Homeopathy, science and whale omlettes

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Well‘, said the homeopath, drawing breath during a particularly bruising facebook debate, ‘science doesn’t know everything. Those conventional medicines, they always do more harm than good and hardly any have been tested by your so-called Gold Standard, the double blind placebo controlled trial (DBPCT). Just the other day I heard that Cartrophen took down a bunch of Labradors!

Apart from this typically egregious example of the kind of emotive, vague and unsubstantiated ‘evidence’ homeopaths favour, the point is science doesn’t begin and end with the DBPCT. Science is a system, a method which at its most basic is just a way of asking questions and investigating claims. Science actually comes down to one particular question: ‘Prove it!’. So in the unlikely event that Carprophen [a useful, safe and popular painkiller for dogs] did ‘take down a bunch of Labradors‘ that should, and would have been investigated through the official suspected adverse reaction surveillance scheme (SARSS) and steps taken, as actually happened in cases like Thalidomide in human medicine or the use of avermectins in certain collie dogs or any one of a number of other cases. It’s easy to do, you can report drug reactions online at the click of a button from a whole load of different official government websites or you can phone the drug company direct and they’ll do it for you or, if you’re old fashioned like me, you can fill out a garish yellow Veterinary Medicines Directorate SARSS forms using your favourite fountain pen and pop it in the post – I’ve got a pile of them on my desk and use them or their online equivalents regularly.

This is science in progress – a self-correcting system working to put itself (and medicine) in order. When did you last hear of anyone using vitamin E to treat heart disease? Yet this was a very popular treatment in the middle of the last century, used by intelligent, highly trained veterinary surgeons who, like homeopaths, swore it gave good results ‘in their cases’. It’s the same with the treatments of heroic medicine – no one practices purging, firing or bleeding now, the thought of doing so would horrify any contemporary veterinary surgeon. Yet they were the go-to treatments of their day and anyone who didn’t believe in them at the time would have been regarded as being thicker than a whale omlette.

The reason these long-discredited treatments are no longer mainstream as they once were is that science-based (rational) practitioners were, unlike homeopaths, able to recognise and accept a treatment practitioners had been using for generations was doing more harm than good and were willing to change based on scientific evidence rather than just personal experience. The problem with homeopaths is they don’t change, their methods of treatment are based entirely on personal experience. When presented with actual science – evidence homeopathy is ineffective – all we hear are increasingly implausible excuses about why it really does work, despite all appearences, and how critics are always wrong. Homeopaths’ starting point is first and foremost that homeopathy works, after that any evidence which comes their way is cherry-picked, filtered or dismissed to support that core belief, not to test it as should be the case. And that ain’t science, and it ain’t right!

And the daft thing is, after all that, even if proper drugs were utter rubbish, even if they did all the dreadful things homeopaths pretend they do, it STILL wouldn’t mean that homeopathy works!

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