Do skeptics get things wrong about …. homeopathy?


As we all know, skeptics are completely and utterly infallible and never ever make any mistakes. Every single utterance articulated by every single skeptic is “truth” and must never be questioned … right?

(If the above just tripped your “twat” alarm, then well done, it is in full working order).

Edzard Ernst – 7 Common Mistakes Skeptics make about Homeopathy

Professor Edzard Ernst, whom I consider to be a deeply knowledgeable subject matter expert, posted a list a few weeks ago that lays out seven things that skeptics often get wrong about Homeopathy.

I’d like to repeat the list (which comes from his posting here), and mull over a few of the items in it because there are a few valuable lessons to be taken away.

By reading it, we will not only learn a bit more about Homeopathy, but we can also gain an additional insight into how easy it truly is to misrepresent how things actually are.

Myth 1- Homeopathy is one single, well-defined entity

During the last 200 years, many different variations of Hahnemann’s classical homeopathy have emerged, for instance clinical homeopathy, complex homeopathy and isopathy. Strictly speaking, they should be differentiated, and it is not correct to generalise across all of them.

This is a rather generic principle that applies to a vast number of topics. To give a completely unrelated non-homeopathy example I would point to perhaps creationism. If you are familiar with this then you will also be aware that there is no consensus amongst creationists. Instead there exists a vastly diverse landscape of distinctly different conflicting creationist beliefs, young earth, old earth, etc…

Myth 2 – In the 200-years’ history of homeopathy, homeopaths have done no good at all

Hahnemann and his followers can be credited with considerable achievements. Foremost, they realised that, 200 years ago, most of the conventional treatments in common use were not just useless but often outright dangerous. Their criticism of ‘heroic medicine’ helped to initiate crucial reforms and to improve health care for the benefit of millions.

It is frighteningly easy to fall into a “them vs us” mindset. Try these …

  • Republicans have never done any good at all.
  • Christians have never done any good at all.
  • Muslims have never done any good at all.

OK yes, this is the cue for some wag to pop up in the comments section with “Nazis have never done any good at all”.

You do however grasp what I’m actually getting at here. You will of course appreciate that people hold specific political and/or religious leanings for cultural or social reasons. They are mostly decent honourable people even if the political or religious views are not those you agree with. However, look a bit deeper and within many of the philosophies you might find yourself opposing you will also find things that you do also agree with and would also aspire to as well. As an example, the thought that being a Progressive and also a Republican are mutually exclusive concepts is not strictly correct. Remember that Lincoln who freed the slaves was a Republican and was opposed by the southern Democrats.

Bottom line: we don’t live in a world were all the bad guys wear black hats and all the good guys wear white hats, that is simply too simplistic.

Myth 3 – No theories to explain how homeopathy might work have ever been put forward

There are several theories which might go some way in explaining how homeopathy works. But all of them are currently just theories, and none provides a full explanation as to the mechanism of action of highly diluted remedies. Yet, to claim that homeopathy is totally implausible might be a counter-productive exaggeration.

If we are going to criticise, then having our facts straight is rather important.

Since we are on the topic of accuracy, one point of criticism for the above is that the word “theory” is not strictly correct. Somebody pointed that out within the comments and Edzard agreed that his use of the word “theory” was indeed wrong.

Myth 4 – There is nothing in it

Many sceptics claim that homeopathic remedies are devoid of active ingredients. Yet, not all homeopathic remedies are highly diluted; some can contain pharmacologically active compounds for affecting human health. These preparations cannot therefore be classified as implausible.

I recently did make this very claim, and was put right by somebody a tad more familiar with things. Yes, there are indeed highly dilute remedies, but not all of them are.

Myth 5 – There is no credible evidence at all that might support homeopathy

Several well-conducted clinical studies of homeopathy with positive results have been published. It is therefore not true to claim that there is no good trial evidence at all to support homeopathy. The much better point sceptics should make is that the totality of the reliable evidence fails to show that highly dilute homeopathic remedies are more effective than placebos.

Accuracy matters.

Myth 6 – Homeopaths aim at deceiving their patients because they have nothing to offer to them

It would be wrong to claim that all homeopaths aim at deceiving their patients, and it would be misleading to say that homeopaths have nothing to offer to their patients. Many patients of homeopaths primarily treasure the long, compassionate consultations that homeopaths have with their patients and see the homeopathic remedy as secondary. Seen from this perspective, homeopaths do offer something that many patients value highly.

I would also add that homeopaths are generally quite sincere and truly do believe that homeopathy does work and is effective. There is no conscious and deliberate attempt to deceive taking place.

Understanding the psychology in play might perhaps enable a better understanding. Patients will consistently assure the homeopath that the remedy has worked, and that helps to reenforce the belief that it does. If challenged by doubt, the long string of these “success” stories will rapidly wash away any such thoughts.

This feedback loop is not specific to homeopathy, it also happens within other contexts. For example something similar takes place for many psychics. They truly believe they have a gift because many of those that they give a cold reading for will feedback positive hits and so create a false confidence that it really works.

Myth 7 – Patients who use homeopathy must be stupid

It would be arrogant, insulting and counter-productive to claim that everyone who uses homeopathy is stupid. Patients consult homeopaths mostly because they have needs which are not met by conventional medicine but which they feel taken care of by homeopathy. Seen from this perspective, the current popularity of homeopathy in some countries is a poignant criticism of conventional medicine. To dismiss it a stupidity means missing a chance to learn an important lesson and to improve mainstream health care.

This is an easy answer that many reach for, and I confess that it is ever so tempting to vent with this when faced with some of the shenanigans.

  • Religious people are stupid
  • Trump voters are stupid
  • UFO believers are stupid
  • etc…

While it might feel good, this is really neither productive nor factual.

If thrown in the faces of those that hold such views then please don’t be surprised when you find that they get angry with you. If somebody got in your face and told you that you were utterly stupid for dismissing  (aliens, gods, ghosts, etc…) then how would you feel about that?

People do indeed embrace many strange ideas, and what is rather interesting is that it tends not to correlate with human intelligence. A far better approach is to seek to understand what is really going on and why the idea is being embraced as “truth”.

Conclusion

Avoid being tribal and flowing with the tide.

Within the skeptical community homeopathy is rejected. This perhaps creates a pressure to adopt that same position without giving it all too much thought in order to belong and be part of the group. Do not misunderstand me, I’m not suggesting that homeopathy is actually viable, but instead that we should ensure that the any position we adopt personally is one that we have thought through.

It is perhaps far better to strive for arguments that are nuanced and as fine tuned as possible to be factually correct. If we get it completely wrong and end up misrepresenting how things actually are, then the criticism not only ceases to be effective, it also creates an opportunity for the homeopathy community to discredit all criticism.

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