Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Kuhn, Anamolies, and those pesky Homeopaths

Those who enjoyed RPE201 (Philosophy, Science and Belief) may enjoy the piece at http://apgaylard.wordpress.com/2008/02/03/expect-the-unexpected/ which discusses how to make sense of the role of anomalous results / findings in the context of Kuhn's thought.

It also makes reference to the way that homeopathy has tended to mis-use scientific ideas (see badscience.net for some excellent material on this, and the role of evidence, risk and the like in science). If you want to understand more about evidence-based medicine and the problem with homeopathy - there is a fuller piece at http://www.badscience.net/2007/11/a-kind-of-magic/ which is well worth a read...



  1. In Goldacre’s presentation there seems to be a split between practical, cool, clean scientific evidence and the flaky girl who simply ‘feels better’ after using the ‘sugar pills’ of homeopathy. Goldacre continuously through his article admonishes homeopathy with bullying tactics like name-calling (sugar pills, placebo). The scenario is forked between so-called ‘intelligence’ and so-called ‘mysticism’. Goldacre pushes the division to an extreme to make his point (I would call this ‘bad arguing’ – bifurcation and ad hominem). He is bent on diminishing, insulting and ‘putting right’ his air-headed friend and encourages members of the naturopathic community to continue their complaint letters because he is stacking a pile for his next rant, which amounts to a veiled threat. I am not an expert on the matter, but I do believe homeopathic research does involve ‘provings’, which is evidence. The premise which under-pins homeopathy, is ‘like cures like’. In the homeopathic tradition the disease is eliminated by the very pattern of the disease. The pattern of the disease is matched somewhere in nature. When the match is found the remedy is given in a diluted form. If you notice many homeopathic remedies are poisons: laudanum, belladonna, mercury, digitalis, lead, silver, arnica, etc. It is only an idea and I really don’t know if it can be successfully applied to cancer, depression, heart failure, etc. I would guess it is highly unlikely and does not pose any threat to the medical community.

    I get really irritated with both positions. Scientists ask all traditions to provide evidence and evidence is based on past observation and experiments to predict future outcomes (induction – a problem for philosophers). Equally all observation is based on fallible perspectivism, what science is fighting against in the first place. If they were secure in their genuine superiority in their field, they would not feel the need to criticise those who simply ‘feel good’ from using homeopathy as an alternative to conventional medicine. On the other hand I feel equally irritated by spiritual superiority the likes you find in the alternative medical scene. Both camps are as bad as each other and seem to suffer from superiority and finger-pointing. In this case we only hear from Goldacre. I would guess that advocates for homeopathy are as bullish and enthusiastic as he is – hence the responses from the homeopathic community he has filed.

    In France homeopathy is a convention. It is not a ‘new-age’ movement. Homeopathy began in 1796 with Samuel Hahnemann. Penicillin was introduced in 1928. I wonder if the separation between European Rationalism and British Empiricism isn’t at the root of this homeopathy/conventional medicine stand-off.

  2. I think the style of Goldacre's piece may be a matter of taste we cannot agree on - but I am not sure he really is guilty of problematic bifurcation.

    He uses the contrast to make a useful point about homeopathy. Homeopaths suggest that what they do has an impact on the body. Despite the known flaws and errors, the approach of evidence-based research has been profoundly effective in helping us work out what does and doesn't have impacts on the body and disease.

    I think that homeopathy is not a great threat to health in the sense that all it provides is a placebo (the dilution being so great that no molecules of the original 'like-for-like' substance are usually present in the treatments they provide [often at high cost]). Its approach of pseudo-science (the whole provings things seems without basis - and rather like a trial without any of the controls used to ensure reliability) may have a more sinister impact as part of the wider damage to our collective cultural understanding of science.

    I'll stop now, as the topic of homeopathy is one where I get in danger of ranting a little...