Bravo! Homeopathy deconstructed by the CBC

Something amazing happened on Friday. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to blog it as soon as I would have liked because (1) it happened on Canadian TV and the video wasn’t available to anyone outside of Canada until it showed up on YouTube and (2) Craig Willougby’s changing his mind about Andrew Wakefield really did gobsmack me to the point that I had to blog about it, so rare is it for someone who used to accept pseudoscience to have the courage and intellectual honesty to admit publicly that he is changing his mind. Still, even though it’s three days later, I didn’t want to let this pass, because it’s the very antithesis of the sort of “tell both sides” journalism that I complained about just the other day. Basically, Marketplace, which bills itself as “Canada’s consumer watchdog,” aired an episode entitled Homeopathy: Cure or Con? (Alright, alright, it’s not the most original title in the world.) The episode is described thusly:

Canada’s leading consumer ally takes a long hard look at the theories, and the remedies. For the first time in Canada, we conduct a test of homeopathic medicines, investigating the science behind these so-called medicines. In light of our results, we ask both the Ontario government and Health Canada why they are lending credibility to the homeopathic industry. Johnson also meets up with a rep from the world’s leading manufacturer of homeopathic medicines, who admits that even the company says how homeopathty works is a mystery.

Watch, as we witness a Vancouver group of skeptics taking part in a group overdose of homeopathic remedies. Perhaps most disturbing we learn that some homeopaths are treating cancer patients with homeopathic remedies. A leading cancer specialist says there is no role for homeopathy in the treatment of cancer, that it is a “scam that is not evidence-based.”

Fortunately, the special is now available on YouTube in two parts. Hopefully they’ll stay up long enough for you to view them, because they’re definitely worth checking out:

Amusingly, the special begins with a group of skeptics gathering to stage what has now become a common event among skeptics attempting to demonstrate the utter ridiculousness of homeopathy, namely a homeopathic overdose, whom they checked in with periodically throughout the special. Not so amusingly, the producers then went directly to an interview with a cancer physician named Dr. Stephen Sager, Associate Professor of Medicine at McMaster University and a radiation oncologist at the Juravinski Cancer Center in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, who is represented as being “open to alternative medical therapies but not homeopathy.” Well, I suppose that’s something. At least Dr. Sager realizes that homeopathy doesn’t work, saying, “There has been absolutely no evidence at all from clinical trials that interventions with these remedies have any effect whatsoever.”

This is, of course, true, but it is rather irritating that Dr. Sager fell for the evidence-based medicine paradigm where clinical trials are in essence all that matter, and failed to point out that, on purely basic science considerations alone, for homeopathy to be true, several well-established laws of physics and chemistry would have to be not just wrong but spectacularly wrong. Fortunately, the special gets much better after Dr. Sager. It’s not that Dr. Sager is wrong; it’s quite true that there is no convincing clinical evidence that homeopathy functions as anything more than a placebo. It is, after all, water, and Marketplace shows that with a reporter going to the seashore and pointing out that a 30C dilution is the equivalent of diluting one drop into the entire ocean. It’s not quite as visually striking and well-explained as Richard Dawkins succeeded in doing in his two-part documentary Enemies of Reason, but it got the job done. Then the producers had popular homeopathic remedies analyzed:

Marketplace asked chemist Matthew Forbes to analyze two of the most popular over the counter homeopathic medicines, Belladonna and Ipeca, both at the common 30C dilution factor.

In each product, Forbes tested for any trace of the active ingredient. He found none. “It’s below a level we can accurately or precisely measure,” says Forbes. “It’s roughly equivalent to five billion times less than the amount of aspirin you’d take in a single pellet.”

According to Forbes, the medicines in our test were shown to be sugar pills.

“We can say that they are primarily sucrose and lactose. Any active ingredient that is left is at such a small concentration compared to the sugar, it’s virtually mind-boggling.”

Which is what anyone who understands the science has known all along. Of course, one has to wonder how the companies actually did the dilutions, because if they did them correctly there shouldn’t be any detectable starting ingredient left. Yet, at certain points, Forbes sounds as though he is implying that there was some left at the very limits of detection, but I might have misinterpreted that.

In any case, particularly amusing is the part where the reporter interviews a spokesperson for the French manufacturer of homeopathic medicines, Boiron, one of the largest in the world. When the spokesperson is confronted with the observation that Boiron is selling sugar pills (at 7:18 in the first video), each indistinguishable from the other, the spokesperson denied it and even hat the chutzpah to claim that maybe science hasn’t developed to the point yet where we can tell the difference between these substances, claim that we “know that they work,” and claims that how they work is a “mystery.” Later in the show, the President of the Homeopathic Medical Council of Canada, Ranvir Sharda is interviewed, with much the same sort of nonsense–and worse, as we will see later.

Perhaps the most damning part of the show is the part where the real homepaths are introduced and unmasked. One homeopath said confidently that a homeopathic remedy, which she presented to the reporter, could prevent polio instead of a vaccine. An interview with the mother whose child was being treated by the homeopath reveals that she buys into it completely. When the reporter points out that her child is not protected against polio, the mother counters that the homeopathic remedy is protective, saying blithely, “to each his own” and defending her choices. We also learn that the mother thinks her child is protected against measles, whooping cough, and other diseases.

As a cancer surgeon, to me the most shocking part of the report occurs when a reporter calls a homeopath, telling the homeopath that she has a friend with breast cancer. She describes the cancer as stage I and that “some cells have moved into the neighboring tissue.” The homeopath replies, in essence, that of course she can help with breast cancer because homeopathic remedies “boost the immune system.” The homeopath even specifies a time, saying that the remedies can work within 15 days, promising to get her the medicine and saying that “we’ll see” and that “maybe the the cancer cells are dissolving or burning in the body.” She then says:

You don’t even felt, but when they do the ultrasound and do the CT scan, they’ll see that, okay, the cancer cells are going, right? Within two weeks.

Words fail me here. Unfortunately, they don’t fail Ranvir Sharda, President of the Homeopathic Medical Council of Canada, who not only doesn’t back down when confronted with tapes of the homeopath claiming to be able to cure breast cancer, but even claims that he himself is able to cure breast cancer if it is stage I or II and that he has cured all kinds of cancer, such as prostate cancer. To support his claims, he produces a number of dubious studies by homeopaths, including Luc Montagnier’s claim that DNA somehow produces electromagnetic signals, because, I guess, he’s a Nobel scientist. Too bad of late that he’s gone completely woo.

Perhaps the most depressing part of this story is learning that the government of Ontario is preparing to regulate homeopathy. Hearing the Orwellian explanations of a hapless Ontario government official that they were trying to make sure that homeopathic preparations are “as safe as possible” and that they are sold “professionally.” Of course, the problem with government regulation of nonsense is that it gives the imprimatur of government approval on that nonsense, implying that it is safe and effective. People, the vast majority of whom are not scientists, wonder, quite reasonable, if the government not only permits it but regulates it as a legitimate drug, doesn’t that mean it’s a real, accepted therapeutic modality?

In the end, this Marketplace episode is a win for skepticism and science. Although two homeopaths are interviewed it’s done skeptically. The homeopaths are challenged and not allowed to get away with dodging and weaving claims made by fellow homeopaths that they can cure cancer. I wish we had seen a lot more reporting like this about vaccines and, in particular, about Andrew Wakefield. Unfortunately, the woo is strong, as evidenced in the comments, particularly this one by Barbara Etcovitch, who bills herself as a “classical homeopathy”:

The idea of selecting and interviewing people who couldn’t possibly have any clue about the science of Homeopathy was genius and added so much to the show’s hilarity. And how did you actually find someone to publically state that she could cure cancer in 15 days? It was brilliant because real homeopaths don’t make claims.

Of course, we who found the episode so comical are the educated with an understanding of vibrational medicine and the quantum world. We are also people who are aware of media hype and manipulation. So, I am somewhat concerned that the less informed viewer may have missed the humor and taken your burlesque seriously. In that case, I would like to make you aware of the dangers of taking a biased stance and then bending, stretching and negating the facts to suit your bias. Not only does this approach represent shoddy research and unethical journalism, but it also misinforms a public greatly in need of education.

Homeopathy is quantum medicine. There are countless legitimate experts around the world who can attest to its brilliance (you may want to have a look at the work of George Vithoulkas). There are physicists who can explain the subject of ultra-molecular doses and there are libraries filled with literature on the science of Homeopathy.

Sadly, the only real joke is homeopathy itself, and fortunately, Marketplace demonstrated that brilliantly. I could quibble with their selection of Dr. Sagan, but in reality he acquitted himself just fine here. Fortunately, homeopaths tend to be so clueless that they don’t realize that the joke’s on them.