Media quackery – Irish Times and unscientific bias

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Media Bias

Here is my response to one of the many of the anti-homeopathy articles and letters in The Irish Times this week. Two articles and four letters against (and increasing) and one letter for homeopathy show a media bias as well as an unscientific bias and prejudice.

Because the critic in a letter to The Irish Times, Prof Thomas Cotter, is a scientist, it doesn’t follow he’s right. To assume so is to fall into the fallacy of appeal to authority.

You’ll notice his caricature of homeopathy as “voodoo” is typical of the modern witch-hunt in science against whatever doesn’t make sense to “my mind”, as Prof Cotter puts it. It also puts homeopathy into a religious paradigm which makes homeopathy more susceptible to ridicule because, after all, reductionist materialistic science is the new religion.

My unpublished response is as follows…

“If homeopathy doesn’t work, then medicine is in big trouble! In his criticism of homeopathy Prof. Thomas Cotter
(Letters, 28.03.15) shows he knows little about homeopathy. Most medicines are homeopathic – just consult the lists of side-effects – they cause what they treat. Radium is used to treat cancer; Epilem for epilepsy when it causes convulsions; platinum for ovarian tumours which it causes and likewise with Nexium for stomach symptoms; mercury in dentistry; Respiridone for hyperactivity; Tamoxifen and chemotherapy for cancer and with the use of Seroxat and Ativan for anxiety. With skin, Zovirax causes herpes etc. On the contrary, opioids are ‘bad painkillers’ because they aren’t homeopathic; they don’t cause pain.¹

“Prof Cotter confuses homeopathy with a separate question of pharmacology. Homeopaths don’t stick to ‘one molecule’ when prescribing. He is also mistaken in thinking there are homeopathic medicines for all sorts of conditions because homeopaths don’t treat disease names. But to answer his question ‘why there isn’t a homeopathic pill for contraception?’ it’s because conception isn’t a disease!”

Prof Thomas Crotter’s letter

Sir, – Dr Muiris Houston’s column “There is no clinical evidence to validate homeopathy – and it can even do harm” (Health, March 22nd) is on the money! There is absolutely no credible evidence that homeopathy works. Sure, there is lots of unsubstantiated anecdotal evidence, but it is no more than that. Homeopathy is as close to voodoo science as you can get and it still amazes me that people believe in it. The idea that ultra-dilute solutions of a compound – that are so dilute that we are talking about a single molecule in a volume the size of the Atlantic Ocean – can have an effect is, to my mind, plainly ridiculous. There is no possible rational mechanism as to how it might work. It is interesting to see that you can buy homeopathic remedies for all sorts of conditions, but there is no homeopathic pill for contraception. I wonder why! – Yours, etc,

Prof Thomas Cotter, PhD, MRIA,

Gerti Magee subsequently had a letter published in The Irish Times (plus another against). It was the first bit of sense about science and homeopathy in the current debate. Here it is.

Sir, – As far as I understand it, a scientist is somebody who, with a clear, open and unprejudiced mind, observes phenomena in the natural world.

He or she then examines a particular phenomenon and tries to understand it. As we know from history, many times scientists could not explain or understand a given phenomenon. Yet this didn’t lead them to the conclusion: this can’t possibly exist because we can’t explain it.

This would have been poor science indeed.

Because we all know that apples fell from the trees, even before Newton discovered the law of gravity. – Yours, etc,
Gerti Magee, Oranmore, Co Galway.

In this sloppy reply to Gerti Magee, Neil Barrett (link) refers to her as “McGrath” and even though she never mentioned “homeopathy” in her description of the scientific process, he constantly assumes she did. A scientific mind doesn’t assume but is open and examines, as Gerti Magee explained. Obviously, the University of Cambridge isn’t what it used to be!

Sir, – Gerti McGrath (Letters, April 1st) seems to criticise scientists and doctors for not giving homeopathy credit as a phenomenon merely because its proposed mechanism of action contradicts our understanding of the laws of chemistry and physics.

She compares our understanding of homeopathy to our pre-Newton concept of the phenomenon of gravity.

This would be a technically valid argument save one flaw; gravity is a phenomenon demonstrable in orchards throughout the land.

The Australian study of homeopathic effectiveness that began this thread of letters – which was concerned with efficacy rather than mechanism – highlighted the lack of effect or effectiveness of homeopathy, ie, that there is no phenomenon. And here the argument, like the proverbial apple, falls down.

The simple fact is that if well-controlled trials demonstrated a homeopathic phenomenon that was positive in the clinic, then lack of understanding of a plausible mechanism would not prevent this “alternate medicine” becoming “medicine”.

Many drugs have at least an incompletely understood mechanism of action, or were a complete mystery in terms of their mechanisms when first used.

It is their consistent demonstrable effects that earns them acceptance in the medical and scientific communities – and not our understanding of their mechanisms of action.
– Yours, etc,
Dr Neil Barrett, University of Cambridge.

Further Reading
see my posts: painkillers and opioids and more on the The Irish Times

Update
In May, 2016 research into opioids as a bad painkiller now has some new science to back it up: “Opioids like morphine have now been shown to paradoxically cause an increase in chronic pain in lab rats, findings that could have far-reaching implications for humans, says a new study led by the University of Colorado Boulder.”

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