Udo Endruscheit is a German skeptic and very active within Information Network Homeopathy (INH). He is a prolific writer and an activist on social media. I spoke with him about his skeptical background and his current fields of work.
Annika Harrison: Hi, Udo. Could you quickly introduce yourself?
Udo Endruscheit: Hi, Annika. I’m simply a skeptic like many others. In particular, my field of interest is pseudomedicine—first of all, homeopathy. I’m involved in the awareness campaigns against homeopathy, its reputation, and its legal privileges in Germany as a member of the Information Network Homeopathy. INH is a nonprofit organization that offers factual science-based information about homeopathy and its real place in medicine and science (i.e. in the historic medical museum and not in daily practice and public health). I’m a freelance writer on several platforms, blogs, and journals, and my main topics of interest besides homeopathy and other pseudomedicine are information about vaccines, debunking anti-vaxx myths, health policy, and theory of science.
Harrison: I know that you have been active in the Information Network Homeopathy for years. Were you one of the founders? Can you tell me what the INH is?
Endruscheit: Oh, I’ve been a member of the INH for nearly all the time it has existed, but not as a cofounder. The INH was founded in February 2016. In March 2016, I was invited to continue my skeptical activities on social media within the INH. It seems that I was the first one who entered the INH not as a founding member but by invitation.
Critics of homeopathy existed in Germany before 2016, of course, but they were lone warriors. At that time, homeopathy here was almost completely unchallenged. Homeopathy has possessed its legal privileges as medicine without proof of efficacy since 1978. The public has been misled about its real principles and backgrounds by advertising, and has been supported by German pharmaceutical law, which gave it a stable position. Uncritical reporting by the media was the rule. I often say that for centuries the homeopaths owned the “air sovereignty” from print and broadcast media.
Never before had the critical voices about homeopathy been bundled. In 2016, it suddenly seemed possible. For example, at that time, books by critics had been published (e.g., Dr. Norbert Aust’s Taking Evidence on Homeopathy and Dr. Natalie Grams’s Homeopathy Reconsidered). Dr. Natalie Grams’s apostasy of homeopathy had been greeted with great interest in the media. Dr. Norbert Aust was the one who invited critics to a meeting with the aim of stronger networking between the scattered activists and to bundle forces and ideas. About thirty interested persons gathered, and on the second day of the meeting, the INH was founded as a free interest-based association. Founding members other than Dr. Natalie Grams and Dr. Norbert Aust were Prof. Edzard Ernst and Amardeo Sarma, head of the German skeptics organization GWUP (who is also a fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and member of its Executive Council; interview coming soon).
The information campaign began on social media, and very soon they also had a website. Fortunately, the press paid attention to the founding of INH; the presence of Natalie Grams in the media did its part. And in a unexpected way, at that time the buried public debate about homeopathy in Germany was brought to life again—to make a long story short.
What’s to report now, four years later?
The expertise of INH and its members is in demand by the media, in science and even in politics. INH members are publishing articles about science-based criticism of homeopathy in reputed journals. The unjustifiable role of homeopathy in the public health system, in particular its eligibility for reimbursement by health insurance companies, has begun affecting the opinion of political parties.
Lectures by INH members are in demand. They are requested by educational institutions but also by professional health care associations. Natalie Grams has just been invited to the annual meeting of the German Cancer Society for a keynote speech because a panel of the meeting dealt with the risks of pseudo-medical offers. Requests for interviews are now almost daily business.
Media coverage is completely different than it was in the past. Especially in largernewspapers and journals, well-researched articles appear that report on the real background of homeopathy. Just now (February 2020) a very good TV documentary has come out, full of facts and information and without “false” balance, although homeopaths were heavily featured (just demonstrating their same-as-always untenable positions). In short: the debate is tilting in our favor.
Yes, nothing concrete has yet been achieved in terms of the legal protective shield and legal privileges of homeopathy, but the process is underway. In my assessment, it is already irreversible, despite there certainly being delays and setbacks. Not unexpectedly, the homeopathy lobby has not remained asleep. However, homeopathy defenders cannot present a consistent set of arguments that can refute the arguments of the critics, or at least that could lead to a meaningful discussion. Instead, we hear the same spurious arguments again and again. Nevertheless, the lobby still has some success with its appeals to the public, with its praise of “gentle, natural medicine with no side effects.” They also follow the course of portraying homeopathy critics, especially the INH and its members, as conspirators pursuing a secret agenda. It is said that INH has clandestine interests and follows dark machinations, that we want to “abolish” patient autonomy and freedom of therapy. It is worth recalling the legal campaign against Natalie Grams, who was asked to stop claiming that “homeopathy does not work beyond the placebo effect” (which I mentioned last June). Well, this story has become a classic Streisand effect. Thanks to the public outcry, the company that wanted to impose a speaking ban on Natalie Grams cleared pretty much all the negative press against the skeptical scene in 2019. Nevertheless, such things are to be taken very seriously.
But there are concrete successes. In recent months, some regional medical associations have decided to exclude homeopathy from their further training and certification. This is a very important signal: the position of the medical profession on homeopathy is of great importance, as the example of France shows. Overall: the debate is now in an important state, and the INH and its members and supporters are on the winning side.
Of course, we from INH would not presume to trace all this to our activities alone. But the INH’s activities have played a crucial role in all this—and they will continue to do so in the future. The impetus to the new public debate on homeopathy was undoubtfully given by the INH and its initiators and founders.
Harrison: When and what were your first encounters with pseudoscience, pseudo-medicine, homeopathy, and skepticism?
Endruscheit: I remember that I first read about homeopathy when I was fourteen or fifteen. I had never been indoctrinated with or by esoteric beliefs and pseudo-medicine before (thanks to my parents), thus I felt not only astonished but amused. I found it unbelievable that such nonsense should be taken seriously as a method in and of medicine. At that time, homeopathy was beyond any publicly perceptible criticism. Its prestige as “natural healing” was rising.
Many years later, I encountered homeopathy again when my wife suffered from cancer. She found excellent therapy and care in one of our German Cancer Centers. But I never imagined before that it may be impossible not to come across pseudo-medicine in a cancer clinic.
Doctors and caretakers did their very best; nevertheless, pseudo-medical “alternatives,” mostly homeopathy, has been a constant topic of conversation in nearly each patient’s room. Most of that was given by “well-meaning” relatives and other visitors. I often heard that patients took homeopathic remedies complementary to conventional therapy as a rule without a word to their oncologists. But there were some cases who aborted their science-based therapies and turned to pseudo-medicine completely. Especially in the palliative daycare hospital, where my wife spent her last weeks, there were several cases of that within a short time. As a rule there were very, very bad consequences.
This saddened me. After my wife’s death, I felt inspired to get involved against this hydra of dangerous nonsense. I increased my knowledge, had many conversations with medical and nonmedical scientists and skeptics, and tried to understand why obvious nonsense such as homeopathy (and other “alternatives”) may have a largely positive public reputation and why it was able to exist over 200 years more or less as a part of medicine. How it went on from there—well, this soon overlapped with the history of Information Network Homeopathy.
Harrison: You are connected with skeptics from all over the world. What is the importance of that?
Endruscheit: Skeptical thinking should not and must not stop at national borders. Science has been an international project for a long time, and nothing else applies critical skeptical thinking on a scientific basis. And I am very happy to find the same humanistic basic attitudes that motivate me in skeptics in other countries.
The INH is now known throughout Europe. The European Skeptics Podcast (ESP) has already reported about the INH several times. Susanne and Norbert Aust from the INH presented our project and our family site “Susanna Needs No Globules” last year at the European Skeptics Congress in Belgium. They were just recently in Prague at the invitation of the Czech Skeptics and lectured on our activities. The vaccination discussion also creates a special connection with skeptics worldwide. The only more global issue for us skeptics is probably climate change.
People such as Pontus Böckman, head of the Swedish skeptics, and Stephen Barrett from Quackwatch are on INH’s list of supporters. After the debate about the Australian NHMRC’s 2015 review on homeopathy, I became friendly with Tim Mendham of the Australian Skeptics. By the way, I am especially happy that I was able to create personal contacts to India, where the resistance against pseudo-medicine, which worryingly dominates the health care system there, is beginning to come alive. We are proud to have a guest article from my Indian friend Abhijit Chanda on our website!
Harrison: I know you are also advocating skeptical Wikipedia projects and writing Wikipedia pages. Can you tell me why?
Endruscheit: Wikipedia is so important! I try to promote trust in Wikipedia personally by, on the one hand, promoting and explaining it as a source of trustworthy information; on the other hand, I’m also contributing with my modest means to the presence of skeptical information on Wikipedia. I wrote and edited the Wiki-page of the INH, as well as that of Natalie Grams (and contributed to the English version), and other pages of skeptical organizations and individuals in Germany. Everyone who contributes to Wikipedia knows that such a thing can be a tedious business. And indeed, there was a lot of resistance against the pages of INH, Natalie Grams, and others in the beginning.
Much more will have to be done. There is still far too little information about skeptical organizations and skeptical thinking on Wikipedia. And there is still too much misinformation on many topics. As you may have heard, the homeopathy Wikipedia page is said to be one of the most frequently edited. This is especially true for the U.S. page (where a certain Dana Ullman, as is well known, had been making a great effort for a while). The German homeopathy page is, according to homeopaths verbatim, a hoard of misrepresentation and a playground for members of the international skeptic conspiracy.
And that’s why I’m a big fan of the Guerrilla Skeptics on Wikipedia project and their great work. Unfortunately, I don’t have enough time to “officially” get involved there. But there are strategic considerations among German skeptics to focus more on Wikipedia. I am involved as far as my time permits.
Harrison: How do you manage to stay afloat with all the “master-minding” of INH and other skeptical work? Can you give me any suggestions and tips?
Endruscheit: Oh, please don’t think that everything is going perfectly with me! It is a mixture of planning and spontaneity; you could also say a mixture of to-do-lists and chaos! All joking aside, mostly I am occupied by the “day-to-day business” and by things that have to be done at the moment, and therefore it is sometimes difficult to do peacefully what I like to do best: research and write. Often, I specifically reserve a few hours a day for writing. It’s important for me, and I’d get frustrated if I can’t do it.
But you must not let it discourage you. After all, almost all of us skeptics do our job voluntarily and unpaid. Sometimes I get the feeling that it might be a bit too much at the moment. Then you should be able to allow yourself to take a conscious time out without any guilt. This serves to re-sort your thoughts and clear your head.
It is important to be moderate in managing all of this (someone who knows me may laugh about this advice).
Harrison: How do you relax?
Endruscheit: Oh … let me think about … Yes, there is something that has always been very important to me that I would never want to miss as a counterbalance and compensation to the skeptical activities: I’m a big fan of classical music. It even happens that I write articles while Richard Wagner’s “Ring” is playing in the background. Often, I can still say for a while afterward that writing this or that article took up exactly the time of two acts of the “Valkyrie” or so. Yeah, sure, maybe I’m a little crazy …
Harrison: Would you say there is something special about skepticism or homeopathy in Germany? Are there specific differences to other countries?
Endruscheit: As you know, homeopathy in Germany is a very special topic compared to other countries. England, France, Spain, as neighboring countries, banned homeopathy from the public health services. Homeopaths there weren’t amused, of course, but such a “battle” against scientifically funded criticism like in Germany didn’t come up elsewhere. Germany owns the “red lantern” in the case of homeopathy in public health services—and it glows intensely, indeed! The debates give sway to emotionality, which is inappropriate for a case that was scientifically decided long ago. As I remarked above, this is one of the actual problems: it is hard to convey the skeptic and scientific arguments against homeopathy in such a heated atmosphere. But we try.
Of course, one explanation is that Germany is homeopathy’s country of origin. There is a great tradition, and many lay organizations are pro-homeopathy. The Central Association of Homeopathy Physicians is indeed Germany’s oldest medical society. Of course, this doesn’t give it any credibility, because old means only old and tells us nothing about validity and evidence. And homeopathy in Germany by no means has had a continuous career or reputation. For several periods, its reputation was poor. From after WWII, it took until the 1970s to reappear. It then received the image of a natural, gentle healing method without side effects (which indeed is deeply rooted in public opinion up to today), and it received legal privileges as medicine with no need of proven evidence. And this “German way” later served as a blueprint for the Medicine Guideline of the European Union.
And the German skeptics? I guess there is no relevant difference to other countries. Maybe, our “special organization” on homeopathy within the skeptic movement—the INH—is remarkable. As referred above, there is an urgent need of such an initiative! Of course, all the skeptic topics that are important around the world also appear in the work of GWUP, the German skeptics organization. Other pseudo-medicine and pseudoscience besides homeopathy—climate change, glyphosate, the special German topic of “energy turnaround” (how to produce enough energy without coal) and many other topics—appear on the skeptic agenda. When I take a look at the Skeptical Inquirer‘s articles, topics on bizarre superstitions take up remarkably more space than in Germany. And topics that already are past in the U.S. are gathering speed just now in Germany; one is the “Satanic Panic” legend. Yes, skeptics and the GWUP are often—in my opinion, increasingly—criticized as “dogmatic,” “narrow-minded” “reductionistic materialists” (a famous topic used by “our” homeopaths), even as a “sect” here in Germany. I guess this isn’t very different to the U.S.
Harrison: If somebody would like to work as efficiently and calmly as you, what tip would you give them?
Endruscheit: Deepen your knowledge! Read enough but select carefully! Do not waste time but take enough of it for personal freedom! Practice self-discipline, but don’t torture yourself! Maintain your friendships! Be self-critical and be as aware as possible of your cognitive deficiencies! And above all, especially when things are not going so well: Keep calm and carry on!
And remember that we skeptics are on a humanistic mission: We do not lead “crusades,” but we want to make sure that as many people as possible are better off in this world. And for this, we need empathy and humanity—and respect for our counterparts, too. Especially if he or she has views that do not agree with ours.
Harrison: Which book should any new skeptic read?
Endruscheit: It is very difficult to name one single book, and it will be already outdated when it is named. But I’m very impressed by Steven Novella’s The Skeptics Guide to The Universe, which was published in German a few months ago. If there is essential reading about skepticism, there it is.
But, of course, there are so many others. My additional advice: read primary literature, the original source, whenever it is possible!
Harrison: What are your wishes for the next five years?
Endruscheit: Interestingly, this very question was asked of Natalie Grams in an interview just a few days ago. I gladly endorse her answer:
“I am very optimistic that in five to ten years everyone will say: ‘I never believed in homeopathy. I always knew it was just a placebo.’ I think there will be a total paradigm shift, as there was with smoking. Not so long ago, smoking was considered safe and cool; people accepted it in pubs. Today, you can hardly imagine that anymore.”
Apart from that, I myself wish for health above all, so that I can continue my “skeptical mischief” for as long as possible.