Part four is here.


I don’t think there is any evidence that a significant number of people are being harmed by choosing to go to alternative practitioners. There is undoubtedly a considerable morbidity and mortality arising from the side effects of drugs and the mistakes that happen in the conventional medicine system. Is the harm caused by inappropriate use of alternative medicine on the same scale?

Interesting. This is basically the Toyota defence isn’t it? “Until a lot more people are killed by our product, we don’t see the need to perform a recall.” Not really what I want my healthcare to be based on.

Your challenge to produce harm produced by alternative medicine “on the same scale” as that caused by evidence-based medicine does not make clear whether you want the same absolute number of corpses or the same level of morbidity per person treated. In either case, it is unlikely that I will be able to provide such evidence. In the first, less reasonable, case, despite my fears that alternative medicine fairy stories of miracle cures are distressingly seductive, it is obviously the case that almost everyone in Britain will be treated by conventional medicine at some point, but only a portion will seek alternative treatments. So even if they kill at the same rate, alternative medicine will be way behind. Even in the second, more reasonable, case, I doubt I will be able to meet this target since if someone is really sick and foolish enough to seek useless alternative therapies, it is likely that once they are at death’s door, they, or a relative, or someone will have the sense to take them to a proper doctor, and we can only hope they will be in time.

But just as we wouldn’t do without conventional medicine on the basis that a significant percentage of people who go into hospital will be killed simply because they went into hospital rather than because of the condition which brought them there, the question we should ask of homeopathic and other alternative remedies is not “what harm do they cause compared to other things in the world with the potential to do harm?” but “are they a net force for good?” or in other words “are we better off with or without them?” These calculations are not always easy to perform. Some people argue that the use of pesticides on fruits and vegetables contributes to deaths from cancer, and this is likely true. It is estimated that around 20 extra cancer deaths occur in the United States each year due to chemical pesticides. While this is a very small number (around 300 Americans die each year drowning in the bath by way of comparison), surely even 20 is too many. We should obviously get rid of these horrible carcinogens polluting our mealtimes. Alas, the immediate upshot of cutting back pesticide use would be to decrease farmers’ yields, which in turn would raise the price of their produce, which would in turn reduce the national consumption of fruits and vegetables, which would in turn increase the rate of cancers in the USA, probably adding 26,000 to the total (less the 20 who would no longer die because of exposure to pesticides). (Sources for these numbers on request).

So, let us ask what the harm caused by homeopathy is. I (and some of the commenters to this blog) have given you some examples of the horrendous consequences that can follow trusting that homeopathy will be efficacious in treating serious conditions. You say that you hope most people will have the sense to avoid magical treatments when their life is in danger, yet you seem quite sanguine at the prospect of people who are quite determined to erode this life-preserving common sense. Furthermore, the harm which homeopathy can cause is well-documented, by Simon Singh, through the campaign behind the “mass placebocide” or through this website dedicated to answering this very question. Note that Simon Singh makes the same connection that I do between homeopathy and mistrust of vaccinations. The body count due to recent refusals to vaccinate is easy to check.

Having agreed that harm from homeopathy is both possible and actual, we have to ask who it helps. Broadly, there are three kinds of people who might seek this kind of therapy.
• People suffering from serious conditions which require medical treatment. I am reassured that the Royal Homeopathic Hospital would refer these people, but still marvel at the cognitive dissonance required. Clearly, any people in this group run the serious risk of suffering quite unnecessary harm. For this group, the existence of alternative modalities is nothing but a negative. It will cause them to delay treatment.
• People suffering from self-limiting conditions which require little or no treatment in any case. These patients will not be directly harmed, except in the wallet. They will be spending money needlessly since their condition will improve on its own. This is a minor negative, but not in terms of health outcomes. It’s their money, you may argue, and they entitled to waste it however they please. Unfortunately, if they develop the belief that the alternative modality of their choice is effective in treating their minor self-limiting condition, then they may be more inclined to believe the more exotic claims made for this treatment and subsequently find themselves members of the first group. Thus, for this group also, the existence of alternative modalities is nothing but a negative.
• Finally, we come to the group which you have chosen to emphasise. Those suffering from chronic, non-life threatening conditions, for which no evidence-based treatment is offered or available. In a competitive marketplace, they are likely to get more sympathy from a quack than from a real doctor, and they may benefit in the short term from the (very powerful) placebo effect. They may even be permanently cured if they condition had no physical reality in any place (e.g. phantom limb sufferers or people who claim that mobile phone masts give them migraines). While I agree that some people in this group are made to feel better, I do not believe that this benefit is worth the cost, nor do I agree that the Royal Homeopathic Hospital (and other less scrupulous purveyors of fairy stories) is the best possible means of providing this kind of comfort. Relaxation techniques, improved diet, better trained GPs who understand the importance of providing emotional support to their patients and a better patient understanding of how psychosomatic illnesses affect us are all available and likely to be efficacious. You can probably add to that list.

So, no, I don’t believe that the harm done by homeopathy is on the scale of the harm done by conventional medicine. But conventional medicine does tremendous amounts of good which is absolutely unavailable anywhere else, whereas homeopathy does quite a lot of insidious harm, for only a little bit of good, almost all of which is available elsewhere.

Overall what makes me cross is big companies misleading people about important issues such as health. It isn’t just homeopaths who do this. Idiotic media celebrities like Gillian McKeith do the same thing. So do some drug companies. But lying to the general public about health is unlikely to have a positive effect on society, and institutions like the Royal Homeopathic Hospital, whether or not they cause harm themselves, make the lies of the unscrupulous so much more convincing. Campaigns like 1023 aim to provide more accurate information as a corrective to this – to help ensure that people do know that they need to be in hospital with severe chest or abdominal pain.

One of the recommendations made in the recent government Evidence Check was that homeopathy should have to be approved by NICE before being made available on the NHS. Do you think it would get NICE approval? On what grounds? If it wouldn’t, why should it be made available at no cost to patients when other more efficacious drugs are only available privately?


I think the argument along the lines of ‘how many more people have to die before you admit I am right?’ is a bit over the top.

I think there are two areas where we are out of synch with each other. They concern the concepts of ‘health beliefs’ and ‘risk management’. I also have a problem with your relentless positivism. Science and logic and common sense are very valuable but there are other powerful forces that govern human beliefs and actions and they need to be understood rather than dismissed as simply foolish.

Risk management. Doctors deal with this every day. We are constantly having to decide whether to advise a patient to take a particular drug which has potential for good and for harm. This can be quantified to some extent. We can say, trials show that if you take aspirin your risk of a heart attack will be cut by X percent over ten years. There is also a risk that you will have a cerebral haemorrhage but the risk is much less so the odds are in favour of taking it. Often, when presented with this information, people say: but I’d rather not take any risk!  But this is impossible. It seems to be a hard concept to grasp. The other problem is that you can’t guarantee that taking the drug will have any benefit for that individual. The effect is only measurable on the population as a whole.

Health Beliefs. You argue that ‘the placebo effect’ can be more safely produced by doctors taking more time, being kind and sympathetic, being trained in psychology etc. But some people’s health beliefs are very physically based. They have very fixed ideas that only by swallowing a pill or having needles or massage or whatever can their bodily pains be relieved. Trying to argue people out of this is usually a waste of time. Often it’s based on personal experience or family traditions.

But I still think that for the overwhelming majority of people will be guided by conventional medicine when there is a really effective treatment available. I have yet to meet a patient who said, no, I’ll just have homeopathy etc. when it was a matter of life or death, or when I said, try this, we can really help you.

Maybe one can’t justify alternative medicine being paid for out of taxation or insurance. But I don’t think it will stop those people who believe in it from getting it privately if they have to. I don’t believe it should be banned by law because a few rather idiosyncratic people may wrongly choose it instead of conventional medicine when conventional medicine is in a position to prolong their lives or relieve their suffering.

That would be an abuse of their human rights. better to ban smoking if you must ban something. Or alcohol? Though, that has been tried.

And now I really have had enough of this subject. By all means have the last word. But after that,  can we talk about something else? How about euthanasia?


This seems a good place to end the conversation, as we are moreorless in agreement! I agree with everything you say about risk management and almost all of what you say about health beliefs.

I agree that for some people a physical intervention such as a pill, or a series of carefully placed needles, is required to trigger the placebo effect. You can’t argue someone in or out of the placebo effect – it isn’t a product of conscious decision-making.

I also agree that attempting to ban alternative medicine would not make it go away, any more than prohibition stopped people from drinking. Even regulating advertising of alternative medicine only encourages those who sell it to seek editorial promotion instead, which is more convincing than advertisements in any case.

So what do I want? Well, essentially just what you want – for everyone in the world to understand the difference between the claims made by evidence-based medicine and the claims made by magic-based medicine and so make informed health decisions. It’s just that you see very few people who get this wrong coming through your surgery and I read lots of blogs and listen to lots of podcasts which detail case after case, so we have formed very different views as to the scale of the problem. No doubt each of us has a somewhat skewed perspective.

The one area where I would be tempted to disagree would be on the subject of my “relentless positivism”. I am well aware that forces other than science and logic govern human beliefs and actions. However, I submit that to better understand these forces in an objective manner, the only option is to study these very forces with the tools of science and logic. But that’s not really what is under discussion here.

I imagine we’d boringly agree about euthanasia. Human dignity, relieving suffering and patients’ wishes all sometimes trump “first do no harm” but great care must be taken in exercising this option. Is that roughly your view too?

So... what did I think about The Vampires of Venice?
Let’s make up and be friendly