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17 June 2014

Homeopathy Works

Cross-posted from the Winnipeg Skeptics blog.

Did that title get your attention?

Oh, don't worry. It's total nonsense. But I figured that it might be worth distilling some thirty comments down to a couple of words.

Pictured: not medicine.

A few years ago, Scott Carnegie had the audacity to state (factually, I might add) that KIDS 0-9 Cough & Cold remedy is not medicine. It's homeopathic, and it doesn't work. But we've been hearing about the wonders of this remedy (and homeopathy in general) in the comments section of this article ever since. These comments aren't likely to convince anyone of anything (unless it's that we should follow Popular Science's lead and simply shut down the comments section altogether), but they do sometimes present us with a teachable moment.

A recent example:
Just wondering if you have seen the new scientific studies indicating that this diluted water holds a memory, thus explaining how homeopathic medicine works? If not, then you should. You cant pick and choose which studies to preach if you are really a man of science. Science must always keep an open mind.

I am a huge skeptic of alternative medicines, due to health conditions and chronic pain. I did try this out of desperation and it seemed to work.
So I conducted a study of my own. My son was sick with a cold and on alternating days I added the 0-9 kids in his juice and the opposite days, I just gave him juice. The result? All 3 nights with kids 0-9, he slept through the night. The other 3 nights in the experiment, he woke up crying about his throat and the sniffles. No other condition/element was changed in his bedtime routine. This was my CONTROLLED study.

You do not have to believe in something for it to be real. Some remedies work for some people, other not so much. Every individual is different, remember that before you one-sidedly decide to preach to parents something doesn’t work.
While I certainly appreciate this commenter's attitude, she must see that the trial that she conducted is hardly sufficient to conclude that KIDS 0–9 is effective. Her "trial" was not double-blind, it was conducted on a single subject in an uncontrolled environment on a condition that is known to be self-limiting, and it is (of course) subject to all manner of bias on the part of the experimenter. I'm frankly astonished that anyone would conclude that the results (such as they are: I'm not too clear what her primary and/or secondary outcome measures were supposed to be) were due to the efficacy of homeopathy, rather than bias or random chance.

If this commenter is truly open-minded on the issue (which I hope), I'm curious as to why she would choose to ignore pretty much every systematic review and meta-analysis on the subject, and instead opted to conduct her own trial with n=1. For example, a recent meta-analysis conducted by Australia's National Health and Medical Research Council that examined the efficacy of homeopathic preparations for 68 different conditions concluded:
The available evidence is not compelling and fails to demonstrate that homeopathy is an effective treatment for any of the reported clinical conditions in humans.
That's no evidence for efficacy for any of the conditions studied—but her "trial" trumps that evidence, of course.

As to the question of water memory: this is total nonsense. Water memory was an ad hoc justification invented by Benveniste in an effort to deflect the reasonable criticism that homeopathic remedies are typically so dilute that they do not contain a single atom of the original "remedy". Attempts to independently replicate his research fail again and again (for example), and a team of chemists from the University of Toronto demonstrated in 2005 that water loses whatever "memory" it might have after a mere 50 femtoseconds. Additionally, Benveniste failed to provide any compelling mechanism by which a homeopathic remedy (if it did happen to somehow "remember" what its active ingredient was supposed to be, but conveniently forgot everything else it had come into contact with before and since) could heal the body using this "memory". It is also unclear how this "water memory" could be transferred to the sugar tablets sold at your local Whole Foods—or perhaps this commenter is suggesting that we should take "sugar memory" seriously, too?

She says, "You cant [sic] pick and choose which studies to preach if you are really a man of science. Science must always keep an open mind." I couldn't agree more, and I think that this is the true teachable moment. It's easy, on the Internet, to find other people who agree with you on any particular subject. If there are twenty studies on a subject with p-values of 0.05, chances are that people on either side of the issue can point to a study that confirms their preconceptions. Evidence that you're right is, after all, just a Google search away.

What's hard is to take science seriously and to attempt to achieve a reasonable understanding of the body of evidence on a topic. It's a lot of work, and it is contrary to the way we typically think on a daily basis. And so I challenge everyone (this commenter is far from alone!) to demonstrate that you are open to following the evidence wherever it leads, rather simply seeking out those few, poorly conducted trials that seem to support your preconceptions.

Those interested the history and practice of homeopathy can take a look at the presentation I gave for World Homeopathy Awareness Week a few years ago. It may prove instructive.

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