Monday, February 22, 2010

Homeopathy Does NOT Work On Babies or Animals!

Homeopaths have today been on the end of a mightily rigorous shoeing, courtesy of the House of Commons Science & Technology Committee here in the UK. Gimpy and DC have already posted excellent blow-by-blow accounts of the Committee's "Evidence Check" report, which dismisses homeopathy as pure placebo and denounces homeopaths for their slapdash and misleading attitude to the scientific evidence.

Predictably, the homeopaths have quickly started squealing about how unfair all this is. The BBC quotes Robert Wilson, of the British Association of Homeopathic Manufacturers, saying how "disappointed" he is:
He said the MPs had ignored evidence that homeopathy was effective. "There is good evidence that homeopathy works, for example in animals and babies, neither of which experience placebo effects."
I wish I had a pound for every time I have heard this pathetic argument. It is so obviously false that it immediately reveals that the speaker either has not thought for two seconds about what they are saying, or that they simply do not care that they are bullshitting. If you do not agree, pause for a moment before reading on, and see if you can think of any ways in which a placebo effect might work on a baby or animal.


Finished? OK, here is my list of possible mechanisms, in no particular order. If you have some different ones, or can explain why mine are wrong, let me know in the comments...

  1. The effect is psychological, and operates upon the owner/parent. Because they expect the treatment to work, they see improvement where there is nothing, or nothing more than normal time-limited or cyclical changes in the condition. This effect is greatly enhanced when the owner/parent is highly motivated to see improvement, either because they have a strong personal belief in the treatment, or have invested time, money and credibility in it. It will also reassure the "worried well" parent/owner whose baby/animal is not actually ill in the first place.
  2. The effect is real, but derives from changes in the parent/owner's behaviour and emotional state. Because they know their baby/animal is receiving treatment, they become less anxious. The babies/animals pick up on this mood change and so relax more themselves.
  3. The effect is real but derives from changes associated with the treatment, rather than the treatment itself. For example, if the baby/animal has received extra care and attention, a change of diet or sleep patterns, and a break from work or other activities, these could have caused the improvement. Similarly, if an alternative treatment has been given in conjunction with real medicine, parents/owners may attribute any success to the treatment rather than the medicine.
  4. The effect is real and arises as a conditioned response to the rituals of care. If the baby/animal has previously improved after taking real medicine, then the administration of a placebo in the same way can evoke the conditioned response.
  5. The effect is real and arises as part of the acute phase response to an injury. Pain or inflammation evolved to stimulate the suffering organism to immobilise the injury site and to seek help. Once this has been achieved, the pain/inflammation is less necessary and can dissipate.
In other words,virtually all of the many factors that can influence the placebo effect in adults, can also produce placebo effects in babies/animals. Placebos DO have an effect upon babies and animals. Homeopathy does not.

8 comments:

Neuroskeptic said...

Quite right - there's also selective reporting, remembering (and publication) of treatments. i.e. ten people try to cure their dog's ear infection with homeopathy, one of them just by chance seems to work amazingly well, they tell everyone about it and the story spreads. The other nine keep it to themselves.

Anonymous said...

What is the difference between a "conditioned response" and a "placebo response". The first one is based on 'experience' and the second on "expectancy". Prior experience can enhance the expectancy that produces the placebo response. There are some traces of automatic conditioning effects that impact the placebo response but these seem to be limited to unconscious processes...

Mike Eslea said...

@ Neuroskeptic: You are right of course, but I'm not sure that this counts as a mechanism for a placebo effect.

@ Anonymous: The placebo effect is often defined as the effect of the belief that the medicine will work. I separate this from the conditioned response because the latter can occur even in the absense of conscious belief. Of course, most of the time there will be many of these processes operating simultaneously...

thegoodearth123 said...

What is the difference between homeopathy and placebo? Thank you!

Anonymous said...

People used "Homeopathic" remedies for thousands of years before the medical age and many modern medicines are produced from extracts of natural products. The use of herbs etc to treat illness was just common sense until recently when our so called advanced society decided it could do a better job. And yes I do concede that modern medicine may work quicker than herbal alternatives but more often than not cause more long term damage that manifests later as some horrible cancer or other! Herbal medicine has no such side effects. I think it's about time you crawled out of your narrow minded arse and looked beyond what money making pharmaceutical companies tell you!!

Dr. Nancy Malik said...

Scientific plausible mechanism of action of 'potentised high dilutions' in homeopathy How ‘super-avogadro dilutions’ in homeopathy stimulate the biological activity and restore the homeostatic mechanism?
http://drnancymalik.wordpress.com/article/how-homeopathy-works/

Mike Eslea said...

Thanks Nancy, that makes it all so clear!

Anonymous said...

Hold on... are you actually a psychologist? A certified one, recognized by some body of certification, with professional insurance, having actual patients in your care?