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The Broken Hut
Working my way up to a full-size building
Conspiracy theories against alternative medicine 
28th-Sep-2007 11:47 am

So Ben Goldacre links to a homeopathist gloating over the result of David Colquhoun’s legal set-to with a couple of snake-oil peddlers. (Keep an eye on Goldacre’s Delicious links at http://del.icio.us/begoldacre. There’s some good stuff there.)

The outcome was reasonably good for the forces of reason, but as I mentioned on the Bad Science blog, there was still a lot of wishy-washy speak from the official statement. So the woo peddlers have been capitalising on that, and even casting it as some kind of victory:

So, we now have agreement that abuse is not debate! What a victory! Professor Colquhoun has taken legal advice to ensure that his blog ‘adopts the right tone’, because he made ‘defamatory’ remarks about herbalism.

The official statement from David Colquhoun and UCL said, amongst others, “UCL will not allow staff to use its website for the making of personal attacks on individuals”. His enemies have really run with this one.

Amongst other things, they make great play of the downtrodden and underprivileged snake oil salesmen, who obviously don’t have the money of the “big pharma”:

I wonder how much that legal advice from Queens Counsel cost, and I would make the point that he was lucky to have access to enough funds to pay for it. I hope people remember that this is the privilege of the 10% and not for the many?

No mention of the fact that legal advice was only necessary because of the attempts to censor scientific criticism through legal means. But that is by the by.

A lot of the rest of the article is full of silliness about mercury fillings and fluoride in the water. (Gotta keep control of your precious bodily fluids kids! The commie is sneaky that way! Deny them your essence!) That is also not relevant here.

What I really wanted to highlight was the overtones of conspiracy. There’s also a helluva lot of conspiracy. I mean, I’m talking bagloads here. There are repeated and unexplained references to an anonymous “they”, who are out to damage children and extort your very last penny from you.

They can‘t explain how paracetamol works so they manufacture vast amounts and sell it, why? Because they know it works and it will make then vast amounts of money (what price proof here?). They know mercury is a poison in large amounts so they fill our children’s teeth with it. They know fluoride is dangerous in large amounts, so they manufacture it and use trace amounts to ’benefit’ our health (isn’t that a homeopathic principle?) They have known for years that salt is dangerous in large amounts, so they add far too much to our food, such that we have to have a TV campaign to get them to withdraw it. They also know that sugar is dangerous in large amounts so they add far too much to our food such that we have a massive obesity problem. They know that sugar substitute is dangerous, so they sell it all around the world?

And when the author has finished on “them”, she brings in the “orthodoxy” and a bit more of the worldwide conspiracy is put in its place:

So why does orthodoxy apply ‘science’ to their chosen phenomena and chosen substances and to pharmaceuticals and vehemently exclude alternative medicine? Do you think it has something to do with the means of production and the profits they can potentially make? It is not possible for them to make huge profits out of alternative medicine, so of course it must be banned! Is this what they call ‘science’? Is this what they call ‘Public Health’?

At least “the orthodoxy” is slightly more defined than “they”, but not by much. Strange, though, this assertion that “it is not possible for them to make huge profits out of alternative medicine”. This is patently false: there are people out there making fortunes out of sugar pills and plain water sold in expensive vials—and you can buy them in every branch of Boots in the country.

The vehemence of the abuse defaming alternative medicine far too often takes on the hysterical screeching of the ‘I know I am right brigade’ who advocate a one size fits all ideology, and such beliefs are fueled by ‘poor science’ that uses magicians to defame reputable scientists who do try and investigate alternative medicine. The message went out clear as a clarion call all around the World. Do research into alternative medicine and we will hunt you down and destroy you!

This is interesting stuff. “Abuse”, “screeching”, claims that someone wants to “hunt you down and destroy you”—these are exactly the claims used to argue against Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris et al, when talking about religion. This isn’t argument, this is just stoking paranoia. It’s certainly not in the best interests of anyone to suggest that the person holding an opposing viewpoint is also rigging the system too.

When writers make the claim that the “arrogant” Richard Dawkins wants to “round up all the believers” not only are they grossly misrepresenting his wishes, but they’re feeding a feeling in their audience that they are under attack for who they are. That they, as people, are being subjected to abuse. Those same emotive words are used here to distract from the fact that it’s the complete lack of tangible evidence that is the point of contention.

… Is it any wonder that the research follows the money? Is it any wonder that scientific research cannot conduct such studies without attracting ignorant abuse? Personally, I do not call this ‘science’. I call it a witch hunt.

Next stop in the conspiracy theories—follow the money! In one sense, the author is right. It would be foolish for us to ever trust anything a pharmaceutical company says in promotion of its own products. But that’s why we demand trails of evidence and accountability.

What the author implies, however, is that the alternative medicine industry (or homeopathy in particular) is not big business. She wants you to believe that it’s all garage enthusiasts and community-driven amateurs. And maybe there is some of that. But resting atop the cottage industry of crystal healers and aura cleansers is a full-blown (and very lucrative) industry of people making a lot of money from woo. Gillian McKeith (the Fraud Previously Known as Doctor) gets paid for talking shite.

No-one is in love with the pharmaceutical industry. It needs to buy its favours with lobbyists. The alternative medicine crowd have already won the hearts of their followers and don’t need to concentrate on argument at all. It is in their best interest to obfuscate the facts at all costs. Each study which shows that homeopathy is no better than placebo, or that real and sham acupuncture are equivalent, has to be discredited in some way. If all these woo therapies were shown to be nonsense to the general public, poor Patrick Holford, GMTV’s darling nutritionist, would be much less of a success. The author is right, follow the money—but follow it in both directions.

Further conspiracies

More recently, the same Professor Colquhuon was involved in a Channel 4 slot about alternative medicines being dropped from the NHS to save money.

And yet again, the conspiracy theories were called upon to cultivate that sense of attack from outside that helps bind communities. The homeopaths suggested that:

  • There was some cadre of “retired or senior” doctors who were out to get the woo medicine people (for some unspecified reason). So that would be a conspiracy, then?
  • These same people were defenders of genetically modified foods. This was (a) irrelevant, (b) not necessarily true and (c) unsubstantiated anyway. But there’s no better way of making a scientist look evil than to suggest they want to feed your children “Frankenfoods”.
  • There were undisclosed conflicts of interest on the side of the scientists. Which is to say, we’re to believe they were in the pay of Big Pharma and were not to be trusted. These claims were not substantiated either.

At no point in the proceedings did anyone on the homeopathy side cite evidence that what they were promoting actually worked. But they cast a lot of aspersions—which are like spells, only harder to get rid of once you’ve been caught in one.

29th-Sep-2007 07:51 am (UTC) - On Homoeopathy
Anonymous Coward
If you dont want to see anything around you, you have you have some choices. One is simply close your eyes.If you are not sure with this method and you feel this may not prevent the light from the object you do not want to see may still be felt then tie a thick cloth over the eyes and tie it around it. Now you have perfectly achieved the objective.
The same principle seems to be adopted by pseudo scientific tempered persons with regard to Homoeopathy. One they say it does not work. Then when they start seeing the results then they try but fail due to their flawed pursuits to see how it works. Many of them are not even able to distinguish betweem snake oil and Homoeopathic system and what level of intellectual pursuits such biased minds can accomplish can be anybody's guess.THe last method they adopt is when they see people are not listening to them and still migrate to that system they start crying wolf.Let us pity and ignore them for their absolute ignorance, blocked minds and biased approach and choose what is good for us. We do not need to fall prey to any Medical Fundamentalism - a mindset that wants only one type of system to remain on this earth.
29th-Sep-2007 09:24 am (UTC) - Re: On Homoeopathy

You seem to be working under the assumption that medicine works like politics; and that having "one type of system" means there will be some kind of dictatorship --- but that if we have a nice liberal system where no-one gains the upper hand everyone can be accommodated. The fact is, we are already living in that "one party system" and the ruler is Nature. We cannot subvert her and we cannot overthrow her. As Richard Feynman said, "For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled". So it is with medicine.

I notice that you invoke "fundamentalism". This would seem a strange thing for a homeopathy supporter to do, since a fundamentalist is someone who maintains "strict adherence to any set of basic ideas or principles". Medical knowledge is almost nothing like it was 200 years ago: it has evolved and advanced beyond recognition. By contrast, homeopathy has stayed true to the "basic ideas or principals" of Samuel Hahnemann. Homeopathists fit the description of fundamentalism much better.

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