Post-holiday “The stupid, it burns,” part 2: Denis MacEoin

I’ve never been able to understand advocates of homeopathy. I just have difficulty understanding how otherwise intelligent people can fall for the bad science, the logical fallacies, and the magical thinking necessary to believe that homeopathy is anything other than glorified water, an elaborate, ritualized placebo. I can understand how such an idea may have taken hold 200 years ago, when Samuel Hahnemann first dreamed up the concept that “like cures like” and that diluting these “like” remedies to an extent that, even a few years after the principles of homeopathy were formalized it was obvious, thanks to Avagadro, that the dilutions involved in homeopathy were such that not a single molecule of active compound was likely to be left. After all, back then diseases were thought to be due to an imbalance of humors, and the germ theory of disease was over 50 years away. Moreover, “conventional” medicine was often worse than the disease, involving, as it often did, bleedings, purgatives with heavy metals like antimony or arsenic, and all sorts of other horrors. By comparison, for many conditions, doing nothing (which, let’s face it, is what homeopathy is in effect doing) produced better results.

But how to explain the persistence of homeopathy, which can best be described as sympathetic magic and magical thinking now, 200 years later, when it requires believing things that science dos not support and, indeed, that would require that much of what we know about science to be horrendously incorrect? That’s why I thoroughly enjoyed Ben Goldacre’s takedown of a particularly credulous defense of homeopathy. Unfortunately, Goldacre’s takedown has inspired a particularly idiotic retort from a man named Denis MacEoin:

Goldacre’s article was laden with his usual sarcasm. In it, he paraded his superior knowledge and accused homeopaths of “killing patients” and being “morons”. As a fellow sceptic I understand where he is coming from; I identify with his pro-science stance, and have as little time for unscientific nostrums as he, but I came away from this piece with a feeling of embarrassment, a conviction he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, just like Whipple.

Ah, yes. The old “I’m a skeptic, too” ploy, a.k.a. the “I’m a scientific person, too” gambit. Inevitably, when you see someone like MacEoin starting off with a statement like this, you know what’s coming next, don’t you? Of course you do:

The homeopathy community has its fair share of fools and charlatans, and many practitioners and gurus come from the counter culture. I have as little patience for them and their metaphysical weirdness as does Ben. But I’m also aware of an entirely rational world of doctor homeopaths, and many non-doctors who prefer to work alongside conventional medicine and would sooner die than manufacture a remedy from moonshine and call it “Luna”. By tarring all homeopaths with the same brush, Goldacre does both them and their patients a disservice.

No he doesn’t. What possible advantage can come from homeopaths working “side-by-side with “conventional” doctors? There’s certainly no advantage to scientific medicine. The only “advantage” accrues to purveyors of unscientific nostrums (like homeopaths), who purposely encourage such associations with real medicine because they bring an unjustified air of respectability to their quackery.

Of course, the really hilarious part of MacEoin’s critique of Goldacre is when he pulls the old “you’re not a homeopath” gambit:

I said he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, and I meant it. I am sure he has not acquired any homeopathic qualifications, and I’m confident he has not sat in with an experienced homeopath for a year or so or worked at a homeopathic NHS hospital. He has read a few books and set himself up as the arbiter of things homeopathic. That is not a good basis for critical understanding.

No, Mr. MacEoin, you don’t have to be a homeopath to recognize unscientific, illogical, and downright wrong thinking when you see it. By your reasoning, it would appear, no one who’s not a homepath or has “acquired homeopathic qualifications” (does that mean qualifications diluted into nothingness?) can criticize homeopathy. Come on. I don’t claim that no one who’s not a physician or hasn’t studied medicine for a suitable length of time can criticize modern medicine. Why do homeopaths insist that anyone who isn’t a homeopath or hasn’t studied homeopathy with homeopaths can’t criticize homeopathy?

Because anyone who’s a homeopath has swallowed the whole woo-filled belief system and anyone who’s spent as much time hanging out with homeopaths and studying homeopathy as MacEoin has also likely done the same, that’s why.

Of course, MacEoin isn’t a doctor or a homeopath, just a homeopathy booster. So by his own logic, why should we take his blatherings seriously about either medicine or homeopathy? (No doubt, if he ever learns of my post, he’ll dismiss my “sarcasm” about homeopathy because I’m not a homeopath, either.) Not surprisingly, next MacEoin posts a blatant appeal to other ways of knowing, using a claim that randomized clinical trials are not the proper way to determine if homeopathy “works”:

There has never been a proper trial of homeopathy. There have been countless trials based on the methodology applied to orthodox medicines, as if homeopathy is a form of orthodox medicine. Some have been positive, most negative. This proves nothing, because what they have tested was never homeopathy in the first place.

In orthodox trials, all patients in the “real” group are given the same drug for the same length of time. Homeopaths do not work like that. For one condition, they may select one of a dozen or more remedies, chosen after long and detailed interviews. They see patients repeatedly over the course of months or years, refining and changing prescriptions, and watching a steady development that follows a strong internal logic. It is a long process. But this is how homeopathy works: mangling it for the chance to jump on the clinical trial bandwagon is not science. No scientist of repute carries out tests of A by running trials of B. All the vaunted meta-analyses that proclaim the ineffectiveness of homeopathy are scientifically illiterate, as Ben Goldacre seems to be in this instance.

Repeat after me: The stupid, it burns. Think about it. If there’s never been a “proper trial” of homeopathy, then on what basis is MacEoin so confident that it works?

His whine is nothing more than a claim that science can’t analyze homeopathy. It’s nothing more than a blatant appeal to “other ways of knowing.” Besides if you search PubMed, you’ll find that studies of “individualized” homeopathic treatments have been done. They’re generally of very low quality, and, as with the rest of homeopathy, it’s the low quality studies that “find” an effect. In any case, I reject utterly the contention that randomized clinical trials are not up to the task of determining whether homeopathy “works” or not. Moreover, it’s up to the homeopaths, not the skeptics, to provide evidence that homeopathy does anything that can be differentiated from the effect of a placebo or, if they are going to claim that the standard methodology of scientific medicine is not the proper set of tools to study homeopathy, to provide a credible alternative method and to give us an explanation why that’s a bit more convincing than MacEoin’s lame and petulant rant.

Finally, particularly hilarious is MacEoin’s whine about the criticism of his silly article that filled the comments:

I put up a short article designed to provoke some sort of rational debate about a contentious scientific subject. I expected criticism, but I also expected reason, balance, and informed debate. I received the criticism in bucketloads, but none of the other things. Instead of a reasoned discussion, there is — if you will scroll down — little but invective, vitriol, spleen, and anger. I do not think I have read a single comment here that has been anything but bellicose, with vituperative language, ignorance parading as knowledge, and arrogance masquerading as scientific insight. This has not been a rational debate, and anyone who thinks it has should read back carefully. I am all too aware of what it is: this is the language, long familiar to me, of religious intemperance, the voice of orthodoxy screaming for the blood of heretics — and, let me tell you, it is rank.

Well, I recognize MacEoin’s language as the voice of pseudoscience, magical thinking, and superstition whining like a whipped puppy when it isn’t taken seriously by science, and it is pathetic. Moreover, there were plenty of serious responses in the comments; MacEoin, like most boosters of woo, decided to concentrate only on the most sarcastic ones in order to play the poor, ridiculed martyr. Never mind that he richly deserved every bit of ridicule he got. Here’s a word of advice for him: If you want a rational debate, post a rational argument, rather than the fallacy of special pleading.

OTHER GOOD TAKEDOWNS OF MACEOIN’S RUBBISH:

  1. Quacking About Ducks
  2. They’re still arguing over the effectiveness of water
  3. Homeopathy Again – Ultra Sigh

ADDENDUM: Oh, goody. Everybody’s favorite homeopath, Dana Ullman (who should be familiar as a persistent pro-homeopathy commenter in this thread, for example), has shown up in the thread over at MacEoin’s post. Another commenter has him pegged perfectly:

…I also observe that debating with you is like arguing with a particularly dense piece of Teflon, so I will not bother, but anyone who has the emotional reserves and wishes to see how someone remarkably like you tried ineffectually to defend your book against criticism could start by reading the posts of “JamesGully” here;

http://forums.randi.org/showthread.php?p=2783078&highlight=jamesgully+holmes#post2783078