Saturday 13 February 2010

Homeopathy and Horse Racing

The day before the 10:23 campaign, I was asked to appear on BBC Radio Solent to discuss the campaign and explain why we were protesting against Boots for selling ineffective homeopathic remedies next to conventional medicines.

As usual the BBC assumed that two opposing arguments must be of equal weight and therefore put me up against a local homeopath. He was a very pleasant chap and put forward all of the arguments that you would expect him to put forward, and I’m sure the same could be said about all of the usual objections and rebuttals that I raised.

After about 15 minutes of discussing the same old arguments, the presenter threw the debate open to the phone lines in order for the listeners to comment and for me and the homeopath to respond to the listener comments. As the call-in audience where self selecting, I fully expected that those people who cared enough to phone in and participate in the debate would be those people who felt strongly about it. And of course the majority of people who feel strongly about it are believers, most disbelievers are presumably suitably disinterested enough to find something more productive to do with their morning.

So I endured 40 minutes of calls with people saying things along the lines of, “Well I took homeopathy and after a period of time my headache/ sore leg / dog got better, so it must work, there is no other possible explanation.”

To be fair to the presenter, he tried his best to redress the balance and reiterated my arguments of, “How do you know it just wouldn’t have got better anyway.”

Listening to the unfaltering faith of these callers, and their complete un-acceptance for any other possible reason for their eventual and gradual improvement put me in mind of a Derren Brown TV Show from a few years ago. I have used this programme before as an analogy in a previous blog, but once again I find it an excellent explanation for the state of mind of the homeopathic praising callers.

Allow me to briefly outline the programme I am referring to before returning to topic.

In a TV show a few years ago called “The System”, Derren Brown presented one lucky punter with a fool proof system for winning on the horses. Prior to the start of 5 consecutive races, Derren gave the fortunate lady the name of the winning horse and then successfully persuaded her to place a shed load of her own money on his predicted winner of the 6th and final race. The horses picked were sometimes outsiders and on occasion seemed to win by pure luck as a previous winning horse fell at the final fence allowing Derren’s predicted nag to romp home. From the perspective of the lucky punter, Derren had given her an unfailing system that correctly and unerringly predicted the winning horse every time. Despite logic stating that this is not possible, she was unable to deny the evidence she had personally witnessed and believed that against all odds he had come up with an incredible method of beating the system.

Of course the way the trick works is to start off with many potential people divide them up into groups and give each group a different prediction for the first race. After the first race, you apologise to all those in the groups who backed a losing horse and concentrate on those in the winning group. Again you divide this group up and ensure you have new groups to cover all of the horses in the second race. Once again you discard the losing groups and continue to split down the remaining participants. If you start off with enough people, there will be someone who just has to get the correct predictions for 5 consecutive races. And without the knowledge of the other people participating, the one lucky winner can see no other explanation for this amazing feat that seems to defy mere coincidence.

By taking a step back and looking at the wider picture, we can of course see the inevitable fortuitous coincidence that, the impacted individual is blinded from.

OK, now I can get back on point and you can probably finish the post off for yourselves.

Everyday thousands and thousands of people suffer from ailments such as back pain, headaches, period pains, depression and a whole host of other ailments that get better or worse over time. A group of these people will inevitably take an ineffective remedy and undoubtedly many will benefit from the placebo effect. However, even above and beyond the placebo effect some peoples conditions will inexplicably improve and in some rare cases, serious conditions may against all expectations go into remission.

As long as the homeopaths have enough people playing the system, statistics and probability will ensure that unexpected improvements will be attributed to sham treatments.

This means that as long as homeopathy and other ineffectual pseudo-sciences has a hold on a large number of people, we are guaranteed an unending supply of tedious anecdotes from those convinced that there just has to be something in it no matter what science, logic and evidence say.

Like the lucky horse race winner, the homeopathy supporting callers on the radio show used their instinct and trusted their own narrow view based on their personal experience. But just as a clear perspective of the horse racing trick can only be seen by taking a step back to see the wider picture, to measure the true efficacy of these bogus treatment we must step back from the anecdotes and view the wider and more accurate picture revealed by randomised, double blinded, placebo controlled clinical trials.


Yogzotot said...

What I really liked about "The System" was that Derren himself referred to alt med and homeopathy as a "real life application" of the bias at work.

It was only half a sentence when he explained what "the System" actually was, but as a skeptic I found this hint pure genius.

Crispian Jago said...


Thanks for that, I haven't seen "The System" since it was originally aired. I didn't recall that he mentioned Alt-med at the time. I'll have to rewatch it again now.

Bob Hale said...

As I've commented on my own blog (which isn't a science blog, just a run of the mill "anything that occurs to me" blog, so I won't link it here) Homoeopathy isn't a science, it isn't even a pseudo science. It's far more like a religion. Because of that, the stronger the evidence we gather against it, the stronger the faith of the true believers becomes. We are the heretics sent to test their faith. They demonstrate their faith by not believing the heretics. I wish that I were wrong but I don't believe we will ever make any substantial headway in convincing people.

Paul S. Jenkins said...

Your post didn't show up in my Google Reader until today, which is now too late for BBC Solent listen again. Do you have this programme archived anywhere (such as, for instance, RapidShare)?

Unknown said...

Bob Hale, it's true that it's not possible to convince any true believer, of course, but this only means that we have to focus on the many people whose only "information" about homeopathy comes from homeopath's propaganda.

The homeopath's most powerful defense against scientific data is the claim that it "works" for many people, and it is very difficult indeed to counteratack this "argument", as in the end the only thing that matters for anybody seeking a remedy for their ailments is if it really works.

Crispian's analogy is a formidable way to expose the falacy in this "argument". In fact, I just have referred here an homeopath making such claims in my own blog...

Crispian Jago said...


Sorry didn't archive the show, and I think its scrolled off the bottom of iPlayer now.

It would have only wound you up anyway. I only played back half of it and it was pissing me off too much to relisten to the whole thing.