Let’s imagine that we live in an exotic parallel universe where I am able to use an amusing but trivial news event to illustrate a wider cultural and intellectual issue. Dr Andy Lewis runs a website called Quackometer: he criticised the Society of Homeopaths (Europe ’s largest professional organisation of homeopaths) in no uncertain terms.
In his opinion, and he amassed some examples: they do not enforce their own “Code of Practice” (you’re not even allowed to imply you can cure a named disease!) it is a figleaf; and they fail to censure their members over dangerous claims. His chosen example was the Newsnight malaria sting which you might remember: an undercover investigator went to see some homeopaths, and was given homeopathic pills to protect against this fatal disease, by quacks who denigrated medical options and failed to give basic “holistic” advice on things like bite protection. I agree with Dr Lewis: in my opinion their approach was cavalier and dangerous.
Did the SoH engage with these criticisms? Reflect on them? Challenge and rebutt them? No. They sent a threatening legal letter. Did this threatening legal letter say what was wrong with Dr Lewis’s post? No. It wasn’t even sent to him, it was sent to his hosting company Netcetera, demanding they take his page down. He contacted the SoH, very politely (I mean incredibly politely, read it here), to ask them what the problems were with his comments. No response.
Instead their lawyers sent another angry letter to his hosting company, who of course cannot investigate this in full, are strictly speaking liable, and so – good call – the page was taken down. Corporate conspiracy silences the little man: except of course his piece has now been replicated a hundred times across the internet by an army of smirking bloggers.
But how does the SoH approach – silence and repress – compare with other medical academic organisations? This week I was invited to be on a judging panel for a prize run by the Cochrane Collaboration, the international academic body that produces independent systematic reviews of the literature on all medical interventions: the prize (a thousand quid) is for the best piece of work critical of the Cochrane Collaboration.
Is this an isolated and esoteric example? The British Medical Journal is probably the most important medical journal in the UK (and certainly the most widely read). You might not know the kind of thing that appears in academic journals, but the BMJ recently announced the three most popular research papers from its archive, according to an audit which assessed their use by readers, the number of times they were referenced by other academic papers, and so on. Every single one of these papers was highly critical of either a drug, a drug company, or a medical activity, as its most central theme.
The top scoring paper was a case-control study which showed that patients had a higher risk of heart attack if they were taking the painkillers rofecoxib (Vioxx), diclofenac, or ibuprofen. Vioxx of course was at the heart of a major scandal. At number 2 was a large meta-analysis of drug company data, which showed no evidence that SSRI antidepressants increase the risk of suicide, but did find weak evidence for an increased risk of deliberate self harm, which is worth keeping an eye on. And in third place was a systematic review which showed an association between suicide attempts and the use of SSRI’s, and highlighted – very critically – some of the inadequacies around the reporting of suicides in clinical trials.
This is how ideas move forwards. Meanwhile, a survey of all the studies reported in 4 alternative medicine academic journals found that 1% of them – one per cent! – reported negative findings.
Of course there is a role for libel laws. If someone says you’ve bonked a rentboy and you haven’t, of course there is. If someone says you’ve taken corrupt money and you haven’t, of course. But when someone criticises your ideas, when someone challenges how well an organisation is running itself, especially when that organisation has a role in protecting the public from errant homeopaths who can, after all, in the process of cheerfully playing doctor, at the very least, sometimes, maybe, you know, forgive me for saying so, in my opinion, make some slightly worrying judgement calls… well you’d think they’d have the dignity to engage with that criticism, rather than ignoring and suppressing it.
Audit identifies the most read BMJ research papers
Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and suicide in adults: meta-analysis of drug company data from placebo controlled, randomised controlled trials submitted to the MHRA’s safety review
David Gunnell, Julia Saperia, and Deborah Ashby
BMJ 2005 330: 385.
Association between suicide attempts and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors: systematic review of randomised controlled trials
Dean Fergusson, Steve Doucette, Kathleen Cranley Glass, Stan Shapiro, David Healy, Paul Hebert, and Brian Hutton
BMJ 2005 330: 396.
Risk of myocardial infarction in patients taking cyclo-oxygenase-2 inhibitors or conventional non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs: population based nested case-control analysis
Julia Hippisley-Cox and Carol Coupland
BMJ 2005 330: 1366.
Alternative therapy bias
E. Ernst & M.H. Pittler Nature 385, 480 (1997).
I’m afraid I’ve shamefully stolen this huge quote from David Colquhoun, he is updating his list regularly so go there for the full one, but I thought it would amuse you to witness – visually more than anything else – the sheer scale of the response there has been to this hamfisted attempt at stifling discussion:
Within 24 hours of the post being removed, it has sprung up again, all over the world. These are just the links that reproduce the whole text. Countless more refer to them.
Andrew Clegg lends support: “A run-in with the Homeopathic Thought Police”. He reproduces the banished page.
And on Google groups in several places, for example here.
Another reproduction of the whole banished page at A day at the pharmacy (“from a provincial, small-town pharmacy in the United Kingdom”).
A mirror of the whole original page has appeared at semiskimmed.net
and “The Gentle Art of Homeopathic Killing (Cowards and Bullies)” appeared on JDC325’s weblog.
Another at badchemist.net.
Very soon it appeared in the USA too
Orac’s Respectful Insolence site: “Homeopathic thuggery”. The Yale surgeeon/scientist has also reproduced the full text.
The whole banned page is at skepticaldog.com too.
The whole text is on the NNSEEK news group search engine too.
And in Russia
The whole text is here.
And all this within 24 hours since the page was pulled. The lawyers for the Society of Homeopaths are going to be very busy.
They keep coming. More full texts here.
Some are so anonymous that you can’t even be sure which country they come from, though often the US ones are distinguishable because the link mainly to US sources. Now Saturday.
- The Voyage. A blog from Ireland “Big Altie Gags the Truth, or tries to”.
- White coat underground. A doctor from the US midwest speaks out.
- Science after Sunclipse. An east coast US blog “for math, physics and the New Enlightenment”
- Conspiracy Factory. Factition’s blog: “Homeopathy, Malaria & Free Speech”.
- The Bronze Blog. “Big Altie attempts to suppress truth”. A very anonymous US blog.
- Infophilia. The Streisand Effect. From Arlington Heights, Illinois,USA.
- HappyJihad’s House of Pancakes. Another anonymous US blog, with full text.
- The GAS blog
- Skeptico. Another site from USA.
- Be Lambic or Green. From Canada (I think)
That’s 25 reproductions of the page so far. Now Sunday 14 Oct,
- Nana’s Notions. Blog from a US accountant.
- A Night on the Tiles. From Stew who works in a tile factory in France.
- Powerup. From Tyler DiPietro, a student in New England, USA.
- Unfiltered Perception. blog.tjomlid.com, from a young Norwegian.
- Action Skeptics. “Kick my ass. Society of Homepaths”, From Indiana, USA.
- bankrupt artist v3. Nice version from Canada
- Sceptiphrenia . Another from the UK.
- Thinking is Dangerous. “Be shamed, Society of Homeopaths”, for Dr T, UK.
- Rants and Raves, From Kulvinder Singh Matharu. “Homeopathy; Failure of truth and integrity (again)”.
On Sunday night, for the first time, one of them comes up on the first page of Google search for “The Society of Homeopaths”
More on Monday 15 Oct. Now five of the first ten hits on a Google search for “The Society of Homeopaths” refer to this row.
- Skeptix, The Central Alberta Skeptics Association.
- No Nonsense. “Society of Homeopathetics – censoring unfavorable comment!”. From Italy?
- The Millenium Project, From Australia. “The constant misspelling of the word “millennium” with only one “n” inspired me to create a millenium – that is, a collection of a thousand arseholes.”
- Rich Speaks. From Richer Lockwood, UK.
Slowing up a bit by Tuesday.
- A rather fine rant from Song, by Toad. “The Gentle Art of Homeopathic Killing – Fuck You, Society of Homeopaths”
- EnoNomi. Another complete text, from Phoenix Arizona
- D-notice: homeopathic killing. From London
- The Macho Response. From Oakland California
- Ordinarygirl. “Homeopaths censor blogger” from Kansas, USA.
- Tabasco da Gama From USA “Society of Homeopaths thug tactics”
- Planet Atheism
- Blogher. A curious on from US. The full text has been posted as a comment on a pro-homeopathy site.
- Dikki’s diatribe. Another from AUSTRALIA.
That’s 49 now, from UK, USA, Russia, Canada, France, Norway and Australia. And still counting.
And that was only last Tuesday. If you look on Google now…
…well, “The Gentle Art of Homeopathic Killing”, the original title of the silenced blog post, now brings up a startlingly large number of hits. As you can see.