The holidays are now upon us, but I can’t resist having a bit of fun before I disappear for this year’s Christmas weekend to visit family and catch a rare bit of relaxation. Nothing too heavy, but, equally important, nothing too fluffy either. One topic that fits the bill is anything to do with homeopathy, and in this case I have a doozy of a “teachable moment relevant to homeopathy. It appeared a couple of days ago in what I like to refer to as that wretched hive of scum and quackery or Arianna’s happy home for quacks. Yes, I’m referring to The Huffington Post, or, as a lot of people abbreviate it, HuffPo.
We’ve already established time and time again that HuffPo isn’t exactly dedicated to scientific rigor. After all, from the very beginning it was a source of antivaccine propaganda, later “graduating” to the quantum woo stylings of Deepak Chopra. Of late, it’s given voice to the quackiest of quacks, people like Dana Ullman, the world’s most annoying (and dim) homeopath, and an ever-expanding lineup of cranks, quacks, and antivaccine loons. Over the last several months, I had come to wonder whether HuffPo was still waging a war on medical science. The reason was that I hadn’t seen anything really egregious at HuffPo for a while.
This post was written by someone I hadn’t heard of before named Judith Acosta, who is described as “a licensed psychotherapist, classical homeopath, and crisis counselor in private practice.” She also advocates something she calls “verbal first aid,” which makes about as much sense as it sounds like; i.e. not a lot. What I gather from Acosta’s website is that she’s a psychotherapist and a classical homeopath. One wonders what the combination of homeopathy and psychotherapy would entail in practice. Would it mean diluting the talking down to silence? Who knows? In any event, let’s see what Acosta says about homeopathy. This first part is her own personal anecdote. Maybe “testimonial” would be a better word. She promises that in part II she will tell the tale of a dog and a patient whose identity she will protect and, as a teaser, tries to draw the reader in by saying, “I have never shared my own story before, but I do so because I believe its dramatic nature will help you to understand what classical homeopathy can do and why some people are so passionate about it.”
After a promise like that, I just had to see what her anecdote. It must have been something pretty dramatic to make her so passionate about her classical homeopathy, no? Well, “no” is exactly the right word. I don’t think it’s giving too much away to say that this particular testimonial is–shall we say?–underwhelming:
Many years ago, I suddenly developed abdominal pain. I had not been sick in any other way and had no idea what was happening. I went for a gynecological exam and was told I was fine. The pain continued. I went back and after numerous exams was sent from the table to the couch. The psychiatrist sent me right back to the doctor. After about a year of bouncing back and forth with increasingly intense (searing, stabbing) pain, they finally “discovered” a mass several centimeters in width in the area of my left ovary.
At this point, the surgeons were called in. I was scheduled for an emergency laparotomy. As they wheeled me in, the surgeon said to my mother, “It could be cancer.” I was 26.
After surgery, as soon as I stopped vomiting, the doctor told me that it was not cancer. My mother wept. He said it was a streptococcal infection (Strep B) that had created adhesions and that I could forget about having children. He proudly went on to inform us that they had “scraped me clean” and that I’d be on antibiotics for about a month.
I did as I was told. I was raised by a doctor, surrounded by doctors and had complete faith in the system.
Of course, the pain returned. Acosta went to a doctor again without satisfaction. After a year of “being dismissed,” Acosta ended up in the hospital with an ovarian cyst that had burst. Apparently, this happened every few months for a while, and by the fourth repetition, according to Acosta, the doctors were recommending a hysterectomy. This is where the story starts sounding suspiciously off-base. Why on earth would doctors recommend a hysterectomy to treat recurring ovarian cysts? They wouldn’t. They’d recommend one of two things. Either they’d recommend draining the cyst or, in severe cases, they’d recommend removal of the ovary causing the problem, which would not result in infertility. Women with only one ovary are perfectly capable of having children. On the other hand, it’s also possible that she was having endometriosis, which might result in a recommendation for a hysterectomy, but I’m taking her at her word. In any event, I bet you can guess what’s coming up next. that’s right. It was at this point that Acosta discovered homeopathy. Hilariously appropriately, she even entitles the next section of her post “Where the Magic Begins.” Given that homeopathy is nothing but magic, he probably has no idea how ironically appropriate her choice of words was. But I do.
Her description of the encounter with the homeopath can best be described as disgustingly gushing.:
It was the strangest medical experience I’d ever had. He didn’t examine me the way I had expected. He talked to me. Well, actually, he talked very little. He asked me endless questions: Where is the pain? When does it come on? What happened then? What does it feel like? What makes it better? Do you have any food cravings? Do you kick your feet out of the covers? Do you like other people around you? Are you warm? Cold? What makes you afraid? Anxious? Sad?
He was relentless. Two hours of questions that could not seem more unrelated to me or to my ovaries. But honestly, it was such a relief to have someone listen to me without judgment that I suspended my own.
I think you can see where this is going, too. This young homeopath actually took the time to listen to Acosta and ask her all about her life. After all of this, he gave her a few pellets of a homeopathic remedy made out of Pulsatilla, after which her mood lifted but her symptoms didn’t go away. Personally, given that highly diluted and “potentized” homeopathic remedies are nothing more than water, I would tend to conclude that she felt better because she was in a better mood because someone had actually taken some time with her. In fact, it’s rather ironic in that Acosta extols the glories of psychotherapy, the “talking cure,” and right here she appears to have partaken of the very same thing without realizing it. Or maybe not. She next describes her symptoms as “shifting” and getting worse. This went on for a month, and was ascribed to her having gotten a remedy that was “close, but not a bull’s eye.”
At the next visit, Acosta’s homeopath gives her Thuja. After that, she got a bad case of cystitis that lasted a whole month. A normal person would at this point wonder what the heck the homeopath was doing to her. After all, he gave her a homeopathic remedy, and not only did it not make things better but it made things worse. Whether it caused the cystitis or not, who knows. Probably not, given that it’s water. However, if I were given a remedy and immediately after developed a rip roaring case of cystitis, I’d be a bit less confident in the remedy. It might very well be that it didn’t cause the cystitis, but it surely wasn’t making Acosta better. As is so often the case in “alternative medicine,” however, that’s not how the homeopath or his credulous client perceived it:
After the second interview he gave me Thuja. After that I had a frankly rude aggravation (cystitis) which lasted about a month and the cystic pain completely disappeared. An aggravation is what homeopaths hope for as the sign that a cure is beginning. It is also precisely what allopathic doctors find wholly inconsistent with their training. They are supposed to make symptoms go away, not generate others. But because homeopaths see the human organism as a moving, dynamic system, they believe that this discharge is absolutely necessary. Aggravations are like siphons; they allow previously suppressed diseases or eruptions a way out of the system. In homeopathic philosophy, it is part of the cure.
But I didn’t know that at the time. So I called him and complained, and after he ruled out any dangerous infections, he said “Now, we wait.” I’d call him back, still annoyed, uncomfortable, and worried. And he said, again, “WAIT!”
So, I did. After a while, the “rudeness” was gone and so was all the pain. And after a year I realized so were the cysts. None of it — not the cysts or the strep or any of that pain — has ever come back. More important, perhaps, than the physical relief, was that over the next couple of years I became calmer, more centered. Much of the insecurity that had ruled my life up until that point also seemed to just not be there. I didn’t see it leaving. It was just gone when I remembered to look for it.
In reality, what was really happening here was nothing more than what we in the biz call “letting the disease run its course.” Several months passed, Acosta suffered, and eventually the cysts stopped flaring up. Basically, she got better on her own, and the homeopath took credit for it. Certainly there’s no evidence in this story that the homeopath and his nostrums made her better. In fact, quite the contrary; She got worse for a long time under her homeopath’s ministrations and then finally started to get better. In fact, her testimonial isn’t even all that convincing, at least not when looked at with a modicum of skepticism and critical thinking. Yet it’s very, very convincing to Acosta.
Acosta’s anecdote is a cautionary tale to skeptics. It demonstrates, more than anything else, the power of story. Indeed, Acosta even says near the very beginning, “But there is hope, because we do like stories.” And it’s true. We human beings love stories. To us, a single story like that of Acosta is far more compelling than a stack full of negative studies showing that homeopathy can’t work, that it’s nothing more than water. It’s far more convincing than all the physics, chemistry, and biology that demonstrate the extreme implausibility of homeopathy. Story trumps science.
That is what proponents of science-based medicine (and skepticism in general) are up against.