“New evidence for homeopathy”?

These four words appeared today without the question mark as the title of a press release issued not by a learned journal or other science publisher, but rather a PR agency that specialises in sports and event promotion. The press release announces the publication of a paper in the Journal of Clinical Epidemiology which is highly critical of a meta-analysis published in 2005 of placebo-controlled clinical trials of homeopathy.

The subjects of the critique are a group of researchers led by Matthias Egger at the University of Bern. Egger and his colleagues have been much-quoted by those seeking to promote science-based medicine. They have also been subject to a campaign of vilification by homeopaths and their supporters.

Rainer Lüdtke and Lex Rutten’s paper, which in the press release is praised by Southampton University professor George Lewith, claims that the Egger-led study contains serious flaws.

“The review gave no indication of which trials were analysed nor of the various vital assumptions made about the data,” says Lewith. “This is not usual scientific practice. If we presume that homeopathy works for some conditions but not others, or change the definition of a ‘larger trial’, the conclusions change. This indicates a fundamental weakness in the conclusions: they are NOT reliable.’”

If I’ve interpreted this correctly, Lewith is denouncing Egger for an alleged ‘selection effect’ which leads to the anti-homeopathy result supposedly sought from the very beginning. But in doing so Lewith introduces a selection effect of his own.

In the penultimate paragraph of the press release (I quote from the EurekAlert! service for journalists, to which I cannot link directly), Lewith claims that Egger’s study is based on:

“…a series of hidden judgments [sic] unfavourable to homeopathy. An open assessment of the current evidence suggests that homeopathy is probably effective for a number of conditions including allergies, upper respiratory tract infections and ‘flu, but more research is desperately needed.”

It finishes with the flourish:

“Prof Egger has declined to comment on these findings.”

Egger would be a fool to comment on such patent nonsense spun by a PR agency.

But let us return to the title of today’s press release. What evidence? It is certainly not contained in the Lüdtke and Rutten paper. All we find there is a flaky critique of a meta-analysis which serious commentators have interpreted as the final nail in the coffin of homeopathy.

Important to note is that, in addition to being an academic at the University of Southampton, George Lewith practises at the Centre for Complementary and Intgerated Medicine: a private company with clinics in Southampton and London. He is the author of a number of books and articles on so-called alternative and complementary medicine.

As for the authors of the pro-homeopathy paper, Rainer Lüdtke works for the Karl und Veronica Carstens-Stiftung, a complementary medicine foundation based in Essen. Lex Rutten is with the Vereniging van Homeopathische Artse in Breda. Both affiliations are declared in the journal paper, but not in the press release.

Lewith’s private practice interest is not listed in the press release, and his words are designed to read like the objective assessment of an impartial academic expert.