You’d think it’d be pretty easy to spot what it is that a website is trying to tell you and separate the fact from the opinion. But sometimes, the point might be harder to spot than you realise.

Rory’s post about exponential numbers included an aside in square brackets that used to say:

Some quick homeopathy facts:

  • The ‘homeopathic approach’ was invented in the late 1700s by Samuel Hahnemann, who was a doctor before giving up in disgust in around 1781.
  • Samuel also wrote a paper that blamed many diseases on coffee.
  • Homeopathy is premised on:
    • ‘like curing like’ (The same thing that will make a healthy person sick will make a sick person healthy—also extrapolated to encompass the principle of the same agent that cures one disease can cure another.)
    • the idea that the more dilute something is, the stronger its healing properties.
  • To make the medicine:
    • A practitioner dilutes the ‘active’ ingredient with 10 parts water.
    • This is shaken up, then a tenth is taken and mixed with another 10 parts water. Shake and repeat, increasing the dilution exponentially until you get to the required ‘strength’. (Sometimes done with a 100 parts water, which would make these numbers even bigger!)
  • At a dilution of 10 ^ 23, there would only be a single molecule of the original active ingredient.
  • At 10 ^ 24, there is a 1 in 10 chance that there would be a single molecule of the active ingredient… (See Avogadro’s Number)

I’d just read a summary from a National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) report—published this month—after a recent study of homeopathic treatments. The NHMRC couldn’t find reliable evidence showing that homeopathic treatments could effectively cure any health condition.

Anyway, Rory’s paragraph got me thinking.

First, it was: ‘the same thing making a healthy person sick might make a sick person better in smaller doses’—isn’t that kind of what a vaccine is?

[By the way, vaccination is close to my heart at the moment as the Little Squeak got his final jab yesterday—although it took two bananas to console him afterwards.]

Then, it was: ‘Hmm, I wonder what homeopaths think of vaccines.’ And then I stumbled across this case between the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) and a business called Homeopathy Plus!—originally a husband and wife who supplied homeopathic services and products.

Last year, the ACCC took Homeopathy Plus! to court because of misleading articles it made in the course of carrying out its online business. The Homeopathy Plus! website had said that the publicly available whooping cough vaccine was unreliable and ineffective for preventing the disease.

The court agreed with the ACCC and said that:

  • Homeopathy Plus! had misled the public about the quality of the vaccine, in trying to promote alternative homeopathic remedies available to prevent the disease
  • there was no reasonable medical basis for Homeopathy Plus! to state that homeopathic remedies were a safe and effective alternative to the vaccine
  • the vaccine was the only approved way to prevent the disease.

Homeopathy Plus! argued that:

  • its statements weren’t commercial—they were also an advocacy group and meant to distribute scientific and educational contributions to public debate
  • the material on its website was obviously from a homeopathic perspective—not a conventional medical one—and therefore was not misleading.
  • it was correct anyway—if you took a plain-language approach to the evidence instead of a technical one
[That last argument, which implies that a plain-language approach changes the facts kind of blows my mind …]

Among other things, the court thought that:

  • Homeopathy Plus!’s experts didn’t necessarily have the relevant medical experience
  • Homeopathy Plus! didn’t make it clear that it was operating in a completely different medical framework—that is, rejecting mainstream medicine as well as making statements in a very specific medical context
  • it was in Homeopathy Plus!’s commercial interest to have the public believe their articles. Even if it was just trying to contribute to political or public debate, those two purposes weren’t mutually exclusive

The full judgement is actually pretty interesting.

Homeopathy Plus! are up in arms. But this isn’t an isolated example of anti-vaccination statements by homeopathy believers.

Anyway, the point is …

The same basic facts can form the basis for two opposing views.

Someone might not be setting out to trick you—but just because they sound genuinely passionate, this doesn’t mean they are right.