Apparently, while I’ve been at this meeting, Mayo Clinics Proceedings has published this systematic review of the scientific literature on the “efficacy” of homeopathy. Its conclusion:
The evidence from rigorous clinical trials of any type of therapeutic or preventive intervention testing homeopathy for childhood and adolescence ailments is not convincing enough for recommendations in any condition.
Actually, it would have been more accurate to say “not convincing at all.” It’s inevitably smaller, more poorly designed or non-randomized studies that purport to show treatment effects, which inevitably are shown to be no better than placebo in larger, well-designed randomized studies. And then when those studies come out homeopaths inevitably claim that randomized, double-blind studies are not an “appropriate” manner in which to study homeopathy. (It’s too “complex” and “individualized,” you know.) Meanwhile, the American Medical Student Association uncritically promotes homeopathy, among other forms of the woo-iest woo, and all this woo infiltrates American medical schools.
Some mainstream woo-pushers, not wanting to seem totally shameless, try to give woo the trappings of evidence based medicine. Here’s the recipe: test an implausible claim and throw in a little chance variation. Combine that with a massive dose of publication bias and voilà!–evidence based woo!
“Evidence-based woo”? I may have to–ahem–appropriate the term for my own nefarious use.
The plain fact is that medical science knew enough to debunk homeopathy over nearly 200 years ago. Oliver Wendell Holmes, for example, used pretty much the same scientific rationale to show it for the woo it was. The only reason homeopathy seemed better than traditional medicine 200 years ago was because traditional medicine was so bad. As Arthur Allen reminded me in his book Vaccine, medicine in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s consisted of bleedings, epic sessions using purgatives, cadmium- and arsenic-laced tonics, and a variety of other demonstrably harmful “treatments.” The reason homeopathy seemed better was because it was, in essence, doing nothing; i.e., a placebo. Given how harmful some medical treatments were back then, doing nothing was often better than what doctors did, and that’s exactly what homeopathy did. The mystery is why the irrationality that is homeopathy stubbornly persists now that there are effective treatments for so many diseases.