September 15th, 2007
Okay now look: there’s nothing wrong with the idea of homeopaths giving out sugar pills. The placebo effect can be very powerful, because it’s not just about the pill, it’s about the cultural meaning of the treatment: so we know from research that four placebo sugar pills a day are more effective than two for eradicating gastric ulcers (and that’s not subjective, you measure ulcers by putting a camera into your stomach); we know that salt water injections are a more effective treatment for pain than sugar pills, not because salt water injections are medically active, but because injections are a more dramatic intervention; we know that green sugar pills are a more effective anxiety treatment than red ones, not because of any biomechanical effect of the dyes, but because of the cultural meanings of the colours green and red. We even know that packaging can be beneficial.
Similarly we know that sugar pills have no physical side effects. This is great, because there are a lot of people for whom there is little effective biomedical treatment: a lot of back pain, for example, or medically unexplained fatigue, most colds and flu, and so on. Going through a theatre of medical treatment, trying every pill in the book, will only elicit side effects, so a sugar pill might be a great remedy. In the great 19th century cholera epidemic of London, after all, survival rates at the homeopathic hospital were better than the medical hospitals, not because homeopaths could cure cholera, but because nobody could, and while ineffective medical treatments of the time like bloodletting carried risks, sugar pills were at least harmless.
Homeopaths would be fine, if they could just shut up about serious stuff, like Aids, malaria, and MMR.
This week I received a flier for a conference being organised by the Society of Homeopaths (“representing professional homeopaths”), the biggest professional organisation for homeopaths in the UK. “Join us at this one-day Symposium in London for a fascinating insight into the role of homeopathy in treating HIV/AIDS.”
It’s a pretty fascinating flier. “In searching for an effective remedy for treating the AIDS-epidemic in Africa, the UK-homeopath Peter Chappell discovered a method to design remedies fitting the totality of a disease. These remedies are now known as PC-remedies.” In case you’re wondering how he makes them, Peter explains on his own site how he “creates a holistic mirror energy/information set to the disease using a special process he does not yet disclose.”
He also sells energy wave patterns on iTunes. They sound like jazz – I am listening to Aids one right now – but this is simply the “carrier”, on which the healing “resonance” is “engrafted”. “Modern quantum physics is confirming resonance works on all levels of existence,” he says.
The Society’s conference materials are gushing. “He [their lecturer] observed that in just a few days or weeks patients become symptom free and able to return to their jobs and schools or to look after their children again. Harry believes that using the PC1 remedy, the AIDS epidemic can be called to a halt, and that homeopaths are the ones that can do it.” On his own site, Harry is even more explicit: “PC1 for HIV/AIDS works”. How well? “In all cases.”
Placeboes are great, but when their right to make stuff up is flattered too hard, people can get carried away, and homeopathy has a bad history in this regard. A Newsnight undercover survey caught out ten who were cheerfully recommending people to use ineffective homeopathic malaria prophylaxis when travelling to high risk areas, giving no sensible advice to accompany it (the Society of Homeopaths found no case to answer on conduct complaints arising from this). A published undercover survey, with a researcher posing as a mother asking for vaccine advice, polled 77 homeopaths: not one advised her to give MMR to her child, and a third actively advised against it.
Meanwhile a current Early Day Motion defending homeopathy and its NHS clinics has attracted 200 signatories, including players like Frank Dobson, Glenda Jackson, Simon Hughes, Diane Abbott, Lembit Opik, Ann Widdecombe, Malcolm Rifkind, and more. Making stuff up is the homeopath’s trade. Attacking medicine is their marketing device. It’s probably harmless, and arguably helpful, but only if you are absolutely certain that you can manage those two risks. I see no sign of critical self-appraisal within the profession.
The ridiculous flier
Is your MP on the Early Day Motion?
Listen to the healing waves
Newsnight malaria sting transcripts
More on the cholera story
in this excellent book on John Snow
And for more on placebo
you can’t beat Moerman.