In Defense of Homeopathy

Jeanette Winterson offers her “defence” in the Guardian, and I can’t wait for Ben Goldacre to rip into it.

She starts with this classic argument from anecdote:

Picture this. I am staying in a remote cottage in Cornwall without a car. I have a temperature of 102, spots on my throat, delirium, and a book to finish writing. My desperate publisher suggests I call Hilary Fairclough, a homeopath who has practices in London and Penzance. She sends round a remedy called Lachesis, made from snake venom. Four hours later I have no symptoms whatsoever.

Dramatic stuff, and enough to convince me that while it might use snake venom, homeopathy is no snake oil designed for gullible hypochrondriacs

Actually, the fact that she thinks this is a valid argument shows that it is snake oil designed for gullible hypochondriacs. As they say, the plural of anecdote is anecdotes, not data.

It get’s worse – ready for some quantum water woo?

She starts with a defense of a homeopathic clinic in Africa:

I have found myself cited, and drawn into this, because I am on record as supporting homeopathic practice in general, and in particular the Maun homeopathy project, a clinic in Botswana set up by Fairclough

As a patron of Fotac (Friends of the Treatment Action Campaign) that has been fighting President Mbeke’s lunatic insistence that HIV sufferers just need Vitamin C and a good diet, I am dismayed by any claim that may deter HIV sufferers from taking anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs). And so is Peter Fisher, an NHS doctor, director of the Faculty of Homeopaths, and, incidentally, homeopath to the Queen. Good homeopaths know the value of conventional medicine and do not seek to undermine that value. Fairclough’s clinic, and her talk at the symposium, concentrate on using homeopathy to support the ARV programme by alleviating the side-effects of ARVs, and boosting the patient’s immune system so they are better able to fight off the opportunistic viruses that follow behind HIV, and the drugs necessary to suppress it. There is no suggestion that homeopathy can replace ARVs.

While it’s all good and nice that she’s all for real medicine, and this is the very bare minimum to not be an immoral monster, I disagree that homeopathy in this case is at worst harmless. As long as you’re spreading nonsense and fraud you are doing wrong to your fellow man. There is no evidence magic water does any of these things, and the last thing we need to do for Africa is export pseudoscience (they have enough with idiots like Mbeki, clearly). This can not be morally justified.

The article then devolves into the “other way of knowing” nonsense:

A recent furore over those homeopaths who offered an undercover journalist alternative remedies for the prevention of malaria has also prompted long-term critics of homeopathy to demand its head on a plate. There will soon be an article in the Lancet calling on doctors to tell their patients that homeopathic medicines offer no benefit. Until now the caveat has been no “proven” benefit. But where is the scientific sense is saying that because we don’t understand something, even though we can discern its effects, we have to ignore it, scorn it, or suppress it?

What effects exactly are we discerning of your magic water other than a placebo effect? That’s what no “proven” benefit means after all.

This homeophobia is, I think, a genuine terror of what homeopathy is suggesting; which is that we think differently about the relationship between the cure and the disease.

Ah yes, the appeal to think “differently” than scientifically. Why be rational when you can be an idiot?

It is not enough to say Disease A is caused by B and can be cured by C. Homeopathy, in common with other holistic approaches, asks that we look at the whole picture – the person, and not just his illness.

The whole person? How does magic water address the “whole person” better than a real drug that works on the whole person? Oh wait, she’ll explain it:

Specifically, in the case of homeopathy, the remedy picture, which is carefully drawn up after full consultation with the patient, follows the “like by like” premise – that tiny dilutions of the “problem” can prompt the body to effect its own cure. This is why the homeopathic code of practice does not talk about the medicines themselves having a simple causal effect – C cures A. Homeopathy seeks to understand everything we are, everything we do, as a web of relatedness.

Can you believe that arguments like these work on people? That magic water (that can’t even be said to contain the “problem”) work by magic because it’s like something else? And how can homeopathy seek to understand anything when it has no standards for inquiry and evidence? If I can just make shit up, how does that connect us in our web of relatedness?

This seems to be partly why tests used for conventional medicines fail when used to test homeopathy.

Ah yes – I know this doggerel. Your woo can not be penetrated by science!

Sceptics will say it is the medicines that fail, and not the trials, but if the medicines really are ineffective, why is it that so many people who have tried homeopathy have found that it makes a difference to their wellbeing?

It is because people are irrational idiots, are susceptible to suggestion, and will feel better if you listen to their problems patiently and then give them anything. But wait, she knows this already!

The placebo effect that is often cited by detractors as homeopathy’s only resource (ie that people like being talked to and then given a pill to take), is common to all therapeutic processes, and it is valuable.

So why did she ask? Oh well. Time for the quantum woo. It starts with proof she doesn’t know anything about physics.

Objections to homeopathy begin with what are viewed as the impossible dilutions of the remedies, so that only nano amounts of the original active substance remain, and in some cases are only an imprint, or memory.

Impossible to prove of course, we’re once again looking for the invisible dragon.

Yet our recent discoveries in the world of the very small point to a whole new set of rules for the behaviour of nano-quantities. Thundering around in our Gulliver world, we were first shocked to find that splitting the atom allowed inconceivable amounts of energy to be released.

No we weren’t! We knew that was going to happen ahead of time. That was the whole point of the Manhattan project, we knew that the atom contained energy. Despite what woos think, quantum mechanics and other branches of physics actually make sense to some people.

Now, we are discovering that the properties of materials change as their size reaches the nano-scale.

This might be the first true statement of the article, but is irrelevant, because homeopathic medicines don’t contain anything but water. They are diluted to the point that you could drink homeopathic remedies your whole life and not get a molecule of the ingredient.

Bulk material should have constant physical properties, regardless of its size, but at the nano-scale this is not the case. In a solvent, such as water, nano particles can remain suspended, neither floating nor sinking, but permeating the solution. Such particles are also able to pass through cell walls, and they can cause biochemical change.

Lies, lies and damn lies. Molecules are molecules, they don’t impart their properties to the whole by magic. If this were true, why drink any homeopathic remedy? According to this logic every molecule of water would have the properties of every chemical substance that has ever seen water on the planet. River water should be homeopathic medicine. And how is the memory of all the other things those water molecules have seen eliminated?

Fisher says that water as a solvent has properties that are not yet understood, and there was great excitement recently when a team of Korean scientists seemed to show that water has “memory”. I take New Scientist every week and I am continually amazed at how the seemingly well-known physical world of ours is beginning to show itself as stranger than anyone imagined.

She’s referring to this idiotic article. These people need to figure out if they like pharmacology or not. First their woo is impenetrable to science, now they want to say science shows a mechanism for pharmacological effect. Never mind that the substances being concentrated by dilution have no pharmacological effect even given undiluted (or if they did it would likely be poison). As always they want it both ways. It’s not about creating a consistent world view or understanding of the world, of physics, of medicine, or of “the whole person”. It’s about harnessing any argument, logical or illogical, to justify their belief in magic. First it’s the memory of the water, now it’s molecules aggregating together as they’re diluted. And always, there is a complete absence of a biologically-plausible mechanism of action or proof of efficacy in controlled trials.


I would like to see homeopathy better regulated. I would like to see the Society of Homeopaths engaging with its critics, as well as initiating more research. There will always be rogue homeopaths and bad homeopaths, but that is true of any profession. Above all we should be careful of dismissing the testimony of millions who say the remedies have worked for them.

How exactly do you regulate frauds to be less fraudulent? Why do we need to research a process that you say is immune to science? How do you tell a bad homeopath from a good homeopath? Well, the good one doesn’t discourage you from using real medicine. So why do we need homeopathy again?

This is a defense of homeopathy? Really?