UK top science advisor advocates magic

By Phil Plait | January 26, 2009 3:39 am

This story is rather breathtaking, and I’m not sure which aspect of it is more astonishing.

Professor John Beddington is the chief science advisor for the government in the UK England. As it happens, several Ministers of Parliament (roughly equivalent to Congress here) support homeopathy, and fund it through government-sponsored hospitals.

You can imagine how I feel about that.

OK, don’t imagine it. I’ll tell you: It’s a travesty. Homeopathy doesn’t work. It’s water. There’s no medicine in it.

As a scientist, Beddington should know this [Edited to add: Apparently, he does. It’s what he does with this knowledge that concerns me.]. There is no evidence — none — that homeopathy is anything more than a placebo, and tons of studies showing it has no medicinal value. If he were inactive about, simply not stopping it, that would be bad enough. But he actually defends it:

Speaking before his official appointment in 2007, Professor Beddington told MPs his role as chief scientist was “really trying to ensure that, when a new policy is made, it is based on the best possible scientific advice that is available at the time”.

But speaking to the select committee about NHS funding for homeopathy last year, he said that “wider factors other than science may be relevant”.

[cue comical head-shaking and finger-cleaning-ears]

Wha-wha-WHA? "Wider factors other than science may be relevant"? And what would those be, exactly? Magic? Reading entrails? He’s supposed to be a scientist!

And that’s why several MPs have taken him to task. The Department of Universities, Innovations, and Skills has issued a report calling Beddington’s behavior into question. They are understandably concerned that Beddington is not emphasizing the need for scientific evidence in making policy decisions about science.

[Edited to add: in the comments, a link was given to a more complete quotation by Beddington (I looked for but didn’t find it earlier).

We asked Professor Beddington, in November 2008, whether he considered that the National Health Service should spend money on homeopathic treatments.[251] He replied:

It depends on the extent of the placebo effect[…] It is not just in terms of homeopathy, but, I suppose, less conventional medicines. There does seem to be some evidence that they are effective. In terms of homeopathy […] I see no evidence beyond the placebo effect that it works. […] I can make that point to government and say that there is no evidence that homeopathy works. The decision on whether you wish to fund homeopathy as part of the National Health Service has other factors which are beyond science.

I think this is more policy than science[…] I am quite firm with this. I see no scientific evidence that homeopathy has an effect beyond the placebo effect. The question that […] is a reasonable one, but I think it is possibly better posed to the Department of Health rather than me.

If I am reading that correctly, he is saying this is a policy decision and not a scientific one. But shouldn’t the policy be driven by science? He says that himself in the first quotation above! SO I still think he’s wrong. The article goes on:

We found Professor Beddington’s statements equivocal compared to those of this predecessor, Professor Sir David King, who stated in evidence to us in December 2007:

The issue of homeopathic medicine leaves me completely puzzled. How can you have homeopathic medicines labelled by a department which is driven by science? There is not one jot of evidence supporting the notion that homeopathic medicines are of any assistance whatsoever; therefore, I would say they are a risk to the population because people may take them expecting that they are dealing with a serious problem.

Bingo! That’s it precisely. People taking homeopathic sugar pills may think they are taking medicine, and forgo real medicine. That’s the danger of this kind of thinking.]

I’d be more than concerned. I’d be calling for his head. I’ve done the same here in this country when I’ve felt that a politician or advisor has strayed from the path of, y’know, reality. If the chief advisor of the government is advising people to take small doses of highly priced water to cure real ailments, then it’s time to find a new chief advisor.

And that brings up why I’m not sure what amazes me most about this situation. Certainly it’s incredible that the nation’s top science advisor advocates magic. But the thing is, a bunch of people in the government actually spoke out against him! In our own government here, we’ve had — and still have — a large number of Congresscritters advocating against reality, and we’ve seen almost nothing but the others rolling over and letting them get away with it. To see the government actually govern… well, it’s refreshing.

I’m glad they’re speaking out. If they don’t, who knows what’s next. "Wider factors." The next thing he’ll want is to set up a Department of Astrology at Greenwich Royal Observatory.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Antiscience, Piece of mind, Politics

Comments (80)

  1. I’ve been following this for a while now here in Scotland, the guy is a real worry. We have quite a problem with woo in general and homeopathy in particular since the Prince Of Wales is a fervent supporter and our government generally seems horrifically ill-equipped to evaluate any claims relating to CAM. In fact anything regarding evidence-based claims seems to baffle them.

    As you mention though there are some intelligent folk in the government and they’re putting up a pretty strong fight. It just depresses me that someone with such a tenuous grip on reality can come to occupy such a powerful position in my country.

  2. DLC

    Astonishing. a man who is supposed to be a scientist mouthing nonsense like that.
    What next, CERN asking Uri Geller about nuclear physics ?

    (Slight correction though: they’re Members of Parliament. )

  3. David Golightly

    Well you friends of Big Pharma with the puny intellects attacking the messenger as usual when you dont like the message he carries, did you not know that homeopathy works quite well on animals as well as humans, and not only the
    animals intelligent enough to think about the treatment?

  4. I’m rather concerned about a practical problem with the homeopathic approach – yet one which I’ve never seen mentioned anywhere.
    As I understand it, practitioners believe that the more homeopathic solutions are diluted ( with water ) the more powerful they become.
    In that case, I ask, how do they wash out their bottles ? And further, how can unused homeopathic solutions be disposed of ? Surely if they enter the sewage system and eventually the Earth’s oceans, won’t they become so astonishingly diluted that they’ll be viciously strong ? Who knows what damage that could cause.
    Has Prof Beddington thought about this ?

  5. John

    “Professor John Beddington is the chief science advisor for the government in England. ”

    Not just in England. The whole United Kingdom.

  6. What’ s worse is that homeopathic medicines can actually do more harm than anything else. Pharmaceuticals have to go through a rigorous screening process with testing before they’re allowed on the market, but as long as you can slap an “all natural” label on your product it is allowed to forgo all of that. And people automatically think it’s healthier.

    Ultimately, there’s no proof that homeopathic medicines work, let alone consistently, so government funding is nothing but a total waste of money.

    But hey, at least it’s not as bad as our ex health minister advocating garlic and beetroot to counter HIV.

  7. brie987

    I believe in homeopathy to the extent of an “assistant” or even “preventative” but not a cure. I also like to use homeopathic “remedies” (using term loosely) for simple colds or flue to help my body help itself before using real “medicines”. I honestly believe your body is stronger for fighting of certain ailments on its own instead of always pampering it with drugs. People are made different so this may not work for all but does for me. I am sure as I get older my body will need help fighting off even the simplest of viruses and I am ready for that. I speak of course for simple even seasonal “bugs”. Again thinking homeopathy as a cure is a mistake but using homeopathy as a healthy booster can be beneficial, IMHO.

  8. RL

    Did anyone ask him what he meant by his statement? What was the context?

  9. Mikey

    Other factors like cost, maybe?

    With single-payer, if you let people choose homeopathy instead of real medicine, then have the government manufacture the ‘homeopathic medicine’ by turning on the tap and filling a bottle, then you get to treat your stupidest citizens for free! Taxes come down, approval ratings go up, and all it takes is the willingness to be massively unethical and blithely uncaring about your people’s health and welfare!

  10. I’m pretty sure that he’s talking about money, not magic.

    Not, if you think about it for a while, that that’s any better.

  11. Ade

    Annoying to think my taxes go towards paying for this gibberish on the NHS. I just had to rip into one of my cousins for taking a Reiki course. Reality means nothing anymore :(

  12. Edd

    I’d love to call for his head. But I don’t know who to. I guess I’m supposed to write to my MP – Mike Hancock – about it, but I’ve written to him about homeopathy before asking him to reconsider his support of it but he wouldn’t.
    He gets many things right (he responded positively to me writing to him about creationism in schools) but on this one he doesn’t.
    Anyone want to suggest another place to write to? I imagine it wouldn’t get far in the PM’s overflowing inbox for example.

  13. Tomas

    The main problem here, i believe, is that any scientist to who enters politics is either a crook, or must have lost a grip on reality if he/she hopes to make an actual change while a bunch of narrow-minded, corrupt and power-hungry bureaucrats are in charge. Besides, how can ask the representative of a crowd in which 60-70% of people believe in virgin birth, resurrection, and “life” after death, to use REASON as the main factor in decision making?

  14. Rob Glover

    Reading the Government report that this news story is taken from, which is to be found here:
    It seems pretty clear from his statements in here that Prof Beddington has no belief himself that homeopathy works at all “above the placebo effect”. Where the problem is, is that compared to his predecessor in the post, David King, he equivocates and avoids responsibility for the NHS supplying homeopathic treatments. His view seems to be, crudely, that as the NHS needs to be responsive to the public, and since enough people ask for it, so it may be good PR for the NHS to supply it. Only problem is, why is he not fighting that view, instead of meekly accepting it?
    Certainly, I see no evidence of a backbone existing in the good Professor!

  15. Incidentally, it’s the government of Great Britain, not just England… that’s a bit like referring to the Congress of Texas…

  16. andyb

    puts the exact opposite spin on Beddington’s opinion. I wish I could find more than that short quote: “wider factors …”.

    Though, I am proud that my MP (Evan Harris) is clearly anti-woo.

    Phil: it is not incorrect to say “chief science advisor for the government in England”, but “chief science advisor for the government of the UK” would be less misleading.

  17. BicycleRepairMan

    “There is no medicine in it..”

    I agree, of course that there is no medicine in the water they administer, However, patient care and placebo IS actually medicine. The effects of treatment, even fake treatment, is REAL.

    Now, the argument against this is that real doctors do this as well; they administer placebos, talk to/calm the patient etc And maybe that ought to be enough. Then again, they are doctors, and their time for “real” healthcare is limited. Perhaps, in some respects Homeopathy and healers actually take some of the load off. In many real health issues, all the patient needs is a little care and some placebo.

  18. maudyfish

    Well Phil, you might as well call people with the gift of sight quacks, and those whose hair turns white from a very stressful situation liars, and people whose personality changes because they have seen war nuts. They say that the eyes are the path to the soul and there are people who chance when put through stress with a noticeable difference before and after. None of these things can be pin pointed but they do exist. So, why not give the benefit of the doubt to what he is saying. The mind has not been completely studied yet and one does not know for sure if homeopathy for those believer’s minds works. For sure not for you.

  19. Alan

    Chris Hughes – In a large number of areas the UK government only has responsibility for England – The NHS is one of them.

  20. Small nitpick – it isn’t the DUIS that issued the report, it’s the Parliamentary oversight committee – similar to the committees you have in Congress.

    And, yeah, not magic but politics.

  21. …and correcting us both, it’s the The Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS – though some news sources seem to be calling it Dius, in lower case, surely even worse than advocating homeopathy).

    Oh, and Ministers, although they are indeed Members of Parliament, are better understood in this context as being equivalent to secretaries in your Administration, e.g. Secretary of Health and Human Services, I think it’s called.

  22. mapnut

    There’a a key statement from Beddington’s spokesman down near the end of the article: “There will of course be times when contradictions exist between scientific advice and other policy imperatives . . .”

    Someone has to ask when those times are, and what’s imperative about the policies.

  23. Well, this is a sorry development – and I concur that this man should be re-educated about what homeopathy is and isn’t.

    That being said, if he were simply advocating for more “care” being given by doctors and less of the “assembly-line” approach where docs do “wham-bam-take-your-pill, ma’am” medicine, I’d be supportive of that. Some of homeopathy does have a more personal, contemplative approach to it that affects mind and body. The two don’t work separately of each other, and a good doctor listens to the patient with more than a clinical ear. A few years ago after a particularly tough surgery I talked at length with my doctor about the emotional aspects of recovery, etc. and she recommended that I attend a few sessions at a “mind-body institute” that, to me, smacked of new agey thinking. I didn’t hold with all the herbal lore, etc. that they tried to push over on me,but what was very helpful were the group counseling sessions where those of us who’d had this bit of surgery could talk out how we felt about it, etc. Very, very helpful in relaxing and releasing worry that, over time, could have manifested as a physical issue (stress, etc.).

    So, while I think this guy’s an idiot until proven otherwise, I don’t think that you can completely dismiss therapies that attempt to help people cope with what they have, even if it means massage and group discussions that many consider more rightly in the realm of homeopathy than “hard” medicine.

    And, if this guy is so hot to trot to fix GB’s health system, I have a couple of doctors in England in mind who could use some regrooving. Recently they botched the case of a relative of mine so badly that the person nearly died. The “doctors” in the ER missed every symptom of what turned out to be severe gallbladder problems (i.e. huge stones, infection, incipient pancreatic infection) and kept saying, “It’s all in your head” “It’s anxiety.”

    Luckily the family was able to locate a doctor who knew his/her business and that doc asked why no bloodwork had been done and how they could miss the high temperature, yellow skin, etc. and admitted her to the hospital immediately. Without the surgery, the patient might well have died in a few days.

    IF this is what this doctor wants to see more of, I predict a wave of wrongful deaths due to malpractice in England in very short order as more “practitioners” try to limit access to life-saving therapies by simply telling a patient to “go away and think good thoughts.”

    I’m still seeing red at how badly this person was “treated” by a couple of lazy, deceiful ER docs.

  24. Lewknukem

    Here’s an opinion piece from our local paper, the Richmond Times-Dispatch here in Virginia. This lady seems to have a bit of circular logic first by saying that parents know best (and certainly better than scientists) to then saying drug companies shouldn’t advertise their drugs to people, as only doctors (which is really just a discipline of science) know how to properly handle things. So which is it lady, parents or doctors? I know if my child were to get sick, I think bringing him to my family physician would be a better option than my local PTA.

    The Problem Lies with Vaccines:

    I don’t even know hot to begin responding to the Commentary article, ‘Is It Time for Autism Insurance?” without flying into an uncontrollable rage!

    There is so much indisputable evidence from parents (even though all the “studies” continue to state otherwise) that the descent into autism began shortly after one of the childhood vaccination cocktails required by law. The incidence has increased exponentially with the increased number of vaccinations in the past 25-30 years. There have also been increases in SIDS, asthma, cancer Crohn’s, diabetes, firbromyalgia, and a whole list of other auto-immune, allergic, neurological/learning disorders — some of which are even listed in the vaccine inserts as possible adverse effects.

    These problems translate into billions of health care dollars, financial hardship on families, and the major part of the health care “crisis” we currently face. Add to that the fact that adverse side effects of prescription drugs can cause permanant, disabling injury and have become the thrid highest killer in the U.S. — exceeded only by heart disease and cancer. Allowing drug companies to advertise directly to the consumer increases the cost of their products ten-fold, and causes prospective “customers” to request many unnecessary medications.

    And we, the American consumers, should be the ones to absorb these costs through higher insurance rates? I don’t think so!

  25. Compared to his predecessor Sir David King, whom I interviewed a decade ago for, Beddington seems not only far less media savvy, but far less savvy altogether. It would be interesting to hear his side of the story though, I’d be very surprised if he had claimed that homeopathy works in any way but as a placebo.

  26. Reading entrails…. that brings me back to freshmen year.

  27. Andrew

    I suspect the “wider factors” are political. Homeopathy has been included in the National Health Service since it was founded, largely because Nye Bevin had a homeopathic doctor himself.

    Ben Goldacre wrote about an adjournment debate in support of homeopathy in February 2008 – see Frighteningly, 206 MPs (almost a third of them) signed an early day motion supporting homeopathy in 2007 –

    It would be nice to see the Royal Greenwich Observatory still doing science. The Royal Observatory, Greenwich – the museum site in London – is still there, but the part that did science (which by then had moved to Cambridge) closed in 1998. Fortunately, the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh is still going strong – as indeed is the office of Astronomer Royal.

  28. Hmmm. I think you’re all forgetting the efficacy of homeopathy at curing thirst.

  29. I’m getting sick and tired of seeing skeptics talk trash about alternative medicine. “There is no evidence — none — that homeopathy is anything more than a placebo,” you say. And therefore, you argue, we should never ever send anyone to a homeopathist and resist with all our might any attempts to add homeopathy to the publicly funded health care system (at least, in those nations whose governments are not so BONE STUPID as to not have a publicly funded health care system).

    So in short, when someone has a disease that is poorly understood (and thus has no accepted scientifically effective treatment), or has a disease whose very existence is disputed by the medical establishment, your position is that the people suffering from that disease should just shut up and suffer while they patiently wait for the medical establishment to get around to inventing scientifically effective treatments.

    What the hell is wrong with placebos, I wonder? They have no negative side effects, and are effective in alleviating symptoms around 30% of the time. Considering that there are numerous chronic conditions that traditional allopathic medicine is powerless to treat except with drugs that merely address symptoms and whose side effects can be worse than the disease (eg, prescribing morphine for chronic back pain), and considering that there are other conditions that are poorly understood and/or dismissed as “not real” by many doctors (environmental illness, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, etc), yet the people who suffer from those conditions are still sick and suffering regardless, then why NOT send people whose conditions are not treatable by mainstream medicine to a homeopath, or a chiropractor, or an acupunturist? At worst, they will not get any better. At best, they have a 30% chance of seeing some relief of their condition.

  30. Sili


    That is a disturbing story, and I fear that it reflects how overworked the A&E is.

    But imagine if your relative had been just a bit on the woo side: Would a homoeopathist have noticed any of those symptoms.

    The Sense about Science charity’s investigation of homoeo-‘pharmacies’ about malaria about a year ago revealed that only something like two out of eleven places gave any comprehensive advice. The other nine just handed over pills – and told people to stop taking proper antimalarials.

    By comprehensive in this case I mean something as basic as bite prevention. No mention of nets whatsoever. If that’s supposed to be ‘holistic healthcare’, I think I’ll prefer to keep it with the real docs.

    Anyone Brits interested in the dealings of their MPs could do worse than visit

  31. Tomas

    DoctorAtlantis: that was the funniest thing I’ve read today … i had to even put it on my FB just to share with others 😀

  32. I always get my homeopathic medicine in powdered form.

  33. Charles Boyer

    Speaking of vaccines, score one for the anti-vaxxers:

    Score one DEAD BODY, that is.

  34. Nigel Depledge

    Chris Hughes said:

    Incidentally, it’s the government of Great Britain, not just England… that’s a bit like referring to the Congress of Texas…

    Erm, actually, Chris, that’s not quite right.

    The government is the government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Great Britain is not a political entity, it is a geographical one – just the largest of the British Isles.

  35. Nigel Depledge

    Several people have touched on this without seeming to state it explicitly:

    Homeopathic remedies have been demonstrated to perform no better than placebo.

    Therefore, homoepathy operates by activating the placebo effect.

    So it does work, kinda, but if you explain how it works you stop it from working as effectively (apparently, if you explain to a patient that they are being given a placebo and that it contains no medicine, the act of taking a sugar pill does still help. And taking two sugar pills has more effect than just one. The placebo effect is a bizarre and strange thing).

  36. Well, I see the homeopathic apologists wasted no time coming here.

    David: “Friend of Big Pharma”? Bzzzt! That tags you as a nonsense-peddler right out of the gate. If you have any evidence at all of that, then please share as well your evidence — not anecdotes, but evidence — that homeopathy works on animals.

    maudyfish: “Benefit of a doubt”? Homeopathy’s chance for that is long gone. It’s been tested, over and over again, and minus the placebo affect it doesn’t do anything. The only thing homepathy can cure is minor thirst.

    glaurung: You have grossly misrepresented what I said. I never said patients should suffer. What you are saying is that it makes sense to send sick people to witch doctors, or psychic surgeons, or out-and-out quacks if medical science cannot immediately solve their ills. That’s nonsense, and dangerous. We know homeopathy doesn’t work. So why give a patient very expensive water?

  37. Russ

    And this is why our current charge towards single payer scares the bejeebus out of me.

  38. Hoonser

    Honestly, what do you expect from a country that no longer teaches children the alphabet?

  39. Sili,

    “Overworked” is NOT an excuse for two “doctors” who repeatedly refused to do a simple blood test or an ultra sound to check for stones not ONCE, but several times over the course of several days when the person repeatedly presented to the ER in great pain, nausea, and fever. The last time they told her that they they’d schedule her for a psych consult if she didnt’ stop coming back. Luckily, she was persistent and found a doctor who would listen to her and she is alive today.

    I don’t think “overworked” is the word I’d use for these parasites masquerading as doctors. I think what we’re looking for here is criminally negligent on top of being patronizing, lazy, and rude.

    And, as far as whether or not had they been homeopaths, that doesn’t really even compute here. As far as I’m concerned, they functioned at the level of useless, about like most homeopathic “medicines” I’ve seen or heard about. And yes, I did try a couple once when I wanted to see what the fuss was all about. I had a cold, so in the spirit of experimentation, I tried a couple from the local health food store. They didn’t work — but I was told by the “practioner” at the local health food store that their overpriced water doped up with “flower essences” WOULD work if I “believed” in them.

    Yeah, right. Don’t even go there. Don’t even try.

  40. Todd W.


    Suppose you have a problem with your car. It’s making some weird noises, not loud, but just enough to get your attention. So you take it to several mechanics, and none of them can figure out what’s wrong with it or where the noise is coming from. Finally, you take it to this guy who takes a look at it. He’s not a certified mechanic, but you’ve heard from a bunch of people you know that he did wonders for their cars. He tells you that there is a special plastic ring that you clip around your fuel line, and that will solve the problem. You buy the plastic ring for $170 and, amazed, you don’t notice the noise anymore. In reality, the noise was caused by a small rock stuck in the treads of your front left tire, and it dislodged itself. So, you just spent quite a bit of money on something that did absolutely nothing except improve your mood a bit. It’s the same thing with homeopathy. How would you feel after finding out the truth? Would you be glad that you spent the $170? What if this happened to a friend or family member of yours? Would you think that they spent their money wisely?

    Another scenario. There really is a problem with the car, but because of the success with the plastic ring, you forego all those mechanics that couldn’t figure out the problem and instead go to the guy that sold you the plastic ring. He examines the car and produces a weird device that he says you need to mount on another line in your engine. This time you’re spending $300 for it. You buy it and do as he said, but the problem persists. Going back to him, he tells you that it takes some time to activate and fix the problem, just be patient. So, you wait. Eventually, with the problem continuing without any improvement, you finally decide to take your car to a proper mechanic. The mechanic looks it over and discovers that your engine is fried…completely unusable. It’s going to cost you several thousand dollars to replace it. He discovers that the original problem was actually something that, if brought in at the time you first noticed it, could have been fixed in a matter of hours for little more than the cost of labor. This scenario is also an issue with homeopathy, whereby people forego proper medical treatment, believing more in the power of homeopathic “medicines”, when the water or alcohol solutions do absolutely nothing. Instead, their very real medical condition gets worse, potentially leading to permanent injury or otherwise preventable death. So, was the $300 worth it for you? What about friends and family?

    Just some thoughts to consider, before you laud the potential good of homeopathic “remedies”.

  41. Steve

    The trouble here is, especially in the UK, where centralised political control is exercised over a huge policy areas. That the ideal of “evidence based policy making” plus politicians pandering to special interests usually equals “policy based evidence making”. A fairly good example being the Govt. decision to reclassify cannabis yet again.

  42. amphiox

    brie987: You’ll get the same, or better, benefit by eating well, exercising regularly, and drinking lots of tap water. It’ll cost you much less too.

  43. amphiox

    Glaurung: Good doctors use the placebo effect all the time. Relating well to your patients, earning their trust, being attentive to their concerns, offering common-sense recommendations, etc. When people talk about the “Art and Science” of medical practice, the “Art” part is all about placebo effect.

    There are many, much more cost-effective methods of triggering the placebo effect than enriching frauds trying to sell you price-hiked tap water.

  44. DaveS

    The problem with the term “homeopathic” is that the term itself is not regulated, so on one hand you might be talking about “dilute, dilute” (extra credit if you know the soapy reference), on the other hand, some non-medically-approved drugs, such as zinc-gloconate, are sold over the counter as “homeopathic”, right on the label.

    In fact, since the woo-woo folks have embraced homeopathy as an alternative to actual medicine, advertisers are bandying the word about willy-nilly.

  45. HIRH

    I forget who said it but I love it “I don’t care if I take a placebo, as long as it cures my cancer.” 😉

  46. domzbombs

    What the hell is the difference if we study homeopathy or not? Is it any different to have people submit themselves for clinical trials for a quick buck? Is it any different than when a doctor prescribes a medication he does not actually know for sure works or not simply because a pharm company took him out to dinner and offered him a cut? I know people in the medical industry, and this happens quite more often than most people would like to believe. If we can cure a given ailment with homeopathy, isn’t that just cutting out the middleman of the process? I’m not saying you can will yourself to cure your AIDS, that is just wrong. But for other things, like chronic pain, would it be so bad? Remember – most drugs are predicated on spiking chemicals that are already in our body – the effect is already within us, and is unlocked by a catalyst. If we can be our own catalyst, wouldn’t that be beneficial?

  47. domzbombs: you missed the core point here: homeopathy doesn’t work. You cannot cure an ailment with it. It’s plain water. Even as a placebo, all it can do is alleviate symptoms.

  48. Nigel Depledge

    Domzbombs said:

    Remember – most drugs are predicated on spiking chemicals that are already in our body – the effect is already within us, and is unlocked by a catalyst. If we can be our own catalyst, wouldn’t that be beneficial?

    I don’t know where you got this from, but it is utter rubbish.

    Most drugs are bioactive compounds in their own right. They have an effect by inhibiting an enzyme (a biological catalyst), or by binding to a receptor and thus triggering a biological response, or by preventing the natural ligand from binding to its receptor, or by blocking an ion channel, or by hlding an ion channel open, or by interfering with the metabolism of a pathogen (e.g. most early antiviral agents acted by inhibiting DNA aynthesis) and so on. A catalyst is something that lowers the activation energy of a chemical reaction, and I know of no drugs that do this (but I am not a walking pharmacopoeia, so there could well be a few – but quite definitely not “most”).

  49. You know, it’s almost as if anti-science isn’t exclusive to the Right!

  50. Winter Solstice Man

    It has finally happened – Britain thinks Hogwarts is for real.

  51. Quiet Desperation

    The mind has not been completely studied yet and one does not know for sure if homeopathy for those believer’s minds works.

    Do the homeopaths claim a placebo effect? I thought the medicine was supposed to be imprinted in some mysterious hooby ju ju manner in the water.

    Man, last serious homeopathy article I read was in Omni Magazine back in the steam age. Or was that polywater? Shows how much i care. :-) I miss that magazine. A little real science. A little woo. It was fun.

  52. AnthonyK

    Well you friends of Big Pharma with the puny intellects attacking the messenger as usual when you dont like the message he carries, did you not know that homeopathy works quite well on animals as well as humans, and not only the
    animals intelligent enough to think about the treatment?

    There isn’t a proper study showing that homeopathy works “quite well” in animals, though some people assert there is. And how would you carry out such a study anyway – since there’s nothing in homeopathic remedies, how can you effectively provide a placebo for control purposes? It may be that people who dose their animals with these remedies are more finely attuned to their animals’ health and actually care from them better – that’s a good thing, and a possible explanation.
    And, as Phil says, the accusation that we who favour evidence-based medicine are pharma shills is insulting nonsense, rendering whatever is said afterwards as lies and delusions.
    As regards doctors and homeopathy, if I were a doctor with a patient who was “a bit hurty” – which is a medical term, look it up – I might be tempted to suggest alternative medicine, if only because people are helped by the placebo effect and doctors are not allowed (officially) to use it. Thing is, though, that they would have to pay for it themsleves (which is another curative factor, I think). But it shouldn’t be paid for by the health system, no siree.
    Bot Phil, you’re wrong on one thing – homeopathy can be harmful in one specific way: the bullshit thinking that is behind it rejects vaccination because they intefere with our aura, or our body’s natural energy, or something. And this does kill, as we know.
    But what else can we expect from a philosophy of health dating from before we understood germs and viruses and how diseases really originate?

  53. Luke

    While homeopathy may no no evidence behind it, alternatives like, pet therapy, music and art therapy etc. have been shown to improve quality of life and in some instances may warrant funding.

  54. baryogenesis

    Yes, placebo can be potent and I suppose it will be some years before we understand completely the mechanisms involved in any of its efficacy. Having a healthy sense of oneself and learning to relax (exercise , balanced diet and massage) are good things. The pattern-seeking of our brains can so readily lead to magical thinking. I don’t own a car now, but Todd W. made me recall the rather peculiar relationship one can form with a vehicle. It does become an extension of yourself and sometimes magical thinking takes over. I can remember talking to my car, pleading for it to cooperate long enough to get me home (or to a garage). And, when the strange emanating noises disappeared and the car ran fine the next day…well!
    I think that placebos (such as water) should be cheaper. Why bother with all the stirring and shaking? Cut out a few steps and sell the water for far less. Oh, and they should be labeled: ” No active medicinal properties.”

  55. bjn

    Placebos are more effective than many medicines on the marke. The real question is how medical practitioners can ethically and rationally use placebos to provide patient care.

    Homeopathy isn’t sold as magic or a placebo, but as pseudo science. I have no doubt that many people who pay a lot for plain water experience real placebo effect benefits from taking it. Yeah, it’s a dilemma to accept a fraud that gets results, but doctors regulary give out antibiotics to demanding patients with viral infections for which antibiotics are worthless. And this practics has far more negative consequences than if they were prescribing plain water and requiring a significant co-pay.

  56. Dom

    To be honest placebos probably do have their place in medicine. Sometimes all people need is to feel like they are being treated, but obviously if the placebo has no effect then proper medicine should be pursued.

  57. This follows on, unfortunately from the formation of the Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council in the UK, or “OfQuack” as it is being called by some. There is a petition on the Number 10 website to demand evidence of efficacy and safety. UK citizens can sign it at

  58. TheBlackCat

    “To be honest placebos probably do have their place in medicine. Sometimes all people need is to feel like they are being treated, but obviously if the placebo has no effect then proper medicine should be pursued.”

    The problem is with informed consent. Our medical system is based on telling patients the truth to the best of our abilities and letting them make the final decision. Lying to them about whether a medicine they are given actually does anything or not violates that rule and also violates the trust that must exist between a doctor and a patient.

  59. Todd W.


    I would agree that there are some medicines on the market which might be no better than placebo. I say this only because for “me-too” drugs, one only needs to compare against already-approved medicines, and not against placebo, so for those drugs, it is possible for the gradual degradation in efficacy of the “gold standard” as new drugs keep coming into the market and becoming the gold standard themselves. This problem is probably most rampant in over-the-counter meds, and less so with prescription drugs.

    Also, there are certain cases where ethics dictate that a placebo not be used to study the efficacy of the drug (e.g., life-threatening conditions where the risk of permanent injury or death without treatment is pretty high).

    At any rate, at the very least, actualy medicines must go through clinical trials, whereas alternative “medicines”, like homeopathy and herbal “remedies”, do not have the same strictures for proving safety and efficacy.

  60. One tangential point of contention. There *is* some evidence for an effect beyond placebo, as found in a few high-quality, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trials. So, it’s simply not true to state that there is no scientific evidence.

    That’s not to say that the claims of those who are pro homeopathy are supported; they’re not, otherwise there would be at least some evidence for *all* homepathic ‘remedies’. All we have is unexpected positive results which need to be replicated. Until they fail in equally high-quality attempts at replication, we can’t honestly say that there is *zero* evidence. (though admittedly that’s a matter of scientific rigor, not governmental policy, and so tangential to the real issue raised by this post).

    However, what the otherwise overwhelming lack of evidence in many trials for many treatments does show is that, in most cases, homeopathic treatments don’t do what they’re claimed to do. Perhaps it would be better if the “wider factors” (or at least those which are reasonable, and scientifically valid, whatever they might be) that Beddington mentioned were incorporated into contemporary medicine?

  61. Mark, hmmm, you mean the study whose lead author is Wayne Jonas, who wrote “Healing with Homepathy” and who is the President and CEO of an alternative health institute? That Wayne Jonas?

    Bzzzzt. Try again. This time find a study done by someone without a ginormous conflict of interest.

  62. someone

    Even if homeopathy doesn’t work, there are situations where it is surpass real medicine, because, although drugs work now, they will *not work forever*.
    Every medical treatment can be only used a certain time, before the bacterias/viruses get restistent against it. And then the drug will be as useless as plain water (with dangerous side effects).
    Of course it may take years/decades until this happens, but it will happen. And if the drug is seldom used, it _can_ be used much longer.
    Giving people, who have a little illness which will heal anyways, medical treatment is much more dangerous than giving them (useless) water and to tell them to stay at home.

    And since the placebo effect is beneficial on its own, there is nothing wrong with using homeopathy to activate it.
    Cheaper water wouldn’t work, because many people would believe, if it is cheap, it must be useless.
    And although a normal doctor can often create the same effect with a nice relationship to his patients, there a cases it just doesn’t work. Strange folk who is sceptical of medicine/science will never trust a doctor as much as an healer (look at the words), so the placebo effect would be much more weaker/negative for them.

  63. Phil, it was published in the Annals of Internal Medicine. They don’t seem to have a problem with Jonas’ affiliations.

    More to the point, it was a review of studies which were (mostly) conducted by people other than Jonas. In the interest of scientific rigor, if we’re to discredit Jonas and colleagues’ findings, shouldn’t it be based upon the data since it wasn’t data they produced? Maybe Jonas was more lenient than he should have been in reporting evidence where there wasn’t any (though that doesn’t seem to be the case, especially since he seemed happy to report positive evidence which he still considered inconclusive). But if so, it is good enough to dismiss it without first checking?

    I think it’s good enough (along with all the failed homeopathy trials) to advise not choosing homeopathy over real medicine, but not good enough to make such staunch claims of the lack of evidence (except maybe to drive home the advice against homeopathy, for those who would consider something that really means “very little reliable, replicated evidence from high-quality trials, so no, don’t go there” to mean “hey look, it does work!” (and you know, that’s probably the more important thing, considering the range of critical thinking ability present in your readers…))

  64. Prolix

    Successful Use of Homeopathy In Over 2.5 Million People Reported From Cuba

    In Aug 2007, Finlay put approximately [2,500,000] people yes! 5 million doses! in 2 provinces on homoepathic nosode prophylaxis at the cost of about only US$ 200,000. That figure represents the entire population of the 2 provinces. The prophylaxis consisted of 2 single doses about 2 weeks apart. Up to the point, the presenters were showing us graph after graph of the usual rise of the epidemic, year after year, even with the use of allopathic vaccination. Each year the graphs would edge higher and higher towards the year-end, reaching up to the thousands of infected. But this time, within 2 weeks after Aug 2007, the rising lines literally dropped off the chart to ZERO-Ten infections only! Yes. Near-zero infections, zero deaths from leptospirosis after Aug 2007. And in 2008, no deaths, infections less than 10 a month.

  65. Prolix: Wow, a press release from a pro-homeopathic site! I’m convinced!

    OK, sarcasm mode off. Again, I’d like to see an independent study that supports homeopathy.

  66. DLC

    Phil Plait said: “OK, sarcasm mode off. Again, I’d like to see an independent study that supports homeopathy.”

    Don’t hold your breath.

    Prolix: according to the CDC there is no vaccine for leptospirosis, which is caused by coming in contact with water or other fluids that have been contaminated by infected animal urine.

  67. wench

    @David Golightly: Troll. Phbbbbbt.

    @ Brie987: Garlic is a booster. Vitamin C is a booster. Zinc is a booster. Homeopathy is a placebo.

    @maudyfish Hair goes white after a fright? Ok, let’s try this one: Like me, you’re a chick, right? have you ever dyed your hair before? Or seen someone else dye their hair? Oh, hell, let’s skip the hair-dye thing. You *cut* your hair, right? And it doesn’t bleed or scream or anything? It’s DEAD. Hair is dead. Hair is like fingernails, only skinny. It never changes color without help. AKA Clairol.

    Oh, the hell with it, you’re a troll too.

  68. wench

    Lol… the “It works & giving someone water and telling them to go home keeps them out of the medical system when they don’t need to be there anyways” argument sounds exactly like my argument of “I want other people to have loads of religious feeling so they act nicer, as long as I don’t have to have it myself”. Both are arguments where you want other people to cope with stuff you would be upset to have on your plate; in the one case, being deceived by your doctor – and in the other following a set of rules for an ethical result that includes some rules with no ethical impact.

    Mandatory caveat: Before some deeply religious person screams bloody murder, I’m not saying religion is not ethical – I’m saying some religious rules have no ethical impact. Like eating fish on Fridays or wearing a headcover in a Synagogue, see? Following these or not has no impact to your ethics as a whole.

    I wonder how people would feel about being prescribed homeopathy by a doctor in the NHS who felt it was a total placebo, and not being told that opinion? Would they feel deceived? They should. And that sets up a huge scenario of mistrust for the medical profession.

  69. Buzz Parsec

    BA, haven’t read the other comments yet, but when I hear the phrase “wider factors”, I immediately think “money”…

    Personally, I advocate treatment by placing balloon animals in the patient’s room. They can always play with them and learn a little physics by rubbing them on their sheets and sticking them to the walls. Also colorful and not as prone to wilting as flowers.

  70. David Golightly

    The aim of my original contribution was to generate support for a rational presentation of informed argument rather than the opposite.
    I will confidently and charitably suggest, with the proviso that Tomas’ opinion is not universaly applicable that the Professor must have already demonstrated an above average ability to analyse results and draw logical conclusions to occupy his present position.
    Secondly whilst the issue of placebos has been well explored, my point being that when an animal is treated successfuly by a homoepathic remedy it is more logical to attribute the cure to the remedy’s properties rather than any placebo effect. There are from time to time case histories of h.treatments of animal in the periodical ” What Doctors Dont Tell You”. A useful source of information especially if you are in a doctor’s waiting room with time to spare. Phil.
    Other comments which at first sight are logical can be displaced by better information:
    Martin need not worry about the theoretical ocean of medicament caused by the dilution of h. remedies, as the curative properties (i.e. harmonic frequency of the remedy retained by the water) are only passed on when a combination of shaking combined with abrupt shocks takes place. This is known as sucussion and is used in the preparation of all h remedies.
    Everybody can agree that the h. process of dilution will remove all chemical traces of the specific but few can accept that it is the potency or frequency that remains imprinted in the water is the active agent.
    For Claire’s anxiety I can only say that as most h remedies have been around for at least 170 yrs since Hahnehan first started it all. They could not have survived if they were not effective whether placebo or not. There are none of the double blind trials as Big Pharma employs, but good enough for me and anyone else to treat minor complaints, though fortunately living in France as I do where h. is widely practiced will mean that they are cheaper and much more readily available than the UK.
    Todd has driven too far down the road with his ingenious supercharged analogy, though as a self confessed onetime long ago “petrol head” I did enjoy reading it. thanks Todd. (Apples and Pears have more in common than a motorcar has with the human frame)
    In the past certain products were labelled as carbolic or antiseptic presumably because they unashamably contained substances with these properties, what then is wrong with a homoepathic prepartion used in the description?
    There is no need for the practice of homoepathy to make any apologies, that dubious honour is left to those who provided you with Thalidomide and Vioxx and all the other alleopathic drug tratments that have had to be withdrawn due to side effects worse than the original condition for which they were prescribed. or because they were no better than those placebos.

  71. My limited experienced with Homeopathy Holy Water was that not only didn’t it cure the cold it “claimed” it could CURE (and note that colds are not something you CURE, you treat the symptoms), it didn’t even alleviate the symptoms. I had better luck with Nyquil at unstuffing my stuffy nose. The Flowery Water didn’t do squat.

    That’s anecdotal, but no less valid that the other anecdotal evidence that claims the Flower Power Water works. Maybe there’s something psychosomatic going on with these true believers.

  72. Todd W.

    @David Golightly

    Actually, thalidomide and Vioxx have their uses. Thalidomide is actually coming back, just with the warning that it is not to be used in pregnant women. I need to double check the indications. As for Vioxx, a case could be made that within certain populations, the benefits derived outweigh the risks.

    As for my car analogy, while a care is certainly very different from a human frame, the principle that I was trying to illustrate is still valid.

    For Claire’s anxiety I can only say that as most h remedies have been around for at least 170 yrs since Hahne[m]ann first started it all. They could not have survived if they were not effective whether placebo or not.

    By that reasoning, prayer, reading tarot cards, astrology, and so on, all work, and that ingesting ground-up tiger bones will cure cancer. They’ve certainly been around much longer and show little sign of going away anytime soon.

    Everybody can agree that the h. process of dilution will remove all chemical traces of the specific but few can accept that it is the potency or frequency that remains imprinted in the water is the active agent.

    I assume you have some study that shows not only that this “potency” or “frequency” exists, but that it can be readily detected?

  73. Greg in Austin

    David Golightly said,

    “i.e. harmonic frequency of the remedy retained by the water”

    I specialize in Test and Measurement equipment. I would like to perform an experiment whereby I measure the “harmonic frequency” of a material dissolved in water. For control, I will also measure the “harmonic frequency” of plain water. The trouble is, water, or any other inert substance, does not generate any measurable energy waves. It like saying, “measure the harmonic frequency of this rock.” So, what exactly do you mean by “harmonic frequency of the remedy?” It sound like utter bunk to me.


  74. Gary Ansorge

    A doctor once told his patient, who had a severe cold, to ” take two aspirin every fours hours and in ten days, you will be recovered.” When the patient asked, “What happens if I don’t take the aspirin?” The Doc said, ” It will still take ten days for you to recover.”

    Since we know so little about the (mechanism of) the placebo effect, it seems counter productive to ignore its efficacy. 20 percent of aliments can be effectively treated with a sugar pill and the belief on the part of the patient that it will do something. Me thinks it would behoove us to understand WHICH ailments will respond to the placebo effect and then USE IT.

    I’ve been taking mega doses of vitamins for over 30 years, ever since my oral surgeon pointed out that the dry socket I was enduring from a wisdom tooth extraction would heal faster if I took vit C and zinc. What was predicted to take 4 to 6 weeks of healing w/o any treatment took 4 DAYS with the vit c and zinc.
    I have no proof that mega doses of vitamins do anything but it at least contributes to (possibly) a placebo effect, even though that effect has been shown to diminish after 2 years. This is an on going experiment. If I, like Linus Pauling, make it to 93, MAYBE it had something to do with all those vitamins,,,or maybe not,,,
    I note that a 350 lb mountain gorilla ingests 5000 mg of vit C per day in their diet. At 243 lb. I ingest 2000 mg/day. Seems like that should be somewhere in the ball park, considering what my anthropoid cousin ingests.

    I like Linus PAuling. He was a stubborn old man, sometimes right, sometimes wrong, but always trying to do the best he could. He wasn’t trying to make a buck off suckers, which puts his (perhaps) questionable statements about vit C in a more sympathetic light.

    Gary 7

  75. Todd W.


    While I agree that the placebo effect should be studied further, there are also ethical questions to be considered in using it.

    Regarding megadoses of vitamins, just be careful. Even vitamin C can be toxic in sufficient quantities.

  76. David D

    Pauling may not be the best “stubborn old man” to remember fondly. He was certainly a brilliant chemist, but when he strayed out of his area of expertise, the results were dismal. His medical theories (orthomolecular medicine, Vitamin C megadoses, etc.) have been, as BA would put it, smacked down, pwned if you will. He was fond of taking credit for research and discoveries that were not his own. And he is widely regarded as a naive dupe of the Soviets.

    See world wide web

  77. “Wider factors other than science may be relevant”? And what would those be, exactly?

    Votes, obviously. Simple enough.

  78. Sili


    I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to defend the A&E doctors. I hope they were ‘just’ stressed rather than incompetent, and as such the system is partly to blame – which worries me. Whatever the explanation, though, that’s no excuse for them to fail so dramatically.

    I’m glad your relation went to real doctors, and the rest of my comment wasn’t aimed at you as such, but more at the general idea that because doctors are busy and make mistakes we should allow the woowoos to skim some of the more psychosomatic patients off. The trouble with that, as I ineptly tried to harangue, is that the woowoos are so thoroughly woowoow that they believe the crap they’re peddling and don’t stick to stuff that regress to the mean.

  79. Clive

    95% of patients in the Western world have nothing wrong with them and can be adequately treated with pure water.

    It will save a lot of money for the real cases.

  80. Greg in Austin

    97.3% of statistics are made up on the spot.



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