Complementary and alternative medicine Medicine Pseudoscience Quackery Skepticism/critical thinking

Following 50 woo-ful facts: Nine woo-ful myths

I had been planning on taking on a couple of articles about breast cancer to start out the week. However, between having to deal with a tsunami of leaves before Monday, when the giant trucks come along to pick them up today and a number of other issues, I didn’t have time. As much as I love taking a recent study and doing an in-depth analysis, such posts take probably twice as much time for me to do as the average post. Unfortunately, various issues this weekend prevented that, at least for today.

Fortunately, there’s always homeopathy.

Yes, homeopathy is always there for the easy post. Even better, there’s uber-woo-meister Mike Adams at Even better still, Mike Adams has found a protégé, a homeopath, and this homeopath can churn out some of the most ridiculous articles on homeopathy that you’ve ever seen. I realize that homeopathy is inherently ridiculous by its very nature, but that’s what makes these articles so “meta-ridiculous,” if you will. Three weeks ago, I first had some fun with “50 woo-ful facts” about homeopathy. The homeopath writing such nonsense? Louise Mclean. And guess what?

She’s baaa-aack.

This time around she’s trying to dispel the myths surrounding homeopathy. Not surprisingly, she’s provided some grade-A first class woo. It starts right from the beginning:

In this article, I would like to dispel a plethora of myths surrounding homeopathy which have been used to discredit this highly efficacious healing art and science. Homeopaths are given few opportunities in the media to defend their profession, so a lot of misconceptions abound. The medical profession in general presents a fierce and blinkered opposition, yet as Big Pharma is learning of all sorts of amazing cured cases, they are determined to stamp out competition via EU regulation.

That’s right. We evil, deluded shills of big pharma must obey our corporate paymasters in order to assault homeopathy whenever we eoncounter it. Louise has found us out! Nothing escapes her amazing powers of deduction! Unfortunately, I have yet to find out how to get on this big pharma gravy train. I mean, really, think about it. I do this already because I believe in what I write. Why on earth wouldn’t I be happy to become a real paid shill of the Dark Lords of Pharma, sitting back in my underwear in front of my computer, or in my sweats with my laptop on my lap in front of the TV, turning out these peerless words for your edification and to cast doubt on homeopaths like Louise because, well, I’m a cancer surgeon and obviously (according to Mike Adams and Louise Mclean, anyway) I don’t want to see more effective treatments for cancer, lest they cut into my obscene profits made treating cancer patients.

But back to the “myths” about homeopathy.

I don’t think I’ll bother to go through all nine. After all, some of them are very similar to the “50 facts” she asserted before. But, hey, let’s see how many I can stand to go get through before the laughter is so intense that I can no longer type. then I’ll leave the rest to you, my capable readers. So let’s start with “Myth #1”:

Myth No. 1 – Homeopathic medicines cure nothing

Homeopathy works by stimulating the body’s own healing mechanisms, through like for like. A substance that would cause symptoms in a healthy person can be used to cure the same symptoms in a sick person by giving a minute, highly potentized dose of that substance acting as a catalyst to jump start their own healing mechanisms. Everyone of us has our own natural innate healing powers. All that is needed is the correct stimulus to kick start it. In healthy people this may just be rest and good food but many people become ‘stuck’ in their physical, emotional or mental illness and cannot recover. Of course there are different levels of health and the choice of potency given should reflect that. Low potencies are given for very physically ill people and higher doses for those whose problems are emotional or of the mind. Homeopathy is very successful in treating emotional problems such as stress, anxiety and fears.

Unlike orthodox medicine, outcomes of homeopathic treatment are measured by the long term curative effects and the eradication of the disease state culminating in complete restoration of health. If we could have two year trials of outcomes for conditions such as asthma, arthritis and other chronic diseases, this could be proven.

Note that none of this shows that homeopathy cures anything. It’s argument by assertion, without a single speck of evidence, all tarted up in the usual nonsense about “catalyzing the body’s own healing mechanisms.” My favorite part of this one is that the “outcomes” of homepathic treatments at two years. For one thing, it’s idiocy to argue that there aren’t studies with two year followup for conventional treatments, and it’s even more silly to whine about not having trials with two year outcomes of homepathy. There’s nothing to stop homeopaths from doing just such studies. Why don’t they? Why don’t they apply to NCCAM for grants to fund such studies?

Let’s go on to “Myth #2”:

Myth No 2 – Homeopathic medicines are just water

Homeopathic medicines are not made using only dilution. Dilution alone would do nothing whatsoever. Many homeopaths are getting tired of reading this highly inaccurate reporting in the media. All homeopathic medicines are made by a process of dilution and Succussion (potentization through vigorous shaking — 100 shakes between each potency — i.e. between a 1c and a 2c, between a 2c and a 3c potency, between a 3c and a 4c, etc, etc). Most homeopathic medicines can be bought in either 6c or 30c from Boots or from health shops. Higher potencies of 200c and 1m (1000c) can be obtained only from homeopathic pharmacies. Succussion is nowadays done by machines, originally by hand. Succussion brings out the formative intelligence of the substance and imprints it upon the 60% distilled water + 40% alcohol medium used to make homeopathic medicines — alcohol acting as a preservative.

Ah, yes, the whole “homeopathy isn’t just dilution” thing. If you want magical thinking writ large, here it is. The dilution isn’t the thing, it’s the shaking, the “succussion,” because, you see, the shaking imbues the homeopathic remedy with its magical powers. I’m surprised there isn’t chanting with each round of “succussion.” I’m also particularly amused by the whole bit about the “formative” intelligence of the substance. What on earth does that mean? I’m half tempted to say something along the lines of “Formative intelligence? I’ll show you my ‘formative intelligence’!”

But that would be too easy.

I thought about marching through the remaining “myths,” but, really, why bother. Instead, I’ll jump ahead to “Myth” #9 (feel free to deconstruct the others as you see fit):

Myth No. 9 – ‘Anecdotal Evidence’ does not constitute scientific evidence!

Most medical, surgical procedures and drug usage are not backed by studies — only by anecdotal evidence. According to the U.S. Government’s Office of Technology Assessment (Congress of the United States, Office of Technology Assessment: Assessing the efficacy and safety of medical technologies. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1978), only 10-20% of all medical procedures and off-label drug usage are backed by clinical studies.

Strong anecdotal evidence among informed professionals is actually quite reliable — at least as reliable as clinical testing.

No, it’s not, and there are plenty of reasons why. First, there are a number of biases and problems in observation that creep into anecdotal evidence, as well as a number of well known phenomena that interfere with making reliable conclusions from anecdotal evidence. It has nothing to do with the intelligence or skill of the practitioner, either (although I would wonder about the logical faculties of anyone who’s fallen into the trap of being a homeopath”). Rather it’s characteristics of disease that can lead the single observer astray. These include:

Regression to the mean. Most illnesses wax and wane. Any extreme variation in illness intensity is likely to be followed by a more average variation by chance alone. Many diseases have variable or fluctuating symptoms. If a person happens to seek out a treatment when his symptoms are at their worst (very common), by chance alone this period is very likely to be followed by a period when the symptoms are not as severe. Not surprisingly, the treatment, whatever it is, gets the credit.

Confirmation bias. This is the natural human tendency to seek out evidence that confirms what he already believes and pay less attention to evidence that goes against it.

Placebo effect. This is the tendency for symptoms with a subjective component to improve with any intervention, even sugar pills.

Reporting bias. Dead men tell no tales. Patients who do not improve do not give glowing “testimonials” to the efficacy of treatment.

A good discussion of the problems involved with anecdotal evidence can be found here.

Note also how Louise is parroting the myth that “only” 20% of modern evidence-based medicine is in fact truly evidence-based. This is yet another myth favored by the woo-friendly crowd. True, I would agree that not as much of modern medicine is as stronly science- and evidence-based as I would like, but that is a long way from agreeing that such a small percentage of medicine used by “conventional” doctors is “evidence-based.” It turns out that that figure is based on a rather dubious “study” from nearly 50 years ago. In fact, the real percentage of interventions that are science- and evidence-based is much higher. But it’s a convenient myth for woo-meisters.

Louise can’t resist digging herself in deeper:

The problem isn’t with the use of anecdotal evidence. It’s with the double standard applied by the establishment (medical and regulatory) that holds complementary medicine to an absurdly higher standard, allowing medical doctors to do pretty much whatever they want. If informed anecdotal evidence is allowable for 85% of all medical procedure and drug usage, why is alternative health held to an impossible 0% standard?

Millions of people worldwide testify that homeopathy cures their illnesses yet apparently that cannot be construed as ‘evidence’.

If a person were to walk out of their house to the town centre and witness someone having their bag snatched or witness a car accident, then when they relay this information to the Police or to their friends and family, it is anecdotal evidence.

If someone goes on holiday, stays at a nice hotel, eats delicious food, swims in the sea, comes back home and relates the holiday to their friends, that is anecdotal evidence.

Does that mean that the above never happened? According to the detractors of complementary or alternative medicine, yes it does!

There is no double standard. Anecdotal evidence is viewed by science-based medicine as hypothesis-generating, nothing more. The reason, of course, is all the cognitive and observational pitfalls that come with anecdotal evidence. any hypothesis generated with anecdotal evidence can’t be considered validated until studied in a more formal manner. Anecdotal evidence is, simply, the lowest and least reliable form of evidence. The bit about the purse snatching, of course, is unintentionally appropriate, given that homepaths separate gullible people from their money all the time. Of course, the entire argument is a straw man. No one is saying that such things didn’t happen; what skeptics say is that it is the interpretation of believers of what has happened is the problem. They attribute phenomena such as regression to the mean to treatment with homeopathy. That doesn’t stop Louise from whining:

So how for so long have we put up with the top dogs in the medical establishment dismissing our cures as total nonsense, figments of our imagination, placebo cures, or outright lies?

How, when millions are cured around the world using homeopathic medicines, can these cures be dismissed as unworthy of attention, simply ‘anecdotal evidence’.

Orthodox medicine implies through this that all cures with alternative medicine are untrue or simply imagined. Even when all the evidence is put before them, they become angry and even aggressive, simply refusing to see or to listen.

No, we become annoyed by the constant repetition of canards such as the ones that Louise keeps repeating. Personally, I’d love to see these “millions of cured” with one twist: I’d like to see evidence that they were actually “cured” of anything by homepathy. After all, all homeopaths ever seem to have are “testimonials.”

I could go on, but there comes a point when the stupidity starts to cause my brain to hurt. So, instead, I’ll let you have your say, and I’ll even give you another tidbit from Louise in which she claims that homeopathy can cure mental illness.

As for something a bit more substantive and science-based, I’ll try to do something tomorrow. Slumming among homeopaths gets old after a while.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

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