The fertile ‘philosophy’ of homeopathy

ResearchBlogging.org

Is it not a bit old trite hat for scientists/sceptics/freethinkers, etc, to take a swipe at homeopathy? Perhaps. Then again, while the homeopathic mindset continues with its religiously insidious self-marketing, I, for one, would argue that we should continue to guard against its cultish reach by publicly highlighting its laughable nonsense. Particularly as there are times when it isn’t actually funny.

Last week (April 10-16) was World Homeopathy Awareness Week. It’s a swanky, impressive looking website, isn’t it? Slide-showing photographs of photogenic, young, middle-class couples and beautiful babies, all in glorious happy health. ( Thinks: can homeopathy make for prettier offspring?); various ethnicities emphasising its universality. This is seductive marketing. It reminds me of those photoboardings that builders erect on the periphery of their new apartment complex developments: happily laughing, successful handsome couples with perfect teeth, appealing to our desire for status. The right to happiness. Who are these people?! (Those who model for marketing agencies, I suppose.)

This year’s week is themed as ‘Homeopathy and Infertility: Helping Fertility for Men and Women.’ And if you click on this label in the top right corner, you are able to download a 31-slide PowerPoint presentation, presumably as a resource you can borrow to convince any fertility-challenged friends you might have. By contrast, this slideshow is disappointingly amateurish and hurried-looking

If you take a look, skip to slides 4 through 7. These are presented under the collective heading, ‘Philosophy’. Which they surely don’t mean in the sense of ‘love and pursuit of wisdom or truth by intellectual means’, do they? (Although it is not uncommon to come across those who profess to live by it.) Rather, it is (I prefer to think) intended in the way of doing some activity: the thinking, reasoning and evaluation of it. More apt, then, might be ethos, no?

Flicking through this slideshow, it is as woolly and nonsensical to me as some Human Resources or management seminar. I don’t buy any of it – but then, I wouldn’t. Because I’m a bigoted know-all scientist who considers science the be-all and end-all, and thus incapable of recognising that science doesn’t know everything. Apparently. Is it bigoted to merely ask, “How do you know it works?”

Well, have a look at a few more of these slides. Slide 21 confidently lists the (infertility relevant) ailments which homeopathy can alleviate. The one on this mis-apostrophied list that has me frowning the most is ‘Heriditary [ sic ] disposition.’ (Let’s not go there.) Then follows two blank Case Study slides, I guess left for you to fill in with examples of successful homeopathic fertility treatment from within your particular quackdom. Due to confidentiality issues, I would predict that a homeopathy-unsympathetic journalist would have difficulty getting interview access to people undergoing such treatment. So, we must take the presenters at their words.

Slides 24-27 lists some examples of specific effects of certain ‘remedies’. Hey, but this looks a bit complicated and science-y now. Convinced? I mean, how could we question that? Well, let’s have a go…

Sabina, it seems, is very popular, homeopathically. Because this is one all-singing, all-dancing medication – I mean, literally: aside from its menses stabilising and (presumably, if it can eliminate genital warts) anti-papilloma virus activities, it can correct an aversion to music! Maybe if I take a slug, I might even be able to tolerate Country & Western. Not quite sure how this also applies to someone who is pathogenically uncomplaining, helpful and caring, though. Complex stuff.

Cimicifuga racemosa (I formatted the italics) is another seeming jack-of-all-trades. We’re not talking here of its (still contentious but nevertheless more convincing) effects as dietary supplement or herbal medicine (which do actually contain some of it). But in homeopathic doses (ie, fuck-all) it can aid in the treatment of all manner of physical and psychological maladies and, I wonder, likely make you a cup of tea in the morning to boot. And you can always slip some in your partner’s cuppa if they’re talking too much.

And can cuttlefish ink actually help correct or prevent a prolapsed uterus? Can it (thus) improve your sex life, and make you better company generally? (Isn’t it an insult to a beautiful, intelligent animal to include its image in with this dross?)

Importantly, skip back to slide 20, which lists the negative aspects of ‘conventional’ fertility treatments – including its limited success rate. I don’t know whether these facts and figures are accurate, but that’s not the point. Tellingly, no such data are provided for the ‘success’ rates of homeopathy on infertility. Indeed, there is no indication here of any track record whatsoever. And, despite the assertion (slides 1, 15 and 17) that homeopathy can also be applied to male infertility, there is no mention of male benefit from the exampled ‘remedies’. Is it impertinent to ask why not?

This shoddy electronic pamphlet sits incongruously within the otherwise professional looking website. Or does it? Slide 28 lists ‘Reasons for using Homeopathy’, which are lifted from the website, where by clicking (near top left) ‘10 GOOD REASONS you will find them fleshed out (for the PowerPoint presenter to parrot). Let’s look a bit closer at one or two of these claims:

1- NO HARMFUL SIDE EFFECTS
‘A preparation process called potentisation removes all toxicity from each substance. It is safe for all ages and during pregnancy. However it is advised to be under the care of a qualified practitioner.’

I freely confess my ignorance here. I was of the impression that ‘potentisation’ referred to the ‘activation’ of the remedy, after diluting ad infinitum and vigorous whacking and/or shaking (which always puts me in mind of tequila slammers – which are effective, by the way). But this process, then, has the doubly beneficial effect of simultaneously negating the effect of any toxins. That would explain my previous misunderstanding of water’s memory, wherein I questioned on the basis of all the other substances the water would have come into contact with. It seems water knows; can distinguish between the memory of the necessary ingredient to activate, whilst simultaneously preventing or inactivating the memories of everything else. So little remark given to something (that would be) truly remarkable. We’re left to conclude that succussion is magic.

5- PREVENTATIVE
‘By boosting the immune system and overall health, homeopathy improves a person’s resistance to infections and possible illnesses.’

Boosting the immune system, eh. This seems to be a favourite for those who like to invoke our innate ‘healing energy’. (Just what is this energy? They never define it.) This provokes an honest open question: Where is the evidence that the immune system is boosted? How has this been quantified? After a few cosy sessions with a nice, sympathetic homeopath who listens to you and is not in any hurry to get you out of the surgery, your subsequent response to survey that you are feeling better may well be real. But how are we to know, beyond glib conjecture, that the immune system is ‘boosted’?

6- NOT TESTED ON ANIMALS
‘Humans respond differently to medicine than animals. All homeopathic medication is tested on healthy humans.’

But what of ‘remedies’ that are used for ‘treating’ animals? This is a favourite ‘argument’ of our heir incumbent, Proper Prince Charlie, who considers it trumps scientists’ rejection of homeopathy’s efficacy because they are unable to account for the fact that it works on animals. I don’t know whether he’s considered just who scored those ‘trials’.

7- EASY TO TAKE
‘Homeopathic medicines are given as small pleasant tasting pellets which dissolve in the mouth, through olfaction, or in liquid form. Granules, powders & drops are also available.’

Olfaction?! Uh?! What, you can sniff them? Would that be… steam?

4 and 9 are funny for obvious reason.

Why does homeopathy persist? Because the people who plug it are oh so nice? Who take the time to listen and show interest; to care? This is where it does its thing – not in the administering of charlatan pills, tinctures or potions, as recognised in this Southampton-based study (… so quite why the University of Southampton’s Medical School continues with this sort of thing…?). But why let that spoil a good story? The WHAW site bigs itself up thus:

‘During this week homeopaths and friends of homeopathy will come together to share with the world the miracles of homeopathy.’

The ‘miracles’? Actually very apt use of the word, because if it did work, it would certainly defy the known natural order. Personally, I don’t find such religious language surprising. Yes, I am aware of my flippancy here. (Here’s one: With water restrictions in place due to officially declared drought, I suggest, along with hosepipes, that the preparation of homeopathic remedies be banned in the UK.) And I am also aware that I am woefully ignorant of much to do with homeopathy. “Just because we don’t know how it works, doesn’t mean it doesn’t work. Keep an open mind”, I’m told. Well, I do keep an open mind – sufficient to spot the gaping flaw in the first part of that statement; and I am learning more. But until you’ve ever had someone tell you with a straight face that shaking/whacking some water activates (its memory of) some substance that has been diluted out of it, you perhaps don’t let it bother you so much. And, the thing is, the more I learn of it, the more un-convinced I become. So, outraged homeopaths, spare me the ad hominem-isms. And that other logical fallacy – the appeal to the natural. If some people want comfort for their bruises and headaches and itches (there, there), then who am I to object? However, (aside from the seriously problematic issues of claimed treatments for cancers, or malaria, which I’m not addressing here), infertility can be a highly emotive matter, requiring considerable levels of competency and responsibility. If those purporting to treat it are giving false hope, their ethos is unethical.

Brien, S., Lachance, L., Prescott, P., McDermott, C., & Lewith, G. (2010). Homeopathy has clinical benefits in rheumatoid arthritis patients that are attributable to the consultation process but not the homeopathic remedy: a randomized controlled clinical trial Rheumatology, 50 (6), 1070-1082 DOI: 10.1093/rheumatology/keq234

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