inquiry; notes that the HRI is an innovative charity that does not promote the practice of homeopathy itself, but rather promotes and facilitates scientific research into homeopathy ,of which the most controversial aspect is the use of highly diluted medicines; acknowledges that, in the UK, the practice of homeopathy has been part of the National Health Service (NHS) since its inception, and since that time homeopathic medicines have been prescribable to patients; observes that the Faculty of Homeopathy Act 1950 states that the public has access to homeopathy under the NHS so long as patients demand it and doctors are trained to provide it; and calls on the Government to facilitate research into this important area to ascertain the effectiveness of homeopathy.

The sponsor of this EDM is, naturally enough, David Tredinnick, the Conservative MP who forfeited any right to criticise public expenditure and be taken seriously when it emerged that he’d blown £755 of his parliamentary expenses on astrology software, money that he was eventually forced to repay.

I could easily beat up on Tredinnick for a while, but what I’m rather more interested in here is the Homeopathy Research Institute campaign to place homeopathy on ‘the national agenda as a credible scientific field of inquiry’, a thoroughly ridiculous proposition to which the obvious response is MWHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!

Being serious for a moment, there are two very obvious reasons why the very notion of establishing research into homeopathy as a credible scientific field of inquiry is complete nonsense founded on an utterly fraudulent premise.

The first of these stems from the history of homeopathy itself. The term homeopathy first appeared in the published work of its founder, Samuel Hahnemann, in 1807 but the underlying theoretic ‘principles’ on which it is supposedly based were being outlined in article and monograph by Hahnemann from around 1796 onwards. So, homeopathy in its modern form is around 215 years old and over the course of those two centuries, homeopaths has utterly failed to produce either a plausible scientific explanation of the biological/biochemical mechanism by its is supposed to work or any credible scientific evidence to demonstrate its efficacy beyond placebo.

To put that in perspective, during this same period of time, a partial list of major, well-evidenced, discoveries in the mainstream sciences would include; atomic theory (in both chemisty and physics), the periodic table of elements, electromagentism and electromagnetic theory (including the Maxwell equations), the laws of thermodynamics, the theory of evolution by natural selection and the Mendellian law of inheritence, the germ theory of disease, radioactivity, the special and general theories of relativity, quantum theory, quantum mechanics and quantum electrodynamics, antibiotics, DNA, genetics and the neo-Darwinian synthesis, Big Bang theory, polymerase chain reaction, continental draft and plate-techtonic theory – and I’m riffing from memory to concoct that list.

The overwhelming majority of these discoveries are readily explicable in plausible scientific rerms, even if some are, to say the least, rather complex and all of them are well supported by solikd bodies empirical, experimental and/or observational evidence, so much so that we can happily dispense with scientific equivocation in regards to a number of the phenomena they describe and state beyond all reasonable doubt that evolution, continental drift, the existence of diseases caused by bacteria and viruses, DNA and genetic inheritence, electromagnetic radiation, and many more, are all matters of empirical fact. While its true that there are still significant gaps in our knowledge and understanding of certain phenomena – we still haven’t figured out, for example, how anaesthaesia works – we still have the evidence to show that these phenomena are real and that, if it is a relevant question, they do indeed work. As I write this, there are numerous demonstrations of the efficacy of anaetheasia taking place in hospitals the length and breadth of these islands, which is just as well as one certainly would wish to undergo major surgery without it.

In the last two hundred years, scientific research has dome little else but add to the sum of human knowledge. Homeopathic ‘reasearch’ has, over the same period of time, added precisely nothing. Zero, Zip. Nada. Nowt. Fuck All. In fact, I can happily argue that homeopathy has added considerably less than fuck all because it actively promotes utter delusory notions of vitalism, miasmas, and magical thinking that science has long since dispensed with for the lack of both plausibilty and evidence. Homeopathy, like phlogiston, luminferous aether, geocentric theory and spermism, is an utterly failed hypothesis – researching it makes about as much sense as funding an expedition to look for the edge of the world.

It neverthess remains the case that some people are determined to cling to the delusion that homeopathy works and that includes a number of trained scientists and medical practitioners. Homeopathic research is conducted and it is published in what are, at least notionally, peer reviewed journals for all that these tend to be specialist journals run by homepaths for homeopaths (although, sadly, owned by mainstream publishers like Elsevier).

The second argument against the proposition that homeopathy as a credible field of scientific inquiry stems directly from the existence of these specialist homeopathic and their contents, the research that is being published which is almost uniformly of such poor methodological quality that it would never see the light of day were it to submitted for publication to a credible scientific journal.

Last year, I took apart just such a paper over at Liberal Conspiracy, one which appeared in  specialist homeopathic journal under what, to a complete layman, might appear to be a rather impressive and plausible-sounding title; Heparin-binding epidermal growth factor expression in KATO-III cells after Helicobacter pylori stimulation under the influence of strychnos Nux vomica and Calendula officinalis.

The title certainly looks nice and sciency, and the paper has been widely touted on homeopathy websites as evidence to support the use of homeopathy for the treatment of gastric ulcers and gastritis caused by the Helicobacter Pylori bacterium. This is some considerable distance beyond the use of homeopathy to ‘treat’ minor self-limiting conditions, gastritis and gastric ulcers are a serious matter and one that can result in death if left untreated, so any claims made for the efficacy of homeopathy as a treatment for these conditions requires careful investigation.

For brevity’s sake I won’t re-run the full takedown as one needs only to consider the final two sentences of the paper’s abstract to understand why this particular paper is a piece of utterly fraudulent nonsense:

This effect was only be observed when the drugs were primarily prepared in ethanol, not in aqueous solutions. The data suggest that both drugs prepared in ethanolic solution are potent inhibitors of H. pylori induced gene expression.

So this is a lab bench study in which the effect, a statistically significant decrease in a protein used, in the experiment, as a marker for the toxic effects of H Pylori on cultured gastric cells, was evident where the homeopathic ‘remedy’ has been prepared in an ethanol (alcohol) solution but not when it was prepared in plain old water. And, in fact, the result also show that this effect also varied in line with the alcohol content of the ethanol solution – a 43% solution produced a larger effect than a 21.5% solution.

One doesn’t need to be a microbiologist to understand that the effect here is solely the product of the toxic effects of the ethanol solution on the H Pylori bacteria in each of the samples – and probably also on the gastric cell cultures as well -a hospital cleaner could happily tell you that alcohol kills bacteria, never mind a doctor or a research scientist, and yet the authors of this paper conclude that this demonstrates the effectiveness of the homeopathic substances (strychnine and calendula) contained in the ethanol solutions*.

*In this case, the researchers used 10C solutions, so there was at least a small possibility of them containing a few molecules of the supposedlt active ingredient.

This conclusion can only reasonably be described as a delusion beyond the point of incompetence running headlong into the realms of fraud – this ‘research’ was (alarmingly) conducted within the oncology division of the Medical University of Vienna, which is the largest medical school in contential Europe, and was published with a conclusion that could readily be debunked by a competent GCSE chemistry or biology student.

The vast bulk of published homeopathic research is raddled with glaringly obvious methodological flaws despite the fact that the treatment modality used in homeopathy, i.e. the giving of pill or liquid preparations, is ideally suited to testing using the accepted gold standard in medicine, the large scale placebo-controlled, fully randomised double-blind clinical trial. Finding gold standard trials within homeopathic ‘research’ literature is not dissimilar to seaching for hen’s teeth for the simple reason that on the very rare occasions that homeopathy has been subjected to a gold standard, or near gold standard, trial the results have demonstrated only what sceptics have known all along; that homeopathic ‘remedies’ perform no better than placebo.

This should come as no surprise, of course, because homeopathy is nothing more than a placebo or, as Dara O’Briain succintly put it, ‘It’s fucking water’.

For a considerable number of years, sceptics hasve been patiently (and sometime impatiently) critiquing homeopathic research papers, knocking over spurious claims and pointing out their methodological shortcomings – and if you want a few examples you could do much worse than pay a visit the Quackometer, Gimpy, David Colquhoun or Orac as a starting point and work from there, although I would heartily recommend this post by Gimpy, which deals specifically with the Homeopathy Research Institute, for its relevance to this article.

This not something we do just for fun, but because criticism and peer review are essential features of good science. Scientists, in all disciplines, publish their research in the expectation that it will be critiqued and that any methodological shortcoming and limitations will be commented on by other scientists. In fact, honest scientists will take the time, in writing up their work, to openly discuss its limitations as they see them, making this kind of discussion one of the key things to look for when reading a scientific paper – personally I always skip to the discussion of limitations first, before going back to read the full paper, as I find this gives me a better feel for what to look for when working through the methodology and results.

The primary purpose of scientific criticism is that of producing better science. Flaws and limitations are exposed in order to permit researchers to address them and improve the design of their research in order to produce more reliable and accurate finding next time around. That’s how most scientific progress occurs, through a process of research, review, refinement and replication all supported by scientific publishing.

This is not, however, what happens when sceptics turn their attention to homeopathy, and to research relating to other so-called alternative ‘therapies’. No matter how often or how patiently sceptics point out the common, and entirely obvious errors, flaws and limitations in homeopathic research, homeopathic researchers continue to publish sub-standard research papers containing the same, often extremely basic, errors while routinely claiming any positive result whatsover as ‘evidence’ for the efficacy of homeopathy, regardless of the quality of the research. Again, this is an utter nonsense and one founded on a delusory and, ultimately, fraudlent set of assumptions and premises.

So, we have no credible scientific explanation for the mechanism of homeopathy – and recent attempts to leverage nanotechnology and quantum mechanics into homeopathy to serve that purpose are frankly, nothing short of risible – no credible evidence of efficacy and, with very few exceptions, no interest whatsoever in addressing obvious methodological shortcoming in homeopathic research.

What justification is there for taking the very notion of researching homeopathy seriously, let alone funding such research, when its patently obvious that there is no more of a prospect of placing homeopathy on a credible scientific basis in the next 200 years than there ever was in the 200 years that have just gone. Organisations such as the Homeopathy Research Institute are created not for the purpose of establishing homeopathy as a credible scientific field of inquiry but rather as an act of desperation, an attempt to buy time and, in the case of the UK, cling on to the NHS gravy train to which it should never have been given a ticket in the first place.

I have one final observation to make, which is directed primarily at sceptics and at supporters of the 1023 campaign and the Nightingale Collaboration (including myself), both of which are, of course, worthy initiatives.

We all, I think, have a marked tendancy to focus on the activities of lay homeopaths, and the organisations that represent them, as these are low-hanging fruit for these campaigns. Lay homeopaths, generally, have received little or no scientific training and are prone to making exaggerated and wholly unrealistic claims for the efficacy of homeopathy for specific conditions which are easily picked off now that the ASA has assumed jurisdication over claims made on websites, with or without the assistance of Fishbarrel. This is fine in so far as it goes, which is fair distance so far (and could go further when a Firefox version of Fishbarell emerges) but its an appraoch that has its limitations because delusion is, unfortunately, a viable defence in law.

As sceptics, we all know that the claim that homeopathy is anything but a placebo is essentially fraudulent but proving it to satisfaction of a court, or a legislature, is problematic for the simple reason that a direct allegation of fraud is readily circumvented merely by the practice of thoroughly deluding oneself before setting out to delude others adn, in the case of lay homeopaths, the evident lack of scientic knowledge and training possessed by most considerably lowers the bar on what is acceptable as a delusionary belief.

The same cannot necessarily be said of medical homeopaths and those researchers who do have an academic background in the sciences, by virtue of their medical and scientific training. Belief alone, in this case, is not necessaily enough to automatically cover their arses, as the bar is automatically lifted by their scientific training, which make the question not just that of whether the beleive in homeopathy but also of whether that belief is reasonable in the face of the accumulatd evidence. This is, perhaps, the only viable argument in favour of more homeopathic research – the more evidence that acculates, the more obvious it will become either than homepathy is nothing more than a placebo or that homeopathic research is nothing more than a systematic scientific fraud which refuses, point blank, to improve its research standards in the knowledge than any such improvements will only serve to make the fraudulent nature of homeopathy even more obvious.

This, I think, is where our attentions need to turn, no soon as we’ve finished with the ASA and the lay homeopaths.

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  • david

    In an unusual move, Tredinnick withdrew his notice of motion yesterday. No explanation but I’d like to think it was because he saw this piece and finally realised what an idiot he’s been over the years.

  • Neuro Skeptic

    Homeopathy clinical trials are utterly pointless as a means of finding out whether homeopathy works better than a placebo, because we already know it doesn’t, because thanks to physics we know pretty much what might be possible as opposed to what would take magic to achieve, and  homeopathy falls into the latter bracket;

    however, homeopathy research is nonetheless instructive as an example of what can go wrong with science: http://neuroskeptic.blogspot.com/2010/02/are-we-all-homeopaths-now.html