A homeopathy apologist takes over the Lymphoma Association

I tell ya, I’m gone for a few days, and the woo-meisters take over the store!

Seriously, I was really, really tempted to blog this over the weekend, even though I was at The Amazing Meeting and even though I had promised myself that I would not blog during the meeting. It was that tempting. Now it’s a few days after I first learned about it, and I wondered it it was still worth blogging.

It is.

The story begins with, seemingly innocently enough, a press release by the Lymphoma Association:

We are delighted to announce the appointment of our new Chief Executive, Sally Penrose.

Sally joined us at the beginning of July. She brings with her a wealth of experience as a communications specialist from the private and third sectors; including 8 years as Chief Executive of the British Homeopathic Association and Faculty of Homeopathy, where she worked closely with both patients and the medical profession.

Did I read that right? The British Homeopathic Association and the Faculty of Homeopathy?

Let me repeat that one more time: the British Homeopathic Association and Faculty of Homeopathy?

Let’s see what Ms. Penrose is supposed to be doing for the Lymphoma Association:

As Richard Morris, Chairman of Trustees of the Association, comments “We are delighted to appoint Ms Penrose to the role of Lymphoma Association Chief Executive. Sally’s excellent management experience makes her the ideal person to lead the organisation into the future.”

“The information and support services we provide are extremely impressive” comments Sally, “as well as developing these further, one of my priorities will be to focus on raising awareness of lymphoma and the needs of those affected by it. The courage and determination of the patients we support, along with their families and friends, is quite humbling and I feel very privileged to be leading the Association through the next stages of its development.”

Is it just me, or does this seem profoundly at odds with the mission of the Lymphoma Association? This is what its mission states:

Founded by patients in 1986, the Lymphoma Association is the only specialist UK charity that provides accurate medical information and support to lymphatic cancer patients, their families, friends and carers.

When patients learn they have lymphatic cancer, whether this is Hodgkin or non-Hodgkin lymphoma, they often know little about it. In these circumstances, it is natural to feel fear or anxiety. However, the Lymphoma Association believes that knowledge conquers fear, so continually works to provide accurate medical information and emotional support to anyone affected by lymphoma.

This is indeed a worthy goal for any patient organization to have. Science is what has resulted in lymphoma going from being a death sentence to one of the most treatable and survivable of cancers, particularly Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Homeopathy is quackery, pure and simple, and hiring a quack apologist to run what should be a science-based organization sends a horrible message. At the very least, it makes me wonder if the LA is about to go down the woo-hole of quackademic medicine. If so, British patients with lymphoma should be very, very afraid indeed. The LA has a reputation for clear, concise explanations for science-based therapies. Are they going to start promoting the fairy dust (or should I say water?) that is homeopathy as though it’s on par with chemotherapy and radiation?

My best guess as to why the Lymphoma Association would hire a quack apologist like Sally Penrose is that its Board of Directors somehow think she has some sort of mad managerial skillz that they need really, really badly, so very badly that all the baggage of being a spokesperson for quacks didn’t concern them. Remember, the purpose of the BHA is to lobby to “integrate” homeopathy into mainstream medicine. That’s its total raison d’être, and Sally Penrose assisted the BHA in its mission. She must have some mad administrative skillz indeed, if the Lymphoma Association is willing to take the whole package that is Sally Penrose, quackery advocacy and all.

Indeed, I’ve encountered an example of this promotion, although at the time I had no idea who Sally Penrose was. It came in response to comments I made about yet another example of The Huffington Post promoting woo, namely when Matthew Stein advocated homeopathy, colloidal silver, and the Beck protocol for treating and preventing the swine flu. Besides applying considerable not-so-Respectful Insolence in a post, I showed up in the comments after Stein’s article to point out that there is no evidence that homeopathy is anything more than a placebo and how the very concepts behind homeopathy are the rankest pseudoscience. Stein’s response, among other things, cited Sally Penrose from an article entitled Doctors Reject Lancet Report on Homeopathy:

Sally Penrose, Chief Executive of the Faculty of Homeopathy said: ‘Patient outcome studies at the NHS homeopathic hospitals show that on average 70% of patients report positive health changes after homeopathic treatments – these are patients who have usually exhausted all the conventional options first and are coping with intolerable suffering.’


It didn’t take me too long to find other similar statements by Ms. Penrose:

In her criticism of homeopathy, Suzanne Moore didn’t mention that a growing number of doctors train in and practise homeopathy precisely because it can help patients where conventional medicine has no answers.

There are five NHS homeopathic hospitals and many thousands of people with chronic conditions have benefited from homeopathy.

A study in the medical journal, The Lancet, concluded that the long consultation and not the homeopathic medicine makes people better. How then can we explain that it is particularly effective for babies and animals?

Won’t you think of the children? And puppies? Of course, there’s no evidence that homeopathy is “particularly effective” in anything, including for babies and animals. Moreover, the very concepts behind homeopathy are so incredibly implausible from just a basic science perspective that for homeopathy to be true huge swaths of well-supported physics, chemistry, and biology would have to be overturned as being not just somewhat wrong but totally wrong. To do that would require at least as much scientific evidence as that which supports the scientific precepts that quite clearly show why homeopathy can’t work.

Unfortunately, as Gimpy points out, it doesn’t appear to be the case at all that Penrose has such fantastic managerial skills that it’s worth it to the LA to take the hit to its reputation that hiring someone like Ms. Penrose results in. Indeed, her tenure at the BHA saw declining enrollment, falling revenues, and the closure of the Tunbridge Wells Homeopathic Hospital, not to mention a failure of the BHA to quell the tide of criticism of homeopathy. Maybe these failures were a function of the increasing realization by the public at large just how risible homeopathy is and no chief executive could have done better. Maybe. But what qualities could Penrose have that were so compelling that the LA would overlook her long association with pure quackery in order to hire her? I can’t see any.

Worse, Penrose is a proven advocate of pseudoscience, and that brings up another issue. That she could so easily turn on a dime and go from working for a quack organization ato working for a science- based organization tells me one of two things. Either she’s completely agnostic about homeopathy and will work, in essence, as a “hired gun” for any organization that will pay her enough regardless of what the organization espouses, or she believes in one or the other, either science or homeopathy. This latter possibility leads me to wonder of her: Is she lying now or was she lying then, back when she was shilling for the BHA? Or, another possibility, is she so clueless about science that she doesn’t see the problem with her having supported the pseudoscience of homeopathy? In other words, does she truly not realize that homeopathy is quackery? In that latter case, I can see her suddenly supporting all sorts of “integration” of woo into science-based lymphoma therapy.

And, regardless of whether or not Penrose is lying now or was lying during her tenure as chief executive of BHA, the LA clearly has some explaining to do.