The BBC reports on a petition to ban homoeopathy for pets, which is already singed by a 1000 British vets. The justification for this is that homoeopathy does not work. The vet who started the petition said: "It's been shown that homeopathy doesn't work, so it probably shouldn't be offered any more even if it is offered with good intentions."
Classical homoeopathy naturally does not work. It works with strong dilutions, some are actually so strongly diluted that you can show that most bottles do not contain anything.
Furthermore, homoeopathy is taken as pills or drops. This means that you can make a double blind randomized trail. You randomly give half the people the "medicine" and half a fake medicine (placebo). The patient and doctor both do not know who got what (double blind). At the end you analyse whether there was a difference between the medicine and the placebo. If you pass this trial, your medicine works, no matter how it was made, whether is was conventional or homoeopathic. Also for many traditional medicines it is not known (well) how they work, but the double-blind randomized trail shows that it does. Classical homoeopathic medicine has failed this foundational test.
However, that homoeopathy does not work is not sufficient reason to ban it. It also does no harm and in doubt we should always chose the side of freedom. Government action is there to fix important wrongs, not for stuff that just makes us uncomfortable.
Just sleepEven if it does not work, homoeopathy may still do some good. Also placebos work. Patients heal faster with a placebo than without treatment. Medical science should work much more on how to optimize the placebo effect. The number of times a day you take the pill, its colour, taste, size, ...
In The Netherlands doctors often tell their patients to simply go home, sleep and if the symptoms do not go away come back in a week. I like that, I am Dutch. Isn't it a relief when the doctor tells you it is not something serious and you should just go to bed? Sounds fine to me.
Foreigners mostly hate it. If they do not get a pill they do not feel taken seriously and they can even get quite aggressive. I would not be surprised if their anger leads to an anti-placebo effect. Why not give them something homoeopathic? That is better than unnecessary medicine, which may do harm, and lot better than over-prescribing on antibiotics.
Homoeopathy or classical homoeopathy?The vet in the BBC article gives the impression he really believes in homoeopathy. That could be problematic. I would avoid such doctors because they clearly do not understand how to evaluate evidence. But a doctor who pragmatically prescribes it in case someone should just go to bed would be fine.
It could also be that the medicines this vet prescribes are not classical homoeopathy, but herbal medicine, which is often marketed as homoeopathic. Those could naturally work, many conventional medicines come from substances that were used in traditional cures in healing traditions from all over the world. The active ingredient of aspirin famously comes from willow bark.
That is why I do not like intolerance directed against traditional medicine; we should study it, see if it works, try to understand why it works, how to reduce side effects and how to improve their effectiveness. In many cases we do not have clear evidence against it, like we have for classical homoeopathy, and even if the "explanation" of how the cures work makes no sense we should keep an open mind that the actual treatment does bring benefits.
If a "homoeopathic" herbal medicine would pass the double blind trial, you could sell it as a normal medicine if it works better than existing medicines. Thus for me it is a bad sign when a pill is marketed as homoeopathic. Although, I do not know whether it is true, but I once heard an ironic story about a pill that went through all the tests and was approved as conventional medicine, but then the marketing department decided it was better to sell it as a herbal cure.
Science and politicsThere is a parallel to the climate debate. Science can tell you some of the consequences of continued fossil fuel use. Science can tell you classical homoeopathy does not work. Science cannot tell society how to respond to climate change. Science cannot tell whether we should ban homoeopathy.
As a citizen I feel we should transition to renewable energy. As a citizen I feel we can be tolerant towards homoeopathy.
[UPDATE, Oct 2016. Apparently it can be legal in the USA to take your kid to a faith healer rather than the doctor in case of serious illnesses. Even when the kid dies as a result. That is where my understanding ends. If a kid (or for this post a pet) has a serious illness, you should go to a real doctor or face the consequences of the law.
Related readingBBC News, Science & Environment: Vets: Ban the use of homeopathy in animals
Steven Novella, MD, academic clinical neurologist at Yale University School of Medicine and president and co-founder of the New England Skeptical Society want to ban homoeopathy for pets: Should We Ban Homeopathy for Animals?
Quark Soup by David Appell: The Homeopathic Patient :-)
* Top photo: Cats by Abdullah AlBargan, used with a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0) license.
* Middle photo: Cat, MacDuff the cat by Kevin Dooley, used with a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license.
* This post was a wonderful excuse to finally write a popular post with cute cat photos.