Homeopathy and Malaria

Thursday’s Newsnight included an investigation into homeopathy and malaria. Undercover reporters contacted ten separate, and apparently randomly chosen, London homeopathic pharmacies and asked for help with preventing malaria. Every one recommended homeopathic remedies – none suggested going to a doctor, and some actively said that no other treatments would be necessary. The report is available on the BBC website via here.

Obviously this advice is complete toss – all homeopathy is – but this could easily kill somebody. This has been very well covered by Bad Science, the associated forums, and the Bad Homeopath. Fun facts include that the report states that homeopathic remedies are ‘99.99% water’, and contain ‘trace amounts’ of quinine. In reality – as the Bad Homeopath points out – the remedies are 99.999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999% water, so ‘trace amounts’ are highly unlikely to even be a single molecule.

What interests me particularly is the spokesperson from the Society of Homeopaths, who sat in the Newsnight studio and said the following:

She does a very good job of seeming to agree that the homeopaths in the report should have behaved differently, while actually saying nothing of the sort. She nods a lot, but after claiming she can’t do anything about homeopaths at risk of killing people until somebody complains, says:

“there has not been, to date, a large-scale research study into the prophylactic use for homeopathy in malaria”

I’ll give her that. I’m sure she’s correct. But that’s because every study into homeopathy has shown it to have no effect whatsoever. There’s no reason to even investigate such a claim, when huge numbers of other, methodically-identical, homeopathic claims have shown no effect. But the report wasn’t into homeopathy as a whole, so Simon Singh couldn’t really bring that up without changing the whole topic of debate, which the presenter may not have liked. Then, at the end, she slips in:

“it’s used prophylactically in diseases such as malaria. indeed the first remedy ever proved, as we call it – discovered – was a remedy for malaria”

This is a particularly evil redefinition of a word. She uses the word ‘proved’ completely differently from any dictionary definition. Anybody who doesn’t happen to know this would think she’s saying homeopathy has been shown to have some effect. In fact, homeopathic ‘proving’ involves giving homeopathic samples to people (just water, really) and measuring their symptoms1. This is the way in which homeopaths discover which ailments/diseases should be treated with said solution, based upon the like-cures-like argument.

Although she gets the number of years wrong in the report – it’s far closer to 200 than 300 – the initial idea for like-cures-like came from a malarial drug – kinda. The original guy took an anti-malarial drug of the time, experienced the symptoms of malaria, and extrapolated wildly to produce the like-cures-like argument. More details here. And that’s to say nothing of the whole dilution thing. James Randi put it something like “the first rule says that you should take something which produces the same symptoms as your problem; the second rule says you don’t do that”.

It’s a shame the interview wasn’t longer, as I suspect Simon Singh would have demolished her final argument given another chance to speak. The whole thing is just appalling, and you’d think that if anybody actually died there’d be a strong criminal case.

  1. according to Wikipedia, recent ‘provings’ have introduced placebo controls. This has resulted in the people taking placebos experiencing the same symptoms as those taking the remedies, and is explained away with ‘energetic resonance’ – I like how they’re trying to be scientific but give up if it doesn’t suit them []