A canna’ change the laws of physics

Scotty, The Naked Time, stardate 1704.3, Episode 7

Homeopathy and the Natural History Museum

Posted by apgaylard on December 20, 2008

bigstockphoto_homeopathic_medicine_788631In November the Thinking Is Dangerous blog pointed out that the Natural History Museum (NHM) was running and publicising on its website, a project to catalogue plants and fungi ‘used’ in homeopathy; I was amazed.   I was even more shocked whn I found out that the the Department of Botany at the Natural History Museum had published, “Plant Names in Homeopathy An annotated checklist of currently accepted names in common use“.  Don’t they know that homeopathy is nonsense?

It should be unthinkable that a premier scientific institution would lend its credibility to a pseudoscientific placebo therapy.  So, I decided to send in a comment to the researcher identified on the website: Vilma Bharatan (Research Associate, Medicinal Plants).  I have heard nothing; so I’ve decided to have another go.

Perhaps sending a complaint about homeopathy being given credibility by the NHM to someone who is a PhD homeopath (and is the first author of the aforementioned book) isn’t likely to be very successful!

“Vilma’s previous experience is very varied and multidisciplinary. Since 1991 she has been a homeopathic practitioner, with her own practice. She completed her PhD thesis in homeopathy and Systematics.  The aim of the thesis was to establish whether the plant medicines used in homeopathy fall into a predictive hierarchical system comparable to other data sets used in biology. A standard checklist of all the current plant names in homeopathy was also published as part of the thesis, which is invaluable in preventing misidentifications of plants used in medicine. She is currently writing papers for publication in peer reviewed homeopathic journals, in collaboration with the scientists at The Natural History Museum, London and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. These include the toxicology of fungi and the therapeutic effects of the snake and spider venoms used in homeopathy …”

NHS North Central London Research Consortuim (cached by Zoom Information Inc. on 7/7/2007)

Anyway, here was the first comment I sent in to Bharatan, via the website (notes and links added later, for clarity):

“Interesting site, but I wonder whether it’s entirely appropriate. 

1) These plants, or their extracts, don’t actually make it into most homeopathic remedies used in the UK.  Homeopathy in the UK is of the Kentian school(a) and is wedded to dilutions that go past, and usually way past, the so-called Avogadro limit.  Put bluntly: there is no medicine in the medicine. 

2) The best clinical evidence shows homeopathy is no more than an elaborate placebo(b)  – no great surprise given 1. 

3) It is an understatement to say that it is scientifically highly implausible(c)

Given the above, although the taxonomy is an interesting exercise, I don’t see how it is appropriate for a reputable scientific institution. 

This site gives entirely undeserved credibility to what is, essentially, nothing more than magical thinking.

If you are going to present this work at all then it needs some context.  You really need to say that the plants you discuss don’t actually feature in what most users consume; there is no evidence it works and no reason to think that it should.”

As I said, perhaps a comment that a homeopath not be inclined to engage with; though she may be on holiday, or too busy or the email system may not have worked.  Anyway, here is my new complaint sent in via the NHM general feedback service: 

“A month ago I submitted a comments about the “Plants and fungi used in homeopathy” project website, via the email link, to Vilma Bharatan.  As I have not had any feedback at all I thought that it was time to complain to the Natural History Museum (NHM) formally. 

The NHM states that its research objectives are, broadly, to: 

“Explore the diversity of the natural world and the processes that generate this diversity. 

Use the knowledge gained to promote responsible interaction with the natural world.”

How on earth does running a research project to catalogue the plants and fungi used in homeopathy contribute to these laudable goals? 

A sensible interaction with the natural world involves using the best understanding of how it works: if we try to interact with the world on the basis of faulty understanding then, at best, we will not achieve our aims.  At worst, we will do harm. 

Homeopaths seek to interact with the natural world on the basis that substances which cause symptoms in healthy individuals will cure sick people who display these symptoms.  This is false

Further, homeopaths claims that solutions so dilute that only a minute probability remains that a molecule of the alleged active ingredient is in the pill or potion taken by a sick person can cure their sickness.  This is false

An attempt to interact with the natural world using homeopathic principals is doomed to failure: it contradicts what is known form physics and chemistry.  It is a placebo therapy dressed in the clothes of pseudoscience. 

Put simply: there is no credible evidence that homeopathy ‘works’ (beyond being an elaborate placebo) and no reason why it should. 

In developed countries, its threat is, by and large, limited to damaging the public understanding of science, squandering healthcare resources, and taking money out of the pockets of consenting adults. 

This is bad enough; however, many homeopaths have healing fantasies about curing serious diseases in countries which lack developed healthcare infrastructure.  Attempting to treat AIDS or prevent malaria with this implausible therapy can only harm, not help, vulnerable populations

And yet the Natural History Museum are running a research project to catalogue the “plants and fungi” used in this improbable therapy. The very fact that the NHM is seen to take homeopathy seriously does nothing but damage to its reputation and perpetuates the myth that this practise has any intrinsic worth. 

This contributes to the public misunderstanding of science; and helps make homeopathy respectable.  This increases the risks presented by homeopathy, particularly in the developing world. 

Finally there is no real link between the plants and fungi you are cataloguing and typical homeopathic remedies: the site claims that it is, “about the plants and fungi used in homeopathic remedies” without mentioning that typical remedies contain, for all practical purposes, none of the claimed ingredients. 

Hence your research project seems, to me, to be founded on a false premise. 

A research project on the plants and fungi used in witchcraft would actually have more scientific credibility – at least there are plants in the potions.  I think that this provides a salutary measure of the worth of this project and the website. 

Don’t you think that the NHM should reconsider its involvement in this bogus research and publicising it on its website?

I wonder if this will illicit any kind of response.  It’s a sorry state of affairs when a world-class scientific institution lends respectability to this kind of nonsense: it can only harm the public understanding of science generally and medicine in particular.


(a) According to Campbell the homeopathic school started by James Tyler Kent, “is characterized by hostility to orthodox medicine, the use of very dilute medicines (“high potencies”), and emphasis on the psychological and “spiritual” characteristics of patients. Many of the more extreme features of modern homeopathy can be ascribed to Kent.” (Anthony Campbell, Homeopathy in Perspective – A Critical Appraisal, 2008, ISBN 978-1-84753-737-9, Lulu Books, p.2)

(b)  There are so many reviews that could be cited to demonstrate that homeopathy is nothing more than a placebo therapy.  The 2002 review of reviews by Ernst (Ernst (2002)) is very useful.  The much (mostly unjustly) maligned meta-regression analysis by Shang et al. (Shang et al., 2005) provides a subtle yet comprehensive demolition of homeopathy as anything more than a placebo therapy (but needs to be read with the authors’ reply to their critics).  The popularist overview by Goldacre (Goldacre, 2007a) along with its academic companion-piece (Goldacre, 2007b) really drive home the point.

(c)  A very nice piece on the scientific implausibility of homeopathy can be found on Steven Novella’s blog.  It’s by no means all about diluting the ‘therapeutic’ ingredients out of existence; he outlines, “a chain of implausibility”.


6 Responses to “Homeopathy and the Natural History Museum”

  1. pleick said

    That a reputable museum would hire somebody whose main qualification seems to be a PhD in homeopathy as a research associate is worrying in itself. You could just as well give the zoology deparment to a leading expert on unicorns.
    I suppose that it would be mentioned in your quote if Bharatan had a degree in a real scientific discipline…

  2. apgaylard said

    pleick: Thanks for your comment. During my googling I came accross a reference to Bharatan having a background in chemistry; but the quality of the source wasn’t very good.

    I did find out that one of her PhD supervisors was one Lionel Milgrom. That probably says it all about the value of her PhD.

  3. draust said

    I think Loopy Lionel was her PhD External Examiner, AP, not the supervisor; the info is in Lionel’s homeopathic bio here, which I guess is the source you were referring to.

    The two supervisors mentioned for her PhD are both very respectable scientists in plant systematics (classification); Barnett has now retired from Reading and is an Emeritus Prof, while Humphries was a long-time Nat Hist Museum (NHM) bod and a very big cheese in systematics. I think he too may now have retired, as he is not listed on the NHM’s staff list and the Systematics Association has just held a Festschrift for him (presumably to mark his retirement). Humphries is a past President of the Systematics Assocn.

    Personally I would hazard a guess that this was a part-time “external” PhD self-funded by the student (who is, of course, a practising homeopath). The two supervisors presumably took it as a problem in plant systematics and thus independent of whether homeopathic remedies actually contain any plant matter from the plants in the “homeopathic formulary”.

    The NHM is next door to Imperial (where LL used to work in his latter day “proper scientists” incarnation) so I could believe he would seem an obvious choice as a “sympathetic” examiner for what might have been a rather thin sort of a PhD thesis.

  4. apgaylard said

    Thanks for the clarification – I misremembered the blurb on Milgrom’s website. The PhD is interesting as it marries an entirely proper discipline with nonsense. I would question whether respectable scientists need to be a bit more circumspect: is classifying the contents of the recipe for pixie dust really science?

  5. so tell me… if homeopathy is purely placebo… why in the world does it work on children, infants and even animals?? if you think about it this way, maybe the PhD don’t have the time for a person uneducated and not willing to learn as Apgaylard said. Do your research properly, start by studying the vital force, maybe even read the organon. You CAN NOT call something false without reason, without putting any effort in to understand what it is all about. In South-Africa Homeopathy is a 6 year masters, you can even ask them to help you out. you made accusations without a foot to stand on, you are entitled to an opinion though. How embarrassing that a 19 year old have to ask you not to be childish and act like an adult. btw Homeopathy is the fastest growing field of medicine in many countries. allopathic medicine… which incl. antibiotics, pain killers and any “over the counter” product does more harm than actual good. damaging your body and any system within.

    • apgaylard said

      Dear Liette Van Der Merwe:
      If you were as knowledgeable as you seem to think, then you would know that children are susceptible to expectation effects. Did your mother ever “kiss better” an injury? That’s a trivial example, off course. As for animals, consider: can they tell their owners if they feel better after treatment or do the humans infer this from observation? The homeopathic vetinary literature is replete with examples of this type of error. Rather than arrogantly insulting me, why not provide some evidence? What about a properly documented example of homeopathy curing a non-self limiting serious illness? Perhaps a meta-analysis in a good peer reviewed journal showing clinically significant effects in specific conditions? Maybe a large multi-centred DBRCT with clinically a significant outcome?

      Bring the evidence and we can have a good-natured debate.

      Finally it’s hard to take a believer in ‘vital force’ seriously. If you were an educated person you would know that vitalism is a completely falsified pre-scientific notion.

      It is a real tragedy that people in some countries struggle to secure proper medicine. The answer is not pre-scientific magical thinking, as exemplified by homeopathy. It’s not for no reason, but because of reason and evidence that I reject it.

      I also note that your criticism of proper medicine is presented without evidence. You really need to do better than that.

      Tell me, where is your evidence for homeopathy? How do the nonsensical dilutions, not containing a single molecule of active substance work? How do preparations like ‘dolphin sonar’ and ‘Venus light’ work?

      I’m always happy to learn something new and engage in polite debate. However, I’m not very impressed with discourteous ignoramuses turning up here, offering insults without evidence.

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