On 7 November 2019, the Bavarian parliament (Landtag) decided to award a research contract for homeopathy as an alternative to antibiotics. Initially, 400,000 euros were earmarked for this, later increased to 800,000 euros. To the best of our knowledge, no such contract so far has been awarded by the Ministry of Health in Nuremberg to date. Why – well, we at INH can only speculate about this.
The INH and the Science Advice of the GWUP had turned at that time with an open letter to the Members of the Landtag. In this, they had made valid that the employment of these means for the planned purpose does not make sense, since with probability bordering on security no knowledge gain beyond the available realizations is to be expected. However, this didn’t have any effect on the decision-making process. The majority of the parliamentary groups of the CSU and the Freie Wähler (Free Voters) passed the resolution and the Ministry of Health was instructed accordingly.
The seriousness of the implications of this decision was recently explained in a scientific publication in the journal “Ethik in der Medizin” (Ethics in Medicine) (1).
It is worth noting that the case has already found its echo in scientific publications. Below is a brief explanation of the aspects highlighted in the work of Borkens / Plasberg:
Appeal on invalid grounds of decision
The application that led to the decision of the Bavarian Parliament uses individual studies, at least one of which is identifiable, to justify its decision. This work (Frass et al. 2005, Homeopathy in severe sepsis) is not considered valid in professional circles, which would have been easy for interested parties to research. Moreover, the reference to three individual studies on homeopathy is a category mistake anyway, because under no circumstances can the assumption be derived from three indication-related individual trials that there is a basis for research to be funded from public funds, especially for a completely different indication. There are many summarising observations of the study situation of the highest evidence class for homeopathy, which all agree on the lack of evidence. Given this, the recourse to three individual publications for different indications represents a classic cherry-picking.
In this respect, the public – and also the parliament that took the decisions – has been presented incorrect resp. inadequate bases for decisions.
Damage potential of promoting misinformation
The publicity effect of the decision is likely to steer the general public regard right to the many misinformation on homeopathy or to confirm existing misconceptions rather than to encourage them to deal with fact-based information. The problem of “pseudo-medical filter bubbles” is wrongly promoted and thwarts efforts to improve media literacy.
The authors point out that the spread of sometimes absurd medical misinformation, especially during the Covid 19 pandemic, has taken on a worrying dynamic. That has now prompted several representatives of the scientific to call on the scientific community to no longer accept the spread of pseudo-science without contradiction, contrary to the previous relative indifference towards such tendencies. If a parliamentary representation gives additional credibility to pseudo-medical, scientifically invalid methods, even if only indirectly through a signal effect of a decision such as the one at issue, this affects an ethical point of view even more so than, for example, the advertising of a drug manufacturer.
Need for the desired study/use of public funds
According to the authors, the examination of the overall evidence and the appropriate evaluation of individual studies from a scientific point of view is a differentiated but achievable task, especially with the resources of a parliamentary group. In particular, the authors point to the rarely given independent repetition of allegedly positive homeopathy studies, which makes them practically worthless in the context of an overall evaluation of the evidence. Because of this, the use of public funds for a study, from which no results can reasonably be expected beyond the current state of knowledge, cannot be justified by the general obligations when dealing with funds from public budgets.
The authors point out that some promising approaches as antibiotic alternatives are already being investigated in international research. It would certainly be welcome if the public sector were to participate in meaningful research. However, the Bavarian parliament’s decision would lead to the withdrawal of resources for meaningful research, e.g. on bacteriophages. In this respect, the decision on the homeopathy study is counterproductive for the pursuit of the declared goal of promoting research on antibiotic alternatives. It’s remarkable, that the subject of bacteriophages is mentioned in another part of the overall proposal but is not taken into account in material terms – opposite to homeopathy.
The article by Borkens / Plasberg makes it clear that the discussion about the decision of the state parliament to commission a study on homeopathy as an alternative to antibiotics, with the help of 800,000 €, is about more than just the abstract continuation of the homeopathy debate. The decision lacks justification according to (existing) intersubjective criteria, has a false signal effect, which promotes misinformation in the general public instead of counteracting it, and can’t justify the use of public funds because of any gain knowledge is unexpectable.
It remains to be seen whether and what progress will be made on this issue. It can be assumed that this will continue to occupy the critics of homeopathy in the future.
(1) Borkens, Y., Plasberg, Y. Der Bayerische Landtag und die Homöopathie – ein kritischer Kommentar zum Antrag „Todesfälle durch multiresistente Keime vermeiden IV“ (Drucksache 18/3320). [The Bavarian Parliament and homeopathy – a critical commentary on the application “Avoid deaths caused by multi-resistant germs IV” (Printed Matter 18/3320)] – in German
Ethik Med 32, 279–287 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00481-020-00593-z