Ben Goldacre and the Inqusition

Posted on November 29, 2007. Filed under: Ben Goldacre and the Inquisition | Tags: , , , , , , , |

Damian Thompson said on his blog:

” Congratulations to Ben Goldacre for a terrific onslaught on homeopathy in the Guardian. There must be tens of thousands of Guardian readers who dabble in this 200-year-old witchcraft; perhaps Ben will finally succeed in penetrating what the Catholic Church (itself no stranger to counterknowledge) used to call “invincible ignorance”. ”

Hmmmmmmmmm witchcraft and the Catholic church. My, my, DAMIAN that smacks of the inquistition. The times of witch hunts have been one of the darkest periods of human history. The fear of “evil” and “powerfully dangerous” witches originates from folk beliefs that were encouraged and enhanced by the Church and then institutionalized as the Holy Inquisition. The Inquisition was an investigating institution of the Roman Catholic Church. This all sounds like a witch-hunt to me……………… (definition of a witch-hunt; an intensive systematic campaign directed against those who hold different views.)


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10 Responses to “Ben Goldacre and the Inqusition”

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Hi. I’m not a scientist but I understand a little bit about the scientific method, the importance of removing the possibility of bias from experiment, reproduceability, peer review etc. I like to think that spending a lot of time hanging around with geeks has given me a good handle on what constitutes good or bad science.

As you have called your blog ‘goodscience’ can I ask what your science background is? It would really help your readers to assess your ability to determine what is or isn’t good science.


Reasoned debate is how we scientist approach a problem. We have regular “Lab Meetings” when someone will put up an idea and everyone else will try to knock it down. We criticise each others papers vigorously. It’s an intellectual form of boxing or fencing. The aim is to hit the other guy, but for the fun of the game, and in pursuit of science, not with vicious intent. When you make scientific claims of any sort (and you make three big ones), then like it or not you are entering the ring with heavy weights. You must put up or shut up or learn to tolerate the continual barrages, because they will not stop. If it helps, try to remember it’s just our way of saying hello!

Hello to YOU Derik, but what exactly do you mean by your post?? Do you think that your group is the ONLY group that has peer review? Believe it or not the Homeopathic profession does as well! And in fact, they are pretty hard on each other.
As far as entering into the ring with “heavy weights” ah….well, I have my doubts, it is more like hot air. And about putting up or shutting up….I can accept intelligent discourse, but when it comes down to defaming a profession because they hold a different view, it does smack of a witch hunt. You may reach one hand out in friendship, but the other holds a dagger.

I am glad you are hard on each other, it shows the right spirit. Perhaps you are not being hard on each other in the right way.

I have read a sample of homeopathic articles in “Homeopathy”. They have problems presenting data. There are simple things like giving tables of p-values instead of graphs with confidence intervals, which are so much easier to interpret. There are also fatal errors, such as use of inappropriate statistical tests, which render the entire experiment meaningless. This may sound harsh but using inappropriate statistical tests produces results as absurd as a game of cricket played according to the rules in the Highway Code.

For what its worth I am an extremist liberal, I think each individual should be free to chose what they do in all fields of life from profession to health care. So when they come to burn you at the stake I promise I won’t be in the mob!!

Have fun.

Hello Derik,
So you will not be part of the mob that burns me at the stake, too afraid to dirty your hands? Maybe you are afraid you could be wrong…..and then the guilt…………
When you say the articles in “Homeopathy” (by the way, what journal is that?) have problems in presenting data, I am sure you are correct, given the paradigm you are working with. You see, we ARE talking about 2 different paradigms and the rules are not the same. Just like cricket and ………baseball!

OK I apologise

I spent much of last night thinking about why you might feel so persecuted.

I realised that if I was wrong and you were right about homeopathy it wouldn’t bother me to much. Science would move on and I would have lots more interesting problems to solve and concepts to grapple with.

On the other hand if I am right and you are wrong then your life’s work is revealed as a hollow sham.

I am truly sorry for this; it would be a very hard thing to come to terms with.

However homeopathy is now taught as a BSc in some universities, you call yourself goodscience! We cannot permit permit homeopathic ideas be taught in academia if they cannot to stand up to the same rigorous interrogation that other academic disciplines go through. This is the difference with a witch hunt, just produce the compelling data and you may go free!

Don’t get too bogged down in notions of paradigms. They are an interesting idea from the sociology of science, about how scientists as human animals behave. This is very interesting in itself, but of no value in deciding how science should progress. You are essentially demanding to be considered separately from all other evidence. This would sound absurd coming from any other profession. Suppose a wallpaper manufacture decided to start making wallpaper with cadmium based pigments because in his paradigm cadmium wasn’t toxic?

Homeopath is a journal published by Elsevier and edited by Peter Fisher. I’m surprised you haven’t heard of it. Please see link below.

Actually, we’re not saying that the paradigm difference means that we are demanding to be considered separately from all other evidence. All we’re saying is that whoever is judging homeopathy should study and understand what that paradigm difference is before condemning it or designing how it should be tested. If that seems odd to you–“a trial is a trial, right”–then you don’t understand what we mean by “paradigm shift.” But we are NOT saying, “To heck with the evidence.”

A real understanding homeopathy also opens up the testing possibilities. Not all claims homeopathic are necessarily true, but they all get lumped together behind one big “it just doesn’t work” belief.

John, thank you for your response.

Any test does indeed have to address the key claims of the hypothesis that it is testing. It is a common error which I see in mainstream scientific literature all the time. I have been reading some homeopathic research papers and been very frustrated at their use of single remedies when homeopathy seems to require individually selected remedies. Why bother with experiments that don’t test the thing you want to test?

You are quite right that demonstrating any single homeopathic remedy doesn’t relieve symptoms would not prove that the others don’t. I would be interested to hear how you homeopaths decide what works and what doesn’t as that would seem a good starting point for designing a test. Does that decision really rest solely on the “provings” or do you have other techniques?

I have seen it suggested that homeopathy treats the underlying cause of a disease, which is some kind of spiritual malaise, by gently prompting body to correct itself. This is why you need to ask all those other questions about other aspects of their lives. If this is the case you would expect more than just remission of symptoms but also increased general well being. Could this be measured? Could this form the basis of a test?

I don’t think many people in your field are aware of multivariate statistics. These are tools that allow you to extract the most important information from data sets with lots of variables. You seem concerned that “reductionism” can’t provide appropriate tests, these tools might offer you the possibility of the kind of study you would like to perform.

I will list a few of the top of my head below:

Principle components analysis
Partial Least Squares
K nearest neighbours

Oh and there is a powerful peace of statistics software available open source called R at:

“Alas, to wear the mantle of Galileo it is not enough that you be persecuted by an unkind establishment; you must also be right.” Robert Park, physicist

Of course nobody wants to ban homeopathy, however offensive it is to reason and common sense.

I suspect that the argument may be resolved by lawyers rather than scientists. When a few homeopaths have been convicted for manslaughter as a result of killing patients with AIDS or malaria by treating them with pills that contain no medicine, perhaps they, and the public, will start to realise what is going on. Homeopathy for a cold is harmless delusion. Homeopathy for AIDS is plain wicked.


Cultural Dwarfs and Junk Journalism is Martin Walker’s fourth book charting the development of the corporate science lobby that has grown rapidly since New Labour came to power in 1997. One of the most recent exponents of the Lobby is Dr Ben Goldacre who has regurgitated a bad ‘Science’ column in the Guardian newspaper since 2003.

Like other quackbusters Goldacre claims to write factually based and scientifically accurate articles about health, medicine and science either supporting scientists and doctors or criticising individuals involved in alternative or nutritional health care. Goldacre’s writing, however, actually reflects the ideology of powerful industrial, technological and political vested interests.

Goldacre who it is claimed is a Junior doctor working in a London NHS hospital is actually a clinical researcher working at the centre of New Labour’s Orwellian spin operation that puts a sympathetic gloss on anything shown to create adverse reactions from MMR to Wi-Fi, while at the same time undermining cost-effective and long tried alternative therapies such as acupuncture and homoeopathy. Goldacre is involved with public health researchers well known for trying to prove that those who claim to be adversely affected by pollutants in our modern high-technology society, suffer from ‘false illness beliefs’.

Cultural Dwarfs and Junk Journalism, investigates Goldacre’s role in industry lobby groups and puts another point of view in defense of some of the people whom he has attacked, belittled, satirized, castigated, vilified, maligned and opined against in his junk journalism.

Cultural Dwarfs and Junk Journalism: Ben Goldacre, quackbusters and corporate science, is available from the Slingshot Publications web site as a free download, from mid-day on Wednesday January 2nd.

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