Bit of a ramble, so feel free to bypass this post, but this is quite odd to me. When a chap receives a communique from one of the Directors of the Society of Homeopaths, that august representative body, it only seems fair to give it some thought and some space. This charming email from Lionel Milgrom arrived today: it’s unsolicited, we’ve never met, we have no pre-existing dialogue, it brings a new meaning to “please send your bad science to email@example.com“, and is full of scorn, but he clearly hasn’t bothered to actually watch the video of the debate.
I’m happy to give this feedback some space, as it’s so representative both of what happened with the audience on that night, and because it’s representative of the kind of criticism one tends to get from the CAM industry, and the kinds of things I see said on discussion lists and emails forwarded to me from within the industry, and because of his seniority.
“Benjamin, oh lttle Benjamin,” he begins.
“I’ve just read your purile blog about the debate at the Natural History Museum. How did you know what Peter Fisher said? You missed most of it because you couldn’t be bothered to turn up on time. That makes you somewhat mendacious, wouldn’t you agree? Reporting about things for which you weren’t in attendance? A typical reorter’s scam. I thought better of you. What a major disappojntment you are.
Now, look, if you want to check whether I was there for the entirety of Peter’s talk you can see me in the very first frame of the video (that’s me on the right).
and then throughout the whole of the rest of it, listening carefully and dealing with an abusive and hostile crowd of homeopaths with courteousy and thoughtfulness, as you can see, it’s all on tape. Bizarre.
Lionel Milgrom, a Director of the Society of Homeopaths.
Looking on a wider scale, personal slights are one thing (and I’m afraid I do personally rather suspect that Lionel’s extensive popular journalism on homeopathy and quantum physics might betray the same low standards of factual accuracy and rhetoric as his email): but a great deal of what I said on that night was about the poor quality of popular discourse throughout the homeopathy industry.
On that very night, for example, I mentioned that published undercover survey data shows that most homeopaths are against the MMR vaccination, and at least half advised a researcher posing as a client against giving the MMR vaccine to her child.
The reaction of the homeopaths in the crowd was simply to deny that this had ever happened, to deny that such a thing was even possible, and to become angry and hostile. Even Peter Fisher seemed to find this regrettable.
There’s plenty that could conceivably be valuable to society in homeopathy, as I have said on many occasions. Moreover, homeopathy is a mature discipline, and there’s absolutely no reason why it cannot engage in reasoned self-appraisal, rather than simply holding its head in the sand. There’s no excuse for it, just like there’s no excuse for homeopaths performing endless methodologically inept trials, and selectively quoting those, or misrepresenting the published literature, or failing to police itself.
I don’t think this happens so much in other fields. Interestingly, I don’t think it happens so much in other countries either. I was recently lucky enough to have several long and fascinating conversations with representatives of the homeopathy industry from all over Europe at a conference on CAM in Exeter, and although there were things we disagreed on, for the most part they were intellectually rigorous, they were able to engage – engagingly – on ethical issues, cultural issues, and, where appropriate, on a level of odds ratios, confidence intervals, and methodological flaws in research literature, like you’d find in any other academic field.
I’m sorry to be a bore, but I’m starting to feel quite conflicted about this. I think alternative therapies are incredibly interesting for a whole host of reasons, for what they say about the cultural role of medicine, and for the way they provide such an excellent resource of simple methological flaws for my hobby horse of teaching the world about evidence based medicine. And of course the battiness of popular rhetoric in CAM is part of the appeal too. But the more I see of the British homeopathy industry – well represented in the crowd at the debate with Fisher, and the weekly crop of ill-argued vitriol that appears at badscience mansions – the lower my jaw drops.
Here are the two blog entries Milgrom is so upset about:
Here is my entire homeopathy output:
Yeah, I make jokes. I am also reasonable, knowledgeable, I have never lied, my articles are full of information, I give references where appropriate, but yes, I point it out when people misrepresent the scientific literature. I am also more than ready to engage on the issues with people who are able to discuss them, I welcome the opportunity to discuss things with Peter Fisher, and I have made it clear on countless occasions that I would welcome the opportunity to discuss the issues with anyone who was able to engage meaningfully. I’m trying not to take this to heart, and stay focused on the issues. But you homeopaths seriously have to grow up.