Homoeopaths label scientists the 'new fundamentalists'

Clinical research 'inappropriate' to test alternative therapies, practitioners argue. Zoe Corbyn writes

June 26, 2008

Academics who rubbish the value of homoeopathy are peddling a "new fundamentalism" against the practice and seeking to apply "wholly inappropriate" clinical research methods to evaluate its worth.

These were the claims heard by delegates at the inaugural "Scientific Research in Homeopathy" conference held by the Complementary Medical Association (CMA) at the University of Westminster last week.

The conference, which was attended by about 100 homoeopathy practitioners, promised to give practitioners the "proof" they needed to counter arguments that their work is both ineffective and dangerous.

The conference is the latest twist in the bitter battle that has been fought over the field since the publication of a book that takes a tough scientific line against some complementary and alternative medicines, including homoeopathy.

The book, Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial, was written by Edzard Ernst, a professor of complementary medicine at the University of Exeter, and Simon Singh, the science writer. It concludes that homoeopathic remedies are implausible and are nothing more than elaborate placebos.

In Times Higher Education recently, Professor Ernst and Dr Singh hit out at universities for offering "pseudo-scientific" degrees in alternative medicine. They published a list of the institutions with the most courses in an effort to embarrass vice-chancellors into a debate.

Last week, Professor Ernst and Dr Singh offered £10,000 to anyone who could prove that homoeopathy worked based on randomised controlled trials (RCTs), which are considered the "gold standard" in evidence-based medicine. The onus is on the homoeopathic industry to prove that its products and services work, Dr Singh said at the launch of the challenge. "They need to put up or shut up."

Participants at the conference dismissed the challenge. They called it a "nonsense" and a "stunt" designed to increase book sales. "It is actually testament to their own ignorance ... It is not the way that homoeopathy works," Jayney Goddard, the CMA president and conference organiser, told Times Higher Education.

One conference speaker, Robert Verkerk, the chief executive of the Alliance of Natural Health, said he would tell participants that it was "utterly inappropriate" to use RCTs to assess homoeopathy and other complementary medicines.

"You can't apply the existing interpretation of evidence-based medicine, which says RCTs are the only evidence ... As soon as you put someone into a trial situation, you destroy many of the effects that exist between patient and practitioner," he said.

He added that homoeopathy practitioners were particularly exercised by Professor Ernst and Dr Singh's book because it put into the popular domain previously inaccessible research papers that cast doubt on homoeopathy. "It is that popular form and that popular interpretation that will carry more weight (with the public)," he said.

The conference also heard Lionel Milgrom, a homoeopathy researcher, deliver a talk, "Homoeopathy and the new fundamentalism", in which he described scientists who ignored, ridiculed or failed to comprehend the evidence that supported homoeopathy as "new fundamentalists".

"They are not only unscientific - I actually think they demean science," he told delegates. Practitioners faced a battle for hearts and minds, he said. "It is time to get angry, time to get unified and time to get busy defending homoeopathy and CAM (complementary and alternative medicine)."

Professor Ernst and Dr Singh said they were becoming increasingly frustrated with the vitriolic criticism and attack from the alternative medicine practitioners.

Professor Ernst said he had received about 100 communications "full of lies, hatred and misinterpretations", which were spurred in part by the fact that homoeopathy practitioners had a vested interest in maintaining a multimillion-pound industry. He said applying an evidence-based approach to CAM was not fundamentalist. "If you don't evaluate it scientifically, what do you do? Do you go by intuition? ... I think the believers are much more in danger of becoming fundamentalists," he told Times Higher Education.

Dr Singh said homoeopaths often referenced scientific evidence to back up their work - turning their own notion that RCTs could not be applied on its head. "If ... they stop using science to back up homoeopathy, that will be a huge achievement," he said.

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com.

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