Earlier this year I paid a visit to the British Homeopathic Society’s website and since they were proudly offering free information packs I took them up on this offer. After all, I may have gained a greater understanding of methodologies and even had my eyes opened by their justification for what they believe in.
Instead, I received two magazines and four leaflets that were so carefully written that I couldn’t help but think that the British Homeopathic Society didn’t want to be 100% honest and open about what it is that they do. After all, the placebo effect is more effective if you don’t know it’s a placebo, right? I have already blogged about one of the leaflets.
As much as this seemed like an outlet for my irritation, at what I saw as deliberate deception, it all seemed a bit lame really.
Enter Simon Perry. I had attended a ‘Skeptics in the Pub’ event in Sheffield where Simon had spoken about his crusades and specifically his regular complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority about all things bullshit. Follow this up with his excellent blog post on how to make a complaint to the ASA, which is so clear even a lazy, lazy skeptic like me could follow it, then how could I go wrong?
In late August, following Simon’s template, I sent an email to the Advertising Standards Authority spelling out exactly the issues I had with the leaflet “What is homeopathy? Your questions answered” as this seemed to be the most straight forward and fundamental of all the literature sent out.
Except for me removing my address, here is a full, unedited version of my complaint, clumsy wording and all.
Edit: Please note that I wrongly changed the name of the General Medical Council (GMC) to the ficticious British Medical Council (BMC), but I did include photographs of the leaflet as part of my complaint, so the ASA did have a copy of the original material being complained about, so their work would not be scuppered by my incompetence.
To whom it may concern:
I would like to make a complaint regarding the leaflet, “What is Homeopathy? Your questions answered”, which is published by the British Homeopathic Association, as I believe it contains language that is misleading and inaccurate. This leaflet was sent to me after I followed a link on the BHA’s website to request a free information pack. I have attached photographs of the leaflet so that you can see the points below in context.
Specifically, the following points are direct quotation from the leaflet, together with my explanation as to why I view this as being misleading.
1) Homeopathy is a system of medicine that is based on the principle of using ‘like to cure like’”
This statement is misleading. The reader is being led into thinking homeopathy works like vaccines. However, homeopathy is actually more esoteric than this and is based principles such as “caffeine keeps you awake, therefore it can cure insomnia”. The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee published their report, “Evidence Check 2: Homeopathy”
http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200910/cmselect/cmsctech/45/45.pdf on 8th February 2010 which is highly disparaging of homeopathy and specifically criticises how proponents of homeopathy use the principle of “like-cures-like” as a justification for their beliefs. Given this clear and comprehensive explosion of this fallacy I do not believe that the British Homeopathic Association should be able to peddle this particular line of “explanation”. In short, like does not cure like.
2) “…a substance taken in small amounts will cure symptoms it causes if taken in large amounts.”
The use of the words, “…small amounts…” this implies that there is some of the original substance still contained within the remedy. Again the above report from the Science and Technology Committee quotes the Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health who accept that in some homeopathic products that “not even a single molecule of the original substance remains in the diluted medicine prescribed to the patient”. This statement then deliberately intends to mislead the reader, in my opinion.
Additionally, this is not a statement of fact; a small amount of a lethal poison, for instance, will not cure death.
3) Homeopathy is “…good for humans…” implies that there is some benefit to taking homeopathic medicine, but this is not the case. Given the lack of evidence for the efficacy of homeopathic remedies there can be no health benefit to taking homeopathic medicines, other than any benefits derived from the placebo effect, so this statement is meaningless. This phrase cannot be used as a statement of fact, in my opinion.
4) “Homepathic doctors often see patients with eczema, chronic fatigue syndrome, osteoarthritis, anxiety attacks, asthma, irritable bowel syndrome, and menopausal disorders.”
This statement suggests that there is scientific evidence that homeopathy is an effective treatment for all of the conditions listed, but this is not the case. The British Homeopathic Associations use of language is disingenuous as they do not state that these patients are successfully treated but there is a clear implication that this is the case. This BHA is employing sophistry, in that they rely on the public to read into this empty statement, and as such this is clearly deceptive.
5) “Homeopathic medicines are derived from natural substances, including plants and minerals.”
This implies that homeopathy is connected to herbal remedies which actually can contain active ingredients but, of course, homeopathy contains no such active ingredient by the time the medicines reach the consumer.
6) “Is it officially recognised and regulated”
This section does not answer the question directly, instead implying that since doctors and vets are regulated by their own professional bodies, and some doctors and vets use homeopathic treatments, that this somehow counts to make homeopathy regulated. By naming the British Medical Council specifically, I believe that the BHA are implying that the BMC supports/regulates homeopathy.
Overall I found the use of language in this leaflet to be carefully chosen so as to deliberately mislead any reader who wasn’t in possession of further information.
I am complaining as a concerned member of the public and wish to confirm I have no commercial interest.
EDIT: The ASA has now responded to the complaint.