Deluding Australia

By Phil Plait | March 16, 2009 6:00 am

When I visited Australia in 2003, I had an incredible time. Australians are my kinda folks: loud, blunt, funny, and they have those silly accents.

One aspect that shocked me, though, was how popular homeopathy is there. We went into a pharmacy so I could get decongestants (this entire planet irritates my sinuses), and the homeopathic garbage was everywhere. Richard Saunders, my host (and arguably Oz’s most famous skeptic), told me that the homeopaths spend a lot of money to get their stuff into pharmacies there, including paying for attractive displays to make their diluted water more eye-catching. There was an entire wall devoted to homeopathic placebos in one place we went.

Richard and the Australian Skeptics have taken it on themselves to fight this sort of flim-flam. They created a one-page PDF ad taking the pharmacies to task for it. Richard created a JPG version which I uploaded to my Flickr page as well:

Feel free to use this to promote on your own site, blog, whatever. Print the PDF version and send it to local papers, or to local pharmacies. It’s written for Australia, but it applies universally. Truth always does.


Comments (102)

  1. Dan


    While I agree that homeopathy can be taken to extremes and that this idea that the “medical establishment” is somehow suppressing it is so much conspiracy nonsense I feel you’re a bit too harsh.

    Homeopathic remedies are centuries old and are known to work in many cases. While medical science can undoubtedly improve on many natural remedies, one reason we see so much drug-resistant germs is because of an OVER-reliance on medications.

    People running out to grab the antibiotic at the first sign of the sniffles have forced evolutionary changes in bacteria so that they have adapted to fight off OUR drugs.

    It might behoove us to stop reaching for the pill bottle at every little ache, pain, sniffle, sneeze or cough and maybe try some type of natural suppressant for the minor shit.

  2. *they have those silly accents*


  3. Michelle

    …ear candles? Seriously?

    Maybe I should translated, print this and give this out to pharmacies around my work place. This one next door has its own home brand of MAGNETIC BRACELETS. And lots of homeopathy.

  4. Nigel Depledge

    I think Phil was thinking of the Monty Python sketch (the philosophy department of the University of Wallamaloo), where the accents are genuinely silly, not actual Aussies.

  5. Robbak

    EAR CANDLING???? Sticking a lit candle in your ear and expecting it to do anything except burn your ear? What are these shielas smoking?????

    Whenever I think I’ve got a handle on the insanity of humans, along comes something like this.

  6. YouTube has some videos of ear candling demos that have to be seen to be believed.

  7. Doug

    I am disheartened by our US pharmacies here as well. CVS Pharmacy has their own generic version of Air Borne. Sigh.

    How are we to combat woo if the pharmacies and drug companies make so much money from woo and the public really wants the woo to be true?

  8. Ear candling? Meh! Pikers!
    Butt candling! That’s the way to go!
    Draws the toxins right out! Sort of…
    [runs & hides]

  9. Don

    Our local pharm in Davis, Ca, right across the street from the dorms at Univ. California, Davis, has three isles of alternative medicines, Echinacea, etc. Then one goes to the isles of junk food. Oz and the US are pretty similar culturally, and this is why Americans are so fond of Australia.

  10. Murdats

    these displays are not uncommon, and I despise them.

    they do all seem to be just one company though but I can’t remember the name of it atm.
    my friend who does pharmacy refused to do his training in a pharmacy that stocked homoeopathy and frequently gets into arguments with reality challenged customers (when he has the will too)

    other then that australia seems to get off pretty light compared to a lot of places, we have a decent share of woo but its much less socially accepted here then it seems to be elsewhere

  11. I think most print media outlets would prefer a text version (MS Word, etc) or at least the PDF. This allows copy and paste instead of a “journalist” having to laboriously retype stuff. It’s best to make it easy for them (first-hand experience here).

  12. SteveInMI

    What next, will you start selling cigarettes?

    It’s not as if our U.S. corporate-chain pharmacies are making shining examples of themselves. If I want cigarettes, they’re right at the front counter, right next to the nicotine gums. If I want candy, it’s prominently displayed in the center aisle; diet pills are in the back. The “pharmacy” carries full-fat big-brand ice cream by the gallon; but if I want a local brand or a low-fat frozen yogurt, I have to go (not making this up) to the liquor store down the street.

    Kudos to our Aussie friends for taking the initiative on this. But while we’re congratulating, them, let’s not be under any illusions about the American shops: they’re not in the business of making us well; they’re in the business of profiting from our unhealthiness.
    [/rant] [/petpeeve]

  13. IVAN3MAN

    Phil Plait:

    We went into a pharmacy so I could get decongestants (this entire planet irritates my sinuses)…

    I had the same problem, back in the early 1990s, until I got rid of my old eiderdown filled pillow — goddamn dust mites! I’ve not had that problem since I started using 100% polyester hollow-fibre filled pillows.

    ¡ɹǝpun uʍop ‘ʎɐp,b

  14. Andy

    Nice approach, but IMHO the execution lacks slightly. Reading the flyer, I was expecting some sort of conclusion or recommendation for the Pharmacist but there wasn’t one. It just seemed to be saying “don’t support CAM”. It was all criticism without giving advice as to what positive action they could take to remove the reliance that their business has on it.

    Even something like “if you’d like to discuss this further, please call us on this toll free number”, or similar, would have been a good approach, and shows a willingness to participate in finding a solution. Maybe also suggesting products that Pharmacies could use as replacement goods instead. They’re a business after all and need to make money. Just saying “stop it” while correct is a bit naive don’t you think?

  15. I was thinking the sale of water and sugar would slow after the Pan Pharmaceuticals recall in 2003. Pan was Australia’s largest manufacturer of alternative medicines and had their licence to sell suspended for some time because of quality control issues. For a while there people didn’t trust alternative medicines but they are snake oil salespeople after all.

  16. Darth Curt

    A long while ago, my sister-in-law (who is an ER Nurse) got some of those ear candles. They are basically tubes with a string that spirals down them acting as a wick. Now when I watched her do this, it actually looked like it was pulling ear wax out (as it was intended to do). There was yellow wax at the bottom of it, that she would dump into the garbage after the required burn time. She stated she could hear better afterwards, and that her ears felt cleaner. My wife, and my other sister-in-law also tried this out, and both had the same results.

    So what’s the deal with them… I thought they worked, it looked like they worked, and I actually saw them in action.

  17. amphiox

    Since homeopathy works by the placebo effect, and the placebo effect is actually fairly significant, if the homeopaths can demonstrate that their stuff can trigger a more effect placebo effect than regular medicine can, then I don’t actually have a problem with having their products available in a pharmacy (so long as they are all labeled with a THIS PRODUCT IS A PLACEBO) disclaimer.

    Of course the homeopaths haven’t demonstrated such, and I kind of doubt they ever will.

  18. @ DarthCurt – Hate to say this but go look up ear candling on Wikipedia, they have a very good article on it. Plus links to a commentry from Mr Randi himself. Its a placebo effect and nothing more.

  19. laserfuzz

    Darth Curt. Simple test for you. Try burning said candle without putting it in anything and see how much yellow wax is left when its done. Remember what the main ingredient of candles are …….wax.

  20. IVAN3MAN

    I first heard about “Ear Candles” on JREF, a couple of years ago, so this is no surprise to me. However, I am disturbed to find that one company, Diviniti Health, here in the UK, sells “Baby Regular Ear Candles” for £4.99 a pair:

    Our naturally produced Baby Regular Ear Candles are smaller than our standard candles and are ideal for treating children. These are plain candles containing no aromatherapy oils.


  21. Darth Curt,
    Go to and download and listen to episode 15 of the Sceptic Zone. Dr Rachie gives a very informative report on ear candling.

  22. amphiox

    Darth Curt:
    You need to do the negative control experiment to test your observation. Burn the candles without putting them anywhere near a ear, and see if the wax still collects at the bottom. Put the candle in the ear without lighting it, and see if your ear still feels cleaner. (You’ll also need to quantify the feeling of cleanliness somehow to get around subjectivivty issues)

  23. Darth Curt: I’ll just add also that you can’t ignore the placebo effect; it is a very real effect and must be considered in all trials. As Amphiox said as well, just burn the candle by itself. My wife and brother in law bought these stupid things and, after I verbally berated them, I burned a candle in a jar. The results were identical to burning them in your ear, minus the burns and damage to the ear drum.

  24. If I sold you a cardboard box by telling you it was a computer it would be fraud. Homeopathetic medicines are a fraud for exactly the same reason. They do not work.
    Can the placebo effect really be measured? Can it be a patient just saying to a researcher that they “feel better” because that is what they believe the researcher wants to hear?

  25. IVAN3MAN

    P.S. Here’s James Randi’s view on “Ear Candling” (click and scroll down the page).

  26. Jean-Denis Muys

    Here in France, we are free from ear candling.

    But we are plagued by homeopathy. People don’t even give a second thought to it. They don’t question it at all. Maybe it’s relevant to mention that there is very big, established French pharmaceutical company that sells homeopathic remedies on a industrial scale here in France: Laboratoires Boiron. I had the opportunity to discuss this with a friend of mine who teaches biochemistry at the graduate level. She was convinced it was sound medicine. Her mother had raised her using homeopathy all along. And her mother is a (now retired) teacher of physics and chemistry. I once mentioned how it could not be more than placebo to a General Practitioner in my area. He replied I didn’t know what I was talking about.

    And as a matter of fact, I wasn’t, really. So this is a small plea for help.

    I know how to argue about how silly it is to think homeopathy can work when no active molecule is left in the dilution. I managed to my friend doubt. After all, she is well aware of the Avogadro number. And it’s easy to make fun of the “water memory effect”. But even then, she is not quite convinced. Her main argument has been “it *has* worked over all these years for me and my children”. Fortunately, she also knows about the placebo effect. But then she says: “if it’s placebo, why is homeopathy working for babies?”. Rather than arguing about mother-child influence, I think the real proof is in the pudding, I mean the studies…

    After all, it doesn’t matter that we don’t have a plausible explanation for homeopathy, as long as it works.

    Of course, I have read here, and several other places, that all sound studies have shown that homeopathy doesn’t work any better than a placebo, and that all studies that did show a significant effect had flaws. But that’s not enough. Especially when discussing this with doctors.

    After all, I’ve seen books written by doctors which claim that significant positive results have been found by several studies, including some done on animals (which should not have a placebo effect).

    What I need is a comprehensive compilation of studies, with clear references, preferably with internet links. Studies showing no effect of course, but also those studies which showed a significant effect, along with why they were flawed.

    It’s likely that such a compilation already exists. I’d be glad to have an URL or something.

  27. Heh heh…ear candles…heh heh….

    Reminds me of the old Bob Newhart routine where he plays an Englishman listening to Walter Raleigh explain what to do with tobacco: roll it up, set it on fire, and stick it where???

    I briefly dated a woman (err…long story) who was into all this nonsense. She would also sleep with a drawer full of quartz beside her bed because the crystals “energized” her during the night. This woman, despite a high 5 figure income, was perpetually broke, largely because of all the money she spent on crap like this.

    Honestly, between the woo-woo medicine and the ufo nutters, I sometimes wish I weren’t so bloody honest. I could be living high on the hog off of these numbskulls.

  28. Todd W.


    I’m not sure about other parts of the world, but here in the U.S., we have this lovely little law, DSHEA (Dietary Supplement and Health Education Act) which exempts alternative “medical” products from the standard testing required of medical products that actually work. It does require, however, that the manufacturer or distributor of dietary supplements put the text “This statement has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.”

    Furthermore, products cannot have any health claims on their labeling. If they do, then they are subject to pre-market review, just like real drugs and devices. Statements that say something like “X aids digestion” is not considered a health claim, as it does not specify a specific problem or condition. However, “X prevents acid reflux” would be a health claim.

    If you come across some product making a health claim, but which does not have any market approval from the FDA, report it to the agency, with info on where you saw the information, date, time, product name, manufacturer, etc. The more info the better. I did this with that Kinoki “Detox” Foot Pad quackery.

  29. Michelle

    I just don’t understand ear candles. Heck this is the first time I even hear about them!

    It’s just like acupuncture. How the heck can you think that shoving a FLAMING CANDLE UP YOUR EAR is gonna help anything?! It’s just sheer STUPIDITY.

  30. Uh…michelle, there is a fairly large and growing body of evidence that acupuncture can be beneficial, especially with regards to pain relief.

    Personal anecdote: after a back injury, one of my dog’s back legs was numb. His oncologist, the woman who had supervised his successful chemotherapy treatment (not exactly a mistress of woo), recommended acupuncture. Four treatments later, my dog is walking again. Hard to imagine you could make the case for the placebo effect. (Unless it was in fact the increase in dog treats that did the job.)

    But ear candles? Heh heh…ear candles. Heh!

  31. living high on the hog
    At first I thought misread it as
    gettinghigh on the hog which is probably something else entirely… and probably more fun.

  32. Todd W.

    @Jean-Denis Muys

    While I can’t point you to any studies right off the bat, I will address the “but what about animal and babies?” issue you raised. While it is true that an animal or baby can’t really tell if they are receiving a placebo or the real thing, the researcher or observer can. So, unless the study is controlled in such a way that the person doing the observations is blinded from what substance is actually being given to the animal or baby, then there will be bias in the observations.

    In other words, the researcher knows that they are giving X (homeopathic treatment) to the animal/baby. After administering X, they observe that the issue being treated has improved! In the control group, the researcher again knows that the animal/baby is being given plain ol’ water (or alcohol, as is sometimes used). After administration, they observe no change in the condition. The researcher reasons, then, that since the animal/baby is not aware of what substance was administered, there is no way that they can alter their behavior or condition based on what they think was given. Therefore, the effect must be real. What the researcher fails to account for, however, is their own bias in observing. When they expect an improvement, they may, unconsciously, ignore or explain away behavior in the treatment group that they expect to see in the control group.

    Keep in mind, also, that homeopathic remedies tend to be used more often to treat self-limiting conditions, like a cough, runny nose, etc. The duration of these conditions can vary greatly between individuals, and even within a single individual, so it is quite difficult to determine, in these conditions, whether the “cure” is due to the homeopathic concoction or simply a result of the body healing itself.

  33. IVAN3MAN

    Richard Drumm T.A.B.:

    Butt candling! That’s the way to go! Draws the toxins right out! Sort of…

    Ass/Arse Candles — cures diarrhoea, constipation, and haemorrhoid.
    Not to be used if you have severe flatulence — you’ll blow up like Chernobyl!

  34. living high on the hog
    At first I misread it as getting high on the hog which is probably something else entirely… and probably more fun.

    Geeze, I must be high got all my tags’n’stuff mixed up.

  35. David D


    What “fairly large and growing body of evidence that acupuncture can be beneficial, especially with regards to pain relief” are you referring to? And what evidence do you have that using “alternative” therapies in veterinary medicine is effective?

    Your anecdote is interesting, but is simply an anecdote and not evidence of efficacy.

    I don’t know–some scratch their heads at skeptics who believe in God. What are we to make of “skeptics” who believe in acupuncture?

  36. Todd W.

    @David D

    I can’t recall the study (or studies) specifically, but I do remember hearing that acupuncture may be effective for subjective conditions, such as pain management (migraines, fibromyalgia [that “disease” that has no measurable causes and might simply be psychosomatic], etc.). Not anywhere near the level of surety we like on here, I know, but it is what I recall. I would add that I also recall hearing about a study (again, my memory fails me, and I’m too lazy atm to look it up) that it doesn’t matter where the needles are stuck. I.e., the “meridians” don’t matter.

  37. amphiox

    kuhnigget: the best available evidence on acupuncture is strongly suggestive that the observed effect is placebo response – sham acupuncture (placement of needles without penetration of skin using a plastic device that made the patient feel as if there was penetration, and needles in random locations not corresponding to “meridians”) and “real” acupuncture had almost identical effects, (both positive, of course).

    I can’t remember the study, but somewhere I recall seeing it stated that placebo effect can be as great as 30%. I’m of the opinion that an effect that big belongs in the medical armamentarium. We should be trying our best to trigger placebo effects whenever we endeavour to treat the ill.

    The placebo effect is suspected to be strengthened by ritual. In the case of acupuncture, that would involve going through the motions of having the needles placed, feeling the needles against your skin, etc. In the case of medications it would involve arranging that appointment with your doctor, speaking to the authority figure in the white labcoat, standing in line in the pharmacy to get your prescription filled out by another authority figure in a white coat, the sensation of swallowing the pills, etc.

    There are a lot of traditional medicines that have mild physiologic effects (like diaphoresis and diuresis) that don’t actually have anything at all to do with the condition they are purported to treat, but the physical sensation of having the effect reinforces the ritual in the patient’s mind and strengthens the placebo effect.

    A caveat to all the above is that good research on the placebo effect is difficult, due to the placebo effect, among other things. These theories are not on the most solid ground.

  38. Sundance

    @ Kuhnigget

    I can’t point you to a reference at the moment – sorry – but apparently tests have been done which show that acupuncture has a significant effect at relieving pain, and other minor conditions. BUT exactly the same results can be obtained by getting actors to stick needles in people randomly, with no actual acupuncture training, as are obtained by professional acupuncturists who have been trained in Chinese medicine.

  39. amphiox

    Also, rituals involving triggering the placebo effect may have been the birth of religion.

  40. David D

    @Todd W–

    I, too, am aware of some of what you mention; Skeptic’s Dictionary ( has a pretty good write-up. Doesn’t really qualify as a “large and growing body of evidence” in my book, though.

    And if “meridians” don’t matter as that one study suggested, then it’s not “acupuncture” that is effective at all.

  41. amphiox

    Jean-Denis Muys:
    We can’t discount the possibility that infants and animals can in fact experience a placebo effect. An infant will know if he/she is not feeling well. He/she will experience and acknowledge the caring attention of an adult. He/she will have the physical sensation of actually taking or being administered the therapy in question, and he/she will be able to remember it.

    The same applies with most animals, depending on the level of cognitive capacity of the species in question.

    That’s all that it takes to trigger a placebo effect.

  42. I wrote to Shopper’s Drug Mart – the huge drugstore chain in Canada – to complain about the proliferation of homeopathic ‘remedies’ in their stores. I was polite and took the same approach as that Australian ad: You’re a pharmacy, people attribute a certain medical authority to a pharmacist and expect that the stuff they sell really works. Their response, which I no longer have handy, basically said “we will sell what people buy, pbbbt.” They didn’t even deny my claim that homeopathy was bunk – they just said that people want it so they sell it.

  43. T.E.L.

    amphiox Said:

    “Since homeopathy works by the placebo effect, and the placebo effect is actually fairly significant, if the homeopaths can demonstrate that their stuff can trigger a more effect placebo effect than regular medicine can, then I don’t actually have a problem with having their products available in a pharmacy (so long as they are all labeled with a THIS PRODUCT IS A PLACEBO) disclaimer.”

    That’s an interesting marketing tactic. Ads in the backs of adult magazines have a tradition for selling “Spanish Fly”. But the merchants know perfectly well that their products do nothing per se, so they all label it plainly as “Spurious Placebo Spanish Fly”. It literally says that it’s fake, yet the typical client is just illiterate enough not to know it.

  44. IVAN3MAN

    @ Shane,

    Heh! Poe.

  45. Jean-Denis Muys


    You are right and I am aware of this, as well as the observer’s bias which leads to requiring double-blind tests. But these arguments are getting subtle.

    My point was different. It may be worth discussing those things, even fun. But remember the setting: discussing this with a doctor who uses an argument of authority. He might quite validly say that I don’t have the qualifications to understand the nuances behind such effects.

    On the other hand, this all becomes moot once as soon as you can convincingly show that proper studies have not been able to demonstrate a significant effect of homeopathy. Here the argument of authority doesn’t work any more.

    Additionally, skepticism is all about looking at the available evidence (not anecdotes). That’s why I’d like to look at the evidence myself, first hand. I’d feel in a much better position to argue afterwards.

  46. Todd W.

    @Jean-Denis Muys

    Another tactic you might want to use is to go at it from a different angle. Ask the doctor to explain the mechanism by which homeopathy supposedly work, then ask for studies that examine this mechanism, rather than the end effect of the concoction.

    E.g., if they say that the water has memory, then by what mechanism does the water retain such “memory”? If this is the case, then there should be a mechanism whereby one can identify a homeopathic preparation from water. Ask for the double-blind studies that show this.

  47. Okay, guilty as charged. “Growing body of evidence” without citations = my bad.

    A quick google search (acupuncture, neurology; acupuncture, NEJM) led to numerous studies by reputable scientists in peer-reviewed journals.

    Nearby at UCLA, there is a full on program teaching acupuncture as part of the med school curriculum.

    Please note I am not endorsing the whole “acupuncture controls the flow of chi” nonsense, or the idea that you can cure yourself of (insert ailment here) by sticking a pin in a specific location on your body. If acupuncture works, it works because stimulating the nervous system somehow triggers the body’s own natural pain suppression mechanisms…or something or other. In any case, it’s testable.

    With regards to the placebo affect and my dog…hm. Perhaps. But he was receiving that same “caring attention” for several months with no affect. Again, I admit it’s anecdotal, so I make no claim that it’s proof.

    However, I stand by my statement that acupuncture (minus the woo) is not in the same category as ear candles. Mr. Fred would look downright silly with a candle sticking out of his ear.

  48. David D


    I will have to look at what a google search turns up. I am more familiar with the skeptical literature on alternative medicine and in particular acupuncture; in general, those studies are often poorly constructed and poorly controlled. Randomized clinical trials that have been reproduced are sorely lacking. Maybe there is something that I am missing in the last few years, but somehow I doubt it.

    “However, I stand by my statement that acupuncture (minus the woo) is not in the same category as ear candles.”

    Many skeptics regard acupuncture as woo; there is no thing as acupuncture without the woo. Kind of like “therapeutic touch” without the woo.
    Just because it doesn’t look as silly as ear candles does not mean that it is somehow more respectable.

    And I agree–no self-respecting dog would ever let himself be owned by a human who stuck candles in his ear. :)

  49. George

    I could not agree more with your desire to publicize concerns regarding homeopathic nonsense, Phil. You are doing a valuable service there. Yet another reason I am curious to hear your opinion of the so-called Clovis Comet. This too is a subject given to large doses of skepticism and support. I am a advocate of the theory. However, I am very curious what you, a space science skeptic and respected voice on these matters, think of the subject. How about a post to coincide with the NOVA website going up tomorrow? NOVA:

  50. Skeptic Tim

    An interesting post re. acupuncture over at “A Quantum Diaries Survivor”.
    “Is acupuncture effective ? ”

    The author, Tommaso Dorigo, is a research scientist at the National Institute of Nuclear Research of Italy, a INFN research scientist working at the University of Padova, and is a member of the CDF and CMS collaborations.

  51. “there is no thing as acupuncture without the woo”

    Here’s a quote from a ucla website:

    According to National Institute of Health (NIH) Consensus on Acupuncture(1997) reports “studies have demonstrated that acupuncture can cause multiple biological responses, mediated mainly by sensory neurons, to many structures within the central nervous system. This can lead to activation of pathways affecting various physiological systems in the brain, as well as the periphery.” NIH further states that acupuncture “may activate the hypothalmus and the pituitary gland, resulting in a broad spectrum of systemic effects. Alteration in the secretion of neurotransmitters and neurohormones, and changes in the regulation of blood flow, both centrally and peripherally, have been documented. There is evidence of alterations in immune functions produced by acupuncture.”

    Doesn’t sound like woo to me.

    Now if they had been talking about “energy flow” and “chi” and so on…

    Actually, I think this is an excellent example of how modern science can study so-called traditional medicine and harvest the good from the bad. Unfortunately, there is an all or nothing mentality surrounding some of this stuff: If one bit of folk wisdom is true, it all must be true. Or, if one bit of folk knowledge is patently absurd, it all is. Nonsense. If acupuncture can stimulate the body’s own pain-response mechanisms, great! But if it is proven effective by scientific study and trial, that sure as hell doesn’t mean grinding up a tiger’s penis will improve sexual potency. It also means that if Mr. Fred needs another treatment, I am taking him to a nice clean veterinary clinic rather than a shadowy pokey-parlor with incense and gongs and what-not.

    And yes, Mr. Fred would not appreciate having candles in his ear. Seeing as how he’s a Welsh Corgi with rather large ears, it would take a huge candle anyway. :O

  52. Daniel J. Andrews

    If the candle actually produced enough suction to remove the ear wax, your eardrum would probably sustain severe damage. People should be thankful candling does not work.

  53. Ian

    ARG! Our local generic run down pharmacy got bought out and rebuilt as a “Pharmaca” chain store. Same great folks in the back handing out real prescriptions. But right in front, where you wait for your drugs that actually, you know, WORK, is a large homeopathy display with a placard that explains the nonsense behind it (law of similars or some such stupidity). Without fail while I wait for meds some clueless ‘tard comes up and buys their sugar pills.

    Up at the front when you check out they have a list of the folks who work there. Along with the original pharmacists they list “accredited” homeopathic and naturopathic “doctors.”


  54. BigBadSis

    Did none of you go to that Shane posted??? I haven’t laughed that hard in a long time. I especially liked the FAQ section where, in all seriousness, the spouse asked if his wife’s hairy butt would be a problem. O.M.G! But seriously, as for the Aussie’s PDF material, I think it’s fabulous they are trying to affect a change, but they should definitely have a technical writer and graphic designer work on making it read better (oh the punctuation!!) and look more professional. I agree with Andy there.

  55. Skeptic Tim

    George: (March 16th, 2009 at 11:10 am) you might find the discussion, last year (7 January 2009), over at RealClimate interesting. “The Younger Dryas comet-impact hypothesis: gem of an idea or fool’s gold?”

    I found that the comments were particularly enlightening.

  56. Roderick

    The beauty of evidence-based medicine is that large-scale, statistically rigorous evidence of efficacy (with the requisite controls, etc.) eliminates, or at least significantly reduces, the need for a plausible mechanism of action. Even the loosest adherents to EBM acknowledge that well-designed RCTs and meta-analyses can supersede any contrary pathophysiological explanation. As such, the lack of a plausible mechanism of action does very little to rule out the effectiveness or legitimacy of a treatment; only studies of efficacy can do so.

    Regarding acupuncture:

    “Acupuncture provides pain relief and improves function for people with osteoarthritis of the knee and serves as an effective complement to standard care. This landmark study was funded by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) and the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS), both components of the National Institutes of Health. The findings of the study—the longest and largest randomized, controlled phase III clinical trial of acupuncture ever conducted—were published in the December 21, 2004, issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine.”


    “By week 8, participants receiving acupuncture were showing a significant increase in function and by week 14 a significant decrease in pain, compared with the sham and control groups.”

    This is the first report I’ve seen of acupuncture showing significant improvement over sham treatment. It’ll be interesting to see what future research shows.

  57. “folicular ignition”

    Heh heh…

  58. BigBadSis
  59. Selasphorus

    I don’t know about anyone else, but my local (American) pharmacy has cigarettes for sale, as well as quite a collection of homeopathic remedies.

  60. Mark Hansen

    I’ve mentioned it before but another problem is the health insurance funds that pay out for homeopathic treatment and iridology. It’s bad enough that there are shonky treatments like this without the health funds encouraging them.

  61. Pieter Kok

    I agree with Andy, that letter is all over the place.

  62. Darth Curt

    You know… I thought of doing a control experiment to see if there was wax in there without putting it in the ear, but my Sister-in-law ran out, and i’ve never seen them again. No loss. I always thought they were a bit fruity, but didn’t have any conclusive evidence against.

    Thanks people!

  63. Can someone please tell me what this has to do with astronomy?

  64. Davidlpf

    This is more to do skepticism, which I think the BA is into a little bit.

  65. Todd W.

    @Dotan Cohen

    Nothing. But, it does have to do with skeptical thinking and anti-science, which are topics that Phil also addresses. There are lovely little tags at the bottom of the posts to help you figure out what topics relate to the post, so if you want to skip the non-astronomy posts, you can.

  66. I know what you mean about the allergies problem and trying to find something non addictive and effective and not a crackpot cure. I was looking for just saline nasal spray with a little menthol and the only one I could was a “homeopathic” one. *sigh* The “active” ingredient was some stuff in a regular dose would be quite effective but not in the “micro-doses” they report. (However, it really did have plenty of menthol and that was the only really “active” ingredient.) It made for a rather expensive menthol saline spray, like $8 a bottle! It’s a scam to hike up the prices.

  67. amphiox

    If you do a large RCC and find a positive effect, but have no mechanism for the effect, then you are essentially at a dead end. While you may have demonstrated efficacy for the therapy in question for the specific population in the trial (and in general trial populations are quite strictly defined) you have no way of knowing where to go next. You won’t be able to intelligently predict what other populations might benefit, who might be an exception who might do poorly, who might be at higher risk for side effects, etc, beyond what was narrowly studied in trial itself.

    You have no way of intelligently designing other trials and other experiments to further investigate the effectiveness of the therapy in question.

    In short, if you are a doctor (or the patient) and your patient does not exactly fit the criteria of the study population in the RCC to the letter, then a positive RCC without a plausible mechanism is as useless to you as a random educated guess.

    If, on the other hand, you have a mechanism, and the results of the RCC appear to contradict your mechanism, or demonstrate an effect in the opposite direction, then you have good reason to suspect that your mechanism is incomplete or deficient in some fashion. Take that as your starting point and you have a fruitful path for further research ahead of you.

    The infamous COX-2 inhibitors are a good example. They were supposed to provide the same established benefits that generalized COX inhibitors had for pain and inflammation, and have the same protective effects for heart disease, etc, without the GI side-effects thought to be mediated by COX-1 inhibition. Finding that COX-2 inhibitors were associated with worse cardiovascular risks and outcomes would have been a shocking discovery even without the accompanying ethical quagmire of the suppressed results. It told us that we didn’t know as much about the COX cascade as we thought we did.

    In the case of acupuncture, if the mechanism of meridians and energy flows is bunk, but there actually is an effect generated by stimulating peripheral sensory nerves with needles, then maybe a RCC will demonstrate the benefit. But then what? How would we go on to determine who else might benefit from acupuncture, and who else might not? How would we check to see if there are more effective locations to place the needles, or more effect means of stimulating the nerves than sticking needles into the skin?

    And if there is a benefit from stimulating nerve endings with needles, but the best sites turn out to have nothing to do with meridians and are actually quite different from the traditional sites, can we really call it acupuncture anymore?

  68. David D


    “And if there is a benefit from stimulating nerve endings with needles, but the best sites turn out to have nothing to do with meridians and are actually quite different from the traditional sites, can we really call it acupuncture anymore?”

    My point exactly. Statements like “studies have demonstrated that acupuncture can cause multiple biological responses, mediated mainly by sensory neurons, to many structures within the central nervous system” from the UCLA website are almost non-sensical in their vagueness and non-specificity. Granted, there is no mention of “chi energy” or whatever, but that doesn’t make the statement any more solid.

    I looked at the reference provided by Skeptic Tim. In it there were numerous citations from the Cochrane database, kind of like the Talmud of evidence-based medicine. Basically almost all of the citations on multiple diseases and body systems had qualifiers like “not enough evidence” and “negative conclusions.”

    It kind of reminds me of the homeopathic believers, or others in the CAM crowd–“if we just had more studies. . . “

  69. @Todd:
    I see, thanks. Is there a way to get an RSS feed just for the astronomy posts? Or, is there another astronomy-related RSS feed that could be recommended?

  70. Davidlpf

    What do you expect we have the aussies thinking they’re upside right while everyting in the nort hemisphere know they’re upside down.
    The thing is I never heard ear candling into I read the skeptics dictionary online. Never expected there was somewhere that still did it intil I listened to Skeptic zone.

  71. @ amphiox:

    In the case of acupuncture, if the mechanism of meridians and energy flows is bunk, but there actually is an effect generated by stimulating peripheral sensory nerves with needles, then maybe a RCC will demonstrate the benefit. But then what? How would we go on to determine who else might benefit from acupuncture, and who else might not? How would we check to see if there are more effective locations to place the needles, or more effect means of stimulating the nerves than sticking needles into the skin?

    I’m probably just being dense, but wouldn’t the first course of action be investigating why stimulating the nerves had/has the effect it apparently did/does? It’s my understanding that’s what’s going on in UCLA’s program. I could be wrong about that, as I don’t generally follow medical news. Once you know the mechanism, wouldn’t that lead to more educated ideas about other possible affects or benefits, and how to go about setting up experiments?

    And if there is a benefit from stimulating nerve endings with needles, but the best sites turn out to have nothing to do with meridians and are actually quite different from the traditional sites, can we really call it acupuncture anymore?

    You could call it electropokeydinglewhatzits as far as I’m concerned. I think a serious practitioner would distance themselves from the woo-woo types regardless, just as modern medical doctors don’t associate themselves with shamans and bloodletters, even though they share a common, and not that distant, history.

  72. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    This is the first report I’ve seen of acupuncture showing significant improvement over sham treatment. It’ll be interesting to see what future research shows.

    I’m out of time, so I have to check this later, but AFAIU the facts are these:

    – Earlier mass studies of acupuncture, without any means of blinding or double blinding, could sometimes give an effect. When they started to use needle blinds (hidden needles or pokes simulating needles) these effects disappeared.

    The current conclusion AFAIU is that acupuncture is shown to be a placebo.

    – NCCAM is a much criticized facilitator of CAM scams, a Bush invention. Wikipedia:

    Critics attest that despite the publicized intentions at its founding, NCCAM and its predecessor, the Office of Alternative Medicine, have spent more than $800 million on such research since 1991 but have neither succeeded in demonstrating the efficacy of a single alternative method nor declared any alternative medicine treatment ineffective. “The NCCAM continues to fund and promote pseudoscience. Political pressures and the Center’s charter would seem to make this inevitable,” said Kimball C. Atwood IV, M.D.[2]

    A policy forum in Science stated,

    We believe that NCCAM [National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine] funds proposals of dubious merit; its research agenda is shaped more by politics than by science; and it is structured by its charter in a manner that precludes an independent review of its performance…In view of the popularity of alternative therapies, it is appropriate to evaluate the efficacy and safety of selected treatments.

    but research falls below the standards of other NIH institutes. NCCAM budget for 2005 was $123.1 million. The charter said that 12 of the 18 members of the NCCAM Advisory Council “shall be selected from among the leading representatives of the health and scientific disciplines…in the area of complementary and alternative medicine. Nine of the members shall be practitioners licensed in one or more of the major systems with which the Center is involved”. Clinical trials of St. John’s wort, echinacea, and saw palmetto have been published; none was more effective than placebo, but manufacturers said the studies were flawed, and these studies are unlikely to change practices. 70% said they would continue using a supplement that a government agency said was ineffective. NCCAM is funding a study of EDTA chelation therapy for coronary artery disease with 2,300 patients, even though smaller controlled trials have found chelation ineffective. Another negative trial won’t modify the practice of individuals who choose to ignore existing negative evidnece. NCCAM is also funding a trial of gemcitabine with the Gonzalez regimen for stage II to IV pancreatic cancer, in the belief that cancer is caused by a deficiency of pancreatic proteolytic enzymes that would normally eliminate toxins; severe adverse effects are associated with the Gonzalez regimen. No evidence in peer-reviewed journals supports the plausibility or efficacy of chelation therapy or the Gonzales protocol.[3]

    Note especially that NCCAM is founding a chelation therapy study, something I believe BA has taken them to task for: chelation has kills.

  73. Jdhuey

    I working off of long term memory here so I may have some of the facts wrong but I recall a study done in Germany that was designed to see if they should cover acupuncture in their health insurance. The basic design focused on a specific but relatively common knee surgery. One group went through standard post-op physical therapy, another group had the same physical therapy but also had traditional acupuncture, and a third group had physical therapy along with a sham acupuncture. The results were that those patients that received the acupuncture recovered quicker and had less pain than the just physical therapy group; however, it didn’t matter at all if the acupuncture was the ‘bonifide’ deal or a sham. The speculation is that it wasn’t the acupuncture that aided the healing but that the extra time and attention the patients received were the main drivers.

  74. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Oops, sorry, now I see NCCAM was instated just before Bush. My bad. [Where is the placebo for time pressures? :-/]

    And “chelation has kills” was an unintentional LOL on a nonLOL subject.

  75. Shane Says:
    March 16th, 2009 at 9:42 am
    OMFSM! I was kidding but you found it was real! A real electropokeydinglewhatzits!
    Just shows to go ya!
    “like a neti pot for your bottom” — Oprah
    Oh yeah, like I’d believe anything Oprah says, but she might accidentally be right this time!
    “The used ButtCandle ™ should not be handled by anyone and kept out of reach of small children and household animals.” had me giggling like a schoolgirl thinking of my Jack Russel Terrier with a poopy candle in his mouth like a cigar!
    Thanks, Shane, Kuhnigget, Ivan, Sis!

  76. David D

    @Torbjörn Larsson, OM–

    “- NCCAM is a much criticized facilitator of CAM scams, a Bush invention. ”

    Huh? NCCAM was born on Clinton’s watch, and is basically the child of Tom Harkin, Democratic Senator from Iowa.

  77. I am delighted that this Open Letter is creating comment, I hope it’s also working.

    I wanted it to draw attention to the fact that Pharmacies in this country sell magical pills and ear candles. They have gotten away with it for years, and year after year we see more quackery sneaking on the shelves. It was more a case of calling them out, not being soft about it. I wanted the general population to become aware of this shame and have something at hand they could use. Most people just don’t know this information and assume that if something is in a Pharmacy, it must work.

    Maybe the JREF will redraft it for the USA, re-brand it with JREF logos and publish it on their site. (Hint Hint Phil.)

    You can hear more about the genesis of this this idea on The Skeptic Zone Ep. # 20

    0:22:00 Skeptics in the Pub
    Joanne Shafer-Benhamu
    talks about quackery in Pharmacies

  78. BTW, I’d like to go on the record as stating (as I think someone else did above, but I’m too damn lazy to scroll up and look) that “alternative medicine” is usually a fancy way of saying quackery. I have no desire to subject myself or my dog to “alternative medicine.” If something works, it’s medicine. If it doesn’t, it’s bunk.

    Still not going to poke a candle in my…uh…hrm.

  79. Prolix

    It’s very simple. I you don’t believe a product sold in a pharmacy works, don’t buy it. But don’t take away another person’s right to make the same decision. That paternalism at best and fascism at its worst.

  80. Actually, I think the annexation of the Sudetenland led to some fascism a little more grim than not being able to buy flavored water.

  81. Well, there are those neti pot thingies that do some good…and a little zinc never hurt any—oh crap that causes nausea & the neti pots are disturbing to operate? Pass the tylenol.

  82. @Richard Saunders, I too am very happy to see this letter getting blogged and discussed.

    Like some people here, I don’t mind if people want to insert burning sticks in their ears – but these things do not belong in pharmacies next to science-based medicine.

    As mentioned by some, I report on ear candles on Skeptic Zone episode #15 and my accompanying blog about these dangerous devices is here

    On the blog, you will find references to peer reviewed articles demonstrating that ear candles do not draw a vacuum, and collect waxy deposits even when burnt over a jar. They do not draw out ear wax – as some of you have already said.

    The reason we singled out ear candles from all the other woo in pharmacies is because they do MORE HARM THAN GOOD. Unlike homeopathy, which does nothing (although I do not support the sale of homeopathy in pharmacies either).

    @Andy and others saying it is not well written, please take it and rewrite it! I can send you the Word file if you wish.

    I blogged about buttcandles a while back too. Very amusing.

    Thank you Phil for blogging this.

  83. Todd W.


    I have a fabulous elixir that cures all kinds of stuff. True, I have nothing to prove that it’s safe or that it actually does anything. I can sell it to whomever I want, right? Caveat emptor?

  84. Mark Hansen

    Prolix, it isn’t a case of taking rights away or belief in a product. If it is shown that a particular “treatment” has no benefit beyond placebo, why should it be marketed as a genuine therapy? That is false advertising at its worst and something that governments should rightly be clamping down on.

  85. drewski

    I wouldn’t have a problem with pharmacies selling quackery if it was in a section labelled Quackery. Calling it “alternative medicine” is like calling a plastic kids phone “alternative communication equipment”.

    I had an incredibly bad virus in Spain 14 months ago so, desperate for something to ease my suffering on a cold winter’s evening, I popped into the only store available, a large “alternative medicine” store where the shopkeep assured me that some herbal extract of nonsense would definitely clear everything right up.

    I was in the proper pharmacy two days later getting something that worked.

    Actually the syrup wasn’t completely useless, it had honey and menthol in it so at least it cleared out my sinuses a little and gave me some energy.

  86. Jean-Denis Muys

    Yeah, let’s create a new line of mobile phones, to be sold in mobile phone stores: the homeophone

    – Alternative mobile phone
    – Emits very very diluted levels of potentially harmful electromagnetic energy. Levels too small to measure actually.
    – No discomfort at all. Guaranteed not to ring in the middle of the night or during a meeting.
    – Can be used as reminder: studies have shown that when people pull it out of their pocket, they are reminded of the people the wish to talk to.
    – Helps to preserve privacy: when you have it on your ear, other people refrain from interrupting you.
    – Prevents the need for conventional phones, the so-called alophones (:-)): studies show that your correspondents tendency to send you emails instead of calling you increase over time.

    You are welcome to add other benefits to this already long list.

  87. Jean-Denis Muys

    – unlimited stand-by and talk time
    – works on the scientifically-proven theory of the memory of sound: sound emitted by your mouth is memorized by the underlying ether for a short while. While the intensity of the memorization decreases with the distance of your correspondant (in the inverse proportion of the square of the distance to be precise), the time of memorization increase with the distance: one second per 331 m of distance under usual conditions.

  88. MadScientist

    It’s getting worse. When I first arrived in Australia I never noticed any homeopathic crud in the pharmacies; I thought that was great because the appearance of homeopathic garbage in US pharmacies really annoyed me. Australia’s outdone us though – many shops have more woo than medicine. I just love the ear candle; I always point to them and say to my friends “hey, want to burn your eardrum and possibly get a really nasty ear infection which can kill you?”

  89. Gary Ansorge

    David D: I expect acupuncture works for the same reason that stomping on a foot relieves a headache,,,too many nerve signals trying to get to the brain at once,,,

    My favorite anecdote about pain relief was an abscessed tooth I had in 1993,,,the pain was somewhat manageable by swishing a small amount of Tequila over the affected tooth. At first it hurt, but then, after a minute of two the pain went away,,,The effect was not noticeable with any other alcoholic beverage.

    I’ve been a firm imbiber of Tequila ever since,,,

    GAry 7

  90. Susan Davis

    “Diluted water?”

  91. Gary Raisanen

    No one can prove how aspirin works, yet it is readily accepted because patients report relief. Large corporations who market medications with side effects but them minimize disclosure to the consumer with statements like only 2% report the side effect.. So 2% of 20,000,000 is negligible? Homeopathic remedies have no side effects and the scientific explaination as to how it works, just like aspirin, has not been developed yet. I invite you to read Dr. Lipton’s book “The Biology of Belief” to expand your horizons on cellular biology and medicine. It is written for the layman, like me. We will have the scientific answers soon, if the scientific community keeps and open mind.

  92. drewski

    Gary – John Robert Vane won the Nobel Prize for Medicine for demonstrating that aspirin works by supressing the production of prostaglandins and thromboxanes.

    When someone wins a Nobel for demonstrating that homopathy works at all, let alone coming up with a scientifically demonstratable mechanism for that action, maybe people will take it as seriously as they take aspirin.

    Until then, it goes with the snake oil salesmen.

  93. Phil, you might like this “Evil Homeopathist” cartoon on

    Cheers from Sydney,

  94. COX

    Lol. I’ve never seen a homeopathic medicine anywhere, nor seen it advertised and I’ve lived in the merry old land of Oz my whole life. I might actually go looking for them and see how many I can find.

    I see generally more instances of psychics, tarot cards and iridology than homoeopathy.

    Come visit again Phil! I totally have a fold out mattress and a carton of beer with your name on it! 😀

  95. Thanks for blogging this Phil.

    To those of you saying the letter is not well written, feel free to re-write it. I am happy to send you the word file (Richard and I won’t get hurt feelings, promise!)

    Australian pharmacies are full of quackery; magnetic bracelets, homeopathy, iridology, naturopaths, weight loss supplements, detox kits, etc, etc. I’m not surprised by some people’s reactions to ear candles. I blogged about them here:

    This is the blog from my Dr Rachie Reports in episode #15 of The Zone.


  96. Louise

    So you give a baby with a high fever BELLADONNA 200c and the fever rapidly disappears within less than 5 minutes (WHICH I HAVE SEEN WITH MY OWN EYES) and do you call that the Placebo Effect???

  97. Thanks for the info I appriciate your post. I especially like the look of your website excellent job!


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