Saturday, April 30, 2005

Homeopathic arguments are like diluted water (nothing is in them)

Homeopaths have come up with quite a few arguments that homeopathic works. Almost all homeopaths have the "I have seen it work" argument as the foundation of their belief in homeopathy.

The patient:

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I've been suffering from [bla bla bla bla] for a long time. I went to a practitioner who offered me a treatment and I started feeling better.

The skeptic:

Since you have already tried "treatment X" and it works for you, or even if it "seems" to work for you, the logical thing is for you to keep using it.
(The skeptic would tell herself that there was a chance she might be operating on superstition rather than on trustworthy knowledge).

From the patient's point of view there is no need for any other reality. You can say that it seems to work for the patient (i.e. patient have the subjective impression of getting better). But people can be wrong about their own subjective impressions in that sense. They can also say one thing and experience another. So it is possible that someone saying they subjectively feel better is also partially wrong, even subjectively.

The reason for feeling better could be - not the remedy itself, but the naturally fluctuating course of symptoms. The only way to be sure it is the remedy itself that relieves your symptoms is to set up a double-blinded test where you have no way of knowing whether you are taking the remedy or a placebo. If the remedy really works, you will be able to tell which you are taking based on the results.

The skeptic:

Are you recommending it to others on the basis of your own experience or belief?

The patient:

Yes, I want to share this with anyone I know.

The skeptic:

There are hundreds of remedies out there, and the chances that any one of them will work for a given individual are quite small. There is no logical basis to choose one of them over another.

The other side of the coin is that of science:

Science wants to know exactly what is going on when someone says a reatment "works". Only systematic study under controlled conditions can answer the questions of interest to this perspective. There have to be extensive and certain information about the cases, and also independent confirmation of the facts. So the only way to find out if there is an objective effect of a treatment is to use the scientific method.

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And what will you do the next time you have a health problem? If you choose a remedy because other people say "It works for me" then by the same criterion you should be willing to try bloodletting. This treatment was doing more harm than good in earlier century, but a lot of people felt better (i.e. subjective impression of getting better). I don't know anyone that even would consider this treatment today. How can we be certain that alternative methods really work and aren't doing more harm than good?

Trying to back the "I have seen it work" argument up homeopaths will produce a number of supposed miracle cures. Homeopaths love to cite "miracle cures" where the patient got better after using homeopathy. But it is amazing (?) how often homeopaths will make grand claims of curing things that will turn out not to have been diagnosed by a doctor, unreliable claims (i.e. not properly documented) or curing sickness that is self limiting (people will recover anyway from the condition on their own given time).

Today's quackery is definitely homeopathy and it is to be compared with bloodletting used in earlier century. The "I have seen it work" and "I feel better" argument was used then too. Believing in the methods of homeopathy there is a serious risk of supporting superstition and quackery. Homeopathy is wishful thinking based on ignorance and the homeopathic argument doesn't make any scientific proof so far.

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