It has been some small while since I, your good Capitan, have taken you on a journey through the realms of logical fallacies and poorly constructed arguments. I’ve been off journeying in an absurd land populated by tramps and pompous industrialists, but even their repetitive & meaningless conversation could not drown out the call to adventure offered by the release of the Australian Government’s National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) draft Information Paper: Evidence on the effectiveness of homeopathy for treating health conditions, whose findings that “that the assessment of the evidence from research in humans does not show that homeopathy is effective for treating the range of health conditions considered” coincided perfectly with World Homeopathy Awareness Week, and prompted the expected response in the form of a press release from the Australian Homeopathy Association.
The press release is a treasure trove of poor arguments to explore, but first, a quick summary of the document it was responding to.
The NHMRC report was a systematic review of evidence into efficacy of Homeopathy that evaluated the methodology and validity of each study so reviewed before considering the outcomes of said review, and the document outlines the criteria a study must meet to be considered reliable, as well as the standards that must be met for a treatment to be considered effective. It actually provides a very good summary of the principles that determine an effective blinded trial, and the benchmarks that a treatment must meet to be considered to have an effect. If you want to pause now before embarking on our journey in order to go and read the NHMRC report, go ahead… I’ll wait…
All done? Ready to go? Good.
So then now let us set sail into the blue deep of logical fallacies and poorly structured argument as we navigate our way through the response penned to this report by the Australian Homeopathic Association. One small reminder before we get our brains wet: a properly structured argument generally requires a premise (the point being made), evidence in support of the argument (whether empirical, anecdotal, etc) and a conclusion to reinforce the premise. In an extended argument like an essay, it has an overarching argument, known as a thesis, which is supported by a series of premises, each of which need to be proven in turn in order to validate the thesis. With that in mind, lets look at the offering given up by the AHA.
It begins with two brief paragraphs that refer to the number of people in Australia, Europe and India that have used Homeopathy. These introductory passages assume the reader has some knowledge of homeopathy, and offers no explanation of what the practice actually involves, and instead seems to be trying to establishing a positive image of homeopathy based on the number of people who engage in it. When coupled with an actual claim of efficacy (which this opening does not offer) such an approach would be an example of the “appeal to popularity” fallacy, hoping people will accept a things popularity as a substitute for the need of actual evidence. In this case, the introduction makes no specific claim other than the number of people using Homeopathy, and therefore does not actually add anything to the discussion. It is also unclear what is meant to be the argument, if any, offered up by this opening. Is the writer trying to prove that lots of people use homeopathy? Okay, if we accept that, then what? It doesn’t address the question of Homeopathy’s efficacy, does it?
It then gives a description of the NHMRC’s report which, in all fairness, is a fairly accurate description, but doesn’t make any further claims. It does, however, use the phrase “This review has focussed exclusively on recent systematic trials” – the use of the word ‘exclusively’ will become important later on.
The document then offers a definition of homeopathy as a ‘holistic system of medicine’ that is ‘not ideally suited to systematic reviews which focus on isolated disease conditions without considering the overall health of the individual’. Unless I’ve forgotten how to read, this seems to be saying that scientific methodologies that focus on the efficacy of homeopathy at curing diseases are not appropriate as a way of evaluating the practice because it looks at a person’s health from a broader, ‘holistic’ perspective. Now this is an interesting case to make, but one that would be easily undermined if, for example, the Australian Homeopathic Association had made any claims that Homeopathy could actually treat specific conditions that could therefore be measured. If you go over to the AHA webpage about homeopathy you will notice that it does in fact offer quite a list of conditions that homeopathy is alleged to be able to treat, including:
Acute complaints – coughs, colds, earache, food poisoning, hangover, travel sickness etc.
Chronic complaints – skin conditions, hormone imbalances, depression, headaches, behavioural problems, digestive disturbances, asthma, arthritis etc.
First aid situations – bites, stings, hives, injuries, trauma, shock etc.
So the AHA seems to be at cross-purposes with itself at this point. On it’s website it claims that homeopathy can treat specific, measurable conditions, while in the press release it claims that it’s not appropriate to assess homeopathy by systematically reviewing it’s efficacy at treating specific conditions. The claim that homeopathy is a ‘holistic’ practice and that systematic reviews are not appropriate is an example of the logical fallacy of ‘special pleading’ - basically begging for the regular rules not to be applied to s specific situation. In this case, the AHA is pleading with the reader to excuse homeopathy from the regular rules applied to a scientific evaluation.
The press release then goes on to say…
The Australian Homoeopathic Association is disappointed that the NHMRC review focussed on only this one type of evidence and excluded other evidence types, which are more suited to the way homoeopathy is used in clinical practice. It should be noted here that the NHMRC working group did not include even one trained homoeopath even though the AHA suggested a number of qualified individuals who not only are homoeopathic practitioners but also have the relevant academic background.
They’re disappointed the NHMRC only used a scientific review process, as opposed to ‘more suited’ methods? Note that it does not suggest what other review methods it recommends, only that it rejects the scientific method as a process for reviewing the efficacy of Homeopathy. So what exactly are they trying to say? Not a whole lot. This is more ‘special pleading’, wishing to be allowed to exist outside the rules, as it were.
The comment about the working group not including a Homeopath is also a somewhat pointless statement. They’re not actually making a claim that the lack of a Homeopath skewed results, simply identifying that there wasn’t a current practitioner involved. Like the paragraph above, it doesn’t seem to be actually stating anything of significance as it is not actually making a claim that requires substantiating. However, what I believe they are trying to do is build a Straw Man argument. Rather than actually address the reviews findings or its methodology in any way, they build up a false argument regarding the conduct of the review in the hope that the true-believers out there will latch onto that false argument instead, and use it in substitution for any actual evidence or argument against the review’s findings. More on that later…
The press release then goes on to refer to three occasions where studies of homeopathy has been proven effective: a review by the Swiss government, a 2005 German study, and a 6 year study at the Bristol Homeopathic Hospital. They further state that Homeopathy is on the UK’s NHS (publicly funded health service) and that GP’s in France and German offer Homeopathy as an alternative to pharmaceutical drugs.
Here we have a combination of the Argument from Authority and the Appeal to Popularity once again. The reference to countries that offer homeopathy as part of mainstream clinical practice do not actually support and specific argument and are clearly intended to make it seem as though the practice is accepted elsewhere, and so by extrapolation, why shouldn’t it be accepted in Australia?
The references to the study are Argument’s from Authority, hoping that the reader will accept the official sounding (or simply foreign) origins of the study as proof of their accuracy without questioning the accuracy of those studies themselves.
All of this, however, is offered without any actual argument being put forward. The press release HAS NOT REJECTED THE FINDINGS OF THE REVIEW! It has not put forward a counter argument and has instead attempted to attack peripheral issues such as the make up of the work-group or the methodology used in the review process, in the attempt to cloud the issue and distract from the primary finding of the review, which is that Homeopathy has no measurable effect as a health treatment.
The final paragraph is perhaps the most telling indicator that the AHA actually have no counter argument to offer, as it says that:
The Australian Homoeopathic Association recommend to the NHMRC that it take a more comprehensive approach to the analysis of homoeopathy’s efficacy and consider a large-scale economic evaluation of the benefits of a more integrated system and one which respects and advocates “patient choice” in healthcare provision – as is common across Europe where over 30 Million people use homoeopathic medicine.
It suggests a “More comprehensive” approach without identifying what that would actually mean or how it would be better than the systematic review already undertaken, and then they try to redirect the argument again by focusing on ‘economic benefits’ and the respect for ‘parent choice’, both of which are separate issues away from the question of ‘Does Homeopathy actually have a beneficial effect for patients suffering from health complaints?” (to which the answer is no, by the way). More misdirection, and a final failure to actually rebut the findings of the review itself.
So by the end of this process, what do we find? Appeals to Popularity, Arguments from Authority, Straw Man and disingenuous misdirection, all of which suggest, very strongly, that the AHA don’t actually have a strong argument to put forward about the efficacy of homeopathy. It is also worth noting that, at no point in this document has the AHA included a description of what Homeopathy actually is, or how it is supposed to work.
Now, I could go into an argument about homeopathy itself, and bring together a series of references that show how it is not even physically possible for homeopathy to work according to the principles that homeopaths themselves claim as the basis of the practice, but that would be to go outside of the frame of the presented argument and bring in third party information (of which there is an abundance!) and would be unfair to the homeopaths who, in this instance, are already licking their wounds and fighting back with weak cries the equivalent of yelling “Oh, Yeah!”.
So far, on the weight of evidence presented here, Homeopathy does not have a strong argument to stand on, and anyone who reads this press release and chooses to believe it represents a strong argument in favour of homeopathy is doing so sans evidence, and probably motivated by their own desire to continue believing in the powers of ‘magic water’.
That’s all for now, but in the spirit of people being motivated to hold on to irrational beliefs in the absence of appropriate evidence, I’ll wish you all a happy easter and look forward to our next adventure in critical thinking.