Where is the journalistic skepticism in this terrible Alternet article on homeopathy? The tag-line for their article is “Are homeopathic remedies more effective than flu shots? According to 1918 figures, they may be.” Really?
The article starts with several paragraphs about how flu shots aren’t really all that effective, and how people get the flu anyway. Now, much of this is probably true – the flu virus frequently mutates to a version not covered by the vaccine, and so the shot often isn’t as effective as we would like. But the authors seem to conclude from this that homeopathy works, and they go on to repeat numerous baseless claims about its efficacy.
The authors of this article are confusing two things:
- Whether the flu vaccine is as effective as we’d like, and
- Whether homeopathy works.
The authors imply a false dilemma – if the flu vaccine is not always effective then homeopathy must be better. But this is just flawed logic. Sure, the flu vaccine doesn’t always work, but that doesn’t mean homeopathy does.
But as well as the fallacious logic, there is a total lack of skepticism or journalistic professionalism in the way they report the homeopaths’ survey:
During the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, which killed up to 50 million people worldwide, homeopathic physicians in the United States reported very low mortality rates among their patients, while flu patients treated by conventional physicians faced mortality rates of around 30 percent. Dr. W.A. Dewey gathered data from homeopathic physicians treating flu patients around the country in 1918 and published his findings in the Journal of the American Institute of Homeopathy in 1920. Homeopathic physicians in Philadelphia, for example, reported a mortality rate of just over 1 percent for the more than 26,000 flu patients they treated during the pandemic.
OK, I’ll accept the homeopaths reported low mortality. But was this independently checked? Did the homeopaths ignore patients who died, or did they perhaps assume they died of something else? Did the homeopaths even check to see if any of their patients died? I’m sure they didn’t do a complete survey. Would they even know how many of their patients had died? How representative were the homeopathic patients anyway? Of course, we don’t know the answers to any of these questions. The flaws in this self-selecting “study” should be obvious to anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of how scientific tests should be run. The article in this homeopathic journal is nothing but a load of anecdotes from a biased source. And anecdotes are not data.
Homeopathy is unmitigated pseudoscientific nonsense that was simply made up by its founder, Samuel Hahnemann, 200 years ago. It’s based upon two false premises:
Hahnemann noticed that quinine, a treatment for malaria, gave symptoms similar to malaria itself in a healthy person. He concluded, for absolutely no reason at all, that anything that gives the symptoms of a disease to a healthy person would cure that disease in a sick person. He didn’t derive this by experiment. He didn’t test it. No one has ever shown this to be true, and in fact it is patently false.
Unfortunately, giving sick people something that “gives the symptoms of a disease to a healthy person”, also made sick people sicker. So Hahnemann decided to dilute the “remedies” so they didn’t make the patients sicker. But surely, (I hear you say), if you dilute them, won’t they be less effective? This led Hahnemann to make up his second law:
Homeopathic remedies typically have less than a 50% probability that there is even one molecule of the ingredient left. (Seriously – I’m not making this up.) Essentially there is nothing left but water. So how did Hahnemann explain this? He decided water must somehow retain a memory of the remedy – it must remember the properties of the remedy although nothing is left except but pure water. Again, there is no reason to suppose this is true. Hahnemann didn’t derive it, he just made it up. It was never tested, and it goes against everything we know about chemistry. And we know it’s false.
Homeopathy stems from these two false ideas. Treat the symptoms with symptom-like remedies, and dilute until nothing is left. The fact that this was never tested, and goes against all science tells us, does not necessarily mean it is wrong. But it does mean the evidence it works needs to be stronger than the evidence we demand for other things. But believers in homeopathy expect us to believe what they say based on weaker evidence, such as this lame 88 year old survey of homeopaths.
A recent review of 110 homeopathy trials, published in The Lancet, found no convincing evidence the treatment worked any better than a placebo. In 200 years homeopathy has not progressed beyond badly run (and often dishonest) bogus “trials” and the opinions of homeopaths and their patients. There is a reason we use double-blind trials to determine the efficacy of any new therapy – it is because this has proven to be the only way to determine what really works. Why should homeopathy not be required to demonstrate that it works to the same standards of real medicine? Why is it that this magic water defies the simple procedures of testing that works with everything else?
The Alternet report was absolutely the worst article on homeopathy I have ever read in any independent media outlet (ie outside of homeopathic or “Alt.Med” journals and the like). Homeopathy does not work. The authors should be ashamed that they applied no journalistic skepticism to this story.