Homeopathy is the second most used medical system in the world, after real medicine. It is legal, and in fact enjoys privileged status in the US and many other industrialized nations. Most people, however, do not really understand what it is, or the fact that years of research and hundreds of studies show conclusively that it does not work – for anything.
Homeopathy is an example of 100% pure unadulterated pseudoscience. Its underlying principles are not only unscientific, they are as close to impossible as you can get in science, meaning that vast amounts of physics, chemistry, and biology would have to be rewritten if homeopathy were true.
Proponents abuse the scientific evidence, and propose one absurd pseudoexplanation after another to desperately justify their magic potions.
This is all likely very familiar to most skeptics, prompting some to criticize the apparent obsession of some segments of the skeptical community with homeopathy. This misses a very important point, however. The purpose of the skeptical literature is not just to educate and entertain the already skeptical, but to influence the broader culture.
For this purpose we need to keep up the pressure, we need to keep countering homeopaths whenever they emerge to offer a new distortion of science and evidence. This is part of what we do as activists – it is only scientific skeptics who are pushing back against this dangerous nonsense.
I can tell you from personal experience that mainstream physicians and scientists largely do not know and do not care about homeopathy. At best they are “shruggies” who think it is harmless, and at worst they are confused enough to actually support it (Dr. Oz comes to mind, but perhaps he is not the best example).
Science journalists are mixed, some get it, and some don’t. I was recently involved with a documentary on homeopathy by an honest documentarian who was just trying to understand homeopathy (in other words, not a propaganda piece by proponents). Unfortunately she simply came to the exact wrong conclusion about homoepathy, convinced by anecdotal evidence. She was not prepared to understand how so many people could be wrong, how easy it is for people to be fooled, and how difficult it is to get reliable and unbiased results from scientific study. In other words – she was not a skeptic (not sufficiently skilled in critical thinking and understanding the difference between science and pseudoscience). The film is not out yet, so I have yet to see the final result, but I know it’s not going to be good.
There is a bright side, however – skeptics constantly pushing back against the nonsense, and we are making some headway. The more the public understands about homeopathy, the more it is marginalized.
It is partly through the efforts of skeptics that knowledge of the true nature of homeopathy is starting to penetrate into the political arena. The UK House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, after a thorough investigation, concluded that homeopathy is “witchcraft” and the NHS should remove all support from its research and practice. The UK government did not act on those recommendations, so we have more work to do.
Here is one skeptical effort that needs our support now: Deepak Gupta (not Chopra) is the founder of SavvySkeptic.com. He is producing a documentary film on homeopathy that will actually reflect reality. An indiegogo campaign is underway to provide some funding for distribution and marketing – please visit his page and take a look, and consider becoming a supporter, and also help spread the word.
Fellow skeptics often ask me how they can support skeptical activism even if they don’t have the time or experience to run a blog or podcast – this is how. As a community we need to get behind those who are producing this kind of content.
I don’t know what we can realistically accomplish with respect to homeopathy, and the many other battles that we face. I do not see the utility in limiting our goals, however. In a perfect world homeopathy would be widely recognized as pseudoscience and relegated to a footnote in the history books of quackery. We should shoot for nothing less, while accepting what victories we can along the way.
This effort will require constant pressure from the skeptical community, which means that we may have to tolerate yet another article explaining exactly why homeopathy is dangerous pseudoscience.
Steven Novella, M.D. is the JREF's Senior Fellow and Director of the JREF’s Science-Based Medicine project.