Sunday, 28 October 2007

Homeopathy and other snake oil

Every sensible person keeps paracetamol tablets in the house to relieve pain, and adhesive plasters in case of injury. It is also a good plan to have always to hand something to counteract the effects of finding material on the internet which offends one’s regard for the truth, feeling for justice or merely one’s common sense.

Happily, many such antidotes are freely available and take the form of websites expressing sane and considered points of view based on evidence and not superstition or bigotry. There is, for example, RationalWiki, which discusses crackpot ideas in general and the beliefs of the American religious right in particular; an example of its style is its note on Faith Healers. For a corrective to anti-science, there is Sense About Science, which is an independent charitable trust responding to the misrepresentation of science and scientific evidence on issues that matter to society, and Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science with a similar aim.

There is also Bad Astronomy, which is currently dealing briskly with:
"Asteroid 1999 AN10 is predicted to come close to Earth in 2027 and 2039. NASA doesn’t think that it will hit. However there is evidence that it will—from the Bible."

Naturally there are many sites devoted to medicine and health, for this is the field in which more greedy charlatans flourish than any other. To cure the depression engendered by encountering pernicious rubbish about miracle cures, you can turn to Quackwatch or Quackometer which are an assurance that the snake-oil salesmen do not have it all their own way.

Then there is Homeowatch, which notes that
“Homeopathic 'remedies' are usually harmless, but their associated misbeliefs are not. When people are healthy, it may not matter what they believe. But when serious illness strikes, false beliefs can lead to disaster. This website provides information about homeopathy that is difficult or impossible to find elsewhere. The bottom line is that it is senseless and does not work.”

An illustration of the value of such sites in counteracting the outpouring of quackery was provided when Dr Andy Lewis put on his Quackometer website an article criticising the Society of Homeopaths (Europe ’s largest professional organisation of homeopaths) in no uncertain terms. The SoH did not attempt to challenge his assertions, but sent a threatening legal letter to his hosting company Netcetera, demanding they take his page down. Dr Lewis emailed the SoH politely asking which of his comments they wished to counter. There was no response but instead their lawyers sent another angry letter to his hosting company, who finally took the page down.

Of course, it has now been replicated a hundred times across the internet, on blogs or websites which have a total readership many times greater than that of the original article. You can read it here and Dr Lewis’s polite email is here.

[News items beginning ‘Scientists have discovered that…’ or an assertion that the efficacy of a product has been ‘scientifically proven’ should be regarded with scepticism (or by Americans with skepticism) until the relevant research has been published and peer-reviewed as described here.]


eric said...

When I was living in London (a quarter-century ago, I'm shocked to realize!), I was bewildered to learn of "The Royal Homeopathic Hospital". I briefly feared that I had moved to a nation with an even higher crackpot quotient than my own native land. It was with great relief that I came to see that nobody really took the Queen Mother or her "healthcare" facility seriously, and that the U.S.A.'s No. 1 ranking in sheer anti-scientific barminess remained unchallenged.

Tony said...

Yes, we're still behind you in many ways, but her grandson, who might be king one day, is trying hard to promote all kinds of quaint superstitions, particularly Hahnemann's garbage.