Bounty offered to anyone who can prove homeopathy outperforms placebos

Science author Simon Singh and a professor of complementary medicine at the University of Exeter named Edzard Ernst have put up a £10,000 bounty to anyone who can show that homeopathic remedies work better than placebos.
The pair are not against complementary remedies. Of those examined in their book, 36 worked for particular conditions - such as St John's wort for mild depression - but homeopathy was not among them.

Homeopaths seem in no hurry to take up the offer. "We have nothing to prove, and certainly not to people with closed minds," says Steve Scrutton of the Alliance of Registered Homeopaths.

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  1. ” “We have nothing to prove, and certainly not to people with closed minds,” says Steve Scrutton of the Alliance of Registered Homeopaths.”

    Scrutton forgets to note that he’s closed to the possibility (nay, near certainty) that homeopathy is only so much superstitious bunk, whereas Singh is open to evidence.

    Practitioners of so-called alternative medicine like to paint scientific medicine as close minded, yet in practice the opposite is true. Science is open to evidence, alternative medicine is not open to the possibility that any form of alternative medicine is nonsense, since to do so would be to admit that all of it could be.

    Sound science is how we separate what is true from what seems to be true. Alternative medicine, if it really was about efficacious patient care, should be eager to winnow out ineffective treatments in alternative medicine. Instead, practitioners shun sound science and move the goal-posts when studies show no support for efficacy. Alternative medicine is mostly chaff–and at some level I think practitioners know it and fear exposure.

    Good sites dealing with scientific medicine as it pertains to alternative medicine:

    http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/
    http://quackwatch.com/

    and the well researched and entertainingly sarcastic quackcast podcast (the presentation sounds unpromising at first, but if you give it a listen you’ll discover it is harshly funny and soundly scientific):
    http://www.quackcast.com/

  2. 10,000 pounds? If they aren’t running to take James Randi’s 1,000,000 US dollars, they certainly are not going to take 10,000 pounds.

  3. #2 – No kidding, homeopathic scammers probably make that much in profit selling a single crate of HeadOn. (Gotta love the juicy markup on wax sticks!)

  4. In a homeopathy trial, how do you tell the difference between the placebo and the remedy? ;-)

  5. 10,000 pounds? If they aren’t running to take James Randi’s 1,000,000 US dollars, they certainly are not going to take 10,000 pounds.

    …and James Randi didn’t even require that a homeopathic preparation work better than placebo, but that the claimant could detect the difference between a homeopathic dilution and the water used to dilute it in any way (since homeopathic preparations typically have zero molecules of active ingredient)–by taste, smell, effect, assay–what ever.

    Homeopathy is merely the nonsense of sympathetic magic dressed in a lab coat and diluted to nothingness. That it has government backing in the UK is an embarrassing step backward to pre-scientific medievalism.

  6. You know, there are a lot of these challenges. Anyone who could successfully win the challenges would gain all the money and fame they wanted by just taking on one after the other. Homeopathy then wouldn’t be contested.

    My trouble’s that I’d like to believe, but the evidence says it doesn’t work any better. My mind’s open, but I still use it. :)

    – Mel.

  7. “Skep@5: 10,000 pounds is pretty close to 1,000,000 US dollars these days.”

    I was rather thinking that.

    But, I would agree with APRECHE who penned the observation (that I unsuccessfully tried to block-quote) that it is unlikely anyone will bother to try and claim such a bounty if they didn’t try for the famous $1,000,000 prize from JREF.

    10,000 pounds isn’t enough to pay for the kind of randomized clinical trial that would be needed to demonstrate efficacy. Reviews of homeopathy studies show that while there have been a few trials that have suggested possible efficacy of homeopathy the higher the quality of the study, the lower the results are for homeopathy. That is, only poor studies every show any possible efficacy. Rigorously sound studies do not.

  8. I discovered that homeopathy is as much an art as a science, and that the placebo effect is love.

  9. Eh, I wonder about this. Some Creationist organisation offered $1,000,000 dollars to anyone who could prove evolution. Yeah. Any time anyone tries, they evidently just say “nuh-uh”. So this is, potentially, a rather nasty publicity stunt. I really don’t think the person who made it believes he will have to pay it, so this is really just a mockery.

  10. “I discovered that homeopathy is as much an art as a science, and that the placebo effect is love.”

    Goal post moving. “Oh, sure, it isn’t real or scientific. It is an art. Fake medicine is love.” Nonsense.

  11. “We have nothing to prove, and certainly not to people with closed minds,”

    The only way you’d have nothing to prove is if you didn’t make any claims. If you said, “This homeopathic solution is just water,” you’d have nothing to prove. That much is obvious. But since you say, “Thanks to the memory of water this homeopathic solution can cure various ailments,” well- that’s something you need to prove.

  12. ” So this is, potentially, a rather nasty publicity stunt. I really don’t think the person who made it believes he will have to pay it, so this is really just a mockery.”

    The difference is the creationists are not open to evidence or a transparent process of deciding what constitutes proof of evolution. Singh is of a scientific mind set, open to evidence. But, should someone apply to challenge for the prize, he’ll have to be careful to take measures to insure no fraud takes place, in addition to having agreements in advance as to what would constitute proof…

    But, I do agree that Singh doesn’t think he’ll have to pay. Homeopathy is based on 19th Century pseudo science and is contradicted by the known mechanisms of medicine and physics. Were homeopathy real, the discover of the mechanism would be a guaranteed a Nobel Prize for discovering that the laws of physics are fundamentally wrong. Er, or homeopathy could just be what all the rigorous studies say it is, bunk. Any guesses on which is more likely?

  13. If you’re afraid this ‘mockery’ is just a publicity stunt and they won’t pay out the prize no matter what, you can always prove that homeopathy works before applying for the prize, and then expose them for breaking their word when they don’t fork over the dough even though you have the proof in hand. The reward for all this would be far higher than 10,000 pounds … if you had anything to prove, that is.

  14. To SKEP

    “Goal post moving. “Oh, sure, it isn’t real or scientific. It is an art. Fake medicine is love.” Nonsense.”

    I didn’t say it isn’t real and I didn’t say it isn’t scientific, nor that fake medicine is love. You make assumptions but at least you seem to acknowledge that they are nonsense.

    And by the way SKEP, there are no goalposts, just your identification with there being goalposts.

  15. @#10 Re: proving evolution

    If you’re talking about this offer:

    http://www.drdino.com/articles.php?spec=67&kws=250,000

    This dude has a fundamental misconception about science. The scientific method never _proves_ anything. Scientific theories are never _proved_. An accepted scientific theory is one that explains all observed phenomena, can be used to make predictions about future phenomena, and, most importantly, can be disproved if those predictions are incorrect.

    He’s asking for something that cannot be done using the scientific method. These people are asking for something that _can_ be done using the scientific method – namely, to disprove the claims about the benefits of homeopathic treatment.

  16. @ Daniel

    You write words but they say nothing. You have yet to make a coherent statement on the topic, so I can’t really respond to what you have written.

  17. Daniel: I understand. Shamanism doesn’t work on people who don’t have mutual φιλíα with the shaman. You can calm your frightened child through skin contact and meditation but it doesn’t work on a burglar or a rapist. Kenosis can’t (yet) be packaged in shiny mylar wrappers. The universe isn’t really made of math (and it’s not turtles all the way down, either) because the finger pointing at the moon is not the moon. Science says you can’t measure things without influencing them, so art, which does not necessarily depend on measures, can create things engineering cannot.

    Skep: Is your username a reference to beekeeping? ‘Cause I almost never see that word in modern works, although it was a pretty common word in medieval times.

    I like bees. Don’t much care for homeopathy.

    –Charlie

  18. @#7, @#8,
    £10,000 is nowhere near $1,000,000.
    According to several online currency converters, that amount is roughly equal to $19,719. Which is a pittance compared to Randi’s million.

  19. This reminds me that I’m really mad right now. My roommate’s cat is ailing, possibly with stomach cancer. My roommate keeps taking her cat to a homeopathic “veterinarian” and coming home with these herbal remedies.

    Dude. Stomach cancer. I know of little to no evidence that homeopathic remedies cure cancer. AND, if homeopathic remedies rely on placebo effect – which has been proven to be a pretty damn good remedy in and of itself in many cases – how in the hell is a cat going to benefit from the owner just wishing at it??

    I’m so tempted to print out the article and leave it on the kitchen table.

  20. Dude. Stomach cancer. I know of little to no evidence that homeopathic remedies cure cancer. AND, if homeopathic remedies rely on placebo effect – which has been proven to be a pretty damn good remedy in and of itself in many cases – how in the hell is a cat going to benefit from the owner just wishing at it??

    Yeah. Alternative Veterinary is another tragic scam, one that can’t cure cancer. To the extent they use homeopathy, homeopathic vets are nothing more than witch doctors in white lab coats. I’m sorry for your situation.

    As to placebo effect, to the extent that some people experience it, it primarily makes people feel they are a little better but has no effect on the actual progression of the underlying disease, which continues unabated. And, of course, placebo effect will have no effect on the unfortunate kitty.

  21. #20: I’m sorry the cat is ailing (and not getting any useful treatment), but it makes me curious: anyone know if there’s any sort of placebo effect that’s been observed in animals? It seems like something that would be totally reliant on a human understanding of ‘this is medicine, medicine makes me better.’ Has anyone found any evidence that an animal could make that connection?

  22. homeopathic pills rid me of warts on my legs. I don’t care if they are basically placebos if they work. (worked better than the band-aidy things you can get in the pharmacy!).

  23. and I could have cured your warts if you had just placed the affected area on the screen and truly believed.

  24. I’m going to get a doctorate in homeopathy by taking in the knowledge vibrations. School is for suckers.

  25. Hi Aelfscine. That’s an interesting question. The placebo effect is not necessarily about the power of the mind to make you feel better because you think you’re getting better – it’s often about the fact that many conditions spontaneously get better, even with no intervention at all. (The “placebo effect” is often not really an effect – just the appearance of an effect.) So I’d expect to see placebos appearing to have an effect in animals, in the sense that their conditions would vary in severity and duration just as much as human diseases.

    It is interesting to hear about different people’s experiences, but keep in mind that “it worked for me!” is not an argument that a particular intervention is effective. Meet the pragmatic fallacy.

  26. #24: Here’s a question that’s impossible to answer but worth considering:

    Did you take the pills and they made the warts go away, or

    Did you take the pills?
    And then the warts on your leg went away?

    There’s probably a host of things you did before they went away, like take a shower, eat lunch, etc.
    You attribute taking those pills as being somehow different than those other events, but is it?

    One of the reasons alternative medicines thrive is that in addition to the placebo effect, some things just go away on their own. A snake oil salesman can count on the fact that someone will get better after taking his cure, and then he can crow to the heavens of its healing effects. The best part is, so many things go away on their own (colds, warts, nodules, cancer going into remission) that if any of these things happen after the bogus tonic is taken, why, it cures all of them!

  27. #27: To get a doctorate in homeopathy, you go to one class, for 5 minutes. then you must skip all homeopathy classes for 4 years.

    You’ll be insanely powerful at this point, so please be careful.

  28. OK, so it’s a placebo. But placebos can have real, observable effects on one’s physiology. The thing is, in order for the weird psychosomatic effects to help you, you have to really believe that the placebo you’re taking will help you.

    Homeopathy is one way of convincing people of that “self fulfilling prophecy” of placebo medicine. Prayer healing is another way. They only work if you actually expect that they will, and so they have to be wrapped in ritual or pseudo-science to create that expectation.

    It’s an uncomfortable ethical space to be in, but basically what it comes down to is that sometimes, tricking people can make them healthier. Good or bad? I dunno, but it’s definitely a phenomenon.

  29. “Prove” being the operative word here. Just as the common atheist challenge to identify “proof” of God yet simultaneously discrediting all such proofs, narrowing the margins for acceptable proofs down to the essence of, “Prove to me Abraham Lincon was once a US President, using only fruit, in rows of three, in Swahili, yesterday. Ha ha! You can’t! Abraham Lincoln was therefore not a president.”

  30. I guess I must be faking my 8 month old baby out with the homeopathic teething drops and gel.

  31. #31: Yes, it’s amazing how discrediting things makes them not usable as ‘proof’ anymore. Science is pretty neat sometimes.

  32. Whether or not science accepts “proofs,” there is such a thing as a significance test. If the homeopathic practitioners can show that homeopathy can make people better more effectively than placebos can, where the probability of their result occurring by chance is below 5%, then they will have proved their case.

    There is no goal-post moving here, no saying “ah-ha! That doesn’t count as a proof!”

    This is the EXACT SAME test that all drug manufacturers have to submit their drugs to. In order for them to say that “Drug X treats disease Y”, they have to actually SHOW that it does. They have to SHOW that it works better than a placebo.

    If homeopathic medicines have a real effect, then that effect must be measurable. If that effect can be measurable, then it can be tested for.

    For homeopathic practitioners to refuse to put their products to the test either implies that they believe their products have powers that don’t work in the presence of scientists, or that they know they don’t work.

  33. 29 POSTED BY CORTANA , JUNE 19, 2008 10:26 AM
    #27: To get a doctorate in homeopathy, you go to one class, for 5 minutes. then you must skip all homeopathy classes for 4 years.

    You’ll be insanely powerful at this point, so please be careful.

    Not as powerful as my homeopathic book. But, as you did, I used the the homeopathic law of similars or “like cures like.” So, to combat ignorance, you need to to use something that causes ignorance on a healthy person. And I used the homeopathic law of infinitesimals, which says the ignorance treatment becomes more and more powerful the more you dilute it.

    So, with homeopathic principles in mind I went to the library and chose a reliable source ignorance: an Encyclopedia of Homeopathy (Sylvia Browne was checked out). I took a minute scraping from the Encyclopedia, dissolved it in water and diluted it 100C and then placed a drop of the powerful liquid on a blank book.

    Now I have one of the most powerful educational tools ever created, all thanks to homeopathy. I’m brilliant now, in spite of the fact that I score just the same on Allopathic IQ tests as I did before. Fortunately, I now only use Holistic Intelligence, which is a modality that cannot be tested by reductionist science which is bound by the myopic constraints of the Western Education Monopoly.

  34. #34 – Yes, you probably are. There are any number of things that could be happening to make your baby seem to be feeling better — none of them related to homeopathy. Also, it would be considerate of you to use the money you’re wasting on homeopathic products to buy your baby some real medicine that will work regardless of whether you believe it will.

    Relatedly: There’s a fascinating crossover movement (at least I’m just noticing it recently) between homeopathic products and herbal and other supplement products. The makers of HeadOn being an example, where they’ve branched out into other (still profitable) items that aren’t technically homeopathic. Perhaps #34’s teething gel falls in this category, a “homeopathic” product that might actually work because it (gasp!) has a measurable amount of a real active ingredient in it, but a “homeopathic” label is stuck on it to increase sales to that market. Irony!

  35. Well, the other confusing factor is that a “homepathic” doctor or whatever might also give you stuff that isn’t strictly homeopathic– more typical herbal remedies etc.

  36. Homeopathy is a quack theory supported by 200 years of trial and error, and even without formal scientific methods, it has learned a bit over that time, even if they explanations they give for its effectiveness are incorrect. Some parts of it are obviously bogus – the “really strong” preparations that are too dilute to contain any orginal material. And it’s missing a few details like the germ theory of disease that mean it’s not safe for treating real diseases.

    But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t homeopathic remedies that are useful for treating symptoms, when all you want is to make symptoms go away. Allergies are a classic example – if I’m sneezing because of pollen,
    I can fix the cause by waiting for spring to be over, or take drugs with various side effects (such as drowsiness from most antihistamines), and if homeopathy helps, fine. I’ve stopped bothering with it now that Allegra’s available.

    Homeopathic flu remedies are wonderful, and Real Medicine doesn’t have much to offer besides prevention and bed rest. I get the vaccine so I don’t usually get the flu, but when I do get it, I’ve found a couple of homeopathic remedies that can take me from feeling totally awful to merely feeling not very good, which is a big win. Is it a placebo or real? Who cares. There’s enough herbal content to cause mild stomach upset, maybe there’s enough herbal content to be doing something useful as well.

  37. Charlie@2: The definition of ‘measurement’ in physics is very different from the general public’s perception of the word. From the physics point of view, it is essentially impossible to do anything without measuring and thus changing things – your eyes, for example, constantly take measurements, but your hands also take measurements simply by moving.

    22,23,24: I do believe that evidence of the placebo effect in animals other than humans has been found. Unfortunately, due to less regulation in the field, it is far easier for homeopathic veterinarians to eschew proper medical techniques entirely; if practitioners of homeopathy for humans were to advise their patients with cancer to only use homeopathic techniques, they would most likely have quite a bit of legal difficulties.

    Sister Y@29: I’m not terribly knowledgeable in such matters, but I do believe that there is considerable evidence for the placebos actually causing objectively measurable improvements in patients, and also that the effect you describe, while very important in considering measurements of treatment efficacy, is not the same as the placebo effect.

    41: Blood-letting was a quack theory supported by almost 2000 years of trial and error, but this plethora of experience didn’t keep the technique from being shown to be completely useless for everything it was used for. However, if there is enough herbal content to cause mild stomach upset in a ‘homeopathic’ medicine you’re taking, then it isn’t homeopathic, and is probably being falsely advertised. This, however, probably concerns people like James Randi more than anyone else, as they actually depend on the homeopathic pills they buy being actually homeopathic, and thus able to be consumed in massive quantities to shock homeopaths.

  38. Thanks for the information on this “bounty hunt”. Maybe I should join in!

    We recently wrote an article on placebos at Brain Blogger. A recent survey of more than 200 doctors that practice in academic medical centers, showed that 45% of them had given placebos to patients while providing clinical care. Is this right though? Is giving a pateint a placebo a form of betrayal?

    We would like to read your comments on our article. Thank you.

    Sincerely,
    Kelly

    1. Kelly,

      Sorry, but we don’t allow links that exist just to drive traffic to other blogs. You can use Suggest A Link at the top of the page.

  39. Damn boingboing won’t let me log in! page doesn’t exist or something.

    Anyway, I was going to warn- Beware bashing all homeopathic remedies as “absolute 100% hogwash”. Almost by nature, homeopathic customers don’t carefully read labels, and there are a LOT of “homeopathic” remedies out there that contain actual ingredients.

    Like “homeopathic” headache pills which have, like, snake juice diluted 1 billion:1 with acetaminophen.

    Homeopathic is more than just 19th century shamanism- it’s also a “brand” which may not be what you assume.

    -Knodi

  40. A guy I know well was given homeopathic medicine which he refused to take: the result was that he died of an overdose.

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