Must-read article in Bad Science on “The end of homeopathy?” Among other things the author addresses the way in which homeopaths distort the evidence. (The emphasis is mine.)
Why else might there be plenty of positive trials around, spuriously? Because of something called â€œpublication biasâ€œ. In all fields of science, positive results are more likely to get published, because they are more newsworthy, thereâ€™s more mileage in publishing them for your career, and theyâ€™re more fun to write up. This is a problem for all of science. Medicine has addressed this problem, making people register their trial before they start, on a â€œclinical trials databaseâ€œ, so that you cannot hide disappointing data and pretend it never happened.
How big is the problem of publication bias in alternative medicine? Well now, in 1995, only 1% of all articles published in alternative medicine journals gave a negative result. The most recent figure is 5% negative. This is very, very low.
There is only one conclusion you can draw from this observation. Essentially, when a trial gives a negative result, alternative therapists, homeopaths or the homeopathic companies simply do not publish it….
Now, you could just pick out the positive trials, as homeopaths do, and quote only those. This is called â€œcherry pickingâ€ the literature – it is not a new trick, and it is dishonest, because it misrepresents the totality of the literature. There is a special mathematical tool called a â€œmeta-analysisâ€œ, where you take all the results from all the studies on one subject, and put the figures into one giant spreadsheet, to get the most representative overall answer. When you do this, time and time again, and you exclude the unfair tests, and you account for publication bias, you find, in all homeopathy trials overall, that homeopathy does no better than placebos.
If all that homeopaths did was to push harmless placebos in situations where a placebo was the best choice, that might not matter. But having fraudulently established their credentials as healers, they abuse this power in horribly dangerous ways:
Itâ€™s routine marketing practice for homeopaths to denigrate mainstream medicine. Thereâ€™s a simple commercial reason for this: survey data show that a disappointing experience with mainstream medicine is almost the only factor that regularly correlates with choosing alternative therapies. Thatâ€™s an explanation, but not an excuse. And this is not just talking medicine down. One study found that more than half of all the homeopaths approached advised patients against the MMR vaccine for their children, acting irresponsibly on what will quite probably come to be known as the mediaâ€™s MMR hoax.
How did the alternative therapy world deal with this concerning finding, that so many among them were quietly undermining the vaccination schedule? Prince Charlesâ€™s office tried to have the lead researcher sacked.
A BBC Newsnight investigation found that almost all the homeopaths approached recommended ineffective homeopathic pills to protect against malaria, and advised against medical malaria prophylactics, while not even giving basic advice on bite prevention. Very holistic. Very â€œcomplementaryâ€. Any action against the homeopaths concerned? None.
And in the extreme, when theyâ€™re not undermining public-health campaigns and leaving their patients exposed to fatal diseases, homeopaths who are not medically qualified can miss fatal diagnoses, or actively disregard them, telling their patients grandly to stop their inhalers, and throw away their heart pills. The Society of Homeopaths is holding a symposium on the treatment of Aids, featuring the work of Peter Chappell, a man who claims to have found a homeopathic solution to the epidemic. We reinforce all of this by collectively humouring homeopathsâ€™ healer fantasies.