Tag Archives: Homeopathy

Why teaching rational thinking is so important….(Homeopathy yet again)

11 May


The undergraduate programme of which my rational thinking course is a part is being revised, and from September my course will change from being one semester long to being a year long. In preparation for this change I’ve been reviewing my existing material, and this week I happened to be looking at my lecture on homeopathy.

I’ve written previously about what a great vehicle for teaching rational thinking homeopathy is, but having looked at my material I did think that I needed to update it a little. One particular point that I thought needed updating was my use of a 2007 House of Commons Early Day motion as an indication that the UK Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, supported homeopathy. Now, I’m no great supporter of Mr Hunt, but I did think that using something seven years old to attempt to define his current views was pushing it a bit. I’d settled on the idea that I would email the Health Department to ask for the minster’s current views, when I came across a startling newspaper story.

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The Guardian’s story ‘Jeremy Hunt sent homeopathy studies to chief medical officer’ suggests that the minister recently asked the government’s Chief Medical Officer to studies of homeopathy. Two things worry me about this, one quite nerdy and the other rather fundemental. Firstly, the two studies in question were cosponsored by Boiron, a leading homeopathic manufacturer. It might seem reasonable for the minister to pass compelling new evidence to the Chief Medical Officer for advice, but surely obvious vested interest is unlikely to be’ compelling’. My second, much more basic point, is that the minister seems to completely either overlook (or not understand), hat in asking the Chief Medical Officer, ‘Does homeopathy actually work’, he’s actually asking her to admit that everything medical science currently knows is wrong. To put it bluntly, if homeopathy works then science has got something very basic, very wrong. Given that I suspect the minister isn’t completely anti-science, what could possibly be going on here.

I genuinely haven’t had time to think about the answer to that question yet, but at the very least my homeopathy lecture will remain next year, and Jeremy Hunt has reinforced my belief in the importance of the stuff I teach !

My next job is to update my correspondence with Dr Nancy Malik (See the comments section of this post). Should be interesting 😉

What about herbal medicine ?

8 Nov

When I use homeopathy as an example in my rational thinking lectures I inevitably get asked ‘what about herbal medicine ?’. My reply to this is usually along the lines ‘herbal medicines are different, in that there may well be some active efficacious ingredient, but (stealing a line from Dara O’Briain) what herbal medicine has been tested and shown to work is now just called medicine ‘. I’ve always been conscious that this is a slightly flippant response, but up until now I’ve not had much more useful to add.

This week I came across an article in the New York Times suggesting that many herbal medicines don’t actually contain what they claim to (via @wildscrutineer). The New York TImes article reports a peer-reviewed study from the journal BMC Medicine that uses DNA testing to examine to contents of 44 herbal products. What is startling about this study is that many of the herbal products tested contained contaminants (i.e. ingredients not listed on the label), or in a number of cases contained ingredients entirely different from those listed on the label. In some cases the authors found contaminants that they believed to be toxic.

What I find interesting about this study is that it rather changes the ‘question’ about herbal medicine. Whatever ones views on conventional medicine one accepts that the medicine contains exactly what it says on the label. With herbal medicine it seems that we haven’t yet got as far ‘does it work ?’,  we need to establish ‘is it what it says it is ?’

Is red wine really good for you ???

7 Sep

As part of the assessment for my rational thinking course I get students to work up their own example of ‘bad’ science reporting as a presentation to the general public. I try to dot my teaching with examples so that the students have something to work from when constructing their own presentations. I’m thus always on the look out for new examples, to add to things like homeopathy and the MMR vaccine that I already talk about.


My interest was piqued by a series of adverts on London’s underground system for a product called ‘Fountain’ calling itself the ‘beauty molecule food supplement’. Fountain is being promoted by the UKs leading pharmacy, Boots, and judging by the display in my local store (see picture below) they expecting to sell an awful lot of it. The ‘beauty molecule’ in question is Resveratrol, something I’ve come across before in relation to claims about the health benefits of red wine.


The idea that red wine has health benefits has become very well established in the UK over the last five years. Get a group on middle class English people around a table with a bottle of red wine and you can guarantee that someone will say that it is ‘purely medicinal’. Running my usual test what the British public think ( a search of the Daily Mail website) produced a huge range of alleged health benefits of red wine :

The anti-ageing cream that’s made from red wine: Antioxidant found in grape skins can reduce wrinkles and lines

‘Miracle ingredient’ in red wine could help people live longer and more energetic lives

New drug being developed using compound found in red wine ‘could help humans live until they are 150’

(That is just a sample of the health ‘benefits’ of red wine)

What is really intriguing about this is that the vast majority of the research that all this is based on has not been with human participants. Interestingly, even the web site of Boots is clear that “Many of the headlines about the possible anti-ageing and disease fighting possibilities for resveratrol have come from laboratory or animal studies rather than evidence from trials involving humans”. Even more damning is the idea that to get the equivalent dose of resveratrol used in some mouse studies a human would need to drink 60 litres of red wine a day !


All this alone seemed link a really nice teaching example, but I came across a really interesting thing when I looked at resveratrol studies that did use human participants.  A recent study from the University of Copenhagen (admittedly with a small sample) suggests that resveratrol supplements might actually block the health benefits of exercise in older men.

Taken together this seems like a really good demonstration for students of how fairly thin pieces of research can get picked up by the press and rapidly established in the public consciousness. I also think there is an interesting ethical discussion to be had here about what pharmacies should be able to promote. Boots of course also sell homeopathic products, criticising them here might not get very far !

NHS seems to think homeopathy isn’t too bad !

21 Feb


This is a really disappointing story that I came across via the excellent blog of David Colquhoun, Professor of Pharmacology at UCL.

For a number of years I’ve been encouraging my students to the National Health Service’s web site NHS Choices as a reliable source of about the range of health-related news stories that populate the British press on a daily basis. Sadly, if you look at the NHS Choices page on Homeopathy something very odd appears. Unlike the equivalent American website, NHS Choices fails to point out the there is no scientific evidence supporting homeopathy and it would be perfectly possible to read the page as an endorsement of homeopathy as a treatment for a range of ailments.

All of this is depressing enough, but it becomes worse when you look at what Professor David Colquhoun discovered, that the changes to the NHS Choices page seem to have been driven by an organisation supported by Prince Charles !! ~It seems like the NHS may have fallen pray to a rather odd combination of political correctness and the desire for ‘balance’ that undermines a lot of TV news science coverage.

What I find really intriguing is that what seems like a serious backward step in getting rationality to a wider audience might actual benefit my teaching. When I get around to teaching about homeopathy in the autumn it will be interesting to see the impact on the students when they realise that they understand something that the NHS appears not too. I suspect that this might actually reinforce the value of learning to think rationally. So every cloud may well have a silver lining.

UPDATE 22nd FEB 2013

In an even more bizarre turn of events I’ve just read a Daily Mail article that very nicely summarises what David Colquhoun has uncovered. We now seem to be in the very odd situation of the Daily Mail being a more reliable source of information than the National Health Service !

The Irrationalists have landed. Another Americanism crosses the Atlantic !

19 Sep

A few week’s ago I wrote about cultural differences between the US and the UK, and talked about the Texas Republican Party’s decision to try to outlaw critical thinking. The subtext of much of the writing about this bizarre position (including my own writing !) was ‘we Europeans are much saner than those odd Americans’, but a couple of things that I’ve read over the last week make me think that the irrationalists may well have crossed the Atlantic and established a bridgehead in the UK Government.

Last week’s Government reshuffle in the UK led to the appointment of Jeremy Hunt as Secretary of State for Health, running one of the worlds largest employers with a multi-billion pound budget. Things become interesting if you delve a few years to an Early Day Motion put before the House of COmmons in 2007. EDM 1240 stated :

‘That this House welcomes the positive contribution made to the health of the nation by the NHS homeopathic hospitals; notes that some six million people use complementary treatments each year; believes that complementary medicine has the potential to offer clinically-effective and cost-effective solutions to common health problems faced by NHS patients, including chronic difficult to treat conditions such as musculoskeletal and other chronic pain, eczema, depression, anxiety and insomnia, allergy, chronic fatigue and irritable bowel syndrome; expresses concern that NHS cuts are threatening the future of these hospitals; and calls on the Government actively to support these valuable national assets’

It is worrying enough that 206 MPs supported this motion, but amongst those MPs was Jeremy Hunt. We thus now have the slightly odd position of the British National Health Service being run by someone who doesn’t think ‘Science’ is the best approach to medicine. There is an interesting postscript to this, in that one of Hunt’s constituents wrote to him to question his support for EDM 1240, and received the following response :

Dear Mr Ellis,

Thank you very much for your letter regarding EDM 1240 in support of Homeopathic Hospitals. I appreciate that you are disappointed that I added my name to this motion, and read your comments on this issue with interest.

I understand that it is your view that homeopathy is not effective, and therefore that people should not be encouraged to use it as a treatment. However I am afraid that I have to disagree with you on this issue. Homeopathic care is enormously valued by thousands of people and in an NHS that the Government repeatedly tells us is “patient-led” it ought to be available where a doctor and patient believe that a homeopathic treatment may be of benefit to the patient.

I am grateful to you for taking the time to write with your concerns. I realise that my answer will be a disappointing one for you, but I hope that the letter helps to clarify my view.

Yours sincerely,


Jeremy Hunt Member of Parliament South West Surrey

You’ll notice here that Hunt’s has moved slightly from suggesting there is evidence supporting homeopathy to suggesting that ‘because people want it the NHS should pay for it’. You can find more of this story in an excellent summary written by Tom Whipple

The man charged with running the NHS being an advocate of homeopathy is worrying enough, but a second recent story suggests that ‘irrational’ thinking may well be spreading across the UK.

As part of the UK’s move towards state-funded schools being run by private organisation a number of new ‘Free’ school are due to open shortly. Amongst these are schools run by the Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship. Steiner already run an academy in Hereford where some disturbing evidence has appeared. The Hereford Academy has written to parents seeking permission to treat students using homeopathic medicines (including for burns !!!) and uses a Science textbook that questions the Darwinian explanation of evolution.

For anyone who might be imagining that this is a party-political point, it’s worth noting that the 206 MPs who signed EDM 12040 came from all three major political parties including some who really should know better (Vince Cable). ‘Irrationalism’ doesn’t seem to be associated with a particular political view.

(Just as I was about to post this piece live seen Mitt Romney’s ‘47%’ speech. Maybe the UK still has a way to go to reach the USA level of ‘Irrationalism’ !!!)

All of this seems to me to suggest that the ‘irrationalism’ that looks rampant in the USA is spreading to this country. It makes me even more convinced that universities need to be producing a generation of graduates who are equipped with the rational cognitive skills to fight back !

Does homeopathy really do any harm ?

28 May

Getting students to initially engage their rational thinking skills can be relatively straightforward, in that you are really only asking them to be skeptical about what they are presented with. The bigger challenge is to get then to ‘unpick’ a more complex argument using all the skills they have learnt. Again, homeopathy can provide a useful vehicle for encouraging this deeper level of rational thinking.

As I’ve previously discussed I use homeopathy as a teaching example, as it’s an area where basic skepticism will lead students in the right direction. However, this basic skepticism leads stronger students to two questions,’if it’s making them feel better why should we worry about it’ and ’if it’s oh water it can’t be doing them any harm. These questions confirm that students have understood the basic issues that rationalism has with homeopathy (i.e. It’s water and it’s a placebo) but also show that they need to be encouraged to delve a little deeper.


Some years ago the BBC’s Newsnight programme ran an investigation into homeopathy in which they used hidden cameras to record UK-based homeopaths recommending a homeopathic remedy for malaria prophylaxis. As you might expect, in a subsequent interview with Emily Maitlis a representative of the UK regulatory group for homeopaths condemned the prescription of such remedies.
Many of my students recognise the usual prophylaxis treatment for malaria, and as such begin to realise the possible harm that homeopathy might do. One could, of course, employ the ’bad apples’ defence against this evidence in that it only shows two ’dodgy’ homeopaths amongst many hundreds. However, this brings me to a strange exchange I had with a homeopath following a recent post here.

My post, “Homeopathy as a teaching example” prompted a series of comments from an Indian homeopath seeking to ‘educate’ me about homeopathy. You can read all the comments for yourself here. I was unfailingly polite in my reponses to the comments, and as i like to see everything as an opportunity for collecting teaching materials I decided to ask what she’d recommend for malaria prophylaxis. Given the drive from UK homeopaths to be taken seriously I was fully expecting to be referred to my GP, but surprisingly I received a very rapid response suggesting a homeopathic remedy.

So, the answer to the question ‘Does homeopathy do any harm’ would seem to be YES especially if one considers the modern wecb-connected world.

I suspect this post may generate more responses from homeopaths, which will hopefully generate more teaching examples.

Homeopathy again !

18 May

I often use homeopathy as a teaching example, as there are so many resources available to liven up teaching. Some years ago the BBC’s flagship documentary programme, Horizon, ran a film on homeopathy that is still accessible via YouTube.


The documentary provides both useful background on homeopathy, and an interesting test of its effectiveness.

More recently, the House of Commons Science and Technology committee produced a report on homeopathy. Amongst the evidence taken by the committee was a comical  exchange between the committee chairman, a representative from Boots, the UK’s largest chemist (drugstore) chain and largest retailer of homeopathic remedies, and a representative of UK homeopathic manufacturers. The representative of Boots said that he had no evidence for the efficacy of homeopathy. When asked the same question the manufacturers representative said that he has a range of evidence showing the efficacy of homeopathy. With a heavily ironic tone the committee chairman then suggest that he might like to pass the evidence on to his largest customer. Even more revealing is the admission from the Boots representative that he stocks homeopathic remedies not because they work but solely because customers demand them.

The video of this exchange always produces intersting discussion with students. They are particulayl interested in the idea that Boots promote themselves as being able to offer health advise, but are happy that they have no evidence of the efficancy of homeopathy.

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