I attended a pro-homeopathy media event on November 19th supported by Thomas Mulcair, the former leader of the New Democratic Party of Canada and also the former president of the Office des professions du Québec, which is tasked with ensuring that professions in our province are exercised with competence and integrity. Mulcair himself had, as far as I’m aware, come out of the “water closet” on the airwaves of CJAD a few days before, in defence of the pseudoscience that claims that “like cures like” and that dilutions make an ingredient more powerful. The purpose of the media event was to legitimize homeopathy and to announce the creation of a popular movement and a coalition in Quebec to spread positive opinions about the practice. I was there on behalf of our Office, alongside our director, though we had not originally been invited. We asked to be present and eventually the two of us were invited to attend the event.
To someone who knows nothing about homeopathy, it would probably have appeared to be a very credible presentation. But like with any successful illusion, there’s trickery involved. To be clear, I’m not accusing any participant of this press conference of purposefully utilizing trickery. But these artifices were indeed present regardless.
Homeopathy has had a hard time with the Quebec media in the past nine months. First there was my survey which showed that at least two thirds of pharmacies in Montreal carry sugar granules for the flu. Then came Philippe Mercure’s investigation which revealed that two thirds of the pharmacists he visited were either on the fence about (“could work!”) or favourable to homeopathy. This led the pharmacists’ order to remind its members that there was no evidence for homeopathy; it resulted in the physicians’ college publicly declaring the same; and it led to signage in pharmacies all over the province informing consumers that there was no good scientific evidence behind this practice of incredible dilutions to the point of non-existence. So clearly homeopathy’s image in the media needed rehabilitation in the eyes of its stakeholders.
The press conference spearheaded by Mulcair filled its stage with alleged experts: the Honourable Mr. Mulcair himself, but also physicians, the directors of an institute, and a pharmacist. But many of the arguments made—either for the legitimacy of homeopathy, its preservation in drugstores, or the need for a professional order in Quebec to protect the public—were not worthy of their combined expertise. We were told by Christophe Augé, who teaches at the Faculty of Pharmacy of the University of Montreal, that we should first remove junk food from pharmacies before ridding them of homeopathy. We can actually do both. Dr. Christiane Laberge, a family physician and media commentator on health issues, decried the recent wave of “controversy” over homeopathy, whereas the practice used to be so much more accepted. (We even had a homeopathic hospital in Montreal, she reminded us.) Of course, bloodletting and lobotomies were similarly popular in their days but have since fallen out of fashion for good reasons. And we were repeatedly asked, rhetorically, if skeptics were calling the 200 millions of people worldwide who use homeopathy “idiots”. While some may indeed do so on social media mostly to vent their frustration, many people understand what leads us all to seek any remedy: desperation. When your quality of life plummets, even the most rational of scientists may think to themselves, “But what if this worked? Let’s try it.”
Playing Whack-a-Mole with scientific studies
When it comes to answering the question of whether or not there are scientific studies that show homeopathy works, the two sides on this issue can all-too-easily get bogged down in a form of trench warfare. The pro camp throws a handful of studies into enemy territory. That side proceeds to mutilate them and throws better studies back. And the pro camp catapults over yet another helping of studies. Duane Gish did something similar when he supported Creationism in debates, throwing so many errors and misleading information that his debating partner didn’t have a chance to refute them all. This “Gish gallop” can now be done with scientific studies, and we could spend a whole career simply poking holes into so many of the studies purporting to show that homeopathy works. Professor Edzard Ernst does as much on his blog.
One example: we were given the reference to a meta-analysis of homeopathic trials by Mathie (2014) and told that it showed homeopathic remedies were 1.5 to 2 times more likely to have a beneficial effect than actual placebo pills. However, you don’t need to read very far into the article to realize that any conclusion is tentative: “The low or unclear overall quality of the evidence prompts caution in interpreting the findings.” Even though first author Robert Mathie belongs to the British Homeopathic Association, he is still saying that the evidence his team looked at for this meta-analysis is not of good quality. Not all studies are created equal.
The right to choose integrative medicine
The Coalition pour l’homéopathie au Québec (The Quebec Coalition for Homeopathy), which was birthed at the event (it was a water birth, har har har), has adopted “right to choose” as its main argument. I’m used to hearing it from libertarians who want access to experimental drugs or who want the government to stop telling them they have to vaccinate their kids. I’m all for consumers making informed choices about their healthcare. But giving them misinformation about homeopathy will not lead to an informed decision. Moreover, nobody is coming to rid the province of all homeopathic products. I have argued that they have no place in pharmacies, and that homeopaths should not have a professional order, but you can still get those products from homeopaths and natural health stores. Yet here we are in 2019, being served a warmed-up version of Mel Gibson’s infamous vitamin commercial from the 90s.
The phrase “integrative medicine” was bandied about quite a few times as their desired destination for our healthcare system. Much like Creationism was rebranded “intelligent design” to sneak it into the biology curricula of American high schools, alternative medicine has gone through several skin-shedding events to reposition itself as acceptable. First it was alternative; then it became alternative and complementary; then holistic; and now we are sold this idea that actual medicine needs to be integrated with these practices, which have either not been shown to work or been shown not to work. It is indisputable that medicine does not have a treatment for everyone. But the answer is not to allow nonsense to be dispensed alongside it. If there are problems with airplanes, the solution can’t be magic carpets.
Would a professional order of homeopaths in Quebec protect the public?
Finally, we were asked why Quebec patients must go to Ontario if they want to consult with a properly regulated homeopath who is part of a professional order. They made it sound like choosing an unregulated Quebec homeopath was akin to playing Russian roulette. An order would protect the public, we were told. But this only works if the people fielding the complaints made to the order have a more pronounced interest in protecting the public than in protecting their own members. And it has become clear to me in the past year that professional orders for alternative healers, like chiropractors and naturopaths, routinely dismiss genuine complaints in order to side with their members. This illusion of public protection is compounded by the patina of legitimacy granted to a professional order in the public’s eye. If there was an Order of Quebec Psychics, the average Quebecer may be forgiven for thinking there might be something to clairvoyance. And being recognized as a professional order in healthcare makes it a lot harder for actual doctors to publicly criticize this pseudoscience without professional repercussions… though that may not be a design flaw, but rather a feature.
Homeopathy often gets by on ignorance. Its believers aren’t keen to explain the foundational principles of this pseudoscience because it sounds ludicrous on its surface. Someone vomits, so you give them something that makes a healthy person vomit? But first you dilute it a lot, to the point where it’s no longer there? And it’s OK because the water remembers the ingredient… but not the poo and the urine that’s been in it through the miracle of the cycle of water?
It’s easier to skip this explanation and go straight to the cherry-picked studies, the call for freedom, and the testimonials (of which there were many at the press conference, including one from Mulcair who proudly has used homeopathy for 30 years and whose father-in-law apparently studied with Mr. Boiron Senior). Because when you do explain homeopathy to people, it turns out many of them feel scammed.
There is now a coalition in Quebec fighting for homeopathy’s place in healthcare. There is also a citizen movement called “Homeo Populi” which will be spreading misinformation about homeopathy in no time on social media. I was told by a believer at the event that it’s impossible to overdose on homeopathy. I’m afraid, however, I may end up overdosing on the misinformation.
Want to comment on this article? Visit our FB Page!