Homeopathy: someone should tell the government that there’s nothing in it

January 5th, 2006 by Ben Goldacre in adverts, alternative medicine, bad science, homeopathy, references, statistics | 75 Comments »

Homeopathy: someone should tell the government that there’s nothing in it

Ben Goldacre
Saturday December 31, 2005
The Guardian

My first new year’s resolution is to write less about homeopaths, partly because teasing them is starting to bore me, and partly because we’ve won. Yes. Won. I’m talking about huge meta-analyses, summing together vast numbers of little trials, adding all the numbers up, and finding that overall, homeopathy is no better than placebo. That’s not absence of evidence that it works. That’s positive evidence that homeopathy does not work better than placebo.

Before we go any further, I have two special messages for the alternative therapists reading this: firstly, please, if you’re going to write in to the letters page, alluding triumphantly to some single obscure positive homeopathy study, can you at least explain why this string of huge meta-analyses are not valid? It’s getting a bit embarrassing the way you all just pretend they don’t exist. The British Homeopathic Association doesn’t even list them – the biggest, most definitive studies on homeopathy – in its list of research on homeopathy at Trusthomeopathy.org .

And secondly, please, a plea on behalf of the state: it was very expensive to do all these trials, and if you make us do that for every little notion you concoct from your imagination, you will bring the country to its knees. If that was the plan all along then I salute you.

Anyway, as I said, I was going to shut up and leave them alone, but they’re not making it easy. Because, quietly, the government, headed by our first new-age premier, is sneaking through an amendment to the regulation on labelling homeopathic tablets in shops, due to come into force this year.

Now, homeopathic tablets in shops are a bit of a weird one for the homeopaths because most of the clever ones have retreated from all the placebo controlled literature – showing homeopathy is rubbish – by saying that homeopathy is all about the ritual of the consultation, not about the pills, and that makes buying them over the counter in shops pretty useless, even by the homeopaths’ own espoused belief system.

But no matter: at the moment, the law forces all homeopathic tablet peddlers to admit that their products are without an evidence base and prominently display the following text on the label: “Homeopathic medicinal product without approved therapeutic indications.” This goes for all homeopathic tablets, unless they’re very old, and happen to have a licence to claim efficacy in a particular condition left over from before the current laws came in, in 1968. “No deviation from this wording is permissible” says the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, the people who run medicines regulation.

But under regulations due to come in on January 1 these homeopathic remedy peddlers, sorry salespeople, sorry, selfless public servants, are able to apply for a licence for their homeopathy tablets, where they are allowed to print what their sugar pill “treats” on the label. All you need is evidence of manufacturing quality and safety, and “bibliographic evidence that the product has been used in the indications sought”.

What you don’t need, of course, is any evidence that your tablets treat the thing you’re selling them as treating. Which is lucky since there is evidence, and it says, collectively, that homeopathic remedies don’t work.

By now the pound signs are bouncing about all over the place in the magically gleaming eyes of the industry barons. Over to Robert Wilson, chairman of leading homeopathic medicines manufacturer Nelsonbach, who said, in Natural Products magazine (a publication to which I am naturally a subscriber): “This is a breakthrough for the industry as a whole. The fact that therapeutic indications may now be included on the packaging of licensed homeopathic medicines not only opens up the practice of homeopathy to new users but also gives it added credibility as a safe and natural complement to orthodox medicine.”

We are changing the regulations, a year after the axe finally fell on homeopathy. Bravo and ker-ching.

(sorry to be late posting this on the site, I’m nowhere near computers at the mo…)

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75 Responses

  1. Ben Goldacre said,

    January 29, 2006 at 4:17 pm

    Just stumbled upon this excellently amusing document whilst looking for something else. I’m sorry they never emailed this “response” to me as I’d have liked to have seen it sooner. Never mind.

    It’s a bit confused, as you can see. For example, I don’t think I’ve ever asked the SoH for a response on Egger et al, or indeed any academic paper, nor have I ever received one from them: I do, however, enjoy pointing out that they keep all the negative meta-analyses off their list of meta-analyses on their website, where they choose only to refer to one flawed early paper.



    Press statements
    31.12.05 – Response to The Guardian On-line; BAD SCIENCE

    Dear Sir

    Thank goodness Ben Goldacre has decided to “write less about homepaths”. Hooray for that.

    He asks for a proper response from homeopaths to the “huge meta-analysis”, presumably the Swiss study (Matthias Egger et al) published in The Lancet last August. He’s had that already from us, but OK, here it is again.

    Firstly, I wonder what Ben Goldacre means by “huge”? The Swiss study took into account only eight homeopathy trials, when previous similar studies examined a greater number and came up with a different result, that homeopathy has an effect over and above placebo.

    The Swiss authors ostensibly compared homeopathy with conventional medicine, but used a misguided measure with which to assess the efficacy of homeopathy. They made a basic scientific assumption that can not be applied either to homeopathic research or to homeopathy in practice. It has been established beyond doubt and accepted by many researchers, that the placebo-controlled randomised trial (RCT) is not a fitting research tool with which to test homeopathy.

    In her research on this subject, Dr. Elaine Weatherley-Jones (Sheffield SCHARR) states, “it is time to halt the misguided task of conducting placebo-controlled RCTs to test the efficacy of individualised treatments”.

    The RCT cannot hope to measure specific effects from homeopathic medicine: new models of research are being established to reflect what truly happens in the consulting room. Homeopaths acknowledge the powerful therapeutic effect of homeopathy, which is removed under RCT conditions.

    What is urgently needed is pragmatic research that reflects what actually happens in homeopathic practice (homeopaths do not conduct “clinical homeopathy”: giving the same remedy to everyone with a similar ailment) where the medicine is tailored to the patient and not to their medical diagnosis. Such research would provide useful evidence for clinicians on which to base their decisions and referrals.

    I refer Ben Goldacre to our website where he will find a full critique of the Swiss study carried out by qualified researchers at Sheffield and Preston Universities. He will also see a listing of research into homeopathy including previous meta-analyses.

    Melanie Oxley
    Communications Manager

  2. Ben Goldacre said,

    January 29, 2006 at 4:21 pm

    Oh lordy, this really is a galaxy of joy:


  3. Ben Goldacre said,

    January 29, 2006 at 4:37 pm



    Whilst more men are turning to homeopathy for their sexual health problems, the majority still suffer in silence. Homeopathy offers almost 200 remedies for erectile dysfunction, but the right remedy must be found by a fully qualified homeopath.

    In addressing erectile dysfunction and impotence, homeopaths often find a mental/emotional root-cause, which homeopathy is especially fitted to treat, offering hope for many men. Remedies such as Lycopodium for lack of self-confidence, Phos-acid for disappointment in love and Ignatia after the loss of a loved one, can have an important part to play, and individualised treatment can be extremely successful.

    The Society of Homeopaths theme in 2005 is Homeopathy for Men and Women, running through Homeopathy Awareness Week (14-21 June) and conference presentations in March and September. The issue of male impotence forms part of our work this year.

    With one in ten men in the UK over the age of 21 suffering from these conditions, we recommend men contact the Society of Homeopaths for a free copy of our Register of over 1000 fully qualified homeopaths:

    Phone: 0845 xxx xxxx
    E-mail: info@homeopathy-soh.org
    Web: www.homeopathy-soh.org

  4. Ben Goldacre said,

    January 29, 2006 at 4:46 pm

    Ohhh these really are too good. In their letter to the papers about how homeopathy should be used to treat depression in children Paula Ross, their leader, spells serotonin as “S-E-R-A-T-O-N-I-N”.

    I wouldn’t normally harp on about spelling like this, but I’ve noticed recently that misspelling words like serotonin – perhaps because they are unfamiliar to their users, despite the confidence with which they are thrown about – does seem to be significantly associated with other forms of pseudoscientific buffoonery:


  5. j said,

    January 29, 2006 at 11:01 pm



  6. JonnyW said,

    January 30, 2006 at 9:43 am

    Found this resoponse to the piece on a blog dated 4th Jan

    “Ben Goldacre’s crime is that he has judged something solely on the evidence against it.”


  7. rachel said,

    January 30, 2006 at 12:57 pm

    Hilarious – For Melanie Oxley, Communications Manager (or is that mis-communications manager?) says it’s how we test homeopathy that’s the problem and reason for it not showing up any effect. Strangely RCT isn’t appropriate for homeopathy. Funny how it’s used as a standard measure on other drugs (i.e. ones that actually have an effect) to test them. The EMPEROR HAS NO CLOTHES! Doh!

  8. Vivek said,

    January 30, 2006 at 5:50 pm

    I am a researcher at one of the leading universities in the USA and very well versed in statistics. I would like to believe homeopathy is a fraud, but unfortunately I am unable to. Everytime I have taken homeopathy medicines, it has worked wonders. If I were told it was a placebo, it would shock me enough to believe that placebos can be so powerful. Whatever it is, homeopathy has almost worked on me without failure. I wish, we develop science to a level, that we can prove and know why homeopathy works. If not, let’s do some more research on homeopathy.

  9. Robert Carnegie said,

    January 31, 2006 at 12:32 pm

    Dr Ben quotes,

    “In addressing erectile dysfunction and impotence, homeopaths often find a mental/emotional root-cause,”

    Nicely put.

    “The Society of Homeopaths theme in 2005 is Homeopathy for Men and Women,”

    As opposed to…?

  10. Alternative Medicine: Faith-healing at wongaBlog said,

    January 31, 2006 at 11:32 pm

    […] Next week’s show confronts my favourite of all the alternative medicines: homeopathy. The craziness is actually quite inspired – I don’t think I could come up with anything as contrary to reality if you asked me! Although the final result is a given, it’ll be interesting to see the approach the show takes. recognisable from BBC4’s Mind Games, which I didn’t realise for aaaaages [back]I knew somebody who suffered from glandular fever at secondary school, and afterwards began to exhibit the signs of M.E, which is apparently quite common. She put her recovery entirely down to a new doctor who assured her that he was going to ‘get her better’ – she vividly remembered the conversation. Not scientific, but interesting [back] […]

  11. homeosexual said,

    February 2, 2006 at 11:58 pm

    “Everytime I have taken homeopathy medicines, it has worked wonders. If I were told it was a placebo, it would shock me enough to believe that placebos can be so powerful. Whatever it is, homeopathy has almost worked on me without failure.”

    Yeah, like anecdotal evidence is sooo convincing: skepdic.com/testimon.html

    And I note the word “almost”

  12. jim said,

    February 4, 2006 at 7:29 am

    I wish we would stop knocking placebo effect. It is the result of the human relationship between the ‘therapist’ and patient. It is not trickery, not a fraud and was first measured in trials of anti-psychotic drugs. The patients improved on placebo because someone took an interest in them.

  13. Ben Goldacre said,

    February 4, 2006 at 2:29 pm

    Couldn’t agree more, the placebo effect is hugely important:


  14. Richard Seamon said,

    February 7, 2006 at 9:43 pm

    By the magic of the internet, something I don’t really understand but trust implicitly (sometimes) to work, the statistics package on my blog, Goat Food, reffed above, have pointed me back to here. I had no intention of picking an argument, I would rather people could just live and let live. Bigotry has no place in society, whether it be religious, racial or scientific, as belief counts for too much. Try rationalising with people who have a deep religious belief – we’re seeing it at the moment – people and governments trying to talk sense to people who have no intention of ever thinking the way “we” do. Pointless. If someone wants to believe, let them. I’m an atheist but I don’t need to proselytise my (non)belief like some do. Belief adds colour, texture and meaning to so many people’s lives I wouldn’t want to destroy that for them. Likewise, people’s belief in the efficacy of homeopathy. “Good” science has proved there’s nothing inherently wrong with the “bad” science behind it. So it may only be placebo by another name, dressed up to look different but I wasn’t aware this was wrong – cars perform more or less the same basic fiunction, getting us from here to there, but some of us like to do it faster, prettier or louder than others. Something’s bothering me though; isn’t the placebo effect a more recent “discovery” than homeopathy, which has been around for 200 years or so?

    My favourite doctors are the ones that combine a sound grounding in conventional science and medecine combined with a deep faith. Square that one please, Ben.

  15. Paul said,

    February 9, 2006 at 3:59 pm

    “If someone wants to believe, let them”

    We’re all quite happy with that my friend, but when people pretend that they have an efficicaious treatment for which they get a lot of money then aren’t we justified in in pointing out that the evidence that they cite (and cite it they continually do) is flawed? You appear to be advocating a strange form of post modernism whereby the fervour and tenacity with which one holds an opinion is all that is required to make that opinion right. Seems a bit silly to me.

    “Something’s bothering me though; isn’t the placebo effect a more recent “discovery” than homeopathy, which has been around for 200 years or so? ”

    And what has that got to do with anything? If longevity of beliefs ensured precedence, we’d still all be flat-earthers (I hasten to add, for fear of offending you, that I truly respect the belief that the earth is flat. We’d be all the poorer if everyone was convinced, by evidence and reasoning, that it wasn’t)

  16. Polecat said,

    February 9, 2006 at 8:07 pm

    Everyone seems to agree that the placebo effect is real, and quite powerful.

    But you can’t go into a pharmacist and buy yourself a big bottle of “placebos”. The fact that you know they are placebos would negate their effect.

    This is why homeopathic remedies are useful. You can buy placebos for yourself without knowing it. Of course skeptics like us can’t benefit, but at least we can point and laugh at the credulous public. What’s the point of “winning” this battle ? Most people don’t mind being fooled.

  17. Richard Seamon said,

    February 10, 2006 at 12:22 am

    Ach! Bad editing. There most definitely are sheds of cats eating blue pills in Kent. Sort of.

  18. Organic Potatoes said,

    February 14, 2006 at 11:25 pm


  19. Organic Potatoes said,

    February 17, 2006 at 1:12 am


    to that bit of advertising asking me to buy something (now removed)

  20. rachel said,

    March 1, 2006 at 2:33 pm

    Indeed, let people believe what they want to. As for Mr Seamon being an atheist ,as far as I’m aware, nobody has yet proved scientifically either the existence or non-existence of God. So, not really comparable to homeopathy which has been scientifically proven not to work.

    As a believer I do not have a need to proselytise. Don’t need Mr S or any government to “talk sense” to me either. These are common and lazy assumptions many atheists make in relation to those of us who have chosen to believe in God.

  21. DanBandini said,

    March 28, 2006 at 2:23 pm


    A few months ago I temped at a children’s hospital . The parent’s of one child had misgivings about the treatment the hospital was supplying. The parents searched for a suitable Homeopath to help their child. The homeopath who suited their requirements promised to ‘cure’ the child. The homeopath told the parents to stop giving the child medicine prescribed by the consultants at the hospital and to rely on his.. well.. small amounts of water…a week later the child was admitted to the hospital on an emergency admission.

    The parents were extremely worried for their child. They were desperate. The child had a serious condition and, as any parent can understand, it was extremely emotionally straining to see their child in the situation. After referring the child to the adjoining Homeopathay hospital the parents were persuaded to start the child back on the real medicine.

    I very much applaud Ben Goldacre for his collumn, in a newspaper where the science section appears to be shrinking, for his ‘crusade’ and hope sense infiltrates the bullshit that is permeating our countries beleif.

    Anyway… I recommend reading Mind Body Spirit Festival brochure. I have scientificaly proven that it causes my stomach to tighten, induces in me dizzy spells of disbeleif, and causes fury of gigantic proportions…a superficial and often contradictory and offensive blend of beliefs, conspiracy theories, angels and nonsense-science. Unfortunately people do beleive this. I know enough peole who do, unfortunately…


    ‘The Dynamics of RaphaYad Bioenergy Healing

    This form of healing is used for chronic or difficult illnesses. It works with the body’s electromagnetic circuitry to access connective pathways & neurological systems’

    That’s ‘chronic and difficult illnesses’. I have no doubt there are people vulnerable and desperate enough to beleive, unfortunatly.

  22. Two Extremes of Medicine (at wongaBlog) said,

    September 1, 2006 at 3:47 pm

    […] Previously, homeopathic ‘remedies’ were required to say “Homeopathic medicinal product without approved therapeutic indications” on the label. From today, however, the labels can instead claim to ‘treat’ medical conditions. According to Bad Science: All you need is evidence of manufacturing quality and safety, and “bibliographic evidence that the product has been used in the indications sought”. […]

  23. Evil advice from homeopaths about malaria prevention said,

    June 5, 2008 at 8:33 am

    […] the programme, Melanie Oxley, from the Society of Homeopaths, wriggled uncomfortably when faced with the evidence (and Simon […]

  24. MS and Vulnerability « Life, the Universe, MS & Me said,

    December 1, 2009 at 11:07 am

    […] www.badscience.net/2006/01/homeopathy-someone-should-tell-the-government-that-theres-nothing-… Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Warning: Microsoft Word FlawM-1 Abrams Vulnerability Cover-up? Leave a Comment No Comments Yet so far Leave a comment RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI Leave a comment Click here to cancel reply. Line and paragraph breaks automatic, e-mail address never displayed, HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <pre> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong> […]

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