Saturday, January 30, 2010

Snake oil

The Wild West was notorious for its snake oil salesmen, who rode into town with a wagon of elixirs and used their smooth sales patter to convince the ignorant and gullible that these concoctions, including "snake oil", would fix every malady.

Oh, how we laugh at their naivety!

Yet today, sadly, we see practices that are not much different - and just as many people falling for the con.

Earlier on today I visited Southampton. The reason for the visit was simple - to take part in the 1023 protest. The essence of this is simple: Boots, a huge chain of pharmacies in the UK, sells homeopathic medicine which it knows has no therapeutic (ie medical) benefit. Gullible people buy this in the hope that it may cure them. Indeed, when I bought some, it was in the aisle marked "Medicine".

This is extremely disappointing. Boots is an otherwise respectable and respected chain of pharmacies. As far as I can tell, in their role of dispensing scientifically-proven medicine, they do an excellent job. Yet they persist in also purveying products which are little different from witchcraft. We scorn the late South African minister who claimed you could cure HIV with beetroot, but homeopathic remedies are no different. With no proven benefit, they offer false hope to the ill. The superintendent pharmacist at Boots has admitted "I have no evidence ... they they are efficacious" - in simple English he means he has no evidence that they work.

So, we did a test.

23 of us (by coincidence) took part in the 10:23 campaign this morning outside Boots in Southampton. We all massively "overdosed" on homeopathic medicine, swallowing a bottle of pills, as did hundreds (thousands?) of others all over the world. As I write this, three hours later, I'm feeling fine.

It's deeply disappointing that a company as reputable as Boots should promote such bogus treatments.

Media Flash And now it's been Youtubed


Peter Taheri said...

The placebo effect is scientifically proven.

In some cases, the officially recommended medicine works little better than a placebo.

We take medicine to make us feel better. I really don't care how the medicine works. If the placebo makes you feel better, then I say go for it.

People who go out of their way to convince others that placebos are not effective could be doing more harm than if they just did nothing.

Peter Taheri said...

PS Before anyone comes up with a cheap point in response, my argument only applies to placebos when used to treat relatively minor illnesses - the common cold etc. I wouldn't advocate the use of placebos in treating serious illness, cancer, aids etc (at least not in the first instance).

Sean Haffey said...

Indeed - placebos are extremely powerful.

But few homeopaths claim to be selling placebos.

Peter Taheri said...

If they claimed to be selling placebos, that would rather undermine the effect!

Sean Haffey said...

The morals of prescribing placebos are rather complex.

The cases where "officially recommended medicine works little better than a placebo" are rare: medicine doesn't get licensed unless it is shown, through long and expensive trials, that it is effective.

Anthony said...

It also may be a little simplistic to say "I want something that makes me feel better, placebo's make me feel better, therefore I don't mind them being on the market".

People who take homeopathic medicine may be

1) Taking that instead of medicine that has emperical evidence of efficacy beyond the placebo effect
2) Be part of a culture that rejects mainstream medicine as a whole. This is what many distributors of homeopathic medicine may want, but to the detriment of the patients.
3) Taking medication for something that has been fabricated. Really. Fish oil pills are an example Ben Goldacre notes, where an entire market was created by a still unjustified myth. The malice in this rumour was partially shown when parents who didn't buy into it were characterised as not caring.

Essentially, allowing deceit naturally has potentially harmful complications beyond any simple benefit it may offer. The principles behind the placebo effect works well as a way to improve the efficacy of emperically supported medicine.

It would seem to me that only in exceptional circumstances would a sugar pill be worth prescribing for it's placebo effect.

Craig said...

It really is very simple.

If the sick people took real medicine they would be better off. Homeopaths are conning the vulnerable out of their money.

Best summarised by the pub discussion at the end of this clip:

lilith said...

Homoeopathy cured my cat of a viral gum disease that the vet said was terminal. It was the vet's idea to try homoeopathy. Obviously the cat was convinced.

Sean Haffey said...

Dear Lilith

I love your turn of phrase.

However, I have to ask the question: how do you know what cured your cat? Years ago I was told by a doctor "Left to itself, the common cold can last as much as a week, but with my medicine it will be cured in just seven days."

To prove any treatment works, we give it to hundreds of volunteers and give hundreds of others a placebo. (This is a simplified example). No-one knows whether they are getting the treatment or the placebo. If the treatment works significantly better than the placebo, we call it "medicine".

So far, homeopathy fails the test: there is no large scale analysis that shows it to be better than placebo. The description of how it is supposed to work goes against all scientific knowledge.

Things may change, but until homeopathy can be shown to deliver better-than-placebo results it will be confined to the fringes.

And, despite the above, I am very glad your cat is better!

Elaine said...

The thing is..... whose business is it what another human being believes? Homeopathy - as you proved - has no damaging effects other than to annoy the hell out of those who don't believe in its merits. And if this is about honesty vs conning I hope nobody is naive enough to believe that the medical arena is an example of honesty.

Dr. Nancy Malik said...

Real is scientific homeopathy. It cures even when Conventional Allopathic Medicine (CAM) fails. Nano doses of evidence-based modern homeopathy medicine brings big results for everyone