A homeopathic counterattack

Homeopaths are funny.

Really, that’s the best description of them that I can think of right now. And I don’t mean “funny ha-ha,” either. An example of this popped up over the weekend in an attack on Dr. Joe Schwarcz of McGill University’s Office for Science and Society. “Dr. Joe,” as he likes to be called, is a chemist and a skeptic, with his own radio show on Montreal’s CJAD every Sunday afternoon (which, by the way, I’ve appeared on a couple of times over the last three or four years). He’s been deconstructing pseudoscience and alternative medicine claims for a lot longer than I have; so he knows what he’s doing. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting him at TAM and hanging out with him a couple of years ago in Montreal.

Dr. Joe is quite good at pointing out the utter absurdity of homeopathy, but in actuality he isn’t quite as—shall we say?—insolent about it as I am. He has a weekly news column in the Montreal Gazette Not that this stopped homeopaths from taking extreme offense to his activities. In fact, over three weeks in April and May, Dr. Joe published a series of three articles, A whole lot of sugar helps this pill go down, Less is more: Homeopathy relies on extreme dilution, and Homeopathic remedies safe – but not risk free. In these three articles, Dr. Joe took care of some common tropes about homeopathy and in general demonstrated just how much of a load of pseudoscience, talking about the silliness of “provings” and how homeopathy is not an umbrella term for “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) practices, pointing out the even sillier claims of homeopaths that extreme dilutions to the point where it’s highly unlikely that even a single molecule of the original remedy remains somehow makes the remedy stronger, and that “like cures like.” It was all fairly straightforward and, among scientists, uncontroversial. Homeopathy is pure quackery, but every so often we still need to be reminded of it. In particular, since “homeopathic” seems to have become in common parlance synonymous with “natural,” it’s always a good thing to remind people from time to time what homepathy really is and why it’s such utter pseudoscience.

Apparently, Ginette Beaulieu, President of the Syndicat professionnel des homeopathes du Quebec, was not pleased. So displeased was she, in fact, that she wrote a long letter to Dr. Schwarcz. Dr. Schwarcz’s reply was, in fact, more than adequate. In it, he skillfully dismantled Beaulieu’s bad arguments, bad history, and bad science. However, upon reading Beaulieu’s letter, I couldn’t help but apply a little bit of my not-so-Respectful Insolence to it myself, just as, apparently, Michael Edmonds couldn’t. Nothing wrong with that, I say. There’s plenty there for all of us skeptics! In fact, I ask myself when I see letters like this: How come no one ever sends me letters like this? Oh, I get the occasional e-mail castigating me for some post or other, but nothing like this! I guess I’m just not as cool as Dr. Joe.

Michael notes something that leapt out at me immediately. The letter is addressed to “Mr.” Schwarcz. This, even though Dr. Schwarcz is a full professor of chemistry. I’ve seen this ploy before among defenders of quackery. They intentionally refuse to use the title of “Dr.” as a not-so-subtle dig at their target. Even though I’m a surgeon, I’ve had, for example, antivaccinationists referring to me as “Mr.” on many occasions, and, no, they weren’t from the UK, where surgeons are referred to as “Mr.” Not that it would have mattered anyway, given that I also have a PhD; even in the UK I could be called “Dr.” It’s a childish, annoying little ploy, and when I see it it amuses me more than anything else because it signals to me sheer obviousness. In fact, these days I’m almost disappointed when a supporter of CAM or other pseudoscience actually uses my title.

Be that as it may, the letter is amusing and instructive on multiple levels. The introduction itself could serve as a lesson on logical fallacies and, well, pure whininess and not-so-veiled threats. For instance, in the introductory letter, Beaulieu states:

We will also notify McGill University and The Gazette of this situation, so that they take whatever measure they deem useful.

We will also notify the various international bodies, which represent homeopathy worldwide, of your articles.

Ignorance leads to prejudice, and prejudice is mankind’s worse enemy. We expect from you more rigorous and accurate information.

I’m sure Dr. Joe is shaking in his boots…with laughter! Personally, if I were the editor of The Gazette or a dean or the chair of the chemistry department at McGill, the only measure I’d deem useful enough to do in response to this letter would be to give Dr. Joe a hearty congratulation, along with a high five. I would, of course, instruct Beaulieu that it is not prejudice to point out that homeopathy is magical thinking, that its major precepts have no basis in science, and that its effects are indistinguishable from placebo. It is, rather, an accurate assessment of homeopathy based on multiple sciences, including physics, chemistry, physiology, biochemistry, and, of course, medicine. None of this stops Beaulieu from accusing Dr. Joe of being “biased” and “prejudiced” and of “disgracing the scientific community as well as your own university.”

So what are Beaulieu’s list of the “errors” that Dr. Joe has supposedly committed? I was expecting the usual list of “misunderstandings” that homeopaths accuse scientists and skeptics of, such as citing various seemingly “positive” studies of homeopathy and various bits of cherry picked evidence beloved of homeopaths. Dana Ullman, you might recall, is very good at that. Instead, Beaulieu spends an entire page citing “historical errors” before ever getting to “scientific errors.” The one that most stood out to me stood out because I hadn’t heard it before, namely the claim that homeopathy was not discovered by Samuel Hahnemann but rather goes back to ancient Greece. Don’t get me wrong. I knew that the idea that “like cures like” dates back to Hippocrates. So what? Beaulieu is making the classic appeal to antiquity, but, even if she were correct that Hahnemann didn’t invent homeopathy and that homeopathy predated him by two thousand years, her argument would still be a complete non sequitur. Just because something’s old doesn’t mean it’s correct. The most commonly used example is that bloodletting is very old indeed. So is the concept that ghosts exist. The antiquity of both of these ideas does not imply either that bloodletting is an effective treatment for many diseases or that ghosts do, in fact, exist. Yes, the concepts of sympathetic magic are very old, and, as I’ve pointed out, the concepts behind homeopathy resemble, more than anything else, those of sympathetic magic, including the law of similars and the law of contagion. That doesn’t mean sympathetic magic in the form of homeopathy “works.”

Even so, as Dr. Joe pointed out in his response, Beaulieu is wrong by any stretch of the imagination. Particularly amusing is Beaulieu taking Dr. Joe to task for saying that homeopathy was first developed in the 19th century. Her rationale? Hahnemann started experimenting in 1796. This is a quibble, given that Hahnemann didn’t coin the term “homeopathy” until 1807, when he published his essay Indications of the Homeopathic Employment of Medicines in Ordinary Practice. Personally, I’m not big on quibbling over a few years. It’s also fairly inconsequential to me how Hahnemann came up with his claims for homeopathy. Beaulieu wastes a lot of verbiage trying to correct Dr. Joe on these issues; it’s completely irrelevant to whether homeopathy is quackery or not, whether it works or not, or whether Dr. Joe was wrong about the evidence or not. What is relevant is the science, and here Beaulieu trots out the usual suspects, such as nanoparticles (which I’ve addressed before). She also points to the works of Dr. Luc Montagnier, which I’ve also addressed before, pointing out what utter nonsense and pseudoscience his work has become. I tell ya, there should be a name for this particular logical fallacy, which is clearly a subset of an appeal to authority. Argumentum ad Nobelium, perhaps? Of course, Beaulieu uses some more conventional logical fallaices, such as an appeal to popularity combined with a straw man:

But beyond this, how does Mr. Schwarcz explain the cures of infants, young children, pets, and herds of cattle? Had he taken the time to secure the facts, he would have discovered that number of large cattle owners in Europe and elsewhere have turned to homeopathy because it is safer, faster, and economical to do so. These are not people easily misled. They go only by results, both clinical and economical. Many specialized veterinarians have turned to homeopathy for the same reaons.

The number of practitioners of homeopathy around the world is in the hundreds of thousands, including around a hundred thousand medical doctors. Does Mr. Schwarcz believe they are all delusional, or could we consider, by the sheer number, that he is probably mistaken?

Wow. If only one more logical fallacy could have been forced in there, Beaulieau could have had the trifecta in one brief paragraph! A nice fat straw man (the claim that we say all homeopaths are delusional) plus argumentum ad populum. Of course, one can’t help but note that she provides no evidence for—oh, you know—any actual cures of infants, young children, pets, and herds of cattle. So maybe we do have a trifecta if you count argument by assertion to be a logical fallacy.

Be that as it may, we also have an appeal to ignorance:

As far as understanding how it all works, we admit that the action inside the body is not completely understood yet. But we are sure that Mr. Schwarcz is aware of the fact that this is true of a great number of allopathic remedies (conventional drugs) and nobody seems to mind a bit!

Once again, plausibility does not mean “knowing the mechanism of action.” (And I even wrote that one less than a month ago!) Yes, we have a plausibility bias in science, and that’s a good thing. In fact, that’s why I prefer to call it a reality bias.

The rest of the letter is basically a greatest hits of bogus and dubious arguments for homeopathy, such as the claim (without evidence) that homepathy produces permanent cures (whereas placebo effects are transient). Then there’s the claim that metaanalyses support the use of homeopathy, which is not true if you look at the totality of the evidence. You can, of course, find seemingly positive meta-analyses, but the preponderance of evidence is that the clinical effects of homeopathy are placebo effects. And, here’s news for Beaulieu: The recent Swiss Report on homeopathy does not indicate that the Swiss government supports homeopathy, as both Zeno and Andy Lewis explain. (Damn. I should have blogged that report when it first came out, but it appeared at a bad time.)

Perhaps the scariest assertion that Beaulieu makes is that homeopathy is effective for epidemics. She claims that it worked against cholera in the 19th century (not true), that it kept at bay many epidemic diseases, such as typhoid fever, measles, whooping cough, scarlet fever, yellow fever, cholera, influenza, and “many others.” Never mind that there is no evidence to support such a claim, and that relying on homeopathy instead of vaccines and medicine to fight these diseases would result in thousands of deaths. None o fthat stops her from pointing out:

Today a colleague of ours from the UK is working intensely in Africa on developing a protocol of treatment for AIDS. He recently spoke at an international conference held in Washington, D.C. in which he showed very encouraging results.

She couldn’t be referring to Jeremy Sherr, could she? I hope not. And is she referring to this poorly designed, inconclusive, and utterly useless study by Sherr? Probably. So what we have is a homeopath referring to another homeopath bringing his quackery for AIDS to Africa and doing poorly designed clinical studies that don’t show what homeopaths think they show. She then cites a study from Cuba that allegedly shows that homeopathy is effective against Leptospirosis. It ain’t.

In the end, I have to tip my hat to Dr. Joe. I tend to judge to some extent the efficacy of someone’s deconstruction of pseudoscience by the response it gets, and Dr. Joe got a doozy. Too bad the response was just as easy to deconstruct as homeopathy itself. Ms. Beaulieau really needs to learn some science. Certainly what’s on her website as “evidence” for homeopathy doesn’t qualify as convincing evidence.