Sunday, 31 January 2010

The Observer ignores the evidence on homeopathy

Homeopathy is in the news once again, following a campaign set up by Merseyside Skeptics in which skeptics took an overdose of homeopathic pills, demonstrating that there's nothing in them other than lactose, and then went to the pub for some non-homeopathic beer. The campaign was mainly aimed at high-street pharmacist Boots, whose professional standards director admitted to the science and technology select committee of the House of Commons that there was no evidence that homeopathy worked, but they were very happy to continue charging people money for it. The campaign, and a forthcoming report of the select committee on whether the NHS should fund homeopathy, gave the Observer an excuse to publish a feature article, in which Anushka Asthana and Robin McKie examine the supposed controversy about whether homeopathy works or not.

Of course, scientifically speaking there is no controversy over homeopathy. It's perfectly clear that there is no scientific reason why it ought to work, and that when it is tested in properly conducted trials it works no better than placebo. I grant you that this probably wouldn't make for a very satisfying Sunday newspaper feature, and it would certainly be rather too short to fill up all of page 30 of the Observer. But you might expect there to be some discussion of the actual evidence. Not really, though. Edzard Ernst gets to say that "I have now published more than 100 papers on homeopathy and I am quite clear about its efficacy: you may as well take a glass of water than a homeopathic medicine". The evidence of Jane Lawrence of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society to the House of Commons select committee on science and technology that "There is no basis for [homeopathic remedies] being effective" is also quoted. But then Cristal Sumner of the British Homeopathic Association gets away with saying "Homeopathy helps patients and is not a placebo effect", despite all the evidence showing exactly the opposite.

This is typical of how the press treats scientific issues; they are presented in a superficially even-handed way, but crucially there is no attempt to weigh the evidence. Again, there is no scientific controversy over homeopathy, but by reading the Observer article you could be forgiven for thinking there was considerable room for doubt.

The worst things about the article, though, are the two inset boxes (these only appear in the printed version of the article, not in the online version, as far as I can tell). The first box is headed "Common Renedies" and lists "Popular homeopathic remedies for sale in Britain", including Arnica for clearing up bruises, and mixed pollen for treating hayfever. As these are homeopathic, they contain no Arnica or pollen, and there is no evidence they do anything except lighten your wallet, but this is not mentioned in the box. The second box is headed "Case Study", and recounts the story of one Helen Llewelyn, who claims that homeopathy helped control her endometriosis. This is an anecdote; it tells us that Llewelyn feels better, but it doesn't tell us anything about why, especially as we know nothing of what real medicines she might have been taking. From this website, it looks as though Llewelyn's case history is rather complex, and she is presently using homeopathy in conjunction with several kinds of real medicine. For medical treatments, you need much better evidence than this to show that they work. In the case of homeopathy, the evidence exists and it shows that homeopathy doesn't work. But there isn't an inset box anywhere that sums up the useful evidence: just one uncontrolled case report.

Given that there is genuinely a debate about whether the NHS should fund homeopathy, it would be good for this debate to be informed by the best currently available evidence. That is exactly what the Observer fails to do: all we get is "he said, she said" appeals to various forms of authority, and an anecdote. No wonder the newspapers are struggling.


Dr. Nancy Malik said...

Real is Homeopathy. Homeopathy for Everyone

Paul Wilson said...

Hm, it seems that your grammar is as good as your logic.

Pete Knight said...

Homeopathy is quackery, plain and simple. Simply believing it works doesn't actually make it effective, let's see the evidence, and evidence of your doctorate would be good too Nancy.

Paul Wilson said...

Indeed, on her profile page Nancy claims to have a "Bachelor of Homoeopathic Medicine and Surgery (BHMS)", whatever that is, but there is no mention of any doctorate.

Zeno said...

Nice one, Paul.

I suspect that if newspapers properly reported nonsense like homeopathy and they realised that the right 'balance' was more like 99%/1% (and I'm being generous here), then we might not have needed to overdose yesterday - homeopathy would have died a (natural) death years ago because people would now it is dangerous woo.

Michael said...

I was equally unimpressed with the full page feature. They had a great opportunity to give a nice, accessible précis of the evidence, but instead chose the namby-pamby "let's give both sides equal weight" approach. The supplemental boxes were the worst aspect of the feature, as all of them gave homeopathy undeserved legitimacy. Weak.

Robin said...

The Observer has form with woo, of course. Remember the "Barefoot Doctor" articles, whch ran for years?*

With the exception of a couple of heavyweight political and economics correspondents, I gave up reading anything in the Observer years ago: no credibility.

Curious really, coming from the same stable that gave Ben Goldacre a mainstream media platform for Bad Science but I suppose they know their readership well.

* No this is not a disguised plug for barefoot jogging ...

teekblog said...

It is indeed sad that so many in mainstream journalism have taken such a lazy view of homeopathy - I'm tempted to say that it's a little Flat Earth News syndrome and a little credulity on behalf of the journos themselves.

@Zeno, remember that the 'balance' between woo and reality may well be 99-to-1, but amongst the target audience of any particular newspaper the ration may be more like 70-to-30. This is enough to justify eg the Observer writing sympathetically on woo, or indeed to justify Boots selling useless sugar pills 'because they're popular.'

Anonymous said...

cool blog!

Dr. Nancy Malik said...

Studies in support of Homeopathy published in reputed journals

1. Scientific World Journal

2. Lancet

3. Neuro Psycho Pharmacology // Bacopa Monnieri for memory

Paul Wilson said...

These studies are not in favour of homeopathy. See here.

Nancy said...

20 most Frequently Asked Questions & Answers on Homeopathy

Q. How homeopathy medicine provides a strong and stable foundation for your health?
Q. What are the preventive medicines in Homeopathy?
Q. What are those 14 good reasons that patients choose Homeopathy medicine over conventional as the choice of medical treatment?

Classical homeopathy, constitutional treatment, Role of Symptoms, Homeopathic Consultation

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