Welcome to the Research page of HomeopathyAZ! My name is Anna Vakil and I will be posting to this page approximately once per month.
This page is for both users of homeopathy as well as practitioners, since we all deal with homeopathy research in some way. Of course, others are most welcome to post as well. Please keep in mind that the views expressed on this page belong to the authors only and do not represent the Homeopathy Association of Arizona.
Research… some coping tips
Research is our friend. It should be respected, not feared, and definitely not ignored. Those of us who use or practice homeopathy will at some point have to engage in discussions with others about research. But we may feel overwhelmed, intimidated, confused (even bored?) when confronted with this prospect. This first post is intended to help us develop a strategy for coping with research by sharing a few tips:
- Skepticism is rational and healthy and an important aspect of an open mind. People who are suspicious of the merits of homeopathy or any other healing modality should not be criticized for holding this view. However, refusing to modify a skeptical view in the face of growing evidence is also a problem. Fundamentalist attitudes of this kind tend to be intractable and it is therefore advisable to avoid engaging with them.
- We humans live in a complex, confusing world and we therefore need tools to understand it. Science is one of the best tools so far developed for achieving this end. However, being a human invention, science is not perfect or complete and is continually evolving. The results of scientific research are as good as the methods and practices currently in use. Throughout the development of modern science, research tools have changed, so clinging to the belief that existing tools will be always be sufficient belies history. Homeopathy as a research problem presents just this kind of challenge since it strains the limits of existing methods and calls for renewed imagination in developing innovative tools for understanding it. It is well known among those who have studied research methodology that the method should not choose the problem; rather, the problem should choose the method.
- Research is done by humans who have egos and may also have individual and collective economic or political agendas. This includes not only researchers themselves, but also journal editors, peer reviewers and research funders, as well as the media figures who report research results to the public. In addition, long established (or “prestigious”) journals often have historical traditions that influence which types of research they pay attention to and which they ignore, making these journals difficult for certain research areas to “penetrate” (apologies for the innuendo; that’s the word academics sometimes use). These collective influences on the research process clearly compromise the objectivity and neutrality of science. For all of these reasons, it is important to understand that science does not occur in a bubble and that the human context cannot be ignored.
- Empirical research in any field, including homeopathy, is about accumulating a body of evidence. For clinical research in homeopathy, this has a few implications:
- A single study, even if conducted using the most recent and sophisticated methodology, does not undo an entire body of evidence. Single studies– even those with large samples, or systematic reviews consisting of an analysis of a collection of individual studies– are vulnerable to errors, including methodological and human, either intended or unintended. We should therefore resist the temptation to cite an individual study that either supports or refutes homeopathy and claim that it “ends the debate”.
- Clinical research always includes studies with both positive and disappointing results. It is important for supporters of homeopathy to understand that negative studies are an expected part of the research landscape and need not be feared. This is especially the case due to methodological issues and human factors interfering with the research process. It is also important for both supporters and skeptics to understand that the practice of citing only positive or negative studies is necessarily selective. This is because it’s the body of accumulated evidence that matters.
- The language of science is tempered and cautious, so we too should be cautious in the way we talk about scientific research in homeopathy. Words like “never” or “always” or “prove” or “impossible” are rarely used. We should therefore avoid them and should gently discourage their use by others as well. Instead, words like “suggest” or “indicate” or “seem to confirm” or “question” are preferable.
We are fortunate that an invaluable resource has been created by the Homeopathy Research Institute (in the UK) in conjunction with the Carstens Foundation (in Germany) to assist us in becoming familiar with the body of clinical scientific evidence as it relates to homeopathy. This reliable and publicly accessible database is the first of its kind to also include search items related to methodological quality. The database enables us to see the full range of clinical studies (from positive to negative) and regular access will help us become more comfortable and familiar with the mechanics and language of research.
You need to first register in order to access the database, which is free of charge. Once inside, you can search for studies using simple selections such as “indication” (specific medical condition), “field” (physiological system), “remedy”, author and year. If you wish, you can also select “show only main publications”. If you see yourself as being a more sophisticated research consumer, you can select from other optional categories such as various measures of methodological quality, clinical relevance and internal validity, including information such as whether the study was peer reviewed. Based on your selections, the database produces a list of studies as well as an extremely brief synopsis of results for each study. This can be useful, particularly for research published in journals that are not publicly accessible. Links to full-text articles from the list of search results are available for some (not all) of the studies listed, depending on the journal.
At this writing, 1,015 clinical studies are included in the database. Here is the link to this extremely important resource:
So research can be our friend if we keep the following things in mind:
1) skepticism is good, but ignoring evidence is not;
2) research methodologies for studying homeopathy are imperfect and still evolving;
3) there are many factors having little to do with science that interfere with the objectivity of the research process in all areas of study, including homeopathy; and
4) regarding clinical research, be wary of reliance on single studies; don’t be overly concerned about studies with disappointing results (there are many reasons for them); and use cautious language when discussing research in homeopathy.
Watch for the next post, which will focus on how homeopathy might work on a physico-chemical level…