Is homeopathy the end of vaccines? Only quacks would think so…

Yesterday, I wrote about an antivaccine “march on Washington.” As is often the case with antivaccine rhetoric, if you listened to the people organizing the conference and planning to speak there, you’d think that they were fighting an apocalyptic battle for the very future of the human race. Certainly, Kent Heckenlively seems to think so. I’m not going to write about this march again, at least not today. It’s too soon. I don’t know how ridiculous, how pathetic it was, mainly because, as I write this, it hasn’t happened yet. What I can write about is something I came across while researching yesterday’s post that has to be up there on the list of the most ridiculous things ever written about vaccines. Not surprisingly, I came across it on Patrick “Tim” Bolen’s website, as I perused Kent Heckenlively’s all caps rant in which he compared himself to Nelson Mandela.

Oddly enough, the post that attracted my attention was not written by Heckenlively, though. It was written by someone I’ve never heard of named Elissa Meininger, who bills herself as a “health policy analyst,” and it encompasses some serious, serious woo. Meininger seems to be a writer of some sort who bills herself as “fighting for health freedom.” Now she’s writing for Patrick “Tim” Bolen’s blog, which is about as far down the food chain as you can go, with the possible exception of writing for Mike Adams. No, it’s even lower than Mike Adams. Adams has a lot more traffic and, as batshit nuts as he is, at least his website has better design. Of course, both are so bad that it doesn’t really matter. Be that as it may, the title of the article is Is This The End Of Vaccines?, and if there’s any headline for which Betteridge’s Law applies, it’s this one. After asking whether vaccines are the best way to deal with infectious diseases, Meininger proclaims that “vaccines have never been the safest and the best way to deal with epidemic diseases,” which is, of course, a bit of a straw man and untrue as well. Vaccines are a major tool—and one of the most powerful—to deal with epidemic diseases, but it’s not the only tool.

You know that you’re in for some hard core woo when Meininger cites Rupert Sheldrake, a populizer (I refuse to call him an “investigator” or scientist) if paranormal phenomena, as having pointed out the “scientific truths” of today, mainly as a prelude to attacking them for rooting science in the material. Of course, where else should science be rooted, but in the material? I’m not sure that these ten “core beliefs” really are “core beliefs,” but, even as distorted as some of them are in Meininger’s hands (via Sheldrake), it is true that science is based on them. For instance:

5. All biological inheritance is material, carried in the genetic material, DNA, and in other material structures.

Well, yes. There’s no evidence that inheritance works by any other method than the material. Genes are material. Epigenetic mechanisms are material. What else could possibly carry the information necessary for biological inheritance? You get the idea. Meininger, like Sheldrake, doesn’t like science’s concentration on the material because they want to believe in the immaterial. For example:

1. Everything Is essentially mechanical. Dogs, for example, are complex mechanisms, rather than living organisms with goals of their own. Even people are machines, “lumbering robots,” in Richard Dawkins’s vivid phrase, with brains that are like genetically programmed computers.

You can tell from this passage that the complaint isn’t so much that everything is essentially mechanical, but the objection to the implications of such a view, which science generally supports, that there are physical explanations for natural phenomena like consciousness. Human beings don’t like accepting the fact that we are biological creatures and that our consciousness derives from the function of our brains and not some other magical mystical other mechanism that infuses our meat with thought and consciousness from…somewhere. Such concepts go against our exalted view of humans as being somehow apart from other animals, even though we are just animals ourselves. Personally, even when I was a religious Catholic, I had a hard time understanding just what was so horrible about being a part of the natural order, an animal like any other, even though we have complex language, self-awareness, and complex language.

What people like Sheldrake and Meininger really object to are the last three:

8. Memories are stored as material traces in brains and are wiped out at death.
9. Unexplained phenomena such as telepathy are illusory.
10. Mechanistic medicine is the only kind that really works.

That all of these are true drives people who believe in woo crazy.

Now, here’s the funny part. Meininger is basically arguing that homeopathy is much better than vaccines, as you will see. She starts out by going back to Franz Mesmer. I kid you not. She references Mesmerism, which encompassed the belief that there was an invisible magnetic “fluid” that flowed throughout nature and that, when there were imbalances in this “fluid” disease resulted. Mesmer called this “fluid” “animal magnetism” and his techniques “magnetic healing”. Naturally, Meininger paints the rejection of Mesmer’s views as a grand conspiracy. Same as it ever was:

Naturally, the-powers-that-be needed to stop him, particularly because Queen Marie Antoinette was one of his most ardent supporters and King Louis XIV was not too pleased. In addition, Mesmer was the toast of pre-Revolutionary War Paris with associates suspected of being political agitators.

King Louis XIV convened a commission of “elite” scientists and medical experts to take a secret look at what Mesmer was talking about. As they were all philosophically committed to believing the world was a predictable, material, tangible system measurable by long-believed standards of measurement, they were hoping to find something they could measure. Since this “fluid” was invisible and not of the material world, they declared Mesmer a quack. That there were thousands who claimed they had been healed by his methods, didn’t count. Anecdotal information is not considered scientific evidence then or now by the standards of the “elite” “experts”. Mesmer became a laughing stock in the press so he left Paris.

After the Revolution, the Academy of Berlin formally acknowledged the validity of Mesmer’s ideas and invited him to Berlin but he chose to stay in Switzerland where he died In 1815.

I’m not sure where Meininger got the idea that the Academy of Berlin formally acknowledged the validity of Mesmer’s ideas. What I got from my research was conflicting. The Academy of Berlin did acknowledge Mesmer’s ideas and asked him to move to Berlin, something he didn’t want to do because he was quite old at the time and not too keen to do so.

Mesmer, as important as he was to the history of the paranormal, is not the main focus, though. The One Quackery To Rule Them All (homeopathy) is:

German allopath, Samuel Hahnemann had read about Mesmer’s work and it had provided the spark of an idea that turned into the philosophy and development of homeopathy. Hahnemann understood Mesmer’s idea about a universal energy that flowed through the universe and through people as well. He decided to call this energy the “vital force”. Like Mesmer, Hahnemann saw that if this vital force was disturbed, a person could become ill and if he could develop medicines that were able to restore normal flow of this energy, the patient could be restored to health.

For the record, the Chinese call it Qi, the Ayurvedic doctors of India call it Prana. 20th Century quantum physicists Max Planck and Albert Einstein called this field of energy “The Matrix” and both of them acknowledged that a greater mind had created it, thus confirming a spiritual dimension to its existence in modern times.

You can see why people like Sheldrake and Meininger don’t like current science. You can also see how she tortures quantum mechanics, as quacks are wont to do, to try to make it sound as though modern physics supports her prescientific vitalism. Notice how she conflates Max Planck’s and Albert Einstein’s spiritual beliefs with their scientific findings. Let’s just put it this way. Planck might well have believed that “religion and natural science require a belief in God,” but just because he was Max Planck doesn’t mean that he was correct.

Homeopathy quacksFinally, we get to homeopathy. You knew that homeopathy was coming, didn’t you? Based on the defense of vitalism and how vitalism infused Samuel Hahnemann’s fever dream that turned into homeopathy, it didn’t take too long into the article before I knew that this would probably be about homeopathy, but first Meininger has to invoke Dr. Benjamin Rush’s famous statement, “To restrict the art of healing to one class of men and deny equal privileges to others will constitute the Bastille of medical science. All such laws are un-American and despotic and have no place in a republic.” It’s a statement that was seriously wrong-headed, although in the 1700s it might be somewhat defensible given how little was known about medicine. 200+ years later, it’s an idiotic statement. Then, of course, she invokes—who else?—Thomas Jefferson, to do what people love to do with the Founding Fathers and claim that they would be “appalled to find the medical monopoly we have in America today.” Of course, no one really knows what the Founding Fathers would think of today’s medicine. They’d probably think it was miraculous, because physicians in the 1700s had little other than basic surgery, herbal medicines, bleeding, purging, and toxic heavy metal tinctures in their armamentarium.

Which brings us to homeopathy.

The rest of the article is basically an argument that homeopathy is better than vaccines for the control of contagious disease but has been covered up because of the evils of big pharma trying to find medicines and vaccines that could be patented:

Meanwhile, the scientific “elite” were toiling in their laboratories and the big news of the day was that Louis Pasteur of France and Robert Koch of Germany were studying microbes to figure out how to invent patentable vaccines to kill them. This lab work gave all the “elites” an opportunity to talk endlessly about their “fanciful biochemical theories” and which of the germ theories was their favorite. Chemical companies started perking up their ears as the prospect of patentable drug products that could spell major profits and international trade. The public was entertained in the front pages of the press across Europe about all the excitement.

And, of course, Pasteur and Koch were in on the conspiracy to suppress homeopathy. Claiming that both “Pasteur and Koch were well aware of Homeopathy’s major successes,” Meininger lays down this major bit of revisionist history:

Consequently, each, in his own way, developed vaccines that were material in nature so they could be patented using what they thought were homeopathic principles. Problem was, homeopathy is an energy medicine and its healing qualities are based on Mesmer’s idea that it’s the vibrations that matter. They are non-toxic in nature unlike the allopathic vaccines, which had and still have all sorts of material ingredients that can cause harm. In addition, homeopathy, as a practice is focused on strengthening the person’s entire body and spirit, and not in the business of trying to kill germs.

Homeopaths frequently claim that vaccines are based on “homeopathic principles.” This is utter nonsense. Homeopathy, being The One Quackery To Rule Them All, posits two pseudoscientific principles. The first is the Law of Similars, which states that, to relieve symptoms, you should administer something that causes those symptoms. There is no scientific basis for this as a general principle—or even in the vast majority of individual diseases or symptoms. The second is the Law of Infinitesimals, which states that diluting a remedy makes it stronger. So homeopaths take whatever tincture they’re using and serially dilute it, usually by factors of 100, represented as “C.” To a typical 30C homeopathic dilution is in reality a 10030, or 1060 dilution. Given that Avogadro’s number is roughly 6 x 1023, the chances that a single molecule of original substance remains after a 30C dilution is very small, other than carryover contamination on the glassware.

Now come the claims frequently used by homeopaths that homeopathy did so much better in epidemics of infectious disease, for instance, in a cholera epidemic in England in 1854:

The first report stated that under allopathic care, the mortality rate was 59.2%. When a member of the House of Lords asked why no homeopathic figures were included, the answer was that such information would “skew the results”. It turned out the homeopathic rate was only 9%.

Of course, I’ve frequently pointed out that “conventional” medicine in the 1800s and before was frequently toxic and ineffective and suggested that part of the reason that homeopathy seemed to do better at the time was that, for some conditions, doing nothing (which is all that homeopathy is) really was better than conventional medicines of the time, which, even though bloodletting was on the wane by then, still relied on purgatives, toxic metals like mercury and cadmium, and other potentially harmful interventions. There’s also the matter of selection bias, in which patients who were less ill might have chosen to try homeopathy while patients who were sicker would go to the conventional doctors of the time. Basically, what these figures, even if accurate, tell us is not informative, nor does it tell us whether homeopathy works. Then there’s the question of how many patients first sought out homeopathy, failed to get better, and then went to a conventional doctor before they died, where they would be counted as having been treated by conventional medicine.

Not surprisingly, Meininger also trots out the claim, frequently made by homeopaths, that during the 1918 pandemic of influenza victims treated with homeopathy had a 30-fold lower mortality rate (1% versus 30%). I’ve addressed this claim before when it was trotted out around the H1N1 influenza pandemic in 2009. No doubt homeopaths reported low mortality, but was there any objective evidence that this was true? How do we know that patients who got sicker under the homeopaths’ care didn’t go to real physicians or die without being followed up. Do we know that the homeopaths’ patients were comparable to the patients treated by “conventional” medicine? We don’t.

Meininger even trots out this old homeopathic chestnut:

Confronted with an epidemic of leptospirosis in 2007, an epidemic that followed the annual hurricane season in Cuba, the Cuban Ministry of Health decided to conduct a study on homeopathy in several provinces that season. It was so successful that for the next 10 years they have used homeopathy on the entire 11 million Cubans. The disease is basically considered eradicated so they no longer administer the remedy automatically. The Cuban Ministry is now expecting similar results for dengue fever, “swine” flu, hepatitis A and conjunctivitis.

I covered this “study” when it was published, as did Le Canard Noir and apgaylard. It’s a bad study poorly described and reported. Basically, homeopaths claimed credit for something that they had nothing to do with. Same as it ever was.

Meninger basically concludes that “our future has already arrived” in the form of homeopathy as a vaccination strategy. What she’s really arguing for embracing mystical thinking that is 220 years old over modern science, although she does her best to slap a patina of real science over the mysticism and vitalism. I’ll stick in the present and look to the future, thank you very much.