The other day I was over at a friends house, whose family happens to be a dealing with a few (thankfully) non-serious medical issues. A casual glance at one of the living room end tables yields a treasure; on top of a pile of books lies Homeopathic Remedies: A Quick and Easy Guide to Common Disorders and Their Homeopathic Treatments by Asa Hershoff, N.D., D.C. I immediately start flipping through the book and-surprise surprise- its all silliness. Sure, there is some correct info like when the author discusses body systems. But overall the book is a lot of typical homeopath stuff that is stupidly wrong: dilutions, symptom/disease relationship, “individualization” of alternative medicine (an odd claim that Brennen McKenzie over at Science-Based Medicine handily takes apart). Par for the course really; the stuff is nonsense and the body of the work, the homeopath solution remedy guide, is exactly what you would expect.
But there was one part that stood out to me as particularly and repugnantly irksome. And that was the obnoxious insistence that, regardless of what you hear, homeopathy is proven science and the huge amount of relative research supports it (if you ever need a collection of awesome anti-homeopathy essays, here you go). The statement was made over and over again that homeopathy is “scientific,” and after he makes that claim a few times he backs it up with just two studies that he claims completely shows that homeopathy is real, proven science.
When people want to bestow the adjective of “scientific” to a term, they need to be able to back that up with legitimate evidence. Almost everyone wants to believe they are on the side of science, but we absolutely can’t let them elevate their ideas to the status of “scientific” without a fight. Take the infamous Kitzmiller v. Dover trial from 2005 where evolution trumped intelligent design. The main ploy of the creationists was to convince the court that their mythology was aligned with science. The plaintiffs went on the offensive and hammered the shit out of that claim, reducing it to the point where Michael Behe embarrassingly was forced to admit that if his intelligent design hypothesis was considered science, astrology would have to be as well.
That’s what we need to do every single time someone wants their idea to be considered scientific; we need to apply that same rigor. So when someone like Mr. Hershoff confidently places forward two studies that supposedly validate homeopathy, is our duty to examine that evidence. And that’s what I did.
The two articles he cites are Kleijnen et al. 1991 and Linde et al. 1997. They undoubtedly show homeopathy has been scientifically proven after comprehensive research, right? Hershoff wouldn’t just stridently showcase two articles if they didn’t put forward an airtight defense of homeopathy, right?
Turns out the articles prove nothing. In the first paper, published in The British Medical Journal, the majority of the homeopathic studies actually churn out varying degrees of positive results. This is where homeopaths stop and parade their “victory.” However, the BMJ’s final conclusion on the paper wasn’t as friendly to their side:
At the moment the evidence of clinical trials is positive but not sufficient to draw definitive conclusions because most of the trials are of low methodological quality and because of the unknown role of publication bias.
If you aren’t familiar with that last term, it simply means that studies were conducted or otherwise affected by some body with a stake in the research turning out a particular way. In this case, the positive results were conducted in part by the homeopath industry itself. In the second paper, published by The Lancet, the paper itself even states:
the results of our meta-analysis are not compatible with the hypothesis that the clinical effects of homoeopathy are completely due to placebo. However, we found insufficient evidence from these studies that homoeopathy is clearly efficacious for any single clinical condition.
So, while they didn’t find that homeopathy was totally non-effective, they didn’t find it effective either. Hmph. Kinda impudent for this Hershoff character to trumpet these studies as unassailable evidence, don’t you think?
This leads into a bigger question, one that we should always ask ourselves when were are confronted with a “Crazy.” They are saying something clearly wrong, something that they could have easily corrected by themselves- so are they lying or are they just plain clueless? In Mr. Hershoff’s case, I think there is sufficient evidence to point towards him being a liar. The argument can be as simple as this: Hershoff wants to make money. To make money, he needs his subject matter to be considered credible and scientific. So he takes two contentious articles, ignores any hint of debate (hel, he ignored what both the publishing journal and even the author’s own conclusions had to say!!), and then proudly displays them as validation.
Nothing is sacred, as the late Hitch would say. But what is and isn’t science is pretty close.