Question 1; Homeopathy, evidence and reporting science…

Here we go with our first subject.

I have posted a project introduction on our facebook page here (and guess I won’t be giving up the day job for a TV presenter career anytime soon)! Roger has also posted a video with an intriguing question (click here to view). The source he cites is available on the resources page. Take a look, discuss with your partner over the next two weeks and post a joint response here.


Bernie & Roger: September 2009

16 thoughts on “Question 1; Homeopathy, evidence and reporting science…

  1. Also another comment to the Canadians: Degree students in the UK are called ‘under graduates’. We don’t graduate from High School, we..err…just leave really.

  2. A really good reference for the first question is Ben Goldacre’s book Bad Science (2008) (published in the UK by Fourth Estate – Bernie has ordered one for the Woodward Library at UBC). Chapter 4 looks at homeopathy. Very easy to read and quite funny. Recommended if you are interested in ‘evidence based’ approaches (to teaching or health).

  3. Hello Bernie and Roger,

    Just to ask a question regarding your question. When you’re talking about Homeopathic medecine, are you talking about alternative medecine that includes cultural-specific practices such as acupuncture, air-pressure suction cups….etc? Or are you guys simply talking about the Western homeopathic medecine?

    I actually had to google homeopathic medecine just to say what it included, so please help clarify? THANK YOU!

  4. My understanding was this just refered specifically to Homeopathy (i.e. the therapy based on the concept that disease can be treated with substances (in tiny doses) that are thought capable of producing the same symptoms in healthy people as the disease itself). Acupuncture etc. are other forms of alternative/complementary therapies, and are not addressed by the question.

  5. My view on medicine is that anything that’s defined as a type of “medicine” has a medical effect. According to some of the literature i read, homeopathy is suppose to be “harmless” since it is so diluted; however, there are reactions that go on in the body that we are completely clueless about, so there is still a danger of adverse reactions. I do not take medicine unless there is a reason for me to take taht particular medicine, and my choice of medicine depends on whether it will be effective for my illness and whether it will take a long or short time. If homeopathic medicine is used in place of conventional medicine, I would worry about its effectiveness. The longer it takes for my symptoms to go away, the more the illness would affect my quality of life. I would much rather take conventional drugs that have known therapeutic effects and accept the fact that there might be serious side-effects than to completely depend on homeopathic medicine (as my alternative) and its uncertainties.

    I come from a family where we used a lot of herbal medicine, but we never used it as alternative medicine, we used it to complement conventional therapy.

  6. Jayne and I are on the same wavelength when it comes to our opinion on homeopathy.

    Maintaing, protecting and preserving quality of life is surely central to the philosphy of using medicine in the first instance. We agree that homeopathic medicine can only benifit if it is truely sucessful in dealing with the relief of symtoms displayed for that particular disease or condition. If it does not then why use it? what benifit does it really now have?

    However I must add that homeopathy is an extremely contreversial subject when it comes to those practicing and giving advice on homeopathic remedies.

    Eventhough the benefits of many remedies are felt across the world, as the process of diagnosis involves taking concideration of the patients over all psychological and physical well being and not just the biological or anatomical problems. It is also important to note that those giving advice can warn paitients away from using drugs such as immunisations, antimalarial vaccinations and many more.

    In practice though I have taken homeopathic remedies to treat symptoms of nerves and anxiety. I have used camomile tea and other sources to relieve the symptoms of and improve my bad circulation within my legs. The last being a direct result of diabeties mellitus.

    So in a minor way Homeopathic remedies do help with longterm and short term issues. However these ales are of a minor concern to other issues such as vaccination which i believe is vital in maintaing my future and long term well being as i would not cope effciently with simple flu or viruses. Furthermore without my daily medicine to treat my condition, I would not be very well in deed and would not even risk the condition of my vnerable organs such as my kidneys to try out as it were a homeopathic remedy.

  7. Allen and I agreed that Homoeopathy is ‘Bullshit’

    Homeopathic medicine originated from the late 1700’s and is based on the work of Samuel Hahnemann. During this time treatments for illnesses included bloodletting, purgation, the use of leeches and large doses of chemical agents such as mercury and arsenic. Hahnemann realised that these treatments could do more harm than good and be came up with the “Law of Similarities” meaning “let like be cured by like” (Dannheisser and Edwards 1998, p.10)
    Lehmacher (1998) reports that although there is a certain amount of positive evidence of efficiency in homoeopathic drugs, many of these studies have methodological problems and the interpretation of their results gives no clear evidence and a proportion of these studies can be explained by publication bias.
    Using the definition of ‘bullshit’ described on YouTube homeopathic medicine can be described as ‘bullshit’ because although there is little scientific evidence that it is affective, many people have used and believed in the theory for hundreds of years. There is little evidence to suggest why or how homeopathic medicines work.
    According to the society of homeopaths (2009) a high percentage of its practitioners have trained as a direct result of a close family member having positive results from using homeopathic treatments. People who have seen positive effects of homeopathic medicine seem to believe in it were as the sceptics seem to have come up with little evidence to support it.
    We believe Homeopathic medicine to be ‘bullshit’ as no one seems to full understand the results but the people who believe in it report the evidence in a such a way that it seems to be an effective treatment for many illnesses.

    Reference list
    Dannheisser, I and Edwards, P. (1998) Homeopathy An Illustrated Guide. Shaftesbury: Element Books Ltd.
    Lehmacher, W. (1998) ‘Methodological principles in clinical trials’ in Ernest, E and Hahn, E. (ed.) Homoeopathy A Critical Appraisal. Oxford: Reed Education and Professional Publishing Ltd, pp3-8.
    The Society of Homeopaths (2009) Becoming a homeopath Available at (Accessed 07 Oct 2009).

  8. In response to the question ‘how far do you believe that homeopathy is based on bullshit?’ we both agreed on the fact that we believe it is based on ‘bullshit’ because there is too little scientific evidence to substantiate the claims made proponents of homeopathy. There were also various other issues around the subject that got bought into the discussion, in particular it was interesting to get a nursing perspective on the matter as respect for patients beliefs into the area must be taken into consideration. It is worrying to think that when faced with an illness people may turn to homeopathic medicine which has little clinical evidence to support its use and turn their backs on more conventional medicine for which there is much more positive evidence.

    The matter of homeopathy being mainly psychological was something we both discussed and agreed on as there is a huge psychological component involved in the health and healing of one’s body. Reported benefits touted by believers of this medicine may simply be experiencing an enhanced placebo effect. The Lancet published a really excellent comparative study between placebo-controlled trials of homeopathy and conventional medicine to assess if the clinical effect of homeopathy is a just placebo effect; to which they concluded there was (Shan et al., 2005).

    Jane also raised the point that perhaps the public are confused as there is so much misleading media attention surrounding the use of different medicines. With regards to how we view and experience health, we live in a climate of FEAR. Look at all the products, pills, procedures and alternative medicines there are out there to help us achieve this idea of absolute “health”. The media constantly bombards us with poorly researched and extremely biased reports of criticizing scientific medicine. Using scientific terminology to report the positive effects of UNSCIENTIFIC medicine is misleading and confusing to the public. Once again, the validity of science is under attack. Just as how vaccines are under attack right now for its “possible links” to autism are completely unfounded. In short, given the parameters we could choose from Roger’s question (truth, lie or bullshit), homeopathy is bullshit… it doesn’t even meet the requirements of lying because evidence isn’t even reported erroneously! It is based on pseudoscience.

    Are we all living in a world full of fear? There are so many products on the market to help us achieve this idea of being ‘healthy’ and the media constantly reviews these by putting more fear into us! This is something I found very interesting and had not really thought about but can really see the implications the media can have in helping people to choose what type of medicine to use, and feel that they have a great deal of responsibility in reducing the validity of science and conventional medicine by striking fear into all of us. Furthermore, you don’t need a license, certification or particular credential to say that you are qualified to deliver homeopathy. Does this justify public funding? Is this ethical?

    However, I think “bullshit” is too strong of a word to reduce homeopathy to. I think everyone has the right to live out whatever health practices they see as best for them. Just as how I explain to a skeptical parent of a child whom I am about to vaccinate, I present him/her the facts – the risks, benefits and vigorous scientific evidence to support them in making the best choice for their child. It is not my role as a nurse to chastise a person for their beliefs.

    It was interesting to hear each others’ point of views coming from different backgrounds. Great responses everyone!

    Shang, A., Huwiler-Munener, K., Nartey, L., Juni, P., Dorig, S., Sterne, J.A.C., Pewsner, D., Egger, M. (2005). Are the clinical effects of homoeopathy placebo effects? Comparative study of placebo-controlled trials of homoeopathy and allopathy. The Lancet, 366(9487): 726-32.

  9. After watching some of the interview of Harry Frankfurt, the author of On Bullshit, and lookng into some quantitative studies done onhomeopathy (that ultimately decided homeopathy is unreliable) some interesting ideas surfaced…

    Like what was mentioned earlier, homeopathy can, when broken down to simplest terms, be thought of as a manifestation of the ‘placebo’ effect. The ironic thing with it, is that we will not easily ever know the real truth behind the workings of homeopathy, that is, did a person NOT contract (and exhibit symptoms of) a communicable disease because they had homeopathy treatments that protected them, or because they simply were not in contact with that disease and had it transmitted to them? In addition, how do we prove a person has not contracted a pathogenic microorganism and then built up an immunity instead of having a homeopathy treatment that did produce effects? Every individual reacts to pathogenic substances and antidotes differently too, so while homepathy might not be bullshit to one person, but it might be bullshit to others. That means that overall, universally, it is bullshit. But that is not to say that something that someone promotes that is bullshit is not effective. Frankfurt merely said experts talk up homeopathy when they really don’t know the truthful results, that is, the effectiveness of homeopathy. The placebo effect falls inthe same category, bullshit, but it is still believed by many.
    Basically, just because experts might be full of bullshit when claiming the effectiveness of homeopathy, it’s placebo-filled qualities might still be therapeutic to some people. That fact is not to be thrown out, but universal law cannot be explicated from such erroneous accounts.
    Thanks all, and glad to read your posts…

  10. From Laura Walsh and Kate Ewing:
    In response to the query “How far do you think homeopathy is based on bullshit” we lean towards homeopathy as a truth. We both come from very different educational backgrounds but both found some common ground with respect to our feelings about homeopathy.
    Allopathic medicine tends to frown on homeopathy as a medical intervention because it is not understood through traditional scientific methods. For those of us in programs based predominantly on these standards it can be difficult to accept anything that does not hold up to this type of scrutiny. In reviewing some of the articles in the Cochrane Reviews on homeopathy, it was pointed out that the lack of evidence is due to the inability to conduct Randomized Clinical Trials. And where they have tried to standardize treatments, no effects have been found. However, in looking at the fundamental principles of homeopathy, every treatment must be individualized to the person suffering the ailment. An initial homeopathic assessment by a classically trained homeopath will examine the entire person as a being, from physical state to mental state, and thus will base the remedy on a full assessment of history and current presenting state. This is quite different from our standard biomedical approach of assessing the disease as an entity rather than assessing the person as a whole to be returned to a state of balance.
    One of the concerns that we had with homeopathy is the lack of regulation. In Canada anyone can use the designation of homeopath and make homeopathic remedies. Some regulation is starting to be presented but it is minimal. Classically trained and educated homeopaths undertake a 3 to 4 year course of training which is far different from reading a “Homeopathy for Dummies” book and putting up your shingle. It is important in our discussions of homeopathy to respect differences in education and exercise caution in choosing a professional.
    Much of the evidence of homeopathy has been based on observational/case based studies. Kate worked in a clinic where a homeopath came in on an as needed basis for assessments and treatment of mothers and children. For several of the clients these treatments worked to rid the body of various ailments such as migraine headaches in a 14 year old and severe teething issues in an infant. While some might call into evidence a placebo effect, given the age of the children and the effects witness, a placebo effect would be unlikely. Traditional homeopathy will also address the overall conditions of the person and perhaps some of the lifestyle changes may account for a decrease in symptoms, however, this would still be as the result of a homeopathic assessment.

    Once upon a time we thought the earth was flat. Just because we can’t understand it through the current lens we wear doesn’t mean it doesn’t have some validity.

  11. Hello and Happy Thanksgiving!

    I just wanted to add an interesting link that Richard Dawkins did called “Enemies of Reason”. The entire documentary is very interesting but he provides interesting commentary on homeopathy if you fast forward to 23:30.

    Interesting to say the least but as a character, I think he’s a bit of a purist and prudish in his criticisms…


  12. Hello all…just a quick note to acknowledge my partner, Sarah Dodds, and the work she did with the first question (all of it actually!). However, that said, I just wanted to add that I did learn quite a bit from Sarah’s research and the other posts I have been reading. Thank you very much Sarah!

  13. Hi folks,

    We have just had Thanksgiving here (a North American holiday – earlier in canada than the US for some reason) and I am catching up. Fall is upon us with a vengance here in Vancouver with temperature plumeting, whilst I understand folks in the UK are experiencing some uncharacteristicaly warm weather (surely some aberration of nature that indicates the end of the world as we know it)!

    Anyhow, some great ideas and commentary in response to our first question. Seems like we are off to a flying start. Well done and thanks everyone.

    Roger’s post questioned if homeopathy could be characterised as “bullshit” (after Prof. Harry G. Frankfurt) on the basis of being based on a lack of understanding and inferences drawn on poorly understood or vague theory.

    This is an interesting point for us to consider in science, as if we are to understand a phenomenon I would argue a) we need to observe what is going on and make some attempt at proposing a theory to explain it and then b) try and test our theory in some way (either by further argument, observation, or experiment) and then accept it or reject it and propose another explanation. As we will see later, there is also a degree of probability involved here, as to what is the most likely explanation for a given phenomenon.

    A few comments have pointed to “evidence” and to homeopathy being viewed as “a truth.” A person takling a post-modern stance might argue that there are multiple truths equally valid (as we will explore in a later question) but for now I think the question really was addressing what is acceptable to consider as a basis for making claims about a particular therapeutic intervention, given our particular state of knowledge at this time.

    The problem for me, and many others, is that the theoretical claims for homeopathy seem particularly problematic in that they reflect explanations that are not based on any substantiated empirical work. It relys on faith in unsubstantiated mechanisms rather than variables from a demonstrable conceptual framework.

    Let us take another example for comparison. In the 15th and 16th Century it was a common belief that there was a metaphysical bond between a weapon and the injury it caused. This led to the theory of “Weapon Salve”and the practice of making a salve (a medicinal ointment) from the specific weapon that caused an injury and applying it to the wound (or weapon). Francis Bacon wrote of this, and it was reportedly used in the UK even in 1902 (google Matilda Henry +Nail for the case)!

    Now from a theoretical standpoint of the 1500 CE, maybe that would seem a reasonable stance, but by todays standards most people would regard this as pure superstitious nonsense. It is likely belief in Weapon Salve persisted for so long, mainly because of the apothecaries who made up the salves and had a vested interest in maintaining the beliefs.

    So, is this any different from homeopathy as it too appears based on unprovable claims requiring faith in “magical qualities” or as scientists should we reject this as “hogwash” (my own preference to BS!) and seek alternative explanations for the phenomenon we observe?


    Lastly for the UK cohort, the phrase “hang a shingle” means to set up in business, a shingle I believe, refering to a sign made of a roof tile – but Canadians please do correct me if I am wrong!! 🙂 .


  14. ?…How far do you think that homeopathy and homeopathic medicine is bullshit??

    As we considered whether or not Homeopathic medicine is bullshit, we felt it important to work through a definition of homeopathy. A brief internet search led us to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, an agency funded by the National Institutes of Health that studies health practices that aren?t considered ?conventional? (reference: )

    The NCCAM has a website dedicated to homeopathy ( ) which provided us with a framework to discuss this question. After a long discussion, we agreed that it could be a number of treatments – often based on natural substances – that is used to prevent or cure an illness. The substance is one that creates the symptoms of an illness in a healthy person and the theory behind homeopathy is that a very dilute version of the substance would cure the illness. In fact, the lower the dose, the better the results.

    Ultimately, in discussing homeopathic medicine in general we felt that, without concrete research to back the claims of any given homeopathic medication, one likely explanation would be that the therapy works through the ?Placebo Effect?. The placebo effect certainly may come into play as a patient using homeopathic medicine may truly believe that they are taking something that will cure the disease they have. To be able to state that ?Homeopathic Medicine is Truth? this is one area that must be tested.

    The discussion of any possible placebo effect raised the question ?Is there a problem with a person using homeopathic medicine, if the improvements are due to the placebo effect?? In this case, we agreed that as long as the substance is known to be safe for consumption, there is nothing wrong with using Homeopathic Medications even if the placebo effect is the result.

    This being said, as a generalisation, we agreed that Homeopathic Medicine is bullshit, but, with sound testing certain homeopathic treatments may be considered ?truth?. If, however, the medicine is shown to be primarily acting through the placebo effect, then we agreed that this would be lying (but it begs the question, if a placebo is helping a patient is this wrong?).

    However, to answer the question provided, we concluded that homeopathic medicine, as described by the NCCAM, is bullshit. If there is no substance left in a solution because it has been diluted how can the manufacturers make the claims that they do? To make these claims further research may be required.

  15. Here is the response from Linh and I on the first topic, Homeopathy.

    Basically we concluded that it is BS as what research there is into it is qualitative. We covered the points below in our discussion:

    • “Faith” producing a reduction in stress levels of the patient which in turn may improve their condition
    • That the design of the treatment- i.e the homeopathic tincture and it’s method of administration accounts for the mental state of the patient as well
    • Do the history, body of knowledge and time and effort put into tailoring a patient specific preparation add to the placebo effect?
    • Positive responses found to homoeopathic remedies were mostly individual stories rather than the result of controlled studies. This suggests that they may have been handpicked and they are certainly not suitable bases from which to draw scientific conclusions.
    • The responses that have been recorded are elicited on a whole person basis accounting for the person’s mental and emotional state unlike medical treatments (e.g. asprin) that have specific measurable physiological effects.

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