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Lady Homeopathy Strikes Back. . . But Science Wins Out

Notes on a Strange World

Massimo Polidoro

Volume 28.5, September / October 2004

On July 11, 2000, Superquark, a popular Italian prime-time science program, presented a short segment highly critical of homeopathy. Leading scientists and medical experts explained that homeopathy has no scientific basis, that risks from treatment with such unconventional medicines are significant for patients who are suffering from serious illnesses, and that the benefits of homeopathy are due to the placebo effect. These arguments are well known to Skeptical Inquirer readers.

Piero Angela, the program’s host (as well as its creator and producer), is the leading scientific journalist in Italy. He was also the first journalist in Italy, in 1977, to present a series of TV shows highly critical of parapsychology, on which James Randi and various members of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) received a lot of attention.

It also inspired Angela to start an Italian version of CSICOP, an organization which came to be called CICAP, the Italian Committee for the Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal.

Since then, Superquark has presented the scientific point of view on many paranormal and pseudoscientific subjects. This time, however, there was not only science at stake but also money. Millions of Italians use homeopathic products, and the homeopathists claimed that the broadcast was unfair and could threaten their businesses. The Catania-based Italian Association of Medical Homeopathy and the Rome-based Italian Federation of Associations of Medical Homeopathy complained that Angela selected only interviewees who were critical of homeopathy. So they brought two lawsuits, one civil and one criminal, against Angela and his co-author Giangi Poli.

“We are dealing with Lady Homeopathy here,” said Giulia Bongiorno, Angela’s lawyer, “since it has never happened in Italy that a criminal suit was brought against someone accused of defaming not a person but a remedy, an abstract concept.”

Angela immediately received strong backing from the scientific community, including letters and statements from individual researchers including Nobel Prize winners Renato Dulbecco, who has called all homeopathic products “worthless concoctions,” and Rita Levi-Montalcini, who said that “the greatest damage of this so-called therapy is that it deludes patients.”

Cheshire Cat homeopathy cartoon

“You have to understand,” says Angela, “that Italian public-television archives show that fourteen times more programs had been broadcast advocating homeopathy than criticizing it. My program only sought to redress the imbalance. I don't think that my job is to tell viewers what they want to hear. Science is not like philosophy, where viewers can listen to both sides and decide for themselves. Science cannot be decided on by the vote of viewers.”

The July 19, 2001, issue of Nature reported that one of the guests on Angela’s show was Antonio Cassone, head of the department of bacteriology at Italy’s national health institute-and who is also a member of the ministry of health’s ad hoc committee on homeopathy.

On the show, Cassone merely offered the opinion that safety information should be provided on all homeopathic products and that efficacy information should be provided on anything that is to be ingested. “I would have had no objection to a homeopathist sharing the show,” he says in Nature, “because it would have been even more convincing to the viewers that arguments of homeopathists against providing information are untenable.” But he fully supports the way Angela produced his program.

The case went to court in the autumn of 2001, and it took over three years to be settled. Finally, on May 20, 2004, the court presented a fifty-nine page, highly detailed judgment confirming that homeopathy has no scientific validity. What was said on the show, the judgment states, “falls within the right to fair comment and criticism and cannot in any way be considered offensive or defamatory, as it merely gives an account of a situation which is perfectly true.”

It is the first time that a court has handed down a judgment on this topic, which for years has been at the center of heated debate between the international scientific community and the supporters of homeopathy.

Judge Cinzia Sgr— wrote that “Science, in fact, is not a matter of mere categories of opinion. In the scientific field, either something is, or it is not. Either a treatment works, or it doesn't. And if it works, it is necessary to demonstrate that fact with clear scientific findings backed up by a solid statistical base. Although the international scientific community has always requested such scientific evidence from homeopathic medicine, it has never received attestation of its validity. It is completely devoid of any such foundation, remaining substantially an 'emotional medicine.'”

Piero Angela was, of course, the defendant, but the real accused appeared to be homeopathy itself.

Although the judgment affirms that it is not the task of the court to enter into the question of the validity of homeopathic medicine, given that Angela was charged with criminal defamation, the judge had to conduct an investigation into homeopathy in order to ascertain whether this therapy could be equated with traditional medicine.

Based on the court’s investigation, it was determined that Piero Angela bore no obligation to give a voice on his program to the homeopaths insofar as Superquark is a scientific program. The criticisms formulated in the course of the broadcast were considered justified, highlighting the fact that homeopathy does not have scientific validity. In that respect, one could say that Piero Angela was acquitted, while homeopathy was found guilty.

“The fundamental problem of homeopathy,” says Stefano Cagliano, the scientific adviser to Angela during the process, “is in its efficacy. The possible risk is not in an incidental toxicity but in the fact that some may prefer a homeopathic remedy instead of a proved cure.”

This kind of attention is an attitude that Superquark has constantly presented toward all kinds of useless medicines and not only toward alternative remedies. “The first rule of science,” comments Angela, “is that you have to prove what you claim, and in court, we said that had we acted differently, it would have de-legitimized us in the view of the scientific community. I think we did a public service and our program on homeopathy falls within the many shows on prevention that we have done so far.”

This judgment arrives at a time when homeopathy and other so-called unconventional therapies are at the center of a project of law being discussed in the Health Commission of Italy’s Chamber of Deputies. The plan would be to give full equality to these therapies, with the institution of chairs covering the subject in public universities. Many academic and scientific groups have taken up positions against such a project, including the Italian National Bioethics Committee.

Massimo Polidoro

Massimo Polidoro's photo

Massimo Polidoro is an investigator of the paranormal, author, lecturer, and co-founder and head of CICAP, the Italian skeptics group. His website is at www.massimopolidoro.com.