OK. Enough is enough. Everyone’s entitled to their own opinions, but when they start claiming their opinions are ‘scientific’, write comments in learned journals quoting published papers in support of their arguments which don’t actually support their arguments at all, misrepresent statistics and generally twist things so far around their little fingers it defies belief, then if you’re a scientist, a homeopath, both or neither, it’s time to put the record straight.
Dr Ben Goldacre, junior doctor and journalist for the UK Guardian, has been adopting a high profile of late. His attacks on alternative therapies, and homeopathy in particular, have reached such a fever pitch it resembles more of a witch-hunt than a scientific debate. Of course all spindoctors know that if you repeat something often enough, sooner or later people start to believe it, whether it’s true or not. Goldacre’s writings, featuring a persuasive mix of jocular sarcasm, apparent scientific plausibility and fearmongering, would have you believe there’s now scientific consensus from unanimous evidence proving that homeopathy is no more than placebo. It’s one thing to publish that in the popular press, another entirely when it appears in The Lancet.
There is, in fact, no factual basis for these assertions. The evidence Goldacre cites doesn’t back up his claims and the ‘science’ he claims to champion is little more than opinion and spin. Of course I don’t expect you to believe me just because I said so, or even because I include citations (1) of papers published in peer reviewed journals in my footnotes. I’m not even asking you to believe me. I’m asking you to look at the actual scientific proof itself, and to do so with a thorough and critical eye.
For copyright reasons I can’t publish that in its entirety here, but I’ll quote what portions I can from these papers to give the gist of what they’re about in a way that’s hopefully as intelligible to a non-expert as it is to an expert. I’ll present evidence to show that in some instances the peer review process has failed, resulting in the publishing of studies of such low quality that they’ve seriously compromised the reputation of the journals which published them. I’ll also quote from papers published in other journals which present another side to this debate. And I’ll talk about the nature of proof in general.
Coming from a scientific background, I was as incredulous as anyone else when I first came across this paradoxical therapy. But being open minded and curious, I tried it for myself. That experience was dramatic enough to convince me that here was something worth exploring further. Similar experiences have been common to a vast number of people in homeopathy’s 200-year history. Very few are or were the sort of individuals to turn their backs on respectability and a satisfactory income to pursue a discipline out on the fringes of science (for next to no material gain and more than their fair share of ridicule) unless they felt there was something seriously worth pursuing.
There are many questions still to be answered about homeopathy, not least that it seems to frustrate all attempts to pin it down within the parameters of the biomedical perspective. There are as many still to be asked about what it implies for our understanding of healing in general and for scientific approaches to proof and assessing the validity of experience. What IS certain however, is that the null hypothesis (ie. homeopathy is no more than placebo) is invalid, and that much I can prove to you simply by citing the existing research.
(1) Socks, L M O. Do you ever check the citations themselves? Journal of Time Deficiency 2007;11;255-267