I came across Anarchic Teapot’s blog post on homeopathy a few days ago. Titled “At least the title’s not misleading – Impossible Cure”, it’s well worth a read. It deals with the claims of a proponent of homeopathy that almost everything under the sun, including autism, can be treated by this particular form of quackery. I don’t need to spend any time examining the claims on the site – Anarchic Teapot does a thorough job of eviscerating the content of the website and the claims made by its author. (For those interested the site can be viewed here.)
I stumbled on the website some while ago after googling ‘homeopathy and autism’ and like Mr Teapot, was appalled by views expressed. Much of the content is devoted to promoting a book, ‘Impossible Cure’. The website features a preview of Chapter 1, Homeopathy Revealed. Part of this deals with the’popularity’ of homeopathy and contains the statement,
…….. in England, 42 percent of physicans refer patients to homeopaths
Really? Almost half of the doctors in England refer patients to homeopaths? That doesn’t fit with my, albeit limited, experience. I sought out the source of this statistic and found it in a paper published in the British Medical Journal. The authors were R Wharton and G Lewith. George Lewith’s Wikipedia entry says he ‘is a professor of complementary medicine at the University of Southampton, where he leads the Complementary and Integrated Medicine Research Unit. He is a prominent advocate of complementary medicine in the UK.’ He was involved with the now defunct Prince of Wales’ Foundation for Integrated Medicine and is now vice chair of the inappropriately named College of Medicine.
The full text of the BMJ paper can be viewed here (pdf). The ‘research’ consisted of sending a postal questionnaire to 200 general practitioners in Avon of whom 145 responded. The questionnaire was made up of twelve questions, one of which asked about referral patterns. 68 GPs (42%) of the sample reported referring patients to homeopaths.These results were published in the BMJ in 1986 and this is the source of the much vaunted claim that nearly half of the doctors in England refer patients to homeopaths. The report itself reads like a poor piece of GCSE coursework and I’m staggered that it ever reached the pages of the British Medical Journal. I can summarise it quite easily,
Over a quarter of a century ago, a shoddy piece of research found that a few GPs in a small part of England sent a handful of patients for treatment by homeopaths.
Such is their desperation, this bogus statistic appears regularly on the websites of homeopaths. It has been used by Dana Ullman and Nancy Malik. Knowing the weakness of their position, they crave respectability and resort to Argumentum ad populum.
The reality is of course that homeopathy in the UK is in rapid decline. According to the British Homeopathic Association, in 2011 400 GPs used homeopathy in their everyday practice. That’s 400 out of 41 000, or 0.98%.
0.98% is a long way short of 42%