Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Homepathy and Power Balance bracelets – the reliance on anecdotal evidence

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Simon Singh takes on Zofia Dymitr, chair of the Society
of Homeopaths, on last night's Newsnight
Last night's edition of Newsnight featured an excellent report on homeopathy, with one of the topical hooks being the recent news that the government has clamped down on the use of the homeopathic remedies in animals, meaning the restrictions are firmer than they are in relation to human use. (A little shout out to Horse and Country magazine with that link – I hear it's very similar to New Humanist, but for horses.)

Newsnight went undercover to catch a North London homeopath offering up preventative treatments for malaria. There's not much more of a guarantee that orthodox treatments provide better protection than homeopathy, she says, perhaps 70 per cent success with orthodox, 60-65 per cent with homeopathy, although she admits she is "plucking those out of thin air". There follows a handy summary of how homeopathy works from the reporter, with the degree of dilution it entails described as "quite literally the equivalent of a drop in the ocean." This is followed by the subtle coup de grace, "By the standards of modern medicine, that's quite an unusual idea." The segment concludes with a debate between Zofia Dymitr, chair of the Society of Homeopaths, and Simon Singh – highly enjoyable viewing, but I don't think you need me to tell you who comes out on top. Here's the YouTube video:

In the main report, we're also shown a leaflet available in a pharmacist, which provides a guide to preventative homeopathic treatments for malaria. The leaflet helpfully points out that there is no scientific evidence for the efficacy of the treatments, before going on to state "We rely on anecdotal evidence of those who have chosen to use them successfully throughout the world." Watching this, I was immediately reminded of another piece of pseudoscientific news from yesterday, regarding the marketing of Power Balance bracelets in Australia. For those of you unfamiliar with Power Balance, they are rubber bracelets (I was reminded of those charity bracelets when I saw one) featuring a hologram. According to the company's website:
"Power Balance is based on the idea of optimizing the body’s natural energy flow, similar to concepts behind many Eastern philosophies. The hologram in Power Balance is designed to resonate with and respond to the natural energy field of the body."
A Power Balance bracelet
This, say Power Balance, can improve balance, strength and flexibility, which is why they are popular with atheletes (David Beckham and Kevin Pietersen are famous wearers, as is Kate Middleton, who isn't an athlete). As it happens, a relative I saw over the Christmas break was wearing one and espousing the benefits (RRP £29.99), prompting me to suggest it might be cheaper and just as beneficial to put an elastic band (which you can often find on the pavement after the postman has done his rounds), around their wrist (before thinking better of it and shutting up in the name of Santa). The reason they were in the news yesterday was because the company has had to admit "misleading conduct" following an investigation by Australia's consumer regulator, and release the following statement:
"In our advertising, we stated that Power Balance wristbands improved your strength, balance and flexibility. We admit that there is no credible scientific evidence that supports our claims and therefore we engaged in misleading conduct in breach of s52 of the trade practices act 1974."
Surely a setback for the magic bracelet industry (they "may be no more beneficial than a rubber band", noted the head of the Australian regulator), but Power Balance came out fighting yesterday, with the main US company announcing:
"This is simply a matter of correcting prior marketing claims [in Australia]. We have heard from fitness professionals, athletes, coaches, personal trainers and everyday users who tell us they have experienced benefits from Power Balance."
As with homeopathy, it seems that when there is a complete absence of scientific evidence, anecdotes will do just as well.
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