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OPINION. Every now and then I see something in the paper that really annoys me…

The Otago Daily Times–locally known as the ODT–is a good newspaper, I wouldn’t be buying it otherwise, but even good papers mess up from time to time.

Poison-ivy-homeopathic-remedy

Why on earth has the ODT presented an homeopath in one of it’s on-going series of snapshots of people in different careers?

More importantly, perhaps, why does the presentation have no critical questioning?

The ODT starts it’s weekend employment vacancies section with an article presenting a series of questions and replies about a particular person’s job. I’ll assume the answers are written by the ‘interviewee’ for the purpose of this. (Rather than transcribed from an interview.)

John S. Carroll recently said that journalists’–and by implication, newspapers’–loyalty should be to citizens.

To me, this includes critically judging what they present.

Things that appear in print gain a certain amount of creditability merely by being in print in a reputable publication.

Shouldn’t statements of questionable creditability be questioned in order that the citizen is well served?

Should a journalist not question the creditability of homeopathy in questioning a homeopath? Should this even be offered as a sound career option on a careers page?

My answers: yes to the first, no to the second.

There’s enough trouble trying to get rid of this nonsense without it being presented as something someone might aspire to.

The homeopath has effectively been allowed to give an advertorial spiel with no critique of what was said. That’s lame. (That said it’s possible that they are using set questions for the series, in which case they’re going to have think about screening who they present and how to tackle those with more questionable careers.)

I’ve previously outlined why homeopathy is nonsense. I’d encourage readers to read that article, and the links within it, but in a nutshell the main thing is that homeopathic remedies contain noneof the proposed active ingredient in them. Nothing, nada, nil, कुछ भी नहीं है, нищо¸没有, ništa, nijedan, nic, intet, geen,ום דברniente, 何も, nimic, 아무것도, zilch.[1]

homeopathy-cartoon

Homeopathic remedies do not contain any active ingredient.

 The original preparation has some substance that is removed by an elaborate series of dilutions. In the resulting remedy, the substance that was in the original solution has been completely diluted out of it.

It’s quite a ruse. The labels name the substance and the dilutions used, but does not state how much is in the actual remedy being sold… there none of the active ingredient in the remedy sold. This makes the labelling misleading to those who don’t understand what has been done.

Homeopathic remedies have no means to be more than a placebo.

But back to that question-and-answer in the ODT.

Let’s look at some of what was said. Unfortunately[2] the article isn’t on-line as far I am able to tell, so I’ll excerpt what I can and we’ll work from that. This is going to be long-winded, the sort of thing you might expect from Orac. No apologies for that: you’ve been warned!

Before I start: I’ve no interest in personal attacks. This isn’t about the particular person[3] they’ve presented. I’m using her remarks as representative of her industry. Likewise for the journalist. (I can’t quite let the editor have a pass, as the buck for what is published lies there.)

People really need to understand the extent homeopathy is a sham. It’s utter bunkum.

Homeopathy is an industry in NZ complete with schools and businesses. That doesn’t make it right. The madness of giving these remedies–and businesses that offer them–creditability has to end. As an example, in an appalling move, Rural Women NZ awarded last year’s supreme winner of the Rural Women New Zealand Enterprising Rural Women Award to Homeopathic Farm Support Ltd.[4] RWNZ have lost all creditability in my eyes for doing this. No-one should be giving industry awards to homeopaths.

Also before I start two thoughts. In any business you cannot in good faith:

  • plead ignorance of the rules applied to your business or nature of your product
  • present your product as something it is not

This isn’t particular to homeopathy, it’s true for any business. Whatever the law might say–that’s not what I’m arguing here–it’s immoral to your clients to abuse these.

Any homeopath presenting their remedies as having an effect beyond placebo is outside of good business ethics, never mind medical ones. But then, I guess, homeopathic practitioners are too much in the sway of homeopathy’s marketing line to see that.

Let’s look at what was actually said.

A number of the arguments offered fall for familiar traps. Some are even arguments I’ve seen presented in almost identical fashion by other homeopathy proponents.

evidence-check-2-homeopathy

The interviewee says she was previously a nurse. There are plenty of example of people with very high levels of education who have, shall we say, diverged from the path of good sense. Hell, there are Nobel laureates who have gone on to say some damn silly things.[5] What matters is if the practice offered is supported by evidence, not what the person previous did. You can’t rest on past laurels, as it were.

She writes ‘I realised that hospitals are, in effect, ‘the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff’.’ Perhaps, but it’s a false comparison as she has used it, one I’ve seen from other homeopaths. The implication is that homeopaths vie with hospitals. Not true. Their equivalent would be general practitioners, not hospitals.

Some people certainly are, in her words, ‘walking to the edge of that cliff’ but things that might make a difference include diet, not smoking, taking it easy on the alcohol, sound preventative medicine–which mainstream medicine does offer, contrary to what she implies–but not homeopathy, unless a placebo effect is helpful. (And if that’s the case, you don’t have to offer it via homeopathy.) Certainly her description is highly dramatic for what she says she treats, according to her, the likes of: sore throats, chronic colds, emotional issues, ’lack of concentration’, ’low mood’ and toddler tantrums.

She goes on to say she ‘began to explore how the systems of medicine in other cultures responded to this situation, especially the homeopathic practices in the German, Dutch, British and Swiss medical systems.’

There are several points to note here but to name just one the validity of a practice lies with the evidence for the practice, not who does it. The issues of where homeopathy sits in the medical establishment are complex, vary from country to country, and can be simply bureaucratic, rather than anything to do with the treatment being considered sound practice.

She describes her ‘lightbulb moment’ as a German paediatrician saying that in-depth diagnosis was required before offering a particular homeopathic remedy. Frankly, this is silly. It wouldn’t matter which homeopathic remedy you offered; they’re all the same in having none the proposed active substance and being placebos.

(It occurs to me that this could be a classic diversionary sales pitch. Offer the prospective practitioners lots of irrelevant detail to make the product appear creditable. There is one slight hope in this, however. Perhaps the diagnosis is sufficiently accurate to determine if person is suffering from something that is basically harmless that the patient will eventually recover from anyway, and–this is important–referring other cases on to mainstream medicine where they will be treated.)

Silly, this: ‘I began using a few homeopathic remedies. I was astonished at their effect.’ Ignoring the blatantly advertorial nature of this statement, and that it’s anecdotal (her individual experiences cannot show if a product works or not), it misses the key point of these ‘remedies’. They’re placebos.

What’s needed would be controlled studies that take into account placebo effects. Surveys of studies of homeopathy don’t back it as a remedy. The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, for example, concluded that ’the only advice a pharmacist could reasonably give about such products is that they are placebos.’)

The interviewee writes that the most challenging aspect of her work is practising ‘a system of medicine that has greater acceptance in Europe than New Zealand.’ Homeopathy is not a ‘system of medicine’ (note my emphasis; more on this in following paragraphs). In any event, popularity does not mean effectivity or sensibility, as I have previously written.

This-prod-is-not-med

I’ve previously written (two links!) pointing out that, as best as I understand, homeopathic remedies are considered not to be medicines by the MedSafe regulations. Homeopathic remedies can be sold outside of the requirements of the medicines legislature if they do not make a claim to a therapeutic effect or indications for use. If they choose to make a claim or advertisement of therapeutic purpose the remedy then falls under the full medicine legislature. If homeopathic remedies are evidenced as placebo effect only, it seems to me that homeopaths cannot legally claim that their remedies are medicines in NZ.[6]

I’d like to think that here a more knowledgeable (and cautious) editor might insist the implications that homeopathic remedies are medicines be removed.

I’m of the opinion that the public don’t understand this difference of a remedy and a medicine, at least not properly. You might consider 1023’s proposed ‘WARNING: This product is not medicine’ label shown above might be clearer!

Asked to offer something that most people don’t know about her job, she replies ‘According to the World Health Organisation, homeopathy is the second-most-used system of medicine in the world.’ This brings up the same errors I have just noted, but I’d add this is hardly something to crow about. Leaving aside that this statistic might simply reflect that the most populous countries are lagging behind in medicine, it’s appalling that a historic quackery should persist like this.

Aside from the links to other articles I’ve written provided below, the 1023 website is worth reading. There’s also a video on the placebo effect.

In the sidebar ‘To be precise’, in response to ’What would you change about your job?’ she writes, ’Greater public awareness.’

I agree.

I’d like greater public awareness… that homeopathy is bunk.

Footnotes

Don’t think that I oppose all ‘natural’ remedies. I oppose people presenting remedies that lack evidential support as if they have evidential backing.

* [0] I’m not saying sound financially or not; I’m saying it’s not sound as in ‘not offering a sound product’.

[1] Foreign translations include Hindi, Bulgarian, Chinese, Croatian, Czech, Danish, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Romanian, Spanish and Korean. Yes, I’m gone completely over the top. Translations courtesy of HowToSayin?

[2] Or perhaps fortunately: it not being online limits the damage it might cause a little.

[3] Sue Fitzgibbon. I’ve not given her name in the article to emphasis my point that I’m not really interested in particular people, but homeopathy as a whole.

[4] And what on earth is Fonterra doing accepting this business as a sponsor of their Fonterra Organic Conference? Likewise for the Dairy3 Women in Dairying conferences. Conferences should always take care over who they use as sponsors, as their own creditability goes with their decisions.

[5] Admittedly, usually in their later years.

[6] I’m not a lawyer, but this is my reading of things from previously looking at the MedSafe legislation.


A selection of other articles on homeopathy-related topics in Code for Life:

Homeopathic remedies in NZ pharmacies

Pharmacists to say that homeopathy does not work?

In good health or not? — ’natural health’ advertising in newspapers, magazines

Have your say on the development of a Natural Health Products Bill

Undiluted humour: If Homeopathy Beats Science

Homeopathy check-up: Not in the health system, disclaimers on labels

Popularity does not mean effectiveness or sensibility

Time for disclaimers on remedies?, ’alternative’ or not