Where Switzerland did not endorse homeopathy

Pseudoscience believers are always looking for something, anything, that supports their point of view of the universe. Whether it’s vaccine denialists, or global warming denialists, or evolution denialists…well, any kind of denialist, they all need some piece of evidence to prove that they are not denying scientific evidence. So when you don’t have science, go for whatever comes next.

First, a bit of background on homeopathy. It’s water. Yes, water has some very special properties, it’s necessary for the human body to work well, without we die. So homeopaths think that if you dilute out substances in water (a level of dilution so high that not one single molecule of the substance remains), the water retains a memory of it. And that memory supposedly cures things, or does something medical. Since water cannot retain memory of anything, the details after that become irrelevant, because their basic premise is about as much of an impossibility that one can find in science. If water had some method of retaining memory, then it would mean that ever single principle of physics and chemistry would be wiped off the face of science textbooks forever.

Now, science can be turned on its head, because new evidence can destroy old theories. But that’s the point, we searched for evidence, and there is none. There’s a slight placebo effect in some cases, but drinking homeopathic potions of water are not going to cure any type of cancer, colds, or anything. 

So what did the Swiss do? Well, let’s start with the King of Water Denialism, the apologist for all things homeopathic, Dana Ullman. Dana has a long history of trying to promote homeopathy wherever he could. He regular posts his particular brand of pseudoscience in the Huffington Post, one of the many reasons why I ignore that anti-science waste of electrons. He was actually banned from the English Wikipedia forever as a result of his trolling on the project. In fact, it is one of the few cases where Wikipedia actually stood up to a pseudoscience promoter. Of course, that leaves a few hundred more. 

According to Mr. Ullman (no, he is not a doctor), 

The Swiss government’s exceedingly positive report on homeopathic medicine

The Swiss government has a long and widely-respected history of neutrality, and therefore, reports from this government on controversial subjects need to be taken more seriously than other reports from countries that are more strongly influenced by present economic and political constituencies.

In late 2011, the Swiss government’s report on homeopathic medicine represents the most comprehensive evaluation of homeopathic medicine ever written by a government and was just published in book form in English (Bornhoft and Matthiessen, 2011). This breakthrough report affirmed that homeopathic treatment is both effective and cost-effective and that homeopathic treatment should be reimbursed by Switzerland’s national health insurance program.

The provisional reimbursement for these alternative treatments ended in 2005, but as a result of this new study, the Swiss government’s health insurance program once again began to reimburse for homeopathy and select alternative treatments.

So, the best Dana can do is a government report? Because there’s some long history of politicians knowing anything about science and medicine, even in Switzerland?

Ah, but wait. Maybe the government of Switzerland didn’t endorse homeopathy?  According to The Swizz Report on Homeopathy in The Quackometer Blog and That ‘neutral’ Swiss homeopathy report in Zeno’s Blog, the story is, of course, somewhat different than what Dana was claiming. Read either or both of those articles will give you a full understanding of what the Swiss actually said about homeopathy, but suffice it to say, Dana Ullman, as his wont, failed to actually read the documents and jumped on the Swiss train without looking up to see where that train was heading. And it wasn’t to homeopathy land.

Actually, the report wasn’t even written by the Swiss government:

…much the truth behind this report has already been exposed. It was not written by the Swiss government, but by a group of homeopaths under the editorship of academics at the University of Witten/Herdecke in Germany. This is a private University that specialises in training doctors in alternative medicine, including homeopathy, and is closely associated with the Anthroposophy movement – the esoteric, ‘ecofascist’ sect founded by early 20th Century Austrian mystic, Rudolf Steiner.

It cannot be relied upon to be a dispassionate, scientific examination. Indeed, we should be most careful that the authors are presenting the available evidence and science without preference to their own vested interests.

Actually, after the actual Swiss government received the report, they agreed that:

[I]t is very obvious that all or some of the authors have a positive attitude towards the treatments in question or are convinced about their efficacy. Unquestionably, strict proponents of the usual hierarchy of evidence will regard the presented evaluations as scientifically untenable and unreasonably positive…

There’s that evidence thing again. You know, real medicine relies upon real evidence.  

But let’s get to the actual report. It starts with some laughable logical fallacies:

The dilutions’ mode of action requires a homeopathic explanation. Homeopathic remedies are backed by 200 years of empirical observation of millions of patients which shows that high potencies are often particularly effective if they are optimally matched to the patient’s individual symptom picture. The mode of action of homeopathic remedies cannot be demonstrated with modern scientific methods. Due to a misapplied positivism that sees the reality of nature merely as the sum total of its measurable and quantifiable phenomena, a ‘lack of evidence’ is often seen to mean the same as ‘lack of effectiveness’.

Oh where to start? Two hundred years of empirical observation is an appeal to antiquity: just because it’s old doesn’t mean it’s right. According to this logic, the world is flat, because it’s old, so it must be right. And “empirical observation”? I think they meant to say “anecdote.” Next up, that homeopathy cannot be measured by modern science. Why is that? Is modern science somehow weaker than old science? Well it isn’t. Modern science is more powerful, because we can more accurately experimentally test hypotheses. In fact, unless somehow physics was different two hundred years ago, and it wasn’t, then that comment is nonsense.

But the last statement that a “lack of evidence” is not equivalent to “lack of effectiveness” is just plain arguing from ignorance. Yes, sometimes the lack of evidence does not mean a lack of effectiveness. After 200 years of homeopathic history, you’d think they’d have found evidence that supports effectiveness. On the contrary, there is a load evidence that shows it is ineffective. Sometimes the absence of evidence is evidence of absence. Furthermore, evidence of absence is evidence of absence.

Then the report addresses what is the most essential problem with homeopathy:

Modern physics with its theory of relativity and quantum physics has long overtaken Newtonian mechanics and is paving the way for an understanding of the homeopathic mechanism of action.

What? It is? The goal of quantum physics is not to pave a way to understanding homeopathy. In fact, to get water to do what they claim it would require the complete destruction of everything in physics, from how the universe arose to how molecules form. It’s not happening. Is there a possibility, maybe, but it’s easier to trust laws of physics than it is to ignorance from homeopaths.

Quackometer responds to this section of the report with:

Here they combine an obvious assertion with what amounts to a hope. Yes, we need quantum mechanics to understand matter and energy, but this does not mean that it will shed any light on homeopathy. Indeed, quantum mechanics is not shedding any light on homeopathy – but many homeopaths, who do not understand the subject, are indeed trying to make it look so.

At the heart of their arguments is that somehow quantum processes help water form a ‘memory’ of the substances that are diluted out of homeopathic preparations. In this way, homeopaths state that clusters of water can somehow take on the properties of molecules that are no longer present in the solution. Quantum mechanics actually tells us that this cannot happen. For many reasons.

Quantum mechanics tells us that materials have their specific properties because of their unique spatial distributions of charges and the quantised energy states within the molecules. Another molecule, such as water, and even in clusters, cannot arbitrarily assume these states and substitute itself for another molecule. This is a fundamental understanding that quantum physics gives us, yet homeopaths who pretend to understand the subject never mention it. Quantum physics is used as a fig leaf – the mysteries of the quantum  world is used to hide any mystery that the New Ager wishes to justify.

In other words, anyone who spends a minute studying quantum mechanics would understand that homeopathy cannot exist. It’s almost like the homeopaths use a bunch of fancy words to make it appear there’s science there, when there’s nothing there. If the homeopathic understanding of quantum mechanics was true, then alchemy exists, because it requires the same denial of physics, and one molecule can just be replaced by another. Magically!

There’s much more to this Swiss report. None of it relied upon a randomized clinical trial that supported an X homeopathic potion had a Y effect on the body. And they couldn’t provide a single plausible scientific basis for homeopathy. 

Back to Quackmeter’s parting thoughts:

There is much more in the so-called Swiss Report. All of it is special pleading attempts to lower the standards of evidence, exclude contradictory evidence and cherry pick studies that suit. I shall leave other, if they have the strength, to look at other chapters.

But for me, this dismal appeal to superstitious ways of knowing, the blatant disregard for facts and the attempts to muddy the water of evidence based medicine, are all I need to ignore this advert for homeopathic medicine.

In other words. Nothing.

The Original Skeptical Raptor
Chief Executive Officer at SkepticalRaptor

Lifetime lover of science, especially biomedical research. Spent years in academics, business development, research, and traveling the world shilling for Big Pharma. I love sports, mostly college basketball and football, hockey, and baseball. I enjoy great food and intelligent conversation. And a delicious morning coffee!