Ben Goldacre on Homeopathy

Sometimes people wonder why the skeptic types get all worked up over a behavior that is usually seen as at-worst harmless. Ben Goldacre explains why, in one of the best, and clearest articles on the problem of homeopathic medicine.

This is exactly what I said, albeit in nerdier academic language, in today’s edition of the Lancet, Britain’s biggest medical journal. These views are what homeopaths are describing as an “attack”. But I am very clear. There is no single right way to package up all of this undeniable and true information into a “view” on homeopathy.

When I’m feeling generous, I think: homeopathy could have value as placebo, on the NHS even, although there are ethical considerations, and these serious cultural side-effects to be addressed.

But when they’re suing people instead of arguing with them, telling people not to take their medical treatments, killing patients, running conferences on HIV fantasies, undermining the public’s understanding of evidence and, crucially, showing absolutely no sign of ever being able to engage in a sensible conversation about the perfectly simple ethical and cultural problems that their practice faces, I think: these people are just morons. I can’t help that: I’m human. The facts are sacred, but my view on them changes from day to day.

It’s awesome. Read it.


  1. He forgot “people wasting money on stuff that does jack + shit”.

  2. RoseColoredGlasses

    Morons or saboteurs? Wrongness is not always stupidity, sometimes it’s malice.

  3. The homeopath on the ‘Today’ programme this morning was hopping mad – so it obviously hit a nerve. Good stuff.

  4. Its great if the homeopath was hopping mad, but did the Today people keep slamming him/ her with sensible questions?

  5. I’m just curious (yes I know that makes me sound like a concern troll).

    Anyway, a friend of mine passed away a number of years ago from cancer. He did everything his doctor recommended as far as treatment.

    In addition, he drank some herbal tea that was being promoted as some sort of cure all.

    In a situation such as this, is it ok to say that his behavior/decision making was harmless?

    I’m not trying to set a trap or be clever. I’ve had too much wine to pull that off. I’m just trying to make the point that there are those of us that are believers in science but when our life is on the line, we’re willing to hedge our bets.

  6. rmp,

    Presumably the tea did him no harm and possibly – via the placebo effect – eased him a little. Sounds harmless to me.

    It takes a great deal of conviction to stick to one’s views to the point of rejecting that sort of “bet hedging”. My mother swears by homeopathy; I firmly believe it’s bunk. Yet I find myself strangely reluctant to pop the cap of the bottle and pour a hundred or so sugar pills into my mouth, even though I’m very fond of sugar.

    Maybe it’s just the fact that the poor dear paid through the nose for those things… and will only go and buy me more if she finds out they are gone.

  7. Another Anonymous Poster

    Last weekend, my sister had a cold, sore throat, and laryngitis. Typical viral infection that’ll run its course in 4-5 days.

    My mom gave her some of this stuff. The ingredient list includes such wonderful things as turpentine and belladonna. Turpentine is the stuff you clean paintbrushes with. Belladonna is extracted from the deadly nightshade plant. It’s atropine, which is used all the time medicinally. However, it’s also really bad for you, especially if you’ve got pre-existing heart problems or glaucoma. The box mentioned neither of these contra-indications. It just blathered on about being ‘all natural’ and homeopathic.

    Anyway, my sister drank some. Her tongue immediately began swelling up and her oral mucosa got a lovely chemical burn.

    How one can sell turpentine as a health product just baffles me.

  8. Well, Maugrim, as AAP mentions, sometimes the ingredients have effects that **are never mentioned**. Its quite possible, if not probable, given how little research these idiots do into the effects of their ingredients and how little trust they have in real medicines, that someone could drink tea which contained something that, rather than being harmless, actually had contraindicated effects on the drugs they where already taking. And that **could** include cancer treatments, since not every method used to treat that is 100% chemo anymore.

    These people babble about “all natural”, but they ignore the fact that there are real chemicals in what they are selling, which can have entirely different effects than they claim, and sometimes their only effect is to screw up the effectiveness of real, tested, drugs. And that is just when they are using herbs and the like, and not mixing insane stuff, like turpentine, into them.

  9. Maugrim, thanks for the kind words.

    AAP and Kagehi, thanks as well. Even without things like turpentine (god that’s hard to believe, yet I do), I agree that even what would seem to be benign herbal treatments should be cleared with the Dr to make sure that there is no contraindicated effects on the drugs.

  10. Is there denial of the ameliorative power of the placebo effect?

  11. Mark Hadfield

    kim: “Is there denial of the ameliorative power of the placebo effect?”

    Certainly not by Ben Goldacre, the writer of the article in question. However a therapist using the placebo effect runs into an ethical issue: do I have to lie to the patient to make the treatment effective? It’s the homeopaths’ obstinate refusal to talk seriously about issues like this that frustrates him most. (It seems to me homeopaths avoid the issue by lying to themselves.)

    Your question suggests you have not read the article. You should.

  12. Poor choice of words. Is there denial of the ameliorative power of belief in the treatment?

  13. Andrew Dodds

    rmp –

    In your case, it wasn’t a problem, and if drinking this tea made your friend feel at least partially in control then it may have helped psycologically.

    However.. there was a case local to me of a 12 year old girl (google ‘nikita moore’, Bath UK area), who had terminal cancer and whoose parents basically went to every ‘alternative’ healer they could to try and cure her.

    Not one of those ‘healers’ did anything to help, of course – but they all took cash, meaning that the parents not only lost their daughter but also their life savings and house. None of those healers were as honest as doctors who said that there was nothing more they could do.

  14. Kim: You just repeated yourself, so Mark’s answer stands. What are you driving at?

  15. I’m not a scientist, but isn’t “the ameliorative power of belief” what the placebo effect *IS*?? No, there is no denial here. “Alternative” medicine is only capable of the placebo effect. Admittedly, there are people for whom the placebo effect is useful… hypochondriacs, people suffering from psycho-somatic ailments, and those with more money than sense.

    There’s a word for which I’m looking… umm… could it be… *DUH*!

  16. Mark Hadfield

    Revisiting a long-forgotten thread…

    Is there denial *by whom*, that is what is unclear in Kim’s question. Not by me, not by Ben Goldacre.

  17. James Pannozzi

    It would appear that Mr. Goldacre omitted some DETAILS from his analysis. See the following:

    Why on earth would Goldacre need to omit references to studies which validated the efficacy of Homeopathy?

    Could it be he is not quite as sure
    of his position as his statements pretend?

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