Pseudoscience for the kiddies.

You know how I feel about homeopathy, right? If not, read this and come back. We’ll wait.

Okay, got it?

So, reader JT sent me this article in the Scottish Herald titled Homeopathic medicine “not good” for children. It has a very good, skeptical slant with plenty of quotes from real physicians stating that homeopathy is nothing more than a placebo. Ordinarily when I consider the harm homeopathy does, it is reference to people who take it instead of traditional medicine and end up dying of a treatable disease.

However, this article drives home another danger: at present, doctors are prescribing homeopathic water exactly because it is a placebo. Knowing that the child’s ailment will clear up on its own, a doctor may prescribe homeopathic nonsense just to make the parents feel better, or in cases with older children, just to make the kid feel better. If it makes them feel better, is it so wrong?

I think the answer is yes. As this article points out, these doctors are reinforcing a belief that this stuff actually works. They’re teaching children that there’s always going to be a pill that will cure them, and that often that pill is homeopathic. When those kids grow up, and when they get something much worse than a cold, they’ll be more likely to turn to alternative medicine for help instead of seeking actual medical treatment.

Not only is homeopathic medicine “not good” for children, it’s especially “not good” for the adults they eventually grow into.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. "Sally Penrose, chief executive of the British Homeopathic Association and Faculty of Homeopathy, said it was disappointing that the authors of the study had chosen to ignore the clinical trials which showed homeopathy to be effective in conditions such as …"

    I was under the impression that those trials mentioned were not all they're hyped up to be. I think a number of them weren't even published in reputable medical journals either, but in homeopathy-magazines. And the ones that were of sufficient quality and DID make it into reputable journals probably suffer from publication bias (i.e. we don't know how many times they repeated the trials until they had a favorable result that was worth publishing).

    It's the same half dozen promising looking studies they drag out every time they need to give a semblance of legitimacy to the "field" of homeopathy, along with a couple of old and discredited statistical meta-analyses (not mentioned this time because they probably know by now they can't get away with it any more).

    It's not really proof of anything really, and it's the best they have to show after 200 years of research.

  2. Yes, they are. And I'm part of the anti-homeopathy illuminati. We get paid every time we diss homeopathy on a public forum or blog response. It puts food on the table.

    (And for those not so proficient at using their brain: it's called sarcasm)

  3. What? You get paid?

    Dammit, I've been dissing homeopathy for free! How does one get in on that racket?

  4. I had a very long argument the other day with my gf about this (I will come back to it at the end of this discussion). Here in Quebec, we had a documentary on TV about how alternative medicine can be dangerous to people. The documentary was in big part about naturopaths… The weird ones. Like this one, which when you went to see him, he would ask you to take a bottle of natural medicine and put it on your tummy… He would then ask you to lift your arm… And say (to god or any other kind of vibrational energy) "Is this medicine good for mr. X?" And he would then try to put some pressure on your arm to lower it down. If the arm was going down easily, the medicine wasn't right. If not (the strength in it was higher), it was the right medicine, he would then go and ask "Does Mr. X need to take 30ml of medicine, twice a day?" Again, if the arm went down easily, it wasn't the right posology. He would start asking the same question again and again but would change the quantity of medicine each time (40ml, 50 ml, etc). I can't understand how some people can believe this.

    There was also this other woman (a naturopath), with some kind of instrument which can measure the electrical signal of your skin. She would start by putting some water on your hand use some kind of pen connected to the instrument, to press different part of your hand, checking different organs… on different part of your hand. And when the electrical current was low, it meant that the organ had a problem… Of course, you can imagine that, depending on the pressure she was putting on the pen, the value of the current was different, so, she had full control of what the instrument was saying (the reporters bought the same instrument and checked it afterward). But the good part comes when she was prescribing some medicine. The way to do it is like this. She would put a bottle of medicine on the instrument (not the pen, the little box which was showing the number representing the electrical signal) and then, put the pen on the hand of the patient, if the signal was high, the medicine was right for the patient.

    Having checked the machine, the reporters wanted to test the naturopath. They asked a fellow female reporter to go see the woman, as a patient. The naturopath prescribed her some medicine. She came back to see the other reporters and then, switched the medicine with a real medicine (they changed the bottle of each medicine). She went back with both bottle of medicine, one prescribed by the naturopath but, in a real medicine bottle, and the real medicine, but in the natural medicine bottle. She then said to the woman (the naturopath) that her doctor had prescribed her a new medicine and she wanted to have it tested… Of course, what was in the bottle, was really the medicine that she herself had prescribed to the patient… What were the result you are asking yourself? Of course, the signal was low, the medicine wasn't right… She went on to prescribed again, exactly the same product that she had just tested. A few moment later, the reporters went to see the naturopath to confront her with her mistake. The naturopath had an exit. It was because one of the bottle was in plastic and the other one was in glass…that changes the vibration of the medicine, which is why she had a bad result!!! Yeah right!!!

    Anyway, seeing all this, my gf said, if the placebo effect can help people to feel better, why is it not ok to use it? I argued with her but, since I'm not a doctor, I didn't know exactly how effective those placebo effect can really be? You guys have any idea?

  5. The idea of the "placebo effect" is something that needs to die a horrible death. Like, fast. It's not at all distinguishable from the ordinary auto-recovery that would occur without treatment. That is, really, the point. If anything, it represents a slight reduction in stress levels based on the warm fuzzies you get from being prescribed a medication that you think will help make you better. More likely, it's a catch-all for statistical artifacts that necessarily present themselves in any controlled study.

    Doctors can't "use" the placebo effect, because it's fake. Prescribing placebos just to shut people up is horribly irresponsible, and it shouldn't be done under any circumstances. Pediatricians have been known to do that with antibiotics. Unfortunately, they almost have to because parents freak out and just won't shut up whenever their children get the sniffles. And the prescription of antibiotics as placebos is no doubt a major — if not necessarily primary — contributing factor to development antibiotic resistance.

    More here, with discussion of recent research into placebos:

  6. Dan, your story about naturopaths adds much to my fear of those obviously deluded charlatans.

    At any rate, in regards to your argument with your GF, the placebo effect CAN make people feel better and there is no physiological argument for why it should not be used. After all, very little harm can come from non-medicine in and of itself, where much harm can be done by overuse of actual medicine. I'm not a doctor, either, but there is much evidence to suggest that knowledge of being "cured" can help a person feel more positive and less prone to complain about symptoms over the course of their recovery.

    It merely has little effect in areas where there is a legitimate case to be made for a real therapeutic treatment doing the job faster or more effectively. For instance, I doubt anyone would say that placebos make a person suffering from, say, Ebola, feel better! But for something as transitory and hard to define as, say, headaches, muscle pain, or non-serious colds and flus, placebos can often do much.

    The question, then, is largely a moral one. Is it right to lie to people? Is it better to entertain and put up with a person's delusions rather than to encourage them to confront them? My main issue with that practice is that, while it may "cure" a particular non-serious illness (one likely to cure itself anyway), it does NOT cure the problem of which these illnesses are symptomatic.

    A person who seeks out false (unbeknownst to them) medicinal cures for one problem and sees results is probably more likely to continue seeking out false medicinal cures. More likely, at any rate, than one who is told either that nothing is wrong with them, or that nothing short of bed rest and adequate hydration can help (as in the case of most mild viruses, which generally have to run their course and often cannot be treated). Not only does this cost people more money in terms of insurance premiums, copays, and what have you (a significant cost in countries with non-socialized medicine), it also takes up the doctors and nurses' time (which is even worse in socialized medical systems where time and resources are at more of a premium).

    Then, of course, there is the trouble of malpractice suits. Imagine a doctor who prescribes a patient a placebo drug repeatedly over the course of a few years. The patient eventually finds that the doctor has been doing this. That patient could conceivably sue, regardless of whether or not the pseudomedicine has "made" them feel better!

    Similarly, imagine that the patient has a hard-to-diagnose problem with symptoms similar to a psychosomatic disorder or other issue not treatable with normal medicine. If the doctor misses the call and gives the patient FAKE medicine, and then the patient becomes more ill or, even, dies, is that not malpractice? It has the trappings of malpractice, at least, and a patient or their family might perceive the situation that way. And, while my argument may be a slippery slope, I see no legitimate reason to even take a risk in that regard.

    After all, at least in the US, malpractice suits are driving the insurance costs of medical practices through the roof. Why allow the already embattled standard of care to slip any lower?

    These are just the few arguments that immediately came to my mind. I make no pretense that they are conclusive, for morality is always a tricky thing about which to argue. Good luck if you choose to continue that discussion with your GF!

    Cheers :)

  7. I will certainly continue this discussion with her. I come from a scientific background but, not her. And her mother was very much in stuff like psychics and all so, I understand that she is more prone to believe in that kind of stuff. It makes for interesting and heated discussion I can assure you! :-) But, I'm slowly showing her the right path! ;-) She realized quite a few things in the last few years.

    But you know, I understand that for someone who never heard much of science (and I'm not referring to my gf here since, she did have some science classes in here life), it can be difficult to be critical of these things. Like if I come back to the documentary I was talking about. One patient asked the naturopath (the guy who was making you lift your arm) "Why is it that the Quebec physician order (not sure if that's the right translation of their name) would like to shut you down (speaking of naturopaths in general)? The naturopath answered "Well, because they are scared. They know that sometimes, they can't treat certain disease but, we can!"

    With an answer like that, for people who don't know how to be critical of that kind of answer, of course, they will see the alternative medicine as a way to maybe, get better if they have cancer or other disease like that.

    They showed a family who had a little boy, around 11 years old. He had some rare cancer. His parents spent thousand of dollars in all kind of alternative medicine. He died anyway after a few months. The reporters debunked many of the treatment that they were paying lots of money for… In the end, they asked the parents if they wanted to see the documentary… They said yes. In the end… Although all their treatment had failed… They said…"Well, maybe it didn't work for us but, what if it could work?"

    Although they had seen everything debunked, they refused to believe they had done all this for nothing so, they chose to maybe believe it anyway…

  8. Dan,

    Although they had seen everything debunked, they refused to believe they had done all this for nothing so, they chose to maybe believe it anyway…

    It is sort of sad, isn't it? These people should never have had their hopes raised to that point. But with "true believers," I suppose it doesn't really matter. The only thing that could have been done would have been to not have given them something to believe in in the first place. Wow, that last sentence is all sorts of odd, but I hope you all see what I was trying to say…

    I'm not a terribly emotional guy, but when I hear about those kinds of awful stories and about the people who knowingly (or even unknowingly) take advantage of their vulnerability, I get all sorts of angry/sad. It's like…tears of rage.

    It's that bad side of belief that's COMPLETELY ignored by people who use relativism to say "science and medicine are just ONE way of looking at the problem, they don't have a monopoly on what's right." Enablers. Grr…

    Here comes the angry/sadness!!!

  9. It can be very hard to tell the difference between solid medical science and bullshit. I remember the first time I came across Ramachandran was on a TV programme in which he was talking about how he came to invent the Mirror Box to cure phantom limb pain, and I was thinking "Oh, come on, how stupid, that's not going to bloody work". But it does.

  10. Although I believe 100% that the parents of the 11yo boy were deluding themselves, it's not hard to see why that happens. It's a lot to ask parents to expect them to be rational when faced with the impending death of their child. As a parent of two young children, I can see how easy it would be for unreasoning hope in some phantom cure to become a focus of your efforts.

    What I find truly shocking are those people (parents included) who reject potential REAL cures offered by the medical community in favor of these kind of crackpot naturo/homeopathic charlatans. I suppose I can understand someone turning to alternative medicine if they have exhausted ALL of the options presented by real doctors (sometimes a vain hope is better than no hope at all), but there do appear to be people who are so mistrustful of science/medicine that they will go for the quack over the real doctor from the very start. Now THAT'S sad!

  11. SteveT:

    Yeah, I wasn't blaming the parents. It's the people that take advantage of the hope that comes from desperation that make me angry/sad. I hope I made that clear enough. No one should have suggested "alternative" treatments to the parents to even raise their hopes.

    And I completely agree with you about the people who refuse proper medical care in favor of charlatans with fake cures. It's terribly sad that they've been deluded to that point!

  12. Well, the parents of the sick boy were still continuing the real treatment but, the physicians weren't really hopeful that it would work since, a first treatment that could have worked, failed. So, the father of the kid made all kind of research and found on the internet, a russian doctor which, supposedly, had received all kind of honors back in Russia in treating disease similar to the one the kid had. This doctor was now in Montreal. The medicine consisted mainly in tablets containing algae. The product consisted of a regular medicine which was around 30$ for maybe 100 tablets. But there was the super medicine, which was supposed to be 100 times stronger… This one was 150$ if I remember correctly. And the kid had to take one tablet every 2 hours… Yes…you heard correctly, every 2 hours… It doesn't last for long at that rythm… The kid was at school and had a timer on his desk telling him every two hours to take his medicine…

    Well, the reporters made some research on that russian doctor. First of all, they went to see him anonymously with a hidden camera. They saw all kind of diplomas. Strangely, they couldn't find most of the places where this diplomas should have been coming from. And also, many of the diplomas had the exact same signature at the bottom… So, the reporter bought the medicine… The regular one and the super… They had it analyzed… It consisted of a very ordinary algae… and, guess what? The two medicines had about the exact same quantity of algae in each of them. They went to the doctor's web site… They found that he had done lecture in many well known University… So they went to see one of his lecture. Guess what again? When he was doing his lecture, he wasn't invited for a medical science convention made by the university or anything? No… he was invited by homeopathic groups which were using locals in different University to give the lecture… Not exactly the same thing…

    So the reporter went to confront him in his office. They asked him, where are all the papers you supposedly have done? He said, they were in russian… They said ok, we want to see them anyway! We will have them translated… He started to mumble and say that he did have the papers, but, didn't feel like showing them to them because they were being rude… Yeah right!! So, he didn't have any papers, wasn't a real doctor… His product was bullshit… But he made the parents of the kid pay many hundred dollars for months…

    Don't wait for him to get arrested some day… I'm sure he is still doing his thing at this exact moment!

  13. We have a saying in my language:

    "Only once the calf has drowned will they fill / block up the well."

    I fear a lot more baby animals have to die before they're going to take serious action against this kind of bottomless pits dotting the field.

    I guess in a way it's kinda sad that just being a scammer isn't enough to get you thrown in jail. And in a sense, not enough people are dying for anyone to want to bother to do something about it.

    Regarding arguments against the use of placebo:

    1. It's still being researched, and there's a variety of psychological and psychosomatic effects taking place during any illness, and the simple fact is we're not 100% sure yet what exactly "the placebo effect" is really comprised of and to what degree.

    2. People (kids) who're used to getting placebo (i.e. getting prescribed what they believe to be "medicine") whenever they're even slightly under the weather, might grow up to be adults who subconsciously believe that you can't get well without medication. They may also insist on taking something whenever they're ill, and buy real medication that does have a physiological impact, thus harming their health.

    If anything, the placebo effect is a testament to the body's ability to repair itself without outside assistance.

    3. People who're used to taking placebo (such as a variety of alternative crap), may forego actual treatment for a non-self-limiting disease, and die as a result, or at least end up in hospital with a much more severe case than they ever would've had if they'd gone to a doctor right away. I suppose part of the reason you don't hear homeopathy getting the blame for people dying of something, is because eventually they end up in the hands of conventional medicine, and conventional medicine gets blamed when the patient is too far gone for anything they can do to have an effect.

    4. Selling or prescribing placebo is, no matter how you turn it, fooling the patient. I think the more you give kids placebo, the more likely they grow up to be parents demanding to get prescribed some kind of medication for their own kids, resulting in doctors giving them placebo and continuing the cycle.

    In the end, it's all about education. More precisely, it's about making people understand the power of their own mind and imagination with regards to something as subjective as "feeling sick" or "feeling better".

  14. Yeah… and in today's society, people, kids, take all kind of medication. Even if just vitamins. Their parents teach them as kids that they need to take their vitamins even if you shouldn't really need them if you eat correctly. So, the kids grow up and feel the need for some medicine to support them. Thinking that they need to be taking something to be well…

    As for the Placebo effect, even if I read a few things on the net, I'm still not sure I understand it's impacts correctly. I thought that, the placebo effect was more psychological than real. I mean, it's like if a kid hurt his knee and then, I go and kiss him booboo… he feels better even if nothing has been done really. It's psychological. So, in a scientific study, if someone think that he is taking a medicine and the researchers then come and ask him how he feels, he will say that he is better, thinking that he took some medicine… But, maybe it wasn't a real medicine and he isn't really better, he just thinks he is… So, that's why they need to test double blind… To take that effect away and compare the real effect on the two groups and not the psychological effet. But maybe I misunderstood the placebo effect and it really has a beneficial physiological effect after all?

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