I learned something from running this blog. And that’s that it takes up a phenomenal amount of time and energy.
It got to the stage a few months ago when the extent to which it was impinging on the rest of life was unacceptable: disputing differences in perspective, for all the need for better public debate on the subject of homeopathy, isn’t quite up there with First Life. (Not to mention that the blog seemed to be doing perfectly well without me.) So having gone socks away for a bit, this business of the time and the energy brought me very conveniently round to the subject of this post.
So far in this blog I’ve tried to avoid what might be construed as playing the men not the ball. But when it becomes clear that the men are as much part of the ball as homeopathy itself, then this is no longer appropriate. Science is a hard task master. It requires us — all of us — to thoroughly and critically examine our biases, preconceptions, tendencies to fool ourselves, or to mistake the maps for the territory, and while it’s easy to see where other people appear to be falling prey to themselves, it’s not quite so easy to see when looking in the mirror. A degree and a lifetime spent working in science doesn’t immunise us against this any more effectively than anything else. If anything, it likely increases susceptibility to it — as Steve Jones, Professor of Genetics and head of the Biology department at University College London, said, “Science is a broad church full of narrow minds, trained to know even more about even less.”
It’s quite apparent by now who the main protagonists are in this media game of pimp-my-perspective, both online and on paper. The extent to which they reliably appear in the comments section of any news article, opinion piece or blog mentioning homeopathy, especially in any favourable light, doesn’t take much research to reveal. Even assuming use of the most efficient of webcrawlers, RSS feeds, etc, how do they find the time? And the energy? How do they manage to maintain interest — for what seems like years now and probably is — in arguments that invariably end up going round and round in the same old circles after 5 minutes? They’re plainly on a mission, and I think we can reasonably assume — correct me if I’m wrong, gentlemen — that’s it’s not a mission from God.
Let’s also assume it’s a mission in the sense of “a self-imposed duty or task; calling, vocation” rather than “a sending or being sent for some duty or purpose” (again, feel free to correct me if I’m wrong there). Personal missions of the self-imposed kind can be tricky things though. Some are indisputably worthy causes. Like raising the awareness and attention given by society to difficulties encountered by various groups of people in living their lives freely and to the full, and coordinating some means of help and support for them.
Other missions aren’t so clear cut. They seem far more to do with advancing personal perspectives or opinions.
To those who identify with those perspectives, then the quest to save “the innocent victim” from a fate worse than death, either at the hands of some fraudulent “evil monster”, or from their own (assumed) ignorance and stupidity, or both, is clearly the most unquestioningly obvious thing to do since the invention of sliced bread.
For those placed in the role of “evil monster”, they’re equally clearly part of some “grand conspiracy” to destroy them for umpteen nefarious and totally uncool reasons.
For those who have no particular reason to identify with either perspective, they have a way of appearing uncannily like obsessions.
How can one perspective elicit so many different reactions? It’s to do with that word “I”dentification. In other words, it’s an ego thing, revolving around what we each form emotional attachments to (and antipathies against) in defining our personal realities. It’s not science, and to mistake it as such is a fatal flaw in both the self-critiquing and peer review processes.
So how do you differentiate between a worthy cause and a personal obsession?
1. In a worthy cause, people are suffering at the hands of what the cause seeks to alleviate; objectively, and by their own admission.
2. In a worthy cause, a significant proportion of those affected are asking for help.
3. In a worthy cause, the evidence of the need for intervention is clear and incontrovertible.
None of these 3 criteria are satisfied in the missions of homeopathy’s detractors, despite attempts to co-opt them as justifications. Ergo, their missions are personal crusades. Obsessions.
How can I be so sure? Simple.
The claim that there is “no evidence” for homeopathy, repeated ad nauseam by “sceptics”, is not based in scientific fact.
Let me put that even more bluntly. The claim is false.
The evidence base for homeopathy which is currently deemed “scientifically acceptable” is equivocal, and contentious in its interpretation. Look no further than the 1250+ comments on this blog for evidence of its contentiousness. Search PubMed, read the abstracts from published papers (currently 3733 under the topic of homeopathy), and see for yourself exactly what the evidence base comprises. It’s still relatively small and thinly spread — too wide-ranging in the circumstances and methodologies employed in the trials which have been conducted. As a result, most of the studies, either positive or showing no effect over placebo, have not been adequately replicated. This is the fact of the matter. Don’t take my word for it. Check it for yourself.
It is axiomatic that while what constitutes an agreed evidence base remains equivocal and contentious in its interpretation, then what is under question has been neither proved nor disproved, no matter what strong opinions on either side of the divide might like to believe is implied, and notwithstanding evidence that lies outwith what can be mutually accepted as such.
Consequently, anything that states the accepted evidence base is any more than equivocal and contentious is a matter of interpretation and opinion. There’s absolutely no getting away from this.
Baum, Colquhoun, Dawkins, Ernst, “Gimpy”, Goldacre, Horton, King, Lewis, Rose, Singh et al are guilty of providing misleading information and of misrepresenting their personal interpretation and opinion as scientific fact. Many have used their established scientific credentials (and NHS-headed paper, without permission or sanction) to do so. Some of them are hounding universities offering degrees in complementary medicine, tying up limited departmental resources in endless question-answering. In short, these people are making thorough nuisances of themselves (as well as amply demonstrating the extent of their obsessions). They are, in fact, doing exactly what they accuse the homeopathic profession of doing … claiming opinion and supposition as fact without good evidence … which is no surprise whatsoever to anyone who’s studied Jungian psychology.
Of course they’re entitled to their opinions. We all are, including those of us — patients, practitioners, university course-providers alike — who share the opinion and experience that there is more to homeopathy than placebo effect (and have plenty of additional evidence which we believe should be admitted into the debate about this). But what none of us are entitled to do is to misrepresent opinion as fact when it’s nothing of the kind.
In this country, we are still free (just) to choose what form of medical care we wish to use. This is a fundamental and basic human right. Who’s bodies and minds are we talking about anyway? And as taxpayers we all have a say in what is provided through the NHS. Becoming a patient of one of the homeopathic hospitals doesn’t automatically disenfranchise you (even though some sceptics seem to feel that it should).
Since there don’t appear to be large numbers — if any — homeopathic patients begging for knights on white chargers to come and rescue them from evil monster homeopaths, and since there’s no evidence to support the sceptical opinion that there’s “no evidence” for homeopathy, what exactly is their motive? Some egotistical belief that they “know better” and must protect poor mythical Jo(e) Public from their own ignorance and stupidity? How arrogant! How paternalistic! How totalitarian!
(Their continual adherence to, and ridicule of, a posited mechanism of action which has never been claimed for homeopathy doesn’t say much for their intelligence either.)
So what’s the greatest risk of homeopathic treatment that our brave Sir Galahads have been able to identify that they want to protect us from? That poor Jo(e) Public delays getting conventional treatment for his/her condition by visiting a homeopath (which of course they “know” can’t possibly do anything) and maybe, just maybe, succumbs to it.
Meanwhile conventional treatment is, by its own admission, not far behind heart disease and cancer as the leading cause of death in the developed world with an evidence base that admits only 13% of its treatments are of proven benefit. Do any of us need a degree in statistics to determine where the greatest statistical risk lies here? Do any of these people deny any member of the British public the right to make their own informed risk assessments in respect of their own, or their children’s, healthcare?
So until the accepted evidence base for homeopathy delivers a conclusive and incontrovertible verdict, which it’s a long way from doing, and until conventional medicine can boast proven efficacy for substantially more than 13% of its treatments, I call publicly on these men to have the honesty and integrity as befits their profession to clarify that their opinions and interpretations are just that. I call on them to honour basic human rights in healthcare and stop in their attempts to destroy a legitimate healing profession which people choose to use of their own free will and which has been a valued part of the NHS for over 60 years, and I call on them to employ a far greater degree of honesty and transparency in invoking evidence-based medicine in defence of conventional medicine.
Not, I imagine, that this will make the slightest difference to their activities. Obsession is like that. But then I don’t imagine I’ll be the only one to surmise that this will amount to vivid confirmation of the nature of that obsession either.
Men of science? Pah! Fetchez la vache!