I realize that I’ve said it many times before, but it bears repeating. Homeopathy is the perfect quackery. The reason that homeopathy is so perfect as a form of quackery is because it is quite literally nothing. On second thought, I suppose that it’s not exactly nothing. It is, after all, water or whatever other diluent that homeopaths use (usually ethanol). However, thanks to some basic laws of physics and chemistry and a little thing known as Avogadro’s number, any homeopathic dilution greater than 12C (twelve serial 100-fold dilutions) is incredibly unlikely to contain even a single molecule of starting compound. That unlikeliness reaches truly astonishing levels as we reach the common homeopathic dilution of 30C, which is the equivalent of a 1060-fold dilution. Given that that little thing known as Avogadro’s number, which describes how many molecules of a compound are in a mole, is only approximately 6 x 1023, a 30C dilution is on the order of 1036– to 1037-fold higher than Avogadro’s number. Even assuming that a homeopath started with a mole of remedy before diluting (unlikely, given the high molecular weight of most of the organic compounds that can serve as homeopathic remedies), the odds that a single molecule could remain behind after the serial dilution and succussion process is infinitesimal. Appropriately enough, the “law” in homeopathy that states that diluting a remedy will make it stronger is the law of infinitesimals.
It is also the reason that homeopathy is nothing.
Homeopaths have known these facts for many decades. Anyone who is any sort of a scientist or has an understanding of science, when confronted with these simple, well-established physical laws, might—just might—start to rethink his belief in something that is so utterly implausible from a scientific standpoint. Indeed, homeopathy is about as close to impossible as anything I can imagine, because for it to “work” multiple well-established laws of physics and chemistry would have to be not just wrong, but spectacularly wrong. Yet, as Richard Dawkins famously put it, undeterred, homeopaths bravely paddle up the river of pseudoscience and invent explanations to “explain” how homeopathy could work, the most famous of which is the so-called “memory of water,” in which the water in the homeopathic remedy remembers all the good bits meant to heal but, as Tim Minchin so famously put it, somehow forgets all the poo that’s been in it. Homeopathy is truly magical thinking, which is why I love to use it as an illustrative example of quackery. Not only is it magical thinking, but because it is nothing but water, it’s a very useful educational example for placebo effects and the general types of fallacious arguments quacks and pseudoscientists make. Apparently it’s time for another one.
Oh, the irony of it all! Quackery continues its increasingly successful assault on the citadel of medicine, viz: quackademic medicine, integrative medicine, credulous medical journal articles, shruggies, medical society support for CAM provider licensing. Will that nemesis of medical doctors, plaintiffs personal injury attorneys, turn out to be the last defenders of science in a world of health care fraught with so-called alternative medicine?
Maybe not. But the thought did occur to me while reading the Final Judgment and Order entered in Gallucci v. Boiron, the class action accusing the world’s largest manufacturer of homeopathic products of consumer fraud.
One of the core fictions of “complementary” or “integrative” medicine is that they are primarily offered in addition to science-based medicine and only to fill gaps in what SBM can offer. The original marketing label used to promote treatments that are not adequately supported by evidence , “alternative medicine,” was a bit more accurate in that at least it acknowledged that such treatments were being offered instead of SBM (the fiction being that they are a viable alternative, rather than just health fraud and pseudoscience). The switch to “complementary” and “integrative” did not reflect an evolving philosophy or practice, just an evolving marketing strategy.
Today proponents are likely to reassure the right people – journalists, regulators, and academics – that their offerings are not meant to replace proven therapies, but to complement them (the best of both worlds). (Mark Crislip is fond of pointing out that this is like mixing cow pie with apple pie. It doesn’t make the cow pie palatable, but it does ruin the apple pie.) However, behind closed doors practitioners of unscientific medicine generally prescribe their favorite pseudoscience instead of science-based treatments.
For example, Alice Tuff from Sense about Science investigated 10 homeopathic clinics in the UK.
In the consultations, Alice explained that she was planning to join a 10-week truck tour through Central and Southern Africa and that the anti-malarial drugs her doctor had prescribed made her feel queasy.
The results – all 10 homeopathy clinics offered homeopathic treatments for malaria protection, and none of them suggested this be done in addition to standard treatment. None of them referred Alice back to her medical doctor for further advice (in which case she could have been offered science-based alternative malaria treatments that she may have tolerated better). Only two homeopaths took a personal medical history.
As hard as it is to believe, the Science-Based Medicine blog that you’re so eagerly reading is fast approaching its fifth anniversary of existence. The very first post here was a statement of purpose by Steve Novella on January 1, 2008, and my very first post was a somewhat rambling introduction that in retrospect is mildly embarrassing to me. It is what it is, however. The reason I mention this is because I want to take a trip down memory lane in order to follow up on one of my earliest posts for SBM, which was entitled The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM): Your tax dollars hard at work. Specifically, I want to follow up on one specific study I mentioned that was funded by NCCAM.
Even though I not-so-humbly think that, even nearly five years later, my original post is worth reading in its entirety (weighing in at only 3,394 words, it’s even rather short—for me, at least), I’ll spare you that and cut straight to the chase, the better to discuss the study. It is a study of homeopathy. Yes, in contrast to the protestations of Dr. Josephine Briggs, the current director of NCCAM, that NCCAM doesn’t fund studies of such pure pseudoscience as homeopathy anymore (although she does apparently meet with homeopaths for “balance”), prior to Dr. Briggs’ tenure NCCAM actually did fund studies of the magic water with mystical memory known as homeopathy. Two grants in particular I singled out for scorn. The principal investigator for both grants was Iris Bell, who is faculty at Andrew Weil’s center of woo at the University of Arizona. The first was an R21 grant for a project entitled Polysomnography in homeopathic remedy effects (NIH grant 1 R21 AT000388).
Your health insurance plan probably covers anti-inflammatory drugs. But does it cover acupuncture treatments? Should it? Which health services deliver good value for money? Lest you think the debate is limited to the United States (which is an outlier when it comes to health spending), even countries with publicly-run healthcare systems are scrutinizing spending. Devoting dollars to one area (say, hospitals) is effectively a decision not to spend on something else, (perhaps public health programs). All systems, be they public or private, allocate funds in ways to spend money in the most efficient way possible. Thoughtful decisions require a consideration of both benefits and costs.
One of the consistent positions put forward by contributors to this blog is that all health interventions should be evaluated based on the same evidence standard. From this perspective, there is no distinct basket of products and services which are labelled “alternative”, “complementary” or more recently “integrative”. There are only treatments and interventions which have been evaluated to be effective, and those that have not. The idea that these two categories should both be considered valid approaches is a testament to promoters of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), who, unable to meet the scientific standard, have argued (largely successfully) for different standards and special consideration — be it product regulation (e.g., supplements) or practitioner regulation.
Yet promoters of CAM seek the imprimatur of legitimacy conferred by the tools of science. And in an environment of economic restraint in health spending, they further recognize that showing economic value of CAM is important. Consequently they use the tools of economics to argue a perspective, rather than answer a question. And that’s the case with a recent paper I noticed was being touted by alternative medicine practitioners. Entitled, Are complementary therapies and integrative care cost-effective? A systematic review of economic evaluations, it attempts to summarize economic evaluations conducted on CAM treatments. Why a systematic review? One of the more effective tools for evaluating health outcomes, a systematic review seeks to analyze all published (and unpublished) information on a focused question, using a standardized, transparent approach to evidence analysis. When done well, systematic reviews can sift through thousands of clinical trials to answer focused questions in ways that are less biased than cherry-picking individual studies. The Cochrane Review’s systematic reviews form one of the more respected sources of objective information (with some caveats) on the efficacy of different health interventions. So there’s been interest in applying the techniques of systematic reviews to questions of economics, where both costs and effects must be measured. Economic evaluations at their core seek to measure the “bang for the buck” of different health interventions. The most accurate economic analyses are built into prospective clinical trials. These studies collect real-world costs and patient consequences, and then allow an accurate evaluation of value-for-money. These types of analyses are rare, however. Most economic evaluations involve modelling (a little to a lot) where health effects and related costs are estimated, to arrive at a calculation of value. Then there’s a discussion of whether that value calculation is “cost-effective”. It’s little wonder that many health professionals look suspiciously at economic analyses: the models are complicated and involve so many variables with subjective inputs that it can be difficult to sort out what the real effects are. Not surprisingly, most economic analyses suggest treatments are cost-effective. Before diving into the study, let’s consider the approach:
Be careful what you wish for. In the last few decades purveyors of dubious medical treatments and products have been trying to go mainstream, and they have had some unfortunate success. They asked for serious scientific investigation into their claims – and they got it. They asked to be treated like real medicine (but not really, they only want the trappings of legitimacy, not the substance), and when they actually are treated with the standards similar to science-based medicine, they cry foul.
The response of the fake-medicine lobby is not to alter their claims to fit the evidence, or to carry out better studies, or to clean up their act when problems are brought to their attention – but to attack their critics.
Homeopathy is perhaps the best example of this behavior. Homeopathy’s biggest marketing advantage is that most people don’t know what it really is. They think it’s “natural” medicine or herbs. That is why, during homeopathy awareness week, I was happy enough to oblige. I want people to know exactly what homeopathy is – sugar pills. They are placebos on which the equivalent of a magical ritual has been cast. Active ingredients, which themselves are as fanciful as fairy dust, are diluted into non-existence.
In 2011 the Swiss government completed an official examination of homeopathy, as part of its consideration of whether or not insurance companies should be made to cover homeopathic treatment. Their report, which concluded homeopathy is effective and should be covered, was published in English in February 2012. Not surprisingly, homeopathy promoters, like Dana Ullman writing for the Huffington Post, were quick to proclaim the virtues of the Swiss report and tout it as evidence for the effectiveness of homeopathy. Recently, however, a more critical review of the Swiss report has been published, revealing the report to be biased and scientifically suspect.
Ullman begins his crowing about the Swiss report with this dubious statement:
The Swiss government has a long and widely-respected history of neutrality, and therefore, reports from this government on controversial subjects need to be taken more seriously than other reports from countries that are more strongly influenced by present economic and political constituencies.
Political neutrality is not equivalent to being scientifically unbiased. Ullman, and other homeopaths, however, are keen to prefer the Swiss report over other government reports. This is because in 2010 the UK government performed their own systematic review of homeopathy – Evidence Check 2: Homeopathy. In their report they concluded that homeopathy is essentially witchcraft – that it does not work, its underlying principles are scientifically invalid and tantamount to magic, that it should not be covered by the national health service, and that it is not even worth any further research. Ullman strangely does not mention this report directly in his article.
As a group blog, Science-Based Medicine brings a variety of perspectives to issues of science in medicine. However we align around a few core principles which define what science-based medicine is, and how it should be practiced. One principle we emphasize is the importance of subjecting the evaluation of all health interventions and treatments to a single, science-based standard. One of the biggest successes of the alternative medicine industry, worldwide, has been the embedding of different regulatory standards for the evaluation and approval of so-called “non-drug” products such as supplements, herbal products, and non-scientific treatment systems like homeopathy or traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). The implications cannot be overstated: this different and lower standard is now so firmly entrenched in most health systems that few seem to question its rationale, or consider the consequences. As a practicing pharmacist I spent the first decade of my career working within this regulatory framework without ever stepping back to question why we regulate some products differently. I started reading, took the red pill, and here I am today. (more…)
A couple of months ago, a reader sent me an article that really disturbed me. In fact, I had originally been planning to write about it not long after I received it. It is, as you might imagine given my specialty and what disturbs me the most wehen I encounter quackery, a story of a cancer patient. Worse, it’s the story of a cancer patient in my neck of the woods. True, it’s not in the same country, but my cancer center is only around two or three miles from the Detroit River and the Canadian border; so it’s plenty close enough. Too close, in fact. Reading the story, in fact, I realized that it features a form of cancer quackery that, as far as my searches have been able to tell me, we haven’t covered before here at SBM, which alone makes it worth taking on, even though the story is two months old. The “cure” is called Cantron, and it is deeply rooted right here in my metropolitan area. Not only that, its siren song and false promises are attracting patients from across the boarder in Canada. Bernie Mulligan is one such patient:
I had never heard of Dr. Shantaram Kane, a chemical engineer in Mumbai, India. I don’t know how he heard of me, but he apparently knows I am critical of homeopathy. He e-mailed me out of the blue to tell me about a study he had published in 2010 in the journal Homeopathy: “Extreme homeopathic dilutions retain starting materials: A nanoparticulate perspective.” The full text is available online here. It was lauded in an accompanying editorial. Incredibly, it is an uncontrolled study.
Kane recognizes that a major objection to homeopathy is that, at high potencies, not a single molecule of the starting material is present. He says his study found nanoparticles of the parent metal in 200C dilutions of metal-based remedies. He says his findings represent a paradigm shift. In other words, there really is something there when we assumed there wasn’t. (more…)