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Homoeopathy vs the Internet

By John Clarke

The funniest thing has happened. The internet has managed to make Neal’s Yard Remedies look like a complete tit.

Neal's Yard Remedies

Neal’s Yard Remedies sells “ethical skin and bodycare products” including a range of homoeopathic “medicines”. In what is being hailed (by me, at least) as the worst marketing move in all time, they asked readers of the Guardian to ask them questions – anything we like! Here is the post on the Guardian website:

Following last week’s spotlight on Fairtrade and food, this week we turn our ‘You ask, they answer‘ series to look at organics and beauty. For the next four days, ethical skin and body care products firm Neal’s Yard Remedies will be doing its best to answer your questions below.

Neal’s Yard Remedies started life back in 1981, with a focus on using natural herbs for health and beauty. Since then, it’s grown to 38 stores across the country, and started a range of green initiatives, including a number of certified organic products, bought carbon offsets to reduce its emissions and encouraged customers to recycle and reuse old packaging.

This is your chance to grill them: from the controversy surrounding the chain’s removal of a homeopathic malaria remedy to the benefits and reasons to switch to organic beauty products.

To get the debate rolling, just post your questions below.

(my emphasis)

Wow, what a great opportunity! An alternative therapy business is opening itself up to questions – this is certainly a rarity! Unfortunately for Neal & friends, no one wants to hear more info on why we should switch to organic beauty products. Everyone is farrrr more interested in the science behind their wacky claims. What follows is five pages of quality comments and not a single reply from Neal et al. A pretty interesting occurrence for a “You ask, they answer” feature…

Eventually, following a couple of promises from Guardian staff that they were cooking up some solid replies, we get this:

@ all

have just had a chat with NYR.

Unfortunately, despite previous assurances that they would be participating in this blog post, I’ve now been told they ‘will not be taking part in the debate’.

So yes, as several people have pointed out, this has become something of ‘You Ask’, rather than a ‘You Ask, They Answer’. I’m still hoping NYR will reconsider.

Alas, Neal & pals didn’t reconsider and the comments were eventually closed.

For your amusement, here are some of the best comments & questions:

Saltycdog

Have you ever been offered a natural remedy that was so obviously without any merit that you refused to bottle it and sell it to your gullible customers, or does pretty much anything go?

Do you see no problem with trying to be ‘ethical’ while at the same time selling snake oil for a living?

Puzzlebobble

you sell a multitude of products for a wide variety of medical conditions, some of which are serious or life threatening.

Please could you explain what level of evidence of efficacy you require before stocking any product?

If, as I suspect, the level of evidence of efficacy is poor then will you tell us what, if any, studies are done to look for harmful side-effects? How are these studies conducted? Furthermore please show us the power calculations for these studies.

Surely you don’t view it as ethical to sell products which are of unproven benefit and which you don’t even know are safe?

Benulek

Linked below is a book on ‘Homoeopathy for Mother and Baby’. Given that homoeopathy has never been shown to have any effect distinguishable from placebo, do you regard it as ethical to profit from publications which seek to exploit the anxiety of new mothers to sell pseudo-medicines?

[link removed]

takearisk

Your website states:

The correct homoeopathic remedy will stimulate a sick person’s vitality to send healing energy where it is needed, thus rectifying mental, emotional and physical imbalances.

Could you please explain how the ‘correct homoeopathic remedy’ is decided on and describe the qualifications of the people who make these decisions?

I’d also be grateful for a biological definition of ‘healing energy’ and an indication of where I can find the scientific evidence for its existence

I’m posting this, not only because it’s hilarious, but also to show the importance of being skeptical. If this business had answers, they’d have replied, but since they didn’t, I think it’s pretty obvious that even they think their products are bullshit. How ethical of them! While some alternative remedies are certainly effective (even if untested), homoeopathy has been shown time and time again that it is no more effective than a placebo.

Medical science tells us why drugs work the way they do. If something works, we’ll find out how and why, and it’s always understandable within the confines of our current scientific knowledge. If homoeopathy worked, we’d have to rewrite physics, chemistry & biology to try and understand it, because it just does not fit. If our understanding of these fundamental fields is so wrong, how the hell have we got this far as a species?

Remember, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Homoeopathy is certainly an extraordinary claim, but their evidence is non-existent..

6 Responses to Homoeopathy vs the Internet

  1. PoisonedV says:

    Oh man, this is beautiful. Now to find some way to do this to the local ‘alternative’ medicine store that opened up in my own town

  2. ben says:

    Have there been scientific studies done on all the products you sell? How are these studies conducted? Where can we find this information? Are you 100% sure that there are no longterm side effects to using any of your products? Are there any long term side effects to using salvia divinorum, just one of the products you sell? You may say that it has been used for thousands of years, but i saw a video from psychedelics conference, and a women was told by a mazatec shaman while on an expedition to oaxaca that they prefer to use mushrooms as with salvia “some people dont come back” you may say this is anecdotal evidence, but im sure the people of this region know alot more about the plant than we do.

    Dont get me wrong, i dont think its wrong to sell any of the products you do, i think it should be the responsibility of the user to do their own research and assess the risks themeselves before trying a product. But your stance on this “Neal’s Yard Remedies” issue seems completely hypocritical to me.

  3. ben says:

    about the video, im sure its this talk by kathleen harrison. im not sure if its in part 1 or 2, either way its very interesting

  4. Synchronium says:

    Hey Ben, good point – you’re completely right.

    Only kidding!

    Here’s why:

    1. The products I sell do something if they’re consumed, unlike homoeopathic “medicines”. I’ll remind you (and everyone else) that homoeopathic doesn’t mean “herbal” or even “alternative” – it means there’s no fucking medicine in their medicine, and not surprisingly, no results to show it works better than placebo.
    2. The products I sell aren’t to heal people. No one would buy Salvia divinorum from me instead of visiting a doctor, for example.
    3. Whenever I talk about any of the products I sell, it’s always from a pharmacological perspective, or I mention what the culture that originally used it believed it did. I make no mention of any kind of “Energy” (that can’t be quantified in Joules) or anything else unsubstantiated.
    4. I know what I sell isn’t 100% safe – I don’t see myself as an alternative to medicine, like these guys do. Instead I see it like working in a pub or off licence (a shop that sells booze, if you’re not from the UK). Alcohol and tobacco are much worse for you than most illegal drugs, never mind the legal ones. Please read JWH-018, Spice & Me for a bit more in-depth discussion about my opinions on the relative safety of these things. (That pissed off a lot of kratom vendors, btw, despite everything I said being a fact. I like to think that makes me a bit more transparent than most, including Neal & chums.)
    5. I know more about the products I sell than most people. Not because I’m big headed, but because not everyone has a pharmacology related degree. As such, if anyone asks me about a product, I’ll answer as best I can. Even if I have to go away and do some research first, I’m capable of sifting through lots of crap to find the relevant stuff. Neal ‘n’ pals have nothing to say about their own products.

    Hope that clears things up a bit. If not, please comment again.

    Not watched that video yet, but thanks for the link.

  5. David says:

    Yeah reminded me of a conference I went to were they tested homeopathic remedies vs antibiotics for mastitis (infection of udder). Research done by New Zealands leading cow researches. The figure I remember was that homeopathic remedy(s) produced a 44% cure rate. [the antibiotic rate was higher about 60-70% but exact level I forget).

    I asked the question: What is the normal self cure rate for mastitis when left untreated? The answer….. about 40%. Suddenly a product that was looking ok, turned into something that was completely useless.

    However I would point out the questions that were asked of NYR you could ask of traditional western medicine….. only about 1/3 – 1/2 of medical procedures have good science backing them up – the others are just done this way because it has always been done this way…… and if you track it back there is no evidence for why people do it this way…..

    So as much as I loath quackery in the health field we must maintain the same standard between “traditional” and “complementary” medicine.

  6. Bexley says:

    @David

    You are correct that at least some of standard medicine entered practice without the tests that would now be required. Partly because some interventions are difficult to do RCTs to test (for example surgery) and also because some interventions predate recent ideas on how products should be tested. Hopefully we will fill in some of these gaps over time.

    However there is no reason to give homeopathy a free pass solely because we havent tested all conventional medicine as fully as we would like for the following reasons:

    1. Unlike untested procedures homeopathy HAS been tested – and shown not to work better than placebo in well controlled trials.

    2. Homeopathy doesnt even have any prior plausibility to back it up – it would require a lot of what we know about physics and chemistry to be wrong and yet it offers scant evidence that we should accept it.

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