A Brief Investigation of Homeopathic Research

In the post “Why I Oppose Homeopathy” I referred to the research that the Maun Homeopathy Project cited to support their assertions. I noted that hey did not give internet links and that I did not subscibe to the journals in question so I was unable to comment in detail on the claims.

Since then, a reader has kindly emailed me copies of two of the papers.  One (Are the clinical effects of homeopathy placebo effects? A meta-analysis of placebo-controlled trials (The Lancet Vol 350, 20 September 1997 pp 834 – 843))appears to be the one that the homeopaths cite as evidence that homeopathy is two and a half times more effective than placebo.

It is true that the findings are that the combined odds ratio for the 89 studies entered into the meta-analysis is 2.45 in favour of homeopathy. However, when the 26 good quality studies are considered this drops to 1.66. Having said that, the authors’ interpretation is that the results are not compatible with the hypothesis that the clinical effects of homeopathy are completely due to placebo.

Unfortunately many of these trials involved self-limiting conditions, ie conditions where the patients will recover even if nothing is done. People recover at different rates so in a trial it is possible that one group happens to contain more fast recoveres than the other. When the trial also has a small number of participants, as many of these do, statistical artifice cannot be ruled out.

The authors conclude their interpretation by saying:-

“However, we found insufficient evidence from these studies that homeopathy is clearly efficacious for any single clinical condition. Further research on homeopathy is warranted provided it is rigorous and systematic.”

This was ten years ago.

The second paper is Homeopathy in HIV infection: A trial report of double-blind placebo controlled study (British Homeopathic Journal (1999) 88, pp 49 – 57). This studied 100 HIV+ cases, divided into the asymtomatic strata and the PGL strata. In each strata, half were placed in the placebo group and half in the verum group.

During the course of the trial, a number of participants dropped out so by the end the asymptomatic strata had 23 in the placebo group and 19 in the verum group. The PGL strata ended with 18 in the placebo group and 20 in the verum group. Again these small numbers mean the results are subject to statistical artifice.

Futhermore, one of the PGL placebo group dropped out because of the need for active therapeutic intervention for non responding febrile illness. Two of the PGL verum group dropped out because they developed hepatitis during the course of the study and wisely attended for other treatment. In other words, three of the participants were dropped from the analysis because they had got worse. Given that two of the three were receiving the homeopathic treatment, clearly their removal from already small groups distorted the results in favour of homeopathy.

This is some way from the rigorous and systematic research called for by the authors of the Lancet paper. Homeopaths always demand that someone else do the big and thus expensive trials that would be needed. But why shouldn’t homeopaths finance them. Pharmaceutical companies have to pay for their own trials, and homeopathy is big business these days, not the cottage industry it likes to pretend to be. Furthermore, Big Pharma has to register its trials in advance to avoid publication bias (the cherry picking of positive results). No such requirement is placed on homeopaths. Perhaps the research has been done, proved to be negative and thus “lost”? How would we know?

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11 Responses to “A Brief Investigation of Homeopathic Research”

  1. gimpy Says:

    I’m beginning to think that before we even think of talking about large high quality homeoapthic trials we should be insisting that the homeopaths do the basic science first. We should be demanding that they show their products have measurable effects in cell culture and model organisms before we even think about human trials. Basic research can be done on the cheap and positive results would no doubt attract grant money such is the nature of science. There really is no excuse not to do this. Unless it doesn’t work of course.

  2. apgaylard Says:

    There was a good review of Linde et al (1997) by Bandolier. It puts the homeopath’s claims about this study in a rational perspective.

  3. jaycueaitch Says:

    Excellent link, apgaylard, thanks.

    Gimpy, my first inclination was to agree with you but then I realised that if (or when) their nostruns fail to have any effect on cell cultures, most homeopaths will just witter on about such experiments being too reductionist to show homeopathic effects. It is interesting that even the rational fringe of homeopathy has not tried it though. And interesting that in the decade since Linde et al published, homeopaths have not raised the money to fund a good quality large scale trial.

  4. Dr.P.K.Sethi Says:

    controlled clinical trials of Homeopathic drugs is not possible due to methodological reason . clinical testimony is the only way to judge the efficacy of homeopathic drugs .I have invited the lancet team to visit my clinic
    and watch how i treat animals ,particularly those which have defied conventional treatment but get well with Homeo drugs. i got no response from
    lancet .I again repeat any one who feels homeopathy is placebo must come to my clinic and verify the the claim.

  5. jaycueaitch Says:

    What reasons other than you don’t like the results?

  6. jdc325 Says:

    “controlled clinical trials of Homeopathic drugs is not possible due to methodological reason”

    Strange that Dr Sethi doesn’t state the precise methodological reason why controlled clinical trials of homeopathic drugs are not possible. Possibly because there is no such methodological reason. I suspect he/she may be thinking of individualisation of remedies as being a reason to rule out controlled clinical trials. Ben Goldacre pointed out in his piece ‘The End of Homeopathy’ that this reason is false because a controlled clinical trial of individualised homeopathic medicine can be done. http://www.badscience.net/?p=578

  7. Dr. Nancy Malik Says:

    Homeopathy cures where Conventional Allopathic Medicine (CAM) fails

  8. jaycueaitch Says:

    Evidence please.

  9. Dr. Nancy Malik Says:

    Not one or two but millions and millions of patients world wide is the best evedince

  10. jaycueaitch Says:

    So give us an example, with references, of a non-self limiting illness that has been cured by homeopathy. Since you claim homeopathy cures where orthodox medicine fails, let’s make it one conventional medics have claimed is incurable.

  11. A Year of Steam « Letting Off Steam Says:

    […] featured prominently and I began the year by examining a couple of papers that are trumpeted as proof that homeopathy works. They aren’t and it doesn’t. This post […]

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