Homeopathy and science
The following is a summary of the main criticisms levelled at homeopathy, and recent research and reports which counter each of these. This first appeared in a speech I gave to a Rotary Club in March 2012. All research quoted can be sourced through the links on my research page.
Homeopathic remedies are nothing but empty water, sugar pills – it's all the emperor's new clothes
There is a growing body of evidence from chemistry, physics and materials science which suggest the properties of water may well depend on its dilution history. There are articles in the peer-reviewed journals 'Physica' and the 'Annals of NY Academy of Sciences' that show support for water having a 'memory'.
Dr Luc Montagnier, the French virologist who won the Nobel Prize for discovering the Aids virus, and Nobel Prize-winning Cambridge physicist Brian Josephson both argue that water is capable of retaining some form of ‘memory’. Montagnier, who is also founder and president of the World Foundation for AIDS Research and Prevention, has surprised the scientific community with his strong support for homeopathic medicine and has said, "I can't say that homeopathy is right in everything. What I can say now is that the high dilutions (used in homeopathy) are right. High dilutions of something are not nothing. They are water structures which mimic the original molecules."
Homeopathy is nothing but the placebo effect
There are 'in vitro' studies (that is in the test tube or petri dish in the lab) that show positive effect of homeopathy.
The February 2010 issue of the International Journal of Oncology reported a study of four homeopathic remedies that have shown positive results using homeopathic remedies on breast cancer cells.
The study is significant because
a) it was carried out at a top cancer research hospital in the U.S.;
b) it was reported in the International Journal of Oncology - a highly respected, peer-reviewed, mainstream medical journal; and
c) the homeopathic remedies were tested on breast cancer cells 'in vitro' - i.e. in a laboratory petri dish - not on patients - which means there can have been no 'placebo effect'.
Animals and babies both respond positively to homeopathic treatment. There can't be a placebo effect when you are treating a six week old baby, or a cow.
The placebo effect, while real, does not only affect studies of homeopathic medicines: Harvard psychiatrist Jay Pomerantz cites studies that clearly show that antidepressants are no more effective than placebo in treating mild depression, and and trials of one of the biggest selling drugs—Prozac—recently found it to be no better than placebo.
There aren't any double-blind placebo controlled trials that show homeopathy is effective
Homeopathy doesn't lend itself to double blind trials. When asking the patient to describe symptoms, the homeopath wants to go beyond such blanket terms as merely "rheumatism" or "asthma" and to discover how that particular problem presents in you as an individual in your own unique response to the disease process. Family history, past and present illness, emotional difficulties, individual sensitivities and many other aspects of the patient are discussed. The homeopath then chooses a homeopathic medicine that matches as closely as possible the symptoms…individualized medicine…50 eczema patients may each have a different remedy - 50 different remedies. It's not easy to do a double blind trial if you're giving everyone a different remedy.
But despite the difficulties, double blind trials have been carried out for homeopathy - Between 1950 and 2010 there were 135 peer-reviewed papers published on homeopathy, reporting a total of 156 trials. Of the 156 double blind trials, (52%) were non-conclusive, (41%) reported positive findings; (7%) were negative. So even though it is hard to measure homeopathy this way, when we do, the majority of measurable findings show positive results for homeopathy.
Double blind trials are the only valid research tool
Interestingly, Sir Michael Rawlins, the Chair of the UK’s National Institute for Clinical Excellence and no great friend of homeopathy, has said
a) double blind trials have for too long been considered the 'gold standard' of evidence,
b) that they have been put on an 'undeserved pedestal' and
c) double blind trials should not be considered to be the top of the heirachy of evidence and that
d) they should be replaced by a diversity of approaches that involve analysing the totality of the evidence base.”
There isn't any robust evidence showing homeopathy is effective
When we look at clinical outcomes studies, the evidence shows overwhelmingly that homeopathy is effective. An observational study of 6,500 patients in the U.K. treated with homeopathy over six years, showed that 70% of follow-up patients reported improved health, with 50% referring to major improvement. The best treatment responses were reported in childhood eczema and asthma, and in inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome, menopausal problems and migraine in adults.
Another 500-patient study in the U.K. showed that many patients were able to reduce or stop conventional medication following homeopathic treatment.
The homeopaths are cherry picking research results
A major Swiss government study published in 2011 found that homeopathy is effective and safe. The 300 page report reviews the scientific literature in homeopathy and is the most in-depth look at homeopathic medicine ever written by a government. It concluded that the effectiveness of homeopathy can be supported by clinical evidence and that homeopathy can be regarded as safe. You can't get much more independent than the Swiss government.
Homeopathy is just too weird
Many things we take for granted today were considered weird once.
Crick and Watson were initially instructed to drop their research into DNA but continued it as bootleg research.
Chandrasekhar proposed black holes theory in 1930. He was attacked viciously and not able to pursue a career in England. 50 years later he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics.
The doppler effect was proposed in 1842 but bitterly opposed for two decades because it didn't fit with accepted physics at the time.
Until 1934, nobody even suspected that the major part of the universe might comprise something called ‘dark matter’.
There are many other examples of weird science that was initially ridiculed. Just because it is weird doesn't make it good science, but when highly respected scientists start applying for funding that doesn't make sense, it's probably worth watching closely.
© Vanessa Young
© Vanessa Young
(From a speech I gave to a Rotary club in Wellington in March 2012)