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Homoeopaths label scientists the 'new fundamentalists'

Clinical research 'inappropriate' to test alternative therapies, practitioners argue. Zoe Corbyn writes

Academics who rubbish the value of homoeopathy are peddling a "new fundamentalism" against the practice and seeking to apply "wholly inappropriate" clinical research methods to evaluate its worth.

These were the claims heard by delegates at the inaugural "Scientific Research in Homeopathy" conference held by the Complementary Medical Association (CMA) at the University of Westminster last week.

The conference, which was attended by about 100 homoeopathy practitioners, promised to give practitioners the "proof" they needed to counter arguments that their work is both ineffective and dangerous.

The conference is the latest twist in the bitter battle that has been fought over the field since the publication of a book that takes a tough scientific line against some complementary and alternative medicines, including homoeopathy.

The book, Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial, was written by Edzard Ernst, a professor of complementary medicine at the University of Exeter, and Simon Singh, the science writer. It concludes that homoeopathic remedies are implausible and are nothing more than elaborate placebos.

In Times Higher Education recently, Professor Ernst and Dr Singh hit out at universities for offering "pseudo-scientific" degrees in alternative medicine. They published a list of the institutions with the most courses in an effort to embarrass vice-chancellors into a debate.

Last week, Professor Ernst and Dr Singh offered £10,000 to anyone who could prove that homoeopathy worked based on randomised controlled trials (RCTs), which are considered the "gold standard" in evidence-based medicine. The onus is on the homoeopathic industry to prove that its products and services work, Dr Singh said at the launch of the challenge. "They need to put up or shut up."

Participants at the conference dismissed the challenge. They called it a "nonsense" and a "stunt" designed to increase book sales. "It is actually testament to their own ignorance ... It is not the way that homoeopathy works," Jayney Goddard, the CMA president and conference organiser, told Times Higher Education.

One conference speaker, Robert Verkerk, the chief executive of the Alliance of Natural Health, said he would tell participants that it was "utterly inappropriate" to use RCTs to assess homoeopathy and other complementary medicines.

"You can't apply the existing interpretation of evidence-based medicine, which says RCTs are the only evidence ... As soon as you put someone into a trial situation, you destroy many of the effects that exist between patient and practitioner," he said.

He added that homoeopathy practitioners were particularly exercised by Professor Ernst and Dr Singh's book because it put into the popular domain previously inaccessible research papers that cast doubt on homoeopathy. "It is that popular form and that popular interpretation that will carry more weight (with the public)," he said.

The conference also heard Lionel Milgrom, a homoeopathy researcher, deliver a talk, "Homoeopathy and the new fundamentalism", in which he described scientists who ignored, ridiculed or failed to comprehend the evidence that supported homoeopathy as "new fundamentalists".

"They are not only unscientific - I actually think they demean science," he told delegates. Practitioners faced a battle for hearts and minds, he said. "It is time to get angry, time to get unified and time to get busy defending homoeopathy and CAM (complementary and alternative medicine)."

Professor Ernst and Dr Singh said they were becoming increasingly frustrated with the vitriolic criticism and attack from the alternative medicine practitioners.

Professor Ernst said he had received about 100 communications "full of lies, hatred and misinterpretations", which were spurred in part by the fact that homoeopathy practitioners had a vested interest in maintaining a multimillion-pound industry. He said applying an evidence-based approach to CAM was not fundamentalist. "If you don't evaluate it scientifically, what do you do? Do you go by intuition? ... I think the believers are much more in danger of becoming fundamentalists," he told Times Higher Education.

Dr Singh said homoeopaths often referenced scientific evidence to back up their work - turning their own notion that RCTs could not be applied on its head. "If ... they stop using science to back up homoeopathy, that will be a huge achievement," he said.

Readers' comments (53)

  • What is particularly disappointing is that a so-called Professor of Complementary Medicines is so stuck in the contemporary conventional scientific framework when it comes to evaluating CAM. CAM presents exciting frontiers to be explored, new understandings of how human beings function and a paradigm shift in the way we think about health, disease and treating it. Sitting in an ivory tower analysing research papers from a conventional framework will not prevent a new understanding from taking its place but it is probably slowing it down.

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  • This article fails to highlight the kind of evidence that IS appropriate and still fully scientific to CAM research. Surely this conference provided examples of appropriate research methodologies. It is not simply a question of getting angry and having a shouting match. Highly respected scientific researchers have demonstrated that RCT's are not always ideal in researching CAM but there are other ways of being scientific. (references provided on request)

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  • It seems that skeptics of homeopathy define "double-blind" as closing BOTH of their eyes. It is astonishing how unscientific their attitude is towards homeopathy, and yet, they have the chutzpah (and the ignorance) to "defend science."

    Below are just some of the meta-analyses that have shown a statistically significant effect from homeopathic medicines over placebo:
    (1) Kleijnen J, Knipschild P, ter Riet G (1991). Clinical trials of homeopathy British Medical Journal, 302:316–323. This review of research assessed 105 trials, 81 of them positive [1]. The authors concluded: “Based on this evidence we would be ready to accept that homoeopathy can be efficacious, if only the mechanism of action were more plausible”, “the evidence presented in this review would probably be sufficient for establishing homeopathy as a regular treatment for certain indications”, and "the evidence of clinical trials is positive but not sufficient to draw definite conclusions".

    (2) Jacobs J, Jonas WB, Jimenez-Perez M, Crothers D (2003). Homeopathy for childhood diarrhea: combined results and metaanalysis from three randomized, controlled clinical trials. Pediatric Infectious Disease Journal, 22:229–234.

    (3) Vickers A, Smith C (2006). Homoeopathic Oscillococcinum for preventing and treating influenza and influenza-like syndromes (Cochrane Review). In: The Cochrane Library. Chichester, UK: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. CD001957.

    (4) Barnes J, Resch K-L, Ernst E (1997). Homeopathy for postoperative ileus? A meta-analysis. Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology, 25:628–633. (Ironically, this review of research that shows benefit from homeopathic medicines was co-authored by Darth Vader himself (Dr. E. Ernst)

    (5) Taylor MA, Reilly D, Llewellyn-Jones RH, McSharry C, Aitchison TC (2000). Randomised controlled trials of homoeopathy versus placebo in perennial allergic rhinitis with overview of four trial series. British Medical Journal, 321:471–476.

    Of additional interest is this newer trial that was conducted at the University of Vienna and published in the leading pulmonary medicine journal in the world...and in the treatment of people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (the #4 reason that people in the U.S. die today!)
    -- Frass, M., Dielacher, C., Linkesch, M., Endler, C., Muchitsch, I., Schuster, E., and Kaye, A. Influence of Potassium Dichromate on Tracheal Secretions in Critically Ill Patients, Chest, March 2005.

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  • It sounds rather like some homeopaths had a collective howl. If they say that pills heal people then this is a very simple thing to measure, and an RCT is a perfectly good way to assess it. Why has the THES covered this, without making it clear what their argument against RCT is? It would seem that their only argument is that RCTs do not give the answer they want. Their response to anyone who dares to point out the RCT data seems to be to issue vitriolic and emotive hate attacks. This can only reflect very badly on their entire profession.

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  • So the homeopaths don't like the fact that Ernst and Singh have put research evidence against homeopathy into the public domain? Don't they like people knowing the facts? Now why could that be?

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  • I see the first two comments resort to the usual trick of quacks. When the generally accepted rules of evidence fail to support their fantasies, they cry that we need a different sort of evidence.

    Homoepathy is very simple. The medicine contains no medicine, It is simple fraud and delusion. And when used to 'treat' serious diseases like malaria, it is, in my view, criminal. I can't wait to see the first conviction.

    It beats me how this discussion can still be going on in the 21st century. I'm quite happy to accept that most homeopaths are quite sincere in their deluded thinking. What is really worrying is vice-chancellors who run degrees in such nonsense, They can't possibly believe it but they run the degrees anyway.

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  • I wonder if there had been a meeting last week of astrologers who were complaining that physics and telescopes were not the way to study the stars would the THE be reporting on that?

    Ernst is pointing out the obvious - that the Emporor has no clothes - and we are being told that you need to use Invisible Imperial Textile techniques to appreciate his garbs and not 'fundamentalist' science.

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  • Scientists - the new fundamentalists. Hmm. Yes. Given that "scientists" believe in evidence.

    "Homeopaths - the new liars" might be a more apt title. They're well aware that there's no credible evidence to support homeopathy, and that they're peddling quack nostrums. They bleat about "big pharma" and "allopaths" being in it for the money, but by all that's holy there's a big markup on sugar pills and tap water.

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  • Homeopathy has a great record of success in C19 epidemics of cholera, yellow fever, the diseases which accompanied the Irish famine, tuberculosis, and more, and in the 1918 influenza it excelled. Now instead of reviling it those with an open mind should consider its uses in Aids, MRSA, Bird Flu, and other new infections where there is no successful regular treatment. It can also excel in chronic mental and physical disease. It meets the ethical criteria of 'at least do no harm' which modern conventional medicine obviously does not. It costs less. It has at last been admitted to universities as a valid subject for undergraduate study (Westminster, Central Lancashire, Middlesex, Thames Valley. Of these wnin and uclan have developed graduate studies as have York Southampton and Sheffield. I hope that the research councils will devote some fund so epidemiology and look at both modern and C19 records of successful homeopathic treatment with an open mind. Some say it is non science, but that does not mean it has to be seen as non sense. It has its own paradigm and a huge body of literature, which requires investigation rather than witch hunt. The rejection is a social construct.

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  • My wife and I went to the doctors surgery this week because she had a lower back pain that was getting worse and we were concerned it may be related to a past problem. The doctor was great and gave us the reassurance we were after. He also prescribed her an anti-inflammatory and informed us they would not 'cure', just help ease the pain while the body did it's work.When we told him we were into homeopathy he supported us and was open an integrated approach. She decided not to take the prescribed drugs and the next day booked in to see a McTimoney alternative practitioner. Directly after the McTimoney treatment she was feeling much better. She had not had a treatment that suppressed the pain, but rather one that aided the body to heal. No one solution is right or wrong. Every one has its place. Every person has choices. It would be a sad day if we reduced those choices. I thought science was about discovery and being curious - knowledge gained through observation and experimentation. Ernst and Singh reality and experience of health care and alternative medicine does not match mine, or many others, so I do not understand where they come from or what there motivations are. Personally I feel an integrated health care system is the way forward. Give people choice, let them vote with there feet and there well-being. Why cast away thousands of years of successful healing experience with millions of clinical success story just because they do not fit in the 'randomised controlled trials' box? Find a new way - be a scientist.

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