Homeopaths in denial

This is a tidy-up of a comment I posted on homeopath Steve Scrutton’s blog.


Steve, you don’t seem to understand what a denial means.

Imagine somebody (a he in this case) who anecdotally helps people by playing the piano. This goes on for years. People listen to the music and often feel better – either then or a little while later. Every now and again somebody with a serious illness will get better – breast cancer say (relatively high remission rate) – and he makes sure the world knows about cases like that (selection bias).

Then a scientist does a well designed study of the piano playing and the results are ‘no better than placebo’. The pianist rejects it – its just one study and he rationalises it away.

Over the years hundreds of studies are done – and an interesting phenomenon emerges. The efficacy of the piano playing treatment correlates inversely to the quality of the studies, with the best studies concluding ‘no better than placebo’ – meta analysis and review back this up.

The pianist still refuses to accept this now good minimally-subjective evidence – arguing perhaps that his treatment is unsuitable for formal study because it’s all very personal – and maybe starts cherry-picking some of the more positive but poor studies.

He is now in denial.

Good minimally subjective-evidence says one thing, but because of his bias (and business) he is rejecting it. He resolves the dissonance with rationalisations (e.g. unsuitable for study) and carries on.

This is exactly where homeopathy is. Forget the ‘it cannot work’ arguments – they are irrelevant. It does not work (more than placebo) as shown by the good evidence. Homeopaths are in denial. Looking for plausibility and mechanism in the face of such evidence is farcical.

Interestingly there is some evidence that overt placebo works. Homeopaths could perhaps go down that route and only ‘treat’ self limiting or cyclic chronic illness. – i.e. be intellectually honest, recognise the denial, embrace the good evidence and say – OK, homeopathy is placebo but overt ritual placebo can still help in some safe contexts. And there are probably other ways to strategise.

Contrary to your claim, the skeptics are not in denial. They are just following the best evidence because of a well placed confidence in the scientific process (over time). Essentially a skeptic (and me) wants to know how the universe works – they don’t particularly care what actually emerges. They may have a casual preference in one thing or another, but they will never let that compromise ‘the truth’.

If the evidence had shown that homeopathy worked then the skeptics would have embraced it. But it doesn’t and that’s why they are angry. Angry at homeopaths using homeopathy in contexts where it is inappropriate and potentially dangerous – like cancer and vaccination. People have died because of the inappropriate use of homeopathy.

Denial means rejecting a contextually reasonable volume of good quality evidence while embracing ones ideology and bias. Denial creates cognitive dissonance which is then resolved by comforting rationalisations.

Other examples are 9/11 truthers, holocaust deniers, climate skeptics (confusing label), creationists and vaccine freeloaders (anti-vaxxers that do not vaccinate simply out of choice).