Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Bad what?

Just read this in The Guardian Unlimited's Bad Science section. For all those too lazy to read links it's meant to be a quasi-humorous piece about the government sneaking through legislation on the labelling of homeopathic medicines. Until 1st Jan product labelling has had to include the words "Homeopathic medicinal product without approved therapeutic indications." Now licenses can be applied for providing there is "bibliographic evidence that the product has been used in the indications sought" and the labelling has to reflect this. Naturally this isn't the only proviso; there are other strictures regarding the quality of the manufacturing process, this is the nanny state journos whinge about, after all.

The respected journalist, Ben Goldacre, has used the piece to basically give vent to his prejudices and bigotry towards the homeopathic profession. Although he uses the term "Peddlers" he stopped short of calling them witch doctors or charlatans but you get my drift. He states when the results from all the trials over the years are added up it's proven that a homeopathy remedy is no more or no less efficient than a placebo. This is his basis for saying that "there's nothing in it". But anyone with an ounce of remembered science will justifiably be shouting back that there is, because the placebo effect works. That's why it's called an effect. Without the placebo effect there would be no reliable trials anywhere, including, presumably, the ones he's using as the basis for his article.

Mr Goldacre then rubbishes the government for succumbing to the homeopathic lobby with this labelling, saying it's been an incredible waste of time and public money. I say clever Mr Blair. If people want to believe in homeopathy, and there are millions who do, and spend money on products that "cure" them and subsequently keep them away from clogging up my local GP's waiting room, then it's a shrewd move to give the products an official backing. Because, if Mr Goldacre is right, it ain't gonna harm them one way or t'other. They're not even snake oil.

The fact is, nobody knows why homeopathy appears to work in some cases. When I first met my wife she used to display the equivalent of nettle rash every time we met (I'd like to think it was the sheer excitement of our encounters that caused it. Hell, it was). She borrowed a friend's urtica pills and it cleared up straight away every time she took one. She couldn't even claim that the consultation was part of the treatment and would claim to be a fence sitter where homeopathy was concerned.

Ben Goldacre's crime is that he has judged something solely on the evidence against it. Evidence that can only use current science to either prove or disprove. The government, with its labelling initiative has taken the oft maligned middle ground and said that it's OK. We're not sure why but go ahead as long as... Imagine a 17th century scientist in our world. What would he know about televisions or space flight? He'd see the evidence for it right enough but he'd probably run a mile from the witchcraft. After all, he wouldn't even be able to understand much of the physics behind such phenomena, let alone the mechanics. 20 million of us climb into a car each day in this country but only a tiny fraction of those drivers know how the damn thing works. We take for granted technology that could only have been fantasised about 30 years ago yet we're happy to do so. Likewise all medicines. Some conventional therapies I'm sure rely on trials that prove only their efficacy, the chemistry being an as yet unproven mystery.

Live with it, it won't kill you.

3 Vegetable peelings:

Blogger Sharon J said...

I don't care what anybody says, the urtica worked! And it wasn't even because I expected it to work, because I didn't. I for one don't give a hoot why or how something works as long as it helps me feel better. Well, I do care a bit...

~Sharon J

6:26 pm  
Blogger The Preacher said...

"Ben Goldacre's crime is that he has judged something solely on the evidence against it. Evidence that can only use current science to either prove or disprove."

Either we evaluate claims based on 'current science' or we believe every wild claim that comes along simply because it has received glowing reports from happy customers. Should we also believe that energy from chakras can be channelled through my hands to heal people? Science can't test my claim now but this does not make my claim any more plausible.

It's true that some discoveries have difficulty being accepted. Your line of reasoning though is similar to the one used by by many cranks and quacks. Let's look at this reasoning.

Copernicus' ideas were rejected and supressed by his contempories. In the end though he was proven right. Some cranks use this to explain why their ideas are ignored by mainstream science but this is in most cases untrue.

For every Copernicus there will be a thousand cranks who's ideas have no merit. For every scientific theory that is rejected but eventually vindicated, there will be a thousand that fade away because they were simply wrong.

Our current system of peer-review and freedom of communication makes it far more difficult for a scientifically sound idea to be swept under the carpet.

As far as I'm aware, there have been no major scientific trials of homeopathy that prove it to be more effective than a placebo. When trials find homeopathy to be ineffective, the standard defence is that you can't use things like double-blind testing they way you would when testing conventional medicine. It's claimed to have a scientific basis yet it can't be tested scientifically?

This isn't medicine, this is faith healing in a bottle and it is a slippery slope. If we claim that ideas like this can be valid despite it being illogical, what next? Are we to believe that Aryans are superior to all other races and blame the lack of evidence on the claim that science simply isn't advanced enough to prove what we already know to be true?

12:09 am  
Blogger Richard Seamon said...

You've missed my point. I couldn't give a monkey's nip whether the claims or counter claims prove anything. Nothing yet has proved that they're dangerous and if they're not, what's the problem? And if some people claim relief from them and they're happy about it, all well and good. Being held to ransom by charlatans? Maybe...but have you fallen for advertisers tricks before and bought something you didn't really need? Did it make you feel good that you'd bought something shiny and new to replace the clunky old thing? There is no difference. It's not science, never will be but if it can't harm you as Ben claims it can't then where the hell is the problem?

12:21 am  

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