Saturday, 26 June 2010

Homeopathy Is Witchcraft Part 2

Tory MP David Treddinick is calling for an Early Day Motion (EDM). He has found a study that apparently shows homeopathy is beneficial in the treatment of breast cancer.

The Abstract of the Texan study begins: 'The use of ultra-diluted natural products in the management of disease and treatment of cancer has generated a lot of interest and controversy'.

In other words, here we go again.

This is the EDM (285): That this House welcomes the study published in the International Journal of Oncology, 2010 Feb; 36(2): 395-403 which revealed that homeopathic remedies have a beneficial effect on breast cancer cells; notes that researchers at the University of Texas conducted an in vitro study to determine whether products prescribed by a clinic in India have any effect on breast cancer cell lines; further notes that the researchers studied four ultra-diluted remedies, carcinosin, phytolacca, conium and thuja against two human breast adenocarcinoma cell lines, MCF-7 and MDA-MB-231 and a cell line derived from immortalized normal human mammary epithelial cells, HMLE; observes that the remedies exerted preferential cytotoxic effects against the two breast cancer cell lines, causing cell cycle delay/arrest and apoptosis; believes that the findings demonstrate biological activity of these natural products when presented at ultra-diluted doses; and calls for further research in this important area. (my italics)

Treddinick also cites trials on the efficacy of homeopathy in the treatment of depression and primary insomnia.

In May this year, the British Medical Association's annual conference of junior doctors declared that homeopathy is witchcraft and public money should not be spent on it.

In February, a report by parliament's science and technology committee stated that: 'the NHS should cease funding homeopathy. It also concludes that the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) should not allow homeopathic product labels to make medical claims without evidence of efficacy. As they are not medicines, homeopathic products should not longer be licensed by the MHRA'. Tredinnick disagrees.

(I covered both of these events in Homeopathy is Witchcraft Part 1.)

It's not the details of this particular study that interest me here. Other bloggers have already taken it apart and Simon Singh debated homeopathy with Tredinnick on Radio 4.

Tredinnick is using the now familiar mantra of "the jury is still out" and "we need more research". Yet again, this mythical jury hasn't reached a decision because homeopaths haven't got the result they want. After 200 plus trials, homeopathy has still not been proven to be better than placebo. That's like a criminal being found guilty 200 times and continuing to appeal.

There are two mutually incompatible approaches here. Scientists and their supporters are patiently quoting evidence and scientific methodology. Homeopaths and their supporters are using the tactics of a small child trying to wear its parents down. Tredinnick's debate will follow the well-worn path of scientists presenting the evidence and his side saying 'Yes, but...'.

No matter how many studies show that homeopathy doesn't work, its proponents will never give up. It's a fine example of cognitive dissonance. In other words, when they are presented with evidence that contradicts their beliefs, they put their fingers in their ears and go la la la la la.

Homeopathy is essentially a faith-based position. Like religion, scientists should perhaps deal with it by taking a secular position. If people want to pay for homeopathy and other alt med, despite all the evidence, that's really up to them. Like secularists try to do with religion, scientists and those of us who care about evidence should perhaps be trying to keep alt med out of public life. With religion, this means trying to stop it having power and influence in government, policy making, law, healthcare, education and so on. People can believe whatever they like but public money should not be spent on it. In alt med terms, it means making sure the NHS does not waste its limited resources on unproven remedies - making sure that public money is not wasted.

Like religion, belief in alt med is not going to go away no matter how hard we try. While it's important to demolish false claims and to educate the public, the most pressing current battle is for the NHS. Perhaps now it's time to focus our campaigning energy wholly onto the NHS as long as homeopathic effects are unproven.

Tredinnick said on Radio 4 that the UK is behind other countries, like France, who have embraced homeopathy. I'd rather think of it as us being ahead of the game but staying there is far from assured.

If you want to write to your MP about the EDM, you can find out how to contact them here.


  1. I've just sent an e-mail to my MP asking her not to support the EDM but as she's a Tory too I don't hold out much hope.

    I can't wait for the battle to start over the NHS vs the church paying for chapels and clergy in hospitals. It’s an obvious place to make cuts that will have no ill-effect on patient care but will this new Government have the nerve to do it?

  2. Can't remember if I said this to you before, but I think the BMA phraseology is unfortunate. Saying that 'homeopathy is witchcraft' doesn't really help when some alt med fans believe in the power of both. It also sounds like an unenlightened peasant looking through a microscope for the first time - a condemnation of something you don't understand. Much better to dismiss it as 'nonsense' or something with less baggage.

    But I think there may be a difficulty with the idea of medical care adhering to scientifically proven treatment. The psychology of recovery is complex. Take the placebo effect. We know it works, but it will only work if you 'trick' the patient. It is therefore unethical for a doctor to prescribe placebo medicines. But I'm sure some GPs prescribe unnecessary medicines, knowing that it will make the patient feel they've had some 'treatment'.

    So I'm not sure if your principle of dismissing faith-based positions can be fully realised when hope and faith in treatment are such an important psychological aid to patient recovery. Of course, this is not necessarily relevant at this stage in the argument against homeopathy - just a thought about the underlying principle.

    In any case, I don't think you're right to say that the proponents of homeopathy will never give up. Maybe not in the short term, but all it takes is for it to become unfashionable and unpopular, and politicians will drop it like a stone.

  3. Yes, the placebo effect is an important part of the healing process with some illnesses and I accept the rationale but, a stand has to be taken that clearly illustrates the facts about homeopathy: It is a lie. It is a means to make money from the gullible. It is a false science, which is actually a greater lie than 'witchcraft' which doesn't pretend to any scientific method. No amount of placebo will cure cancer or diabetes but it may alleviate pain or calm a 'neurotic'.