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Disinformation on Homeopathy: Two Leading Sources

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A campaign of disinformation on homeopathic medicine has been very active in the United Kingdom and in the U.S., and my previous article provided some detail about this effort. It is next important to give specific examples of two leaders behind this disinformation.

Two of the leading antagonists to homeopathy are James Randi (U.S.) and Tracey Brown (UK). This short article is not meant to be exhaustive on the disinformation campaign against homeopathy, but providing profiles of these leading antagonists to homeopathy will hopefully shed light on the nature of their information and how trustworthy they may or may not be.

Please know that this review and critique of Mr. Randi and Ms. Brown is not an ad hominem attack on these two individuals. I have a great amount of respect for Mr. Randi as an entertainer and magician, and Ms. Brown is a highly-competent public relations professional. They may also be quite lovely people too, but whether they are nice or lovely or entertaining or competent is not the point of this article. Instead, this article reviews their actions, their priorities and the organizations that they have represented, all of which are reasonable and appropriate areas for critique and are not personal attacks on who they are.

James Randi, Magician Extraordinaire and Master of Deception

James Randi is a first-class magician who appeared many times on the "Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson and who, more recently, has become famous for supposed "debunking" of various paranormal phenomena and "pseudoscience." However, one must remember that in order to become an accomplished magician, James Randi became an expert in having people look at one hand while he was creating "magic" (or clever deception) with the other.

Randi receives a lot of press because of his $1 million "challenge" to anyone who claims to provide hard evidence for homeopathic medicine or other "paranormal" phenomena. Although few serious researchers have taken Randi and his "prize" seriously, I participated in an experiment with which Randi was connected in 2003, and this experience taught me much about him. I should first say that I had no expressed desire to win his prize, and even if this experiment had a positive result, I would not have received any monetary award.

Mark Golden, a producer for John Stossel and ABC's "20/20" program, asked me to participate in a merging of "reality television" and "science." He asked if there was a laboratory experiment that could be conducted to prove that homeopathic medicines had biological activity (or not) ... and to add a little more TV drama to it, Golden told me a successful result could lead to winning $1 million to a homeopathic organization from James Randi. I told him there were several such experiments, but one study was particularly noteworthy because it was conducted by Professor Madeleine Ennis, a former skeptic of homeopathy who was a professor of biochemistry at Queens College in Belfast, Ireland. Further, I told this producer that three other universities had replicated her experiment (Belon, Cumps, Ennis, 1999; Belon, Cumps, Ennis, 2004).

I agreed to participate in the experiment if Professor Ennis conducted the study or served as a consultant to the study to assure that it was correctly conducted. The producer agreed. I was therefore flown to New York to be interviewed, and a month later the study was to be conducted. Professor Ennis is a highly-respected researcher, and she told the producer and me that she had no interest in conducting a "TV science experiment," but she would review the protocol of the researcher they chose to use.

When Professor Ennis was ultimately sent the protocol, she was shocked at what she received. This protocol was not her experiment (Ennis, 2004). In fact, it was clearly a study that was a set-up to disprove homeopathy. Ennis noted that certain chemicals used in the experiment were known to kill the specific types of cells that the experiment would be counting. Further, she listed egregious problems with this study (Ennis, 2004) and asserted that the "researcher" who created this new study had seemingly never previously conducted and published a study in his life. Actually, the researcher who created this study and who was to conduct it was a lab technician without a graduate degree and without any previous publication history.

Professor Ennis and I also learned that this same researcher had conducted the same faulty experiment for the BBC, which sought to discredit homeopathy (BBC, 2002). The narrator of this BBC program explicitly asserted that this TV experiment was a "replication" of Professor Ennis' previous study, though this assertion was sheer fabrication.

I then contacted "20/20's" producer, Mark Golden, to alert him of this problem, and he simply told me that he promised to "consult" with Professor Ennis, but he was not obligated to do what she (or I) wanted. Although I had assumed that working with a producer at "20/20" would assure high ethical and journalistic standards, I began to wonder if my assumptions were correct. As it turned out, I also neglected to realize the impact of working with a team connected to John Stossel, a reporter who was previously caught fabricating a "study" on organic foods that incorrectly asserted that there was no difference between organic and conventional foods (Dowie, 2001).

In Stossel's commentary on homeopathy, he had the audacity to assert that the "university scientists who reviewed the test protocols and said they were 'technically sound' and 'meticulously conducted.'" (Stossel, 2003) Although Stossel acknowledged on air that I objected to the study before it was started, he neglected to mention that the expert who his producer agreed to consult with this study had equally strenuous concerns.

It is more than a tad ironic that John Stossel frequently used and even popularized the term "junk science" on "20/20," and I began to wonder if he was engaging in it himself.

Prior to actually conducting this research, the researcher wrote me saying, "Without agreement by all participants on the manner of how things were done, the outcome of the experimentation is indeed virtually meaningless." And yet, he and the "20/20" team continued to conduct this junk science experiment with an outcome that indeed was meaningless.

It is further confusing that the "Amazing" James Randi or any of his many followers never commented about the quality of this study, even though they are known to ridicule virtually any and every study that has had a positive result from a homeopathic medicine. It certainly makes sense for a magician to want to expose frauds and charlatans. And yet, if Randi was truly serious about exposing frauds and charlatans, it is quite curious that he has chosen to go after alternative medicine rather than Big Pharma and Big Medicine when there are many more egregious frauds that occur regularly and with much greater impact on society.

It is inappropriate to say that Randi (or anyone) should not expose any type of fraud, but it is reasonable to ask: Is there a "method" to deciding to focus on one rather than the other? Even though Randi prides himself on uncovering frauds and hoaxes, he seems to turn a blind eye when he himself may be involved in what could be deemed a fraud or hoax.

As for Randi's $1 million "prize," one can and should look at the rules for this award that specifically give the James Randi Educational Fund (JREF) a clever way to avoid paying anything. Rule No. 4 asserts, "At any time prior to the Formal Test, the JREF reserves the right to re-negotiate the protocol if issues are discovered that would prevent a fair and unbiased test" (Randi Prize, 2011). As it turns out, a more recent effort to test homeopathy with a protocol agreed upon by Randi and famous Greek homeopath George Vithoulkas was delayed so long by Randi that it led to the impossibility to the trial (Vithoulkas.com). In Randi's defense, he does not wish to comment on the past or what he said or agreed to previously (Randi.org 2008).

James Randi is not just a homeopathic and alternative medicine skeptic, he is also a climate change denier (Randi.org). A large number of his followers have had a seriously difficult time accepting his stance, and yet these followers defend him by asserting that he is not really a "scientist" and cannot be expected to understand these complex issues (Myers, 2009). These followers argue that Randi is competent enough to declare with certainty that many homeopathic and alternative treatments are "bunk," and yet, like cult members, his followers ignore the fact that he is neither a scientist nor a physician and cannot be expected to understand the complex issues of the healing process.

If James Randi had serious concerns about fraud and deception in medicine and science, one would think that he would not be silent on the rampant chicanery considerable fraud regularly committed by conventional medical and "scientific" researchers and by Big Pharma companies. However, Randi is a great magician, and he is clearly a recognized expert at misdirection.

The advantage of Randi's climate change position is that he stands with and by Big Oil and Big Corp. To quote the church lady, "How convenient."

It is, however, more than a tad ironic that James Randi himself seems to have become a victim (or an accomplice) to a deception in his personal life. Randi's long-time companion, Jose Luis Alvarez, was arrested in early Sept. 2011 for identity thief (Franceschina and Burstein, 2011). This news story carries the additional irony that a master of fraud detection has himself been deceived (my personal condolences and my recognition that any person can be deceived). However, in this case, the man posing as Jose Luis Alvarez had, with Randi's help and advocacy, once pretended to be a "medium" in Australia as a media stunt and test of the "new age" community there. Randi and "Alvarez" got significant media coverage for this hoax.

The old adage that people teach what they themselves need to learn seems to have special meaning here.

Tracey Brown: Science Educator or Big Pharma PR Agent?

Most people probably have not heard of Tracey Brown, the director of Sense About Science (also known as SAS), a British organization that has campaigned against homeopathic medicine and in favor of GMOs in foods.

Prior to Ms. Brown's involvement at Sense About Science, she was a senior analyst in the "Risk Analysis Unit" of the leading British public relations company, Regester Larkin, a company known to represent Big Pharma, Big Oil and Big Multinationals. However, Ms. Brown does not list her former employment at Regester Larkin at the SAS website. To her credit, however, she does not hide the fact that more than one-third of the money that SAS raised between 2004 and 2009 was derived from the pharmaceutical industry.

Ms. Brown's bio at the SAS website also does not mention her former connection to "Living Marxism," which began in 1988 as the journal of the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), and later became the glossy LM Magazine. The demise of LM was linked to its denial of one of the atrocities for which Bosnian Serb military leader Ratko Mladic is currently awaiting trial at the International Criminal Court. In the mid-1990s the respected British TV news organization ITN scored a major scoop when it filmed a secret concentration camp operated by Mladic's forces. LM claimed that this footage was fabricated. Concerned about its reputation with the numerous news organizations to which it had sold the footage, ITN took LM to court, and won. The fine and costs imposed on LM led to its bankruptcy. A year or so later, this far left group reemerged as a libertarian organization with a strong anti-regulation and anti-environmental bent, and an aggressively pro-GM (genetic modification) stance (Goldsmith, 2010).

Although big corporate clients would stay far away from communist organizations, the anti-regulatory stances of libertarian organizations are a completely different matter. Ms. Brown's former and present Big Pharma and Big Corporate clients and funders probably loved it when she asserted, "that everything is made of chemicals, that synthetic chemicals are often much safer for human health than so-called 'natural' ones, and that unfounded anxiety about chemicals is encouraging people to buy into ideas and 'remedies' that make little scientific or medical sense" (Brown, 2006).

Indeed, as much as Ms. Brown and SAS want to reduce our fears about the new chemicals that various industries make that presently surround us, it appears they believe that we should increase our fears about using various natural medicines that do not fit their worldview. What is so remarkable about some skeptics of homeopathy is that they spin the well-known safety of homeopathic medicines into severe "risk" and "danger" if people choose to use them. Such skeptics (or "medical fundamentalists," as they more aptly should be deemed) commonly assert that anything that delays "real" medical treatment is dangerous, despite the fact that medical treatments today have known significant side effects. (Milgrom, 2008)

In 2010, SAS and a collaborating organization, the Merseyside Skeptics Society, gained significant media attention by promoting demonstrations that ridiculed homeopathy by asserting that "there is nothing in homeopathic medicine." Although the Merseyside Skeptics Society is also called "Skeptics at the Pub," one would think that the media would easily recognize the low level of discourse that would emerge from a group with this name, but not when professional public relations people are pulling some strings. The demonstrators each imbibed an entire bottle of a homeopathic medicine to "prove" that there is nothing in it and, strangely enough, to show that they could not commit suicide by ingesting it. It is a tad ironic that these demonstrators equated the ability to commit suicide with a drug as a way to prove that it provides therapeutic action! And these demonstrations were further shown to be "unclear on the concept" of homeopathy, because ingesting a whole bottle of a homeopathic medicine would not prove or disprove anything. At best, it may be akin to using a nail instead of a needle to attempt to disprove acupuncture (clearly, this is garbage in, garbage out thinking).

SAS also played a major role in the 2010 biased and antagonistic report on homeopathy by the British House of Commons' Science and Technology Committee. In fact, Tracey Brown was one of only six participants in the hearings for this report, even though she is not an expert on the subject nor has she seemingly ever published a single article on the subject in a peer review journal. A report from this committee was issued recommending that the National Health Service stop funding for homeopathy and homeopathic doctors. This report was only of an advisory nature, and because the Health Minister has already expressed his support for consumers' right to choose their own health care, including homeopathy, this report provided no meaningful effect on the access to homeopathic medicine in England.

Any rational person should be very suspicious of this "report." The Science and Technology Committee normally consists of 14 members of Parliament, and yet this report was only approved and signed by a "majority" of only three members, with one vote against the report (the vast majority of this committee did not take this investigation seriously). Of the three votes in favor, two members were so newly-appointed to this committee (to stack the deck?) that they did not attend any of the hearings. The remaining "yes" vote was from Evan Harris, a medical doctor and devout antagonist to homeopathy. Ironically, shortly after this vote, Harris was voted out of office from a general election by a 20-something-year-old candidate who had no previous political experience. This report was not exactly a vote of and for the people.

Tracey Brown is a public relations expert, and with significant funding from Big Pharma and its attendant foundations and trusts, she and Sense About Science have maintained a high profile in the media. Hopefully, people will understand on what side her bread is buttered.

Medical Fundamentalism: An Unscientific Attitude

Brian Josephson, Ph.D., won a Nobel Prize in 1973 and is presently professor emeritus at Cambridge University. Josephson asserts that many scientists today suffer from "pathological disbelief" -- that is, they maintain an unscientific attitude that is embodied by the statement "even if it were true I wouldn't believe it" (Josephson, 1997).

Josephson wryly responded to the chronic ignorance of homeopathy by its skeptics saying, "The idea that water can have a memory can be readily refuted by any one of a number of easily understood, invalid arguments."

In the new interview in Science (Dec. 24, 2010), Luc Montagnier, who won a Nobel Prize in 2008 for discovering the AIDS virus, also expressed real concern about the unscientific atmosphere that presently exists on certain unconventional subjects such as homeopathy, "I am told that some people have reproduced Benveniste's results (showing effects from homeopathic doses), but they are afraid to publish it because of the intellectual terror from people who don't understand it."

Montagnier concluded the interview when asked if he is concerned that he is drifting into pseudoscience. He replied adamantly: "No, because it's not pseudoscience. It's not quackery. These are real phenomena which deserve further study."

Luther Burbank, the botanist and agricultural scientist, perhaps said it best:

"I have never known a clergyman or a professor who could be more narrow, bigoted, and intolerant than some scientists, or pseudo-scientists ... Intolerance is a closed mind. Bigotry is an exaltation of authorities. Narrowness is ignorance unwilling to be taught. And one of the outstanding truths I have learned in my University (of Nature) is that the moment you reach a final conclusion on anything, set that conclusion up as a fact to which nothing can be added and from which nothing can be taken away, and refuse to listen to any new evidence, you have reached an intellectual dead-centre, and nothing will start the engine again short of a charge of dynamite ... Ossified knowledge is a dead-weight to the world, and it does not matter in what realm of man's intellectual activities it is found... Any obstinate clinging to outworn doctrines, whether of religion or politics or morality or of science, are equally damning and equally damnable." (Buhner, 2004, p. 21)

If the subject of this article intrigues you, British chemist and homeopath Lionel Milgrom has written an excellent and detailed analysis of the myths that medical fundamentalists spread on homeopathy (and specific individuals who are the worst offenders) (Milgrom, 2010).

Thomas Kuhn, the great physicist and philosopher of science and author of the seminal "Structure of Scientific Revolutions," asserted that "paradigm shifts" seem only outrageous or revolutionary to those people who have invested themselves in the old paradigm... but to all others, the paradigm shift is a natural evolutionary development to virtually everyone else. The deniers of homeopathy are simply "too invested" personally and professionally in the old medical and scientific paradigm, while the rest of us consider the maturation of medicine and science as long overdue.

It has been said that dinosaurs tend to yell and scream the loudest before their fall... and it seems that we are all witnessing evolution at work.

REFERENCES:

BBC, 2002. http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/horizon/2002/homeopathy.shtml

Belon M, Cumps J, Ennis M, Mannaioni PF, Sainte-Laudy J, Roberfroid M, Wiegant FAC. Inhibition of human basophil degranulation by successive histamine dilutions: results of a European multi-centre trial. Inflammation Research 1999; 48: s17-s18.

Belon P, Cumps J, Ennis M, Mannaioni PF, Roberfroid M, Ste-Laudy J, Wiegant FAC. Histamine dilutions modulate basophil activity. Inflammation Research 2004; 53:181-8. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15105967

Brown, Tracey. Making Sense About Chemical Stories. 2006. http://www.senseaboutscience.org.uk/pdf/MakingSenseofChemicalStories.pdf

Buhner, Stephen Harrod. The Secret Teachings of Plants: The Intelligence of the Heart in the Direct Perception of Nature. Rochester, VT: Bear & Company, 2004.

Dowie, Mark. Food Fight. The Nation. January 7, 2002. http://www.thenation.com/article/food-fight Dowie, Mark. A Teflon Correspondent. The Nation. January 7, 2002. http://www.thenation.com/article/teflon-correspondent

Ennis M. Personal Communication, December 9, 2003. http://www.homeopathic.com/Articles/Media_reports/Email_from_Professor_Ennis_on_the_specific_d.html

Franceschina, Peter, and Burstein, Ron. Amazing Randi, renowned supernatural investigator, immerses in mystery about partner's alleged ID theft. Sun Sentinel. September 15, 2011. http://articles.sun-sentinel.com/2011-09-15/news/fl-jose-alvarez-artist-identity-theft-20110914_1_id-theft-identity-frauds

Goldsmith, Zac. So Much for "Sense" about Science. Guardian. January 5, 2010.
http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/jan/05/sense-about-science-celebrity-observations

Josephson, B. D., Letter, New Scientist, November 1, 1997.

Lüdtke R, Rutten ALB. The conclusions on the effectiveness of homeopathy highly depend on the set of analysed trials. Journal of Clinical Epidemiology. October 2008. doi: 10.1016/j.jclinepi.2008.06/015.

Milgrom LR. Homeopathy and the New Fundamentalism: A critique of the critics. J Altern Complement Med 2008; 14: 589. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18564960

Milgrom LR. Beware Scientism's Onward March, 2010: http://www.anh-europe.org/news/anh-feature-beware-scientism%E2%80%99s-onward-march

Myers, PZ. ScienceBlogs, 2009: http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2009/12/say_it_aint_so_randi.php

Randi.org: http://www.randi.org/site/index.php/swift-blog/805-agw-revisited.html

Randi.org 2008:
http://www.randi.org/site/index.php/swift-blog/235-george-vithoulkas-homeopathy-challenge-starting-anew.html

Randi Prize: http://www.randi.org/site/images/stories/MDC-Rules-and-Application-2011-03-09.pdf

Sikora K. Complementary medicine does help patients. Times Online, February 3rd 2009. Online document at: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/court_and_social/article5644142.ece

Stossel, John. ABC-TV 20/20. http://abcnews.go.com/2020/GiveMeABreak/story?id=124309&page=1

Vithoulkas, George: http://www.vithoulkas.com/content/view/1973/lang,en/

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Dana Ullman, MPH, is America's leading spokesperson for homeopathy and is the founder of www.homeopathic.com . He is the author of 10 books, including his bestseller, "Everybody's Guide to Homeopathic Medicines." His most recent book is "The Homeopathic Revolution: Why Famous People and Cultural Heroes Choose Homeopathy" (the foreword to this book was written by Dr. Peter Fisher, the Physician to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II). Dana lives, practices, and writes from Berkeley, California.