Thursday, January 31, 2013

Homeopathy - An open letter to Jimmy Wales

One of the Guerrilla Skepticism editors (Vera) turned me on to this awesome article about homeopathy.  The author is Jimmy Wales.  In case you don't know, Jimmy Wales is the founder of Wikipedia. 

Apparently Wales feels that homeopathy is a scam and taking it instead of real medicine is dangerous. He wants to know what can be done about homeopathy.

Then he writes that the homeopathy Wikipedia page editors have "eloquently explain[ed] what this means: "Mathematically, in order to have a reasonable chance to obtain one molecule of the original extract, the patient would have to consume an amount of the remedy roughly 10^321 times the number of atoms in the observable universe."

Right on Wikipedia editors!  We spend a lot of time trying to get the article as close to perfect as possible.  Just take a look at the "talk" tab (located on the right upper side of the page) and you can see the never-ending discussion about everything.  The discussion on whether or not to have the word "quackery" in the lede went on for months. There are several homeopaths that frequently engage in the discussion on talk, so the discussions get quite interesting.  

If you are one of the 140K people who visit the English homeopathy page this month, you will be greeted with this first paragraph...

Homeopathy Listeni/ˌhmiˈɒpəθi/ (also spelled homoeopathy or homœopathy; from the Greek hómoios- ὅμοιος- "like-" + páthos πάθος "suffering") is a system of alternative medicine originated in 1796 by Samuel Hahnemann, based on his doctrine of similia similibus curentur ("like cures like"), according to which a substance that causes the symptoms of a disease in healthy people will cure similar symptoms in sick people.[1] Scientific research has found homeopathic remedies ineffective and their postulated mechanisms of action implausible.[2][3][4][5] The scientific community regards homeopathy as a sham;[6] the American Medical Association considers homeopathy to be quackery,[7][8] and homeopathic remedies have been criticized as unethical.[9]

If the reader feels the need to continue reading past the first paragraph, they will be treated to the entire history of homeopathy as well as quotes like the one Wales stated.   If someone insists on using homeopathy after reading this Wikipedia page, then I don't think anything will convince them.

And before you get all gloomy about all the people who still take homeopathic products, remember most people don't use them.  Most people understand that homeopathy is quackery.  Maybe they don't know what homeopathy is, but once it is explained, they usually say "that's nuts".   We skeptics are too close to the issue, we see and hear about these stories because we are interested in the topic.  It feels like we spend all our time rolling our eyes and raising our blood pressure over these discussions, but really we are winning this war on pseudoscience.  We are, trust me.  We still have a long way to go, but we have the tools to do so.  We just need help to get it done, and done in a way that it is settled. 

Wales states in his conclusion, "Who should I talk to about this in order to encourage the creation of a campaign to stop this?  This is not my primary area of interest and so I am not the right person to lead it myself.  But I would like to help."

My answer to him is this.  "Jimmy you have already done more than anyone could possibly dream that can be done.  You created the most amazing resource in the world.  I mean that, not only in English but in every language possible. The English homeopathy page alone gets over 140K views EACH MONTH.  That is a lot of people being educated about homeopathy.  Thank you.  Allowing us editors to 'do our job' and keep these articles honest and correctly cited is enough.  I can't imagine what else you can do, my brain is teeny tiny compared to your mighty brain, if you come up with something please oh please let us in on it, we want to help."  

We can't all do something as amazing as Wales and create the most useful and amazing resource on the Internet.  Most people commenting on his blog suggest things HE CAN DO.  I know he asked, but really its our turn now.  Don't point fingers at other people who are currently involved, like James Randi and the 10:23 campaign.  We can all do something.  Pick your topic, psychics, vaccines, cryptozoology  or whatever gets your heart rate going.  You can work with the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia team (we train) or hundreds of other ways to take care of these issues.  Quit bitching in your beer, rolling your eyes and DO SOMETHING!

Write to me at if you are interested in helping out with the Wikipedia project (all skill levels are needed, and we also need languages other than English, did I mention we train and mentor too?)


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  3. We need to remove the emotionally manipulative text from the homeopathic page on wikipedia. Unbiased information sources are the root of any good research and wikipedia disqualifies itself from that because of it's biased agenda. It is very easy to see. What is not easy to see is that the people most against homeopathy simply do not have the mental capacity to understand the principles behind it. That is what is really going on here.

    1. "What is not easy to see is that the people most against homeopathy simply do not have the mental capacity to understand the principles behind it. That is what is really going on here."

      I disagree; I think Jimmy Wales explained the fundamental absurdity of it - that if you take what advocates of homeopathy say about how it is supposed to work, and apply pretty much anything we actually know about molecular chemistry to it, it is physically impossible for it to do anything at all. Similarly, it is completely right for those who are sceptical of homeopathy to highlight the consistent refusal of advocates to prove the efficacy of homeopathy through controlled testing.

      I think it is completely wrong of you - and actually quite disgraceful - to suggest that people applying the basic principles of scientific inquiry that have served our ability to understand the universe around us so well "lack the mental capacity" to understand your super-duper special-weshul science, which has never been properly evidenced and which would have to obey none of the laws of physics in order to be plausible, but still needs to be taken very seriously indeed.

  4. I've met a few practicing homeopaths, Peter (it's a downside of living where I do). None struck me as especially bright and none did particularly well in high school science (and yet I'm supposed to believe they can understand quantum theory - something even quantum theorists struggle to come to grips with).

    A couple of them were conspiracy theorists and one of those was building an end-of-world bunker or some-such. Yep, it's definitely a question of mental capacity.

  5. Anyone skeptical of homeopathy only needs to do a proper homeopathic proving. Its a repeatable scientific experiment. Homeopathy is not something that a so-called "skeptic" will accept because it works outside of what has been explained by conventional paradigms. It works on the basis of energy that we havent identified even after 200 years. Do a proving then you can stop blathering about Avogadro's number. We dont have a unified theory of everything in the Universe! Everyone who has ever been exposed to the ideas of homeopathy is skeptical, until they try it. Do a proving.