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Homeopaths Without Borders practice exploitation not humanitarianism

BMJ 2013; 347 doi: (Published 17 September 2013) Cite this as: BMJ 2013;347:f5448

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Re: Homeopaths Without Borders practice exploitation not humanitarianism

Christine Jahnig has fallen for one of the most common fallacies in alternative medicine: that science must disprove the anecdotal claims of alternative medicine.

I crave the indulgence of those familiar with the scientific method and its attendant burden of proof.

I do not have to prove that homeopathy did not cure Ms. Jahnig, all I have to do is show that the null hypothesis may explain it. It is by now well established that the null hypothesis offers a substantially more plausible explanation for every claim made by homeopaths; in the absence of credible evidence to contradict this, Ms. Jahnig's claim necessarily fails to persuade.

And this goes to the heart of the dispute. In Ms. Jahnig's opinion, homeopathy cured her. The consensus view of the scientific community, based on the available evidence, is that this is not the case (to a degree of probability indistinguishable from certainty).

By way of support, Ms. Jahnig asserts that "high blood pressure and high intraocular pressure are not conditions that reverse by themselves without medical treatment". Like Ms Jahnig, I am not medically qualified, but I do know that high blood pressure most certainly can resolve spontaneously without medication, especially in the presence of the kinds of lifestyle changes routinely recommended by homeopaths - most of which are entirely mainstream; from my reading around the subject it seems to me not at all implausible that such changes might also affect intraocular pressure - but, like Ms. Jahnig, I am straying down the route of speculation. There is no objective evidence that homeopathic remedies caused the affects Ms. Jahnig notes, and if there were, it would be a matter of pressing scientific interest. Hence my original comment.

Ms. Jahnig is correct that "homeopathy does not work" is a statement of belief or opinion; however, "there is no reason to suppose homeopathy should work, no way it can work, and no proof it does work" is a statement of fact drawn from the available evidence, as I showed previously in this discussion.

Even if homeopathy being wrong were only as certain as anthropogenic global climate change - and it is a good deal more certain than that - the onus would very clearly be on Ms. Jahnig to prove her case, as it amounts to an extraordinary claim and as Sagan said, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

Competing interests: No competing interests

06 October 2013
Guy Chapman
Reading, UK