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Today Stuff published a Fairfax NZ News article titled, Homeopathy key for dairy farming couple. Unsurprisingly this has been spread to other sites, including pro-homeopathy sites.

Unlike many (most?) articles at Stuff, no means of commenting on this article are available.

Let’s quickly look at key problems in this story.

We might use as inspiration the TED slogan, “ideas worth sharing”, altering it to fit our purposes “information worth sharing”, considering ‘information’ and ‘news’ to be synonymous.

It carries with it a catch: if the information isn’t sound, it’s not worth sharing – not worthy of a place in a newspaper or news website.

Was this information, as it was published, worth sharing?

The provenance of the story isn’t something I can assess, but the story reads in the style of an uncritical press release. I don’t work within the newspaper industry, but my understanding is that it’s not uncommon for a story to start from a business offering a story and I suspect that might be the case here. Even without that, you’d wish good editorial practice ensured that the obvious questions were addressed.

The story offers no explanation of what homeopathy is or if it is a sound practice or not.

‘Proper’[1] homeopathic products have no active ingredients, just the water or alcohol solvent the original ingredients were mixed in. They’re essentially classic snake oil, the bottle of nothing sold on a promise.

It’s an elaborate bottle of nothing that starts with exotic-sounding ingredients that are then repeatedly diluted to such an extent that the original ingredients are diluted out of the mixture entirely; the mixture sold doesn’t have any active ingredients left in it.

Homeopathy is one of the most obvious and persistent ‘alternative remedy’ scams. Sadly these obviously ‘fake’ remedies are sold in pharmacies and suggested for use in veterinarian practice. (Interested readers can read my earlier posts on homeopathy for more information – some are listed at the end of this article.)

The journalist writes,

Jo had been using homeopathy long before she and Nick met, so they decided to start using it on farm to treat animal health issues, and for any health issues that arose for themselves or their children.

It would seem that the decision to use homeopathic remedies was because ‘Jo wanted to’, rather than what might be sound farming practice. If so, it’d be a case of veterinarian do-it-yourself.

Where is the commentary from farming specialists about this decision? From qualified veterinarians or animal health experts, say.

Further on we read,

When the Collins bought their own farm nine years ago at Piopio, they faced a potential animal health crisis and tackled it head on with homeopathy. The farm had a history of rotavirus, and it was active on the farm when they bought it. The previous owner had been vaccinating against the disease but Nick and Jo decided not to. They administered HFS’ rotavirus nosode and were pleased to find that not one case of rotavirus eventuated in their herd.

One explanation for reduced rotavirus might be that the vaccinations did their job, stemming new infections. Another might be that the repeated infections induced immunity in the stock.  Yet another might be removal of the source of the infections. Or a mixture of these.

The owners put the success down to their remedy when in fact the (short-term) success will have been elsewhere. This is a common issue with people affirming [sic] the outcome of ‘alternative’ remedies – not distinguishing different causes for an outcome and favouring the cause they would like to have been the reason.

Homeopathic remedies—literally—have no active ingredient in them and so could not have any effect on a viral infection. By contrast, as an example, repeated rotavirus infections are known to induce immunity. (It’d be better to get the immunity from a vaccine than from the animals becoming ill.)

Another issue is animal welfare. Why is this is not considered in the article? Similarly, what about the ethics of using ineffective remedies on livestock?

Yet another issue is that a simple search of the HFS (Homeopathic Farm Support) website shows not incidence of the word ‘rotavirus’. Surely a journalist would have checked HFS for their advertising of the product and tracked down why it’s not advertised?

Browsing their website[2] eventually revealed a list of homeopathic remedies in a scanned image on their Certification page as a PDF file. You can also find references to it from other websites, however, for example a table of ‘permitted’ products (PDF file) for ‘Livestock Health and Nutrition’ at the BioGro website lists many homeopathic remedies, including:

Rotavirus 30c (Homeopathic Farm support ltd Bg 5005) – Permitted

The ‘30c’ refers to the dilution level. This is a dilution level well past that needed to remove any trace of the original ingredient that was present in the original mixture.

Essentially BioGro is ‘permitting’, if not encouraging, junk remedies. These remedies might well be presented as ‘organic’, but being ‘organic’ doesn’t make these remedies sound practice.[3]

Continuing from the Stuff article, we read -

“That is just one of many examples of homeopathy working on our farm,” Nick said. “It gives you faith in the process as really, the key is in the results. You can’t use the placebo effect on livestock. At the end of the day, if it didn’t work we wouldn’t be using it.”

The first quote is empty, unsupported.

The second claim is misleading. The journalist writes, presumably echoing what Nick has told him, “You can’t use the placebo effect on livestock.” The placebo effect isn’t on the animals, but their owners or veterinarians who certainly can experience it. This line appears to be common amongst those advocating homeopathy in veterinarian practice. Again, the journalist speaking to someone who understands the issues would have seen this through – where was the effort in putting this claim to someone else for verification?

Unless an animal is in critical condition, the Collins turn to homeopathy first. They use it for acute cases of poor health, and preventively when the likelihood of seasonal health problems increase. Whenever conventional medicine is called for, they use homeopathy to complement it.

While this might seem appealing, it doesn’t justify the use of a meaningless practice. Homeopathy doesn’t do anything; it has no means to.

This article in Stuff reminds me of wider issues, in particular issues of quality control.

Media organisations, particularly as a consequence of cost-cutting measures, seem to be shedding responsibility for quality control,[4] leaving it in the hands of general-beat journalists while the organisations remove specialist editing and specialist journalist posts that might offer better quality information.

What value is ‘news’ if it isn’t sound?

Ideally specialist editors might serve well here: a small number of people able to assess and guide the work of a larger number of more junior positions. It’s unrealistic to expect every general-beat journalist to know enough to know what to put their time into checking first. But as I was writing, it’s well-known media organisations have been shedding these specialist posts.

What to do to ensure the soundness of news information then? Rely on science bloggers?

Footnotes

1. I write ‘proper’ because some products marketed as ‘homeopathic’ in fact have some ingredients in non-homeopathic amounts, making them non-homeopathic. (Ironically, this has these as falsely marketed as homeopathic – the scam is silly enough without this.)

2. Their website seems to not offer sales information for any homeopathic products, only two herbal ones given on the home page and these seem to be by personal contact. Some pages are behind in maintenance for example still showing a nearly empty events page from 2013 and other inconsistencies appear such as their ‘Homeopathy for animals’ page writing only about alpacas whereas their banner shows cattle.

3. A skim of BioGro’s list of ‘permitted’ products suggests that while they might try avoid anything causing direct harm, there is no effort to ensure the products do any good. It’s worth remembering that delays in treatment by offering ineffective remedies can lead to harm, even if the ineffective remedies do not themselves cause harm.

Similarly, I’ve no doubt these can be made to be seen as ‘organic’ one way or other – but that doesn’t make it sound practice to use them.

I’d delve further into this, but this distraction would cost more time than I have.

4. For perhaps all but their headline articles.

[Edited to make clearer the attribution to Stuff and Fairfax NZ News in the opening sentence.]


Other articles on Code for life:

Medical DIY…

Popularity does not mean effectiveness or sensibility

Homeopathy in NZ pharmacies revisited: Wartoff and more

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

Homeopathy – practical remedies to address it?

Homeopathic remedies in NZ pharmacies

Pharmacists to say that homeopathy does not work?

Undiluted humour: If Homeopathy Beats Science

Time for disclaimers on remedies?, “alternative” or not

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

Message to Otago Daily Times: homeopath is not a sound career option*