We Know Homeopathy Is Bogus, But How Do We Convince Believers?

We Know Homeopathy Is Bogus, But How Do We Convince Believers?

Yet another report has concluded there is no evidence homeopathy works, but how can we persuade at-risk people to stop using it (and the government to stop allowing it to be funded via health insurance)? Ian Musgrave from the University of Adelaide offers some suggestions.

Medicine picture from Shutterstock

The NHMRC has released its final statement on homeopathy. To no one’s great surprise, the report concluded that there was no evidence that homeopathy was effective in treating any of 63 separate medical conditions.

I have already dealt with aspects of the interim report, and articles in The Conversation have already dealt with the report in general (see here and here), so I would like to look at it from a different angle; how do we effectively communicate the science behind the report?

Sure, the report is on the web, and has been mentioned in a variety of media and radio programs, but is this going to be effective? The need to effectively communicate these findings is highlighted by two separate occurrences, the recent debate over vaccination in the light of measles outbreaks overseas, and the recent CSIRO report that up to 40% of Australians are “disengaged” or actively distrust science.

After all, the target audience for this information is not the people who have been following the evidence, and are well aware that homeopathy is ineffective. To some degree the people who want to treat mild or self-limiting conditions, for example insomnia, and who think that homeopathy is some form of herbal medicine are also not the target audience.

What we are worried about most is those people with serious conditions who abandon standard therapy for ineffective homeopathy (for example, trying to treat diabetes with homeopathic dilutions of uranium salts). We accept that adults should be able to choose (or reject) their therapies. But we also expect that people choose or reject therapies based on the best available evidence. What happens when people reject that evidence?

A recent paper looked at various ways to communicate with parents to increase vaccination rates. They found that parents accepted that the MMR vaccine did not cause significant side effects after the various communication strategies, but were not inclined to get their children vaccinated. One subset of parents, those who had the least favourable views on vaccination at the beginning of the study, were now LESS likely to vaccinate their children.

This is consistent with other studies (see also here) showing that when people with deeply entrenched beliefs are confronted with facts that disprove those beliefs, paradoxically they become firmer in their beliefs.

So how do we effectively communicate the science in the report? The NHMRC site has meticulous information on what they did, summaries and a FAQ, but we have to get people to read them. Most news articles and radio shows do not provide the information to find the report.

From a science communication point of view, most of the information on the NHMRC site is too technical for the general public. As an example of a good way to convey science around a contentious issue, the Australian Academy of Sciences has a great web accessible document that simply and clearly explains the science behind vaccines.

However, if you google “Vaccine Information Australia” you will see 4 of the top 10 results are vaccine denialist sites (and 3 of the top 5), and the AAS report is nowhere to be found.

As well as finding information in a format accessible to the general public, we need to consider that those most at risk of ignoring conventional medicine for homeopathy are also very likely to be in that 20% that the CSIRO found to be disengaged from or distrustful of science. As well, peoples’ perception of health and their health philosophy can make this a very emotionally charged issue.

We need to carefully consider how to approach this audience. In the light of the pediatrics paper, referenced above, where factual information led people to be less likely to vaccinate, merely giving people the facts is unlikely to be enough.

However, there are a variety of approaches that can be tried. Most of these have been developed in relation to politics or global warming, but the processes that are involved are similar.

In view of how homeopathy may be deeply linked with peoples world views, and showing homeopathy is no more than placebo may leave a gap in peoples beliefs (accounting for their reluctance to accept the facts), an approach such as replacing the gap with an alternative narrative may be the best approach.

Whatever the approach we use, the publication of the NHMRC report on homeopathy is the beginning of a long process of engagement, not the end of the matter.The ConversationIan Musgrave is Senior lecturer in Pharmacology at University of Adelaide.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


  • You can’t convince believers, because the terminally stupid are impervious to facts, logic and scientific method.

  • It’s hard to convince an idiot who thinks they’re right that they’re just stupid.

    Anti-vaxxers might start believing once their kids bodies start piling up.

  • But How Do We Convince Believers?

    Considering pharmacies sell homeopathic products & are unwilling to stop, I doubt we can convince people that homeopathy is rubbish. People trust what they buy from a pharmacy is effective medicine.


    To some degree the people who want to treat mild or self-limiting conditions, for example insomnia, and who think that homeopathy is some form of herbal medicine are also not the target audience.

    People who think homeopathy is a ‘herbal remedy’ (which it isn’t) suitable for fixing mild ailments should be a target for this kind of evidence. I think they’ve less entrenched views about alternative medicines (a nonsensical phrase if there ever was one) & we could stop them from eventually treating more serious conditions in the future with the same ineffective products.

    Once you start using faulty reasoning to conclude ineffective products work for mild problems it isn’t such a huge jump to believe the same products might be able to treat more serious ones.

    • It’s not just that pharmacies stock homeopathic ‘medicines,’ it’s the fact they’re packaged to look exactly like normal drugs in white boxes with ‘contraindications’ and everything. It’s only when you flip over and read the active ingredients that it’s bunk. The government should mandate that these homeopathic boxes be slapped with a big warning sign, or moved to a different section.

      • Couldn’t agree more – I’d go so far as to say that there should be a standard for some strong evidence of efficacy (as well as safety) for ANYTHING sold as medicine, else it needs to be slapped with a warning that there’s no reason to think it’ll do anything or otherwise packaged differently.

        Unfortunately this will probably just make people who strongly believe in this crap shrug and say that the government is in on the big pharma conspiracy to turn everyone into lizard people or whatever it is this week, but it’ll be useful for anyone who’s sitting on the fence/wants to buy something that’ll actually work.

    • Yeah this provides some legitimacy. In one isle you are buying actual medicine. The next magic beans.

  • legislate the products. Anything that states a medical effect should be under regulation anyways. Maybe its time to force regulation on a wider set of terms (like products that say “remedy” instead of medicine…) I mean we have regulation on packaging of cigarettes but we can’t legislate packaging of “medicines”?

    educate the young people. the old ones will eventually die out…

  • From Tim Minchin (Storm Animation) – “Alternative medicine, by definition, has either not been proven to work, or been proven NOT to work. Do you know what they call alternative medicine that HAS been proven to work? MEDICINE”

    We do regulate medicines in Australia, its the homeopathy products that isnt regulated (sort of)…. health food supplements and herbal remedies are regulated by themselves (a self funded and voluntary requlator with little to no guidelines) and they dont have to justify any of their claims to be able to be put on shelves in Australia because they can claim everything as being a “traditional remedy”. The Snake Oil salesmans are regulated by themselves.

    Take a look at the Superfoods segment from The Checkout
    … its the exact same b#&!#&!$ con artist stuff they have been pulling off for decades with health food and supplementals.

    Basically someone discovers a new plant or food source not being eaten by Western Civilisation, slap a few bogus medical terms while mentioning nutrional facts they are made up and suddenly you can charge $50 per 100g for a substance that is growing by the tonne in a third world country they buy for $5 a tonne.

  • Something like homeopathy should be easy to convince because it is so stupid.

    ‘Water having magical properties’

    The whole issue of, then surely any water anywhere should cure you of everything and kill you from all the things it has been exposed to. There is no magical memory to water.

    • The common quote about “Drink 2 litres of water per day” is sound medical advice, everyone quotes it. It appears everywhere. Its been quoted so often that its meaning got lost and people started making up their own meanings for it. (reduce fat retention, detoxes body, etc)

      The only clues they have is early medical texts referring to drinking water to help cleanse liver disease in heavy drinkers (but the fact that the heavy drinkers stopped drinking booze would be a bigger factor), and a 1940s nutrional study that said an average adult needs about 2.5 litres of water to be consumed, in any prepared food (which is anything except dehydrated food) or liquid form (as long as it contains some volume of water). It didnt mean plain water.

      Drink enough water, your body can actually swell internally and cause damage. People have died drinking too much water.

      • To clarify your post a little, since I don’t think you say it explicitly:

        The two litres per day figure is inclusive of intake from other sources. Just as the human body is ~70% water, so are many of the other things you eat, and intake from those “counts” towards your water intake. It is possible to not drink anything at all if you’re eating lots of water-rich foods. Koalas do this.

        You do need to be careful of foods with a diuretic effect such as coffee and alcohol, as the dehydrating effects can in some cases overbalance their water content.

        The most notorious example of a person drinking too much water is the runner-up for a radio contest asking people to “wee for a Wii”, who died at home after overhydrating themselves in the contest. Her family later won a lawsuit awarding $16M.

  • I think this is similar to telling people about the dangers of smoking. No matter how hard we try, there will always be some people who will practice selective listening. In which case, I say the only option is to ensure they don’t harm anyone else directly or indirectly, and let natural selection take its course.

    • Yep. The news report on this had a comments section full of people saying “well it cured this so it must work” and other such rubbish.

  • Once you work out how to resolve this, then next challenge will be convincing those that prayer to their imaginary friend also needs a good hard looking into ! As Mr B states “Placebo effect” all round.

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