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Alternative reality July 10, 2010

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Reason, Science, Superstition.

It’s amazing how many smart, educated people believe that “alternative” therapies like homeopathy are legitimate and effective. This would seem to indicate a disturbing ignorance of basic scientific principles, and a potentially dangerous reliance on uncritical wishful thinking. Why do I say this? Because the only justification available in support of homeopathy is anecdotal: some people who followed homeopathic advice subsequently reported getting better. In the 21st century, do people really not know that this is not a reliable method for determining the effectiveness of treatments? Such anecdotes are a dime a dozen: people are constantly claiming they were cured by voodoo potions, by the touch of a guru, by praying to the virgin Mary, etc. (Incidentally, recall that bloodletting was widely practiced for 2,000 years even though we now know it was usually harmful to patients!) I’m not saying that everyone who claims to have been helped by “alternative” treatments is lying. However, there are many well-documented phenomena that need to be taken into account before  accepting such claims at face value: the placebo effect, various human biases (like remembering the “hits” and disregarding the “misses”), the probability of conditions going into remission on their own, and more. This is why scientists – who want to cure people no less than homeopaths – perform controlled, double-blind experiments which are analyzed statistically before announcing that a remedy works.

Let me be clear: we don’t have to understand how something works in order to confirm that it works. Even though there is no known scientific basis underlying homeopathic claims, if a properly controlled experiment showed that homeopathic remedies produce better results than a placebo, homeopathy would become a science, and we would be justified in recommending homeopathic remedies even without understanding why they are working. However, homeopathic treatments consistently fail in controlled experiments. The British Medical Association recently voted to stop funding of homeopathic treatments by the National Health Service, and demanded that they be labeled “placebo” when sold in pharmacies.

One might argue that even if homeopathy is just a placebo, some people feel it helps them, so what’s the harm? First of all, pursuing “alternative” therapies can prevent or delay people from getting necessary medical treatment. For example, although malaria kills millions of people each year, and although effective prophylactic malaria drugs are available, ten out of ten alternative health clinics consulted by a BBC reporter in 2006 recommended only homeopathic products for someone traveling to western Africa. (Needless to say, there is no scientific evidence that homeopathic remedies are effective in preventing or treating malaria.) Even if “alternative” treatments are only used in addition to scientific medicine, however, there is still a price to be paid. While there may be some cases where it is ethical for a doctor to prescribe a placebo, there is no excuse for supporting an industry based on ignorance, superstition and deception. It’s fundamentally dishonest to make money by taking advantage of the credulity of desperate people – selling them expensive treatments that have not been shown to be any more effective than a sugar pill.

If you’re still unconvinced, please contact me; I would like to interest you in buying a used car…


1. Amichai Schreiber - July 19, 2010

While generally I’m with you against the homeopathy stuff, as you mentioned, the test for medicine is whether it’s better than a placebo. Presumably, homeopathy is as good as a placebo (being a placebo, at least in most cases), so it’s still better than *nothing*. Admittedly, there are other ways of obtaining placebos, but it might be that this happens to be an effective way.

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