Monday, 7 July 2008

The homeopathic memory hole: not much progress since 1861...

A recent conference on the current state of research in homeopathy once again exposes the field as an intellectual shambles.

The bloggers have already written a good deal about some of the presentations at the conference. AP Gaylard points out that homeopaths are still "saying the thing that is not" about a meta-analysis (Shang et al.) that was published in 2005. The Quackometer goes into great detail about why Lionel Milgrom is talking rubbish; something that is also ably demonstrated in several excellent posts by shpalman. And Gimpy explains why Dr Alex Tournier PhD's assessment of the evidence is fundamentally flawed.

What I find difficult to understand is how the homeopaths can justify their selective quoting of evidence. The repeated instances of saying the thing that is not about the Shang paper are only one example. A materials science paper by Rao et al. is constantly wheeled out as evidence that homeopathy could work, for all the world as if it hadn't been demolished by a critical letter to the editor in a subsequent issue of the journal (I should know, I was a co-author of the letter). This letter has gone down the homeopathic memory hole, never to be mentioned again, while the original (execrably bad) paper refuses to die. There is also an identifiable pattern to how homeopaths discuss meta-analyses. Apparently positive ones that take no account of trial quality are always mentioned, but crucial caveats are always omitted (for example, Linde et al. 1997 said they could find no evidence that homeopathy worked for any particular condition: this is never mentioned). A later paper by Linde et al. looked at trial quality, and concluded that the results weakened the positive conclusions of their earlier paper: this is never mentioned. The Shang et al. paper is only mentioned to make erroneous criticisms of its methodology, to incorrectly state that critical information was missing from the paper, or to accuse the authors of scientific misconduct based on a total misunderstanding of the paper.

A bit of googling the other day turned up this. Back in 1861, a former editor of the North American Journal of Homeopathy, one Dr Peters, publicly renounced homeopathy. I recommend having a quick read of it. The points made are just as valid today as they were in 1861. And yet since then, homeopathy has persisted in heading into an intellectual cul-de-sac. Perhaps this is because homeopaths only retain the bits of evidence that superficially seem to be in favour of homeopathy: everthing else goes down the memory hole, even when it is published in homeopathic journals.

For some time, I've been considering putting together a summary of the evidence on homeopathy, and sending it off to Homeopathy (the in-house comic of the Faculty of Homeopathy) for publication. It seems clear that there's no point, even if the journal would print it. Firstly, homeopaths will pretend it never existed. And secondly, there are plenty of decent books on the subject for those who are genuinely curious about the evidence. The homeopaths will continue to be deluded.

9 comments:

gimpyblog said...

Homeopaths will lie to preserve their beliefs. It is as simple as that.

Great find on that article btw.

Paul Wilson said...

Gimpy:

It certainly does seem that way, although I've tried not to accuse anyone of actually lying. But they certainly aren't telling the whole truth, and simply ignoring things that don't fit with your worldview is surely a kind of dishonesty.

I like the 1861 article very much. It shows that it was perfectly possible to understand that homeopathy was bunk given the evidence available in 1861. So why are here in 2008 still talking about it? The evidence base gets more and more sophisticated, but it's still saying the same thing.

HolfordWatch said...

I'm going to make this appeal again - please would you, Gaylard, Chrastina, Gimpy, Quackometer and whomever I am not recalling right now please put together a book that explain precisely why homeopathy is nonsense.

I have an excellent collection of historical/contemporaneous C19 observations on homeopathy that might accompany your Peters. Some of them are very, very dry in their humour, others are quite touching.

gimpyblog said...

Paul, I often try and avoid using the word 'lying' but when I realise that the homeopath or organisation concerned has been told time and time that their claims are not justified by evidence or that their criticisms of a paper have already been dealt with and they choose to repeat, without qualification, what at first may have been a misunderstanding, it becomes a lie.

Paul Wilson said...

holfordwatch:

Well, in some ways that could be fun. It doesn't seem very likely to happen, though. Partly because I (and the rest, I'm sure) am busy with my day job, trying to do good research. And apart from that, the homeopaths would immediately forget all about it, or accuse us all of belonging to the reality-based community, or something. And thirdly, the Singh and Ernst book is probably a good enough summary of the evidence.

Gimpy:

Yes, I agree. It just doesn't seem very nice to call people liars: perhaps you're less squeamish than me! But there's no doubt that homeopaths are "saying the thing that is not", as Jonathan Swift would have it.

apgaylard said...

Don't know that I've the time to write a book; I am thinking that we should certainly keep a page somewhere that logs what they have fogotten - a memory hole if you will. At least then we could copy and paste a single url every time the same old rubbish gets recycled.

Svetlana said...

http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?storycode=402632

Paul Wilson said...

Svetlana's link is this one, for anyone interested. It's a letter to the THES in which one Michelle Shine excoriates Edzard Ernst for insisting on evidence for alternative therapies.

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