Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Natural History Museum gives homeopathy undue scientific credibility

The Natural History Museum is one of the most amazing attractions in London. That's not opinion, its evidence-based fact. The science made available to the public in the NHM is outstanding and world-class - I haven't seen the new Darwin Exhibition but if past exhibitions are anything to go by, it will be top notch historical science.

Why, then, is the NHM dedicating valuable research time and effort to create a homeopathic database of the various plants, fungi, lichens and algae used by quacks to make useless sugar pills?

From the website:
The homeopathy database is a standard reference system for homeopathic practitioners, and other users of plant remedies. It reconciles the old homeopathic codes with the current botanical code. The information is based on long established remedies in the Homeopathic Materiae Medicae that are now revised and updated and the online access means it can be maintained and updated easily in line with current concepts of botanical nomenclature.

For such a reputable and outstanding source of science education to be involved with quackery at this level is to denigrate the good name of the NHM and to give homeopathy a scientific acceptability that it does not deserve.

Indeed, are they include other things that homeopaths have made provings of? I would be interested to see if they will have the proving of the shipwreck, which was inferred to somehow provide prophylaxis against traffic jams. Such is the bonkers world of the homeopath.

Finance for the project came in part from Ainsworths, Waleda & Helios, all UK purveyors of homeopathic quackery. (Avid readers will no doubt remember that Helios were quite happy to sell homeopathic remedies and prophylactics for Malaria - potentially fatal, of course - without a shred of evidence to show efficacy, because none exists. The MHRA have since forced them to remove the offending products from their shelves).

The NHM is doing itself and science a huge disfavour by giving research effort and webspace to quackery. I can see how the databases of flora used in medicine can be worthwhile from a historical and taxonomical point of view, however there is no need to give any credence to homeopathic magical sugar pill-ery along the way.

The value of a visit to NHM in terms of science understanding is well appreciated. Sally Collins and Andy Lee co-wrote a consultative study into how Natural History Museums can support secondary science teaching and learning (.pdf here). A brief quote from the Foreward by Sir Mike Tomlinson:
The importance of science in our lives has never been more obvious, yet we continue to grapple with the challenge of enthusing students with science at school and its study post-16.

Teachers readily acknowledge the need to ‘bring science alive’ and to enable students to understand how science and scientists work. Teachers cannot do this on their own, which is where natural history museums can be so important.

This report clearly reveals the positive and lasting benefits of visits to natural history museums and engagement with scientists working there.

Why put this in jeopardy by introducing students to blind quackery while trying to teach them about science?



  1. Quite. I've complained, but have yet to get a response. The biggest nonsense of all is that the remedies as prescibed in the Kentian dominated UK won't actually have any (to a pretty reasonable approximation) plant extract left in them! Hence there's no connection at all.

  2. how depressing. Dr*T, I am going to the NHM this weekend to see the Darwin exhibition you mentioned - will try and trakc a member of staff down, see what they have to say. Must say I'm as disappointed as you are with this, there really isn't much sense in such an august institution lending legitimacy to patent nonsense...!

  3. Perhaps the NHM can house its database in its multifaith room?

  4. What is wrong in it ? Homoeopathy has been proved to be a very good system and just because somebody's business interests are effected should the world stop using it?

  5. Hi anonymous, if that is your real name.

    I'm sorry to break it to you, but homeopathy has not been proved to be a very good system. 200 years of trying, and there still does not exist an evidence base for their ludicrous claims.

    Or maybe you know something we don't, in which case we'd all be fascinated to read your properly referenced, high quality, random controlled double blinded trial showing that homeopathy has a greater effect than placebo. Then you can create a plausible mechanism as to how it works.

    Do you think it's acceptable that homeopaths are held to a lower standard of evidence than proper doctors and medical scientists?

  6. Smart Bombs...

    What is unacceptable is that conventional doctors are not held to the same standard as homeopathic practitioners, who spend a great deal more time with patients learning their complete symptom pictures and the underlying emotional and physical issues that are involved in a condition...

    The science you advocate is a front for big-pharma and the practitioners you defend are nothing more than puppets who churn out prescriptions and expensive testing that often leads no where.

  7. Of course homeopaths spend more time with their patients than proper doctors working in the publicly-funded British NHS. Getting that extra time and individual attention is the main reason why homeopathic remedies sometimes appear to work. It's called the placebo effect. The fact remains that there is no scientific evidence in the form of large, high-quality (i.e. properly randomised, double-blinded and placebo controlled) trials to demonstrate that the remedies themselves, as opposed to the bedside manner of the practitioner, have any effect whatsoever. The scientific method is the only effective way of establishing the truth. To suggest it is anything other than that - a 'front for big pharma' for example - is to wave your ignorance like a flag.

    UK medical practitioners generally provide an excellent service but their workload doesn't allow them to spend much time with each patient. This is a problem of NHS funding and resources, not of doctors being 'puppets', as anonymous, claims. What an idiotic remark.

    Thank you, Dr T for bringing this action by the NHM to our attention. I will also be complaining.

  8. Anonymous,
    Your comment is classic:

    "What is unacceptable is that conventional doctors are not held to the same standard as homeopathic practitioners,"

    This is, in fact, not true. Have a read of this blog and see how the Society of Homeopaths themselves don't stick their own code of practice.

    "...who spend a great deal more time with patients learning their complete symptom pictures and the underlying emotional and physical issues that are involved in a condition."

    ...and then give them a sugar pill and tell it's all going to be ok. Or, in other words "Mummy kiss it better", and just as effective in terms of placebo.

    "The science you advocate is a front for big-pharma"

    Hmmm.... this doesn't make any sense. Science is a way of testing something to see if it has an effect of its own rather than us simpleton humans tricking ourselves. Pharma (of any size) doesn't come into it.

    "...and the practitioners you defend are nothing more than puppets who churn out prescriptions and expensive testing that often leads no where."

    Sometimes the testing doesn't lead anywhere - that's how you progress. When it does lead somewhere, it means you've saved a life, or improved someone's quality of life.

    Maria - thanks for the comment, I probably shouldn't spend so much time rebuffing arguments like anonymous', as you put it much succintly - "What an idiotic remark" :)

    I had a look at your "Think Humanism" site - homeopathy follows the structure of a religion (holy book, unwavering believers, refusal to engage in dissent, little/no evidence etc) and should be treated as such!

  9. I totally agree that homeopathy is like a religion and that religion is like homeopathy: both involve daft rituals and depend on faith.

    We've several threads devoted to debunking homeopathy in the Science forum at Think Humanism. Perhaps I should move them to the Religion section. ;)

  10. Following (but not necessarily resulting from!) a considerable number of e-mails I've sent to the Natural History Musuem, they have changed their website on homoeopathy. It now reads:

    "There is ongoing interest in scientific research to try to establish whether and why approaches such as homeopathy, or Chinese or Indian traditional treatments, are effective or ineffective.

    The Museum provides scientific information that enables organisms to be correctly identified. In some cases this information may be used in non-scientific activities, such as homeopathy: this can ensure that scientific research on these activities is supported and that that the use of information is accurate. The theories behind the formulation of homeopathic materials are not scientific and the effectiveness of treatment using these formulations is often questioned from a scientific viewpoint".

    Better? Still not great? Of course, I've now forgotten what it said before.
    Will post on Bad Science.

  11. Homoeopathy is energy medicine. The only reason it went into decline is that antibiotics came on the scene and alot of money was able to be made. Once you have a remedy you never have to purchase it again. It can be grafted. On the topic of placebo, you can't 'fool' an animal and homoeopathy works on them as well. Go ahead and do your pharmaceuticals. The next time H1N1 or the next nasty flu comes along, you might want some Baptiste or Arsenicum Album to pull you out. It worked in 1918 and it worked in 2009 and it will continue to be a safe and effective healing modality. Small minds cannot alter the facts. Did you ever consider maybe the NHM knows something you don't?

  12. Anonymous comments are usually best ignored.

    Just saying.


  13. So sad that people find homeopathy such a threat.. If you don't trust it or believe in it, then don't use it! It has a place in the NHM... Get over yourselves!!