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Just Water

Entry 1153, on 2010-02-03 at 12:52:43 (Rating 3, Skepticism)

I've never said that all alternative medical treatments are nonsense. It would be ridiculous to claim that there aren't a few which (mainly through good luck rather than good management) actually work to some extent. But there are several alternative forms of treatment which are so silly and so unsupported by evidence that they can be completely discounted (standard disclaimer here: nothing is ever completely thrown away and we should always be prepared to look at new evidence if it arises).

Homeopathy would have to be one of the silliest beliefs and one of the biggest rip-offs in alternative medicine. Its disgusting that real pharmacies sell homeopathic junk along with real medicines. Or perhaps not: everyone knows the placebo effect can be very powerful and maybe that's why some people think they get better when they use homeopathic remedies.

Of course its costs almost nothing to create a placebo (just like it costs very little to create a homeopathic remedy) but if they were sold for an unusually low price people would get suspicious and the placebo effect would not be as powerful. There's nothing quite like having to spend a lot on something to encourage the purchaser into believing its unusually good!

Skeptics from around the world have recently participated in a publicity campaign to demonstrate the uselessness of homeopathy. They took various overdoses of homeopathic concoctions to show that it made no difference how much or little you took, the effect was the same: nothing. The demonstration was convincing enough to force the spokesperson for the New Zealand homeopaths to admit their products were just water (or sugar pills or something similar for solid forms).

This won't stop homeopaths claiming homeopathy works of course, because they'll just fall back on that old trick that pseudoscientists use: to claim the positive effects come from "vibrations" in the water, or "molecular memory", or some unknown form of energy. This might be enough to convince themselves and some of their more naive customers but the real villains here are the pharmacists!

Pharmacists undergo extensive training, including sections on alternative medicines, and they must know that there is both no known mechanism through which homeopathy could work and that there is no good evidence that it is effective. There's really no excuse for them to sell something that they must know doesn't work.

There are three possible excuses: first, they could say they are retailers as well as health professionals; second, they could say that they are just catering for a demand from the public; and third, they could say the placebo effect is worthwhile for some people. I don't think these excuses really work though because pharmacists advertise themselves as being health professionals and should act that way.

And yes, they are retailers but consumers expect a reasonable standard from any product they buy and surely those standards should apply more to health-related products. Apparently not.

I see the whole issue as a component of a bigger picture though. I think I have detected an increase in activity from skeptics and a definite increase in their influence. This has been most obvious with the new atheists, but unfortunately it has been subverted by the so-called climate skeptics who are really just using pseudoscience against science instead of the other way around (that's why I usually call deniers instead of skeptics).

Well, you win some and you lose some. There's a long way to go before any real progress is made against the superstition and other nonsense which is so common today.


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