UK Homeopathy Protest
A while ago, I wrote a rambling post on my private livejournal (before I started this blog) about natural medicines and how they are handled poorly and need more regulation. Ephedra (“Mormon Tea”) was my main gripe: Look at this, a natural medicine that really works, and because it wasn’t regulated, it got out of control and people died. So now it’s banned. It serves as evidence that the natural medicine industry is a disorganized, unscientific pile of scam artists and loonies.
Over the weekend, we had some hilarious news from those plucky skeptics in the UK, a country that on dit seems to be having a resurgence of free thought. The topic? Homeopathic medicine. Now this is different from “natural medicine” in that homeopathic medicine is, mgs per ml, a whole lot crazier. But easy targets make good television (and blogging!).
Here’s the story in brief: 400 protesters organized by a group called Merseyside Skeptics Society protested the British public National Health Service (NHS), which pays for homeopathic remedies. They protested by taking an overdose of a sleeping remedy that NHS funded at the recommendation of the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE). Keep in mind as you read (here or at the links above) that some snake oil salesman has made a fortune on this so-called medicine. The protesters took a massive overdose of the “drug” and reported no effects other than a little sugar high.
Here’s a quote from the Salon article about what, specifically, they were protesting by taking this overdose:
NICE, which evaluates medical treatments, controversially ruled that a liver cancer drug widely used in Europe didn’t offer enough benefits for the cost. So at the same time the NHS was denying a drug to seriously ill patients, it has been spending up to £4 million a year on homeopathy.
Homeopathy claims to work on the principle of ‘like cures like’. Its founder, the German doctor Samuel Hahnemann, devised homeopathy after he ate some cinchona bark, a cure for malaria. The bark gave him shakes and a fever – the symptoms of malaria itself – so he decided a tiny amount of something that mimicked the illness could cure it.
£4 million a year on sugar pills for sleep disorders, based on a theory that any fifth grader can to tell you is a crock? And now irrefutable proof on the street that the drug does nothing? Let’s amuse ourselves by looking for someone to blame, shall we?
One suspects corruption, immediately: The snake oil salesman must be the nephew of someone at NICE, right? Well, we have no evidence of this, and I suspect that we would have seen some if it existed. I won’t rule it out, but it seems unlikely.
After corruption, I usually suspect lobbyists: graft with a clean conscience. I grew up inside the beltway, so I’m a bit of a cynic about lobbyists. But in this case, the more powerful lobbyists would be the ones working for the big pharmaceutical company — not the little tonic huckster. Besides, the UK has more stringent laws about lobbying than we do here.
I think the real culprit is credulity. The lazy mind is to blame. It is easier to listen to the simple words of facile homeopathy (“like heals like” fits nicely on a bumper sticker) than the complexities of melatonin regulation and so forth.
Why do we need a protest here? It shouldn’t be necessary to tell a government health service that sugar pills don’t help people sleep. Based on the principal of the lazy mind, I suspect that the protest will raise some eyebrows but do little to change things. Already you see the spin: Homeopathy’s predictable response makes it look like a two-sided issue. From TDM:
Chief executive Paula Ross [of The Society of Homeopaths] said: ‘This is an ill advised publicity stunt in very poor taste, which does nothing to advance the scientific debate about how homeopathy actually works.’
She also says that treatments are designed specifically for an individual, and that no dose other than the witch-doctor-specified dose (which would be different for each person, mind you) would have an effect. Nowhere does she explain how the remedy is supposed to work, by any scientific or even unscientific action other than the insultingly-simple lie “like cures like”. I’m no doctor, but I don’t think you need to be one to understand that homeopathy is bunk.
Yet there is the Daily Mail, dutiful journalists that they endeavor to be, giving us both sides of the story when in fact one “side” is a small group of witch doctors, frequently debunked by mainstream science, claiming that sugar cures insomnia. Responsible journalism is not about giving credibility to kooks. See Salon or Dawkins for more appropriately harsh treatments of Homeopathy. But then, both of those sites that I linked above are blogs.
Because of the Daily Mail’s equal (which does not mean fair or accurate) coverage, I feel the need to respond to Ms. Ross, even if my readership is small by comparison.
A medicine has an effect or it does not — if the effect is to do X, then taking too much medicine should have X effect, magnified, perhaps dangerously, in proportion to the overdose. With many medicines, we see a different effect of taking an overdose than the stated effect: An overdose of a stimulant can put someone in a coma; an overdose of a pain killer can cause severe pain from liver damage. The action of the drug is explained in a meaningful way in each case. Furthermore, many sleep aids are mostly harmless and have no overwhelming effect: Not everyone who takes a big dose of melatonin supplement pills gets drowsy, though some do. I choose melatonin specifically because it’s a mostly unregulated “dietary supplement” to be fair to homeopathy. But melatonin is unlike most supplements in that it has been studied scientifically, and its mechanism for action is largely understood (look it up in Wikipedia).
As the topic for a first post, this subject illustrates the theme I intend to focus on for this blog: Demand proof. Demand it from your doctor, your neighbor, and your media. Demand it in the privacy of the exam room. Demand it in the public square.