A Tragedy of Homeopathetic Ignorance

A tragic case of delusion

A tragic case of delusion

As you will know from reading this blog, I am not a great fan of homeopathy even though I understand why so many people buy into this quackery. And it is so easy to poke fun at this medieval nonsense  but no one should gloat when an innocent child suffers and dies in appalling circumstances that were entirely preventable. It was with true horror and sadness when I learned of a nine-month old infant, Gloria Sam who died because her father, a homeopathy therapist, had neglected to seek medical treatment and instead decided to treat her himself after she developed severe eczema.

The father of Gloria, Thomas Sam and her mother, Manju were both convicted of criminal negligence and jailed for a minimum of 6 years and 4 years respectively in a New South Wales court. The court heard that if Gloria had been given medical treatment just a week before her death she probably would have survived.

My eldest suffered from infantile eczema and to this day has to endure steriods, creams and light treatment. As an infant she had a terrible time and her case was comparatively mild to what can happen when eczema is untreated.

Thomas and Manju wept in court. I don’t think they were being deliberately cruel. It must have been heart-wrenching to listen to their daughter’s agony. I know as I have seen how babies suffer. I also think this case reveals that homeopath practitioners are not necessarily cynical charlatans peddling snake-oil for profit, but truly deluded individuals who believe that their cures and treatments really work. But sometimes, society has to step in and protect the weak and deluded. In this tragic case, I believe it was both the parents and child who needed intervention.

Thanks to Richard Saunders over at the Skeptic zone for bringing this to my attention.

10 Comments

Filed under In the News, supernatural

10 responses to “A Tragedy of Homeopathetic Ignorance

  1. Technical foul: Hahnemann proposed homeopathy in 1796 — that ain’t medieval !
    I am an ex-homeopath — it is ridiculous.
    But the placebo effect is very powerful, especially on the neurotically ill (huge customer base in homeopathy). My clinic was two M.D.s in the USA — they would not use any other alternative medicine also. Burning off a wart was bad because the wart was a natural expression of the body and needed to be removed by the body to return to homeostasis and health.

    Total nonsense.

  2. BTW, homeopathy might have been better than much of the barbaric medicine practiced by orthodox medicine at Hahnemann’s times — blood letting and mercury treatments, for example. Likewise, Mohammad’s teachings may have been a better rule of law than the madness of the warring tribes at his time on the Saudi peninsula.

    But things move on — locking up progress is part of the problem.

  3. Bruce,
    I have a hard time with homeopathy gone awry. If people enjoy herbal teas and herbal supplements for basic ailments, then good for them. It probably is a placebo effect. But to stand by and watch your child die because of your beliefs/principles is just insane, deluded, misguided, and ignorant.

    I know that if I could drink a cuppa herbal tea that would actually make my back pain go away, and I wouldn’t have to rely on pain pills, I would do it in a heartbeat. But I am an educated adult. My choice. Children, all too often, because they have no voice, become victims of belief systems that are predicated on supposed truths. It is a hard pill to swallow as an outsider looking on.

  4. Arno

    Poietes,

    Herbal teas are not what homeopathy is about. What you are mentioning are natural remedies which have nothing to do with homeopathy. Homeopathy is the belief that when an object has been in contact with other object, it retains a ‘memory’ of this contact. So, when you take water, swirl a leaf around in the water, then dilute the water 5000 times, the water supposedly will still have this memory of the leaf and therefore work as a medicine, even when not a single molecule or atom of the leaf is left in the water. People aren’t drinking herbal tea – they are literally drinking bottles of water. In addition, when disease gets worse, they actually treat this by increasing the dilution! So there will be even less of the active ingredient (if that is even possible) left in the ‘medicine’.
    Homeopaths still have to explain to me btw why this water only stores the memory of the last leaf it has been in contact with, instead of, for example, the countless bodies it has been pumped around in, the seas and rivers it has been part of or the clouds it has been floating in. Did they beat the water until it got brain damage?

  5. So here’s a hard-nosed, controversial perspective. Some people argue that we should keep homeopathy because it harnesses the placebo effect, and keep patients out of doctors surgeries. Presumably, there’s a hard-and-fast cost saving argument to be made here.

    Assuming that’s the case, then we can take those cost savings, and work out how many patients lives are saved because genuine medical resources are freed up by homeopathy.

    Suppose it isn’t much, but it amounts to 10 children’s lives worldwide each year. That’s 10 children saved for 1 child killed. Would that be worth it.

    I know the real world situation is more complicated (there are wider implications to accepting homeopathy), but it’s an illustration of the types of situations that are faced regularly in medical care. Sometimes the rational decision is not the intuitive one.

    As a more general point, this is the problem I have with your conclusions in Supersense, Bruce. Supersense stops us from doing these kinds of pragmatic calculations. Our thoughts are entirely on the 1 child that has died – because that’s a real person we can see and identify with. They’re not with the 10 children that have been saved. As a result, we don’t assign resources appropriately.

    You use a similar illustration in the book, and seem to suggest that it’s a good thing. But I think that, although it seems like a good thing, it only seems that way because of our supersense… (hope this makes sense!)

    • brucehood

      Tom – a great analysis of sacred valuation a la Tetlock that I use to end SuperSense with. Yes you are right, that the costs and benefits are sometimes much more complex and that various biases can distort the way we make judgments. In my case it was the availability heuristic based on my own personal history of childhood eczema.

      The placebo operates in both alternative and conventional medicine but in the first case, is the only mechanism. Should we tolerate homeopathy if there is no additional burden and cost to society? and as you point out, it actually alleviates pressure on conventional medicine? I guess the answer must be yes but then such reasoning would undermine many aspects of social conventions, not to mention that something just doesn’t seem right about letting a child die at the hands of misguided parents.

      I think that ultimately our supersense can facilitate social cohesion so yes, I think that it works – whether it is good or bad is another issue about whether we engage in such thinking.

  6. Andrew Atkinson

    One has to have received homeopathic treatments to understand the mindset here. You can start for instance by using it as a cure for dehydration, then, once enthused by the resulting success, you can begin to accept homeopathic cures for a whole range of things – hunger, overheating, bad hair days right across the entire spectrum of everyday problems. Eventually, you can survive on homeopathy alone resulting in only one final problem to deal with – ‘hydrocephalus’ – aka ‘water on the brain’. That – is the mindset of the homeopath!

  7. Arno,
    Thanks for the clarification. I didn’t realize that homeopathy was so convoluted. And yes, why does the water not retain the memories of its time?

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