Magician, escape artist and outspoken North American sceptic James Randi may be offering the incentive in the confidence he’s never going to have to pay up, but the supporters of homoeopathy are probably optimistic of grabbing the cash.
You’d have to expect some of them to give it a go.
When it comes to alternative remedies, there are plenty of products that have not passed the rigours of a randomised controlled trial, relying on anecdotal evidence of benefit in some people and at least the whiff of a plausible mechanism.
And then there’s homoeopathy.
We’re talking about so-called medicines where the active ingredient is not only not active, it may not even be present.
Homoeopathic solutions are so dilute there may not even be a single molecule of the ingredient in a product — which makes the claim of “no side effects” probably the most truthful part of the marketing spiel.
As one Twitter wit recently put it, when lamenting the existence of an international organisation called Homoeopaths Without Borders, their French name could be “Medecins sans Medicines”.
(However, claiming no side effects doesn’t mean no harm, as demonstrated in the tragic case in Sydney of Gloria Thomas who died at 9 months of age of septicaemia after her parents treated her severe eczema with homoeopathic remedies after abandoning prescribed conventional medications.)
As a magician, Randi is an expert in the creation of illusions so perhaps it’s no surprise that he is a high-profile supporter of the international 10:23 campaign against homoeopathy.
The campaign recently saw a group of protesters in Melbourne stage a public “overdose” (below) of a homoeopathic sleep remedy.
The group managed to keep their eyes open after taking 10–20 times the recommended dose of the product. In fact, it didn’t even seem to raise a yawn.
But it did raise some serious questions about why these remedies with no backing in evidence (eg, this MJA review last year) and no plausible mechanism continue to receive implicit backing from people who should know better.
The Victorian Government’s Better Health website, for example, seems to be trying a little too hard to provide a “balanced” view.
While it certainly includes cautions about efficacy and advises homoeopathy is not a substitute for medical treatment of serious conditions, the site also offers advice on finding a registered homoeopath and promotes events such as World Homoeopathy Awareness Week.
Of even greater concern are the pharmacists who lend their professional authority to such quack remedies by selling them to people who have not had the advantage of university training in pharmacology.
When it comes to evidence-based pharmacy, James Randi the magician could teach them a trick or two.
Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and medicine writer, and author of Making girls and boys: inside the science of sex, published by UNSW Press.
Posted 14 February 2011
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