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Complementary and alternative medicine Medicine Quackery

Yawn. Yet more evidence that homeopathy is bunk

Apparently, while I’ve been at this meeting, Mayo Clinics Proceedings has published this systematic review of the scientific literature on the “efficacy” of homeopathy. Its conclusion:

The evidence from rigorous clinical trials of any type of therapeutic or preventive intervention testing homeopathy for childhood and adolescence ailments is not convincing enough for recommendations in any condition.

Actually, it would have been more accurate to say “not convincing at all.” It’s inevitably smaller, more poorly designed or non-randomized studies that purport to show treatment effects, which inevitably are shown to be no better than placebo in larger, well-designed randomized studies. And then when those studies come out homeopaths inevitably claim that randomized, double-blind studies are not an “appropriate” manner in which to study homeopathy. (It’s too “complex” and “individualized,” you know.) Meanwhile, the American Medical Student Association uncritically promotes homeopathy, among other forms of the woo-iest woo, and all this woo infiltrates American medical schools.

I tend to be with Dr. RW on this one. My reaction is a big yawn, because we knew this already. I do like the way Dr. RW describes homeopathy “research”:

Some mainstream woo-pushers, not wanting to seem totally shameless, try to give woo the trappings of evidence based medicine. Here’s the recipe: test an implausible claim and throw in a little chance variation. Combine that with a massive dose of publication bias and voilà!–evidence based woo!

“Evidence-based woo”? I may have to–ahem–appropriate the term for my own nefarious use.

The plain fact is that medical science knew enough to debunk homeopathy over nearly 200 years ago. Oliver Wendell Holmes, for example, used pretty much the same scientific rationale to show it for the woo it was. The only reason homeopathy seemed better than traditional medicine 200 years ago was because traditional medicine was so bad. As Arthur Allen reminded me in his book Vaccine, medicine in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s consisted of bleedings, epic sessions using purgatives, cadmium- and arsenic-laced tonics, and a variety of other demonstrably harmful “treatments.” The reason homeopathy seemed better was because it was, in essence, doing nothing; i.e., a placebo. Given how harmful some medical treatments were back then, doing nothing was often better than what doctors did, and that’s exactly what homeopathy did. The mystery is why the irrationality that is homeopathy stubbornly persists now that there are effective treatments for so many diseases.

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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