Monday, 19 November 2007

One-Handed Handclap for Homeopathy?


Ben Goldacre in 'A Kind of Magic' has detailed the problems surrounding homeopathy (http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2007/nov/16/sciencenews.g2). He points out that there might well be a role in traditional medicine for the placebo effect (sugar pills of particular colours producing improvements in otherwise untreatable conditions) especially if impressive ritual is involved. He suggests, on the other hand, that meta-analysis of properly controlled homeopathic trials suggest it is no better than control treatments. He also suggests that many of the practices in such studies have a "dangerous, unscientific and secretive" side. Studies may not be genuine double blind studies or be applied to people when they have already developed a condition (e.g. any treatment you take when your cold is at its worst is going to produce an apparent improvement!). If 'alternative' medicines are to be taken seriously, they clearly must be at least as exposed to meaningful tests as are traditional medical treatments. It is no good claiming that their effectiveness is destroyed by 'scientific distrust' or refusing to accept criticism for an imperfect experimental design (ability to fairly replicate is the whole basis on which scientific research is conducted). Why then is there such an apparent enthusiasm for homeopathy (I even knew a vet who wanted to apply it to horses)? Goldacre suggests that such treatments are popular with people who have had some poor experience with traditional medicine. A further problem is that people well-known in other respects sometimes advocate it. They include the current heir to the British throne (who might well receive 'advice' on the topic but is not necessarily in a position to assess the veracity of claims) and a well-regarded female authoress (writing a good story is probably the opposite of evaluating complex medical tests). This transcending of boring expertise by fame has even infected several scientists, eminent in other areas, in my life time. Niko Tinbergen shared the Nobel Prize for Physiology in 1973 for his work on animal behaviour but strayed (not very successfully) into considerations of autism shortly afterwards. Famously, Linus Pauling obtained the 1954 Nobel in Chemistry for his work on the nature of chemical bonds and the 1962 Peace Prize for his campaign against above ground nuclear bomb tests but still felt in a position to advocate massive doses of vitamin C as a 'cure' for the common cold. Many people believe his claim but the evidence is far from comvincing.

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