Christopher Titus is an American comedian and actor famous for his sitcom Titus on FOX as well as for a myriad of other comedy shows and television appearances, from Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman to Pawnography. He also runs a podcast called The Titus Podcast (recorded at a place called The Combustion Lounge) since 2011.
On February 23, Titus came out on Twitter defending homeopathy for measles, repeating tired anti-psychiatry tropes about selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) antidepressants and indirectly offered support for anti-vaccine propaganda. This was done by appealing to extremely common alternative medicine fallacies and errors, including appeal to tradition and claiming that homeopathy has no side effects. Here is the tweet in question:
Ummm, yeah, except it’s been used for 5000 years with no side effects and has healed many. So it aint an SSRI that kills thousands every year, but it works…alot.
Measles is dangerous and vaccines work
Measles is a dangerous infectious diseases that can harm and kill people. It is being kept back by the fact that many people are vaccinated against it. According to the CDC textbook Epidemiology and Prevention of Vaccine-Preventable Diseases, measles vaccination has an efficacy rate of 95-98%. Not only that, but if a large majority of people in the population are immunized against measles, the endemic transmission drops rapidly due to something called herd immunity. With fewer and fewer susceptible hosts to spread to, a measles outbreak simply fades out over time.
Pushing homeopathy for measles instead of vaccines is not based on any scientific evidence and this kind of anti-vaccine nonsense has been linked to measles outbreaks. In other words, anti-vaccine claims like the ones made by Titus is contributing to the resurgence of measles.
Homeopathy is quackery
Homeopathy is a form of pseudoscientific quackery developed by Samuel Hahnemann in 1796. Thus, it is not 5000 years old like Titus claims. Homeopathy is based on two major principles, both of which are outright scientifically false. The first is “like cures like”, which means that something that causes a disease or condition will also treat or cure it. So snake venom will cure a venomous snake bite, caffeine will cure insomnia and so on. This is, of course, just as batshit as claiming that more water will save someone from drowning or that more assault weapons in the hands of criminals will prevent mass shootings.
The second principle contradicts basic facts known to everyone that has ever mixed lemonade. Homeopaths think that a substance becomes stronger the more you dilute it. In reality, the more you dilute something, the less potent it becomes. More dilute lemonade tastes more watery and less like lemonade. It is weaker because the concentrations of molecules that can bind to and activate receptors in the taste buds is lower. The same is generally true: the dose makes the poison and a higher concentration of something dangerous is more dangerous than a lower concentration. Homeopathy on the other hand, claims that something becomes stronger and stronger the more you dilute it. As pointed out earlier, this is something that can be disproved by a child mixing lemonade in the kitchen. Homeopaths take it to an even more extreme level of nonsense. They believe that you should dilute a substance so much that there is, statistically speaking, no molecules left of the supposed active ingredient. Water, it is claimed, has memory of what has been in it. Funny how homeopaths do not make this conclusion about tap water or the fact water from the toilet gets released into the environment after the sewage treatment facility.
In short, homeopathy is bullshit.
So why have homeopaths not figured out this? It is because homeopathy has a placebo response whereby people who take it feel that they are improving, even though they are not. Do not mistake this for some kind of placebo medicine. Giving patients placebo and trying to fool them into thinking it is real medicine is deceptive, unethical, ineffective, harmful and a vulgar celebration of pseudoscientific quackery.
It is also because quackery like homeopathy brings in a lot of money. Alternative medicine quackery is a 34 billion dollar industry per year and most of it have never been tested or been tested and found to be ineffective. Thus, Titus is wrong to claim that it has “healed many”.
So if it is just extremely diluted water, it must not have any side effects, right? Wrong! This is because homeopathic products can be contaminated by things like pesticides, heavy metals, prescription medication or dangerous herbs. This is because homeopathy is almost completely unregulated and so there are no real safety tests being conducted in the same way that real medications are tested.
It should also be noted that using homeopathy can have the indirect side effect of convincing people to reduce usage of science-based treatments or skip them completely due to the anti-medicine conspiracy theories pushed by homeopaths. It can also make people spent their hard-earned money on quackery that they could use for real medical treatments. Finally, just like substances can have positive expectancy side effects (placebo), it can also have negative ones. It is called the nocebo effect.
Anti-psychiatry: recent mega study show effectiveness of antidepressants
Titus also regurgitates the common anti-psychiatry claim that a class of psychiatric medications called SSRIs. This is a popular trope among anti-psychiatry activists. Generally speaking, most anti-psychiatry activists dismiss scientific explanations for mental illness and instead claim that they are the result of too much negative thinking or eating too acidic food. They often attack evidence-based treatment of psychiatric conditions, often with particular focus on psychiatric medication (but sometimes also psychotherapy) by claiming that they are ineffective and harmful. However, attacks on antidepressants typically involve rampart statistics abuse and they are often methodologically flawed in a larger number of ways.
To be true, there are side effects of antidepressants, but there are also side effects of clinical depression and the benefits and risks have to be weighted against the risks of untreated depression. Also, a recent meta-analysis published in the journal The Lancet of over 500 studies on over 100 000 people showed that antidepressants are effective for treating depression.
The intellectual responsibility of influential celebrities
Celebrities like Christopher Titus have a large following and a considerable influence compared with the average person on social media platforms like Twitter. With this great power comes great responsibility. Pushing pseudoscientific misinformation that can harm people the way Titus has done is not acceptable. It shows a lack of intellectual integrity, an ignorance of basic science and a total disregard for dangers of pushing quackery.
This section was added (20180224 11:53 UTC + 01:00) after the initial publication of this article. The sentence describing his podcast has also been updated.
Bonus round: lawsuit threat and trying to leverage dead children
Christopher Titus was not happy in having his claims about homeopathy and SSRIs being subjected to scientific scrutiny. Most of the people who replied to his tweets about homeopathy and the subsequent tweets mentioned below where deeply critical. He retweeted the link to this article twice and made some clarifying statements.
That’s not what I said idiots. I was defending homeopaths in general. But yeah, sure, whatever. Hey did you hear some kids got shot at school? Priorities assholes.
First, he claimed that he was merely defending homeopaths in general and did not explicitly state that he was defending homeopathy for measles specifically. However, one must ask the critical question that if he defends homeopaths in general (and considering the fact that homeopaths push homeopathy for measles and many homeopaths are anti-vaccine) is he not giving support for homeopathic quackery? Also, if Titus replies to a tweet criticizing the notion of homeopathy for measles by stating that homeopathy works, has no side effects and have healed many, it is a reasonable interpretation to view it as giving (at least indirect) support for homeopathy for measles.
Second, he dismissed concerns about homeopathic quackery by asserting that the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida is much more important and should be prioritized over criticizing homeopathic quackery pushed by celebrities on Twitter.
According to WHO, there were 89 780 reported deaths due to measles and vaccines have saved an estimated 20.4 million lives between 2000 and 2016. Before measles vaccination, measles used to kill 2.6 million people every year. Thus, there is merit to making scientific objections to both homeopathy and anti-vaccine claims.
The relative harms from homeopathic quackery versus school shootings also does not matter in the context of this exchange, since it is possible to make objections to more than one problem at the same time. Trying to dismiss an issue because there is some other issue that is deemed more important is known as the fallacy of relative privation or whataboutism.
Never said measles. Slander, Defamation, lawsuit. I never said that either…til now.
It is interesting that a comedian like Titus who obviously pushes people’s buttons as part of his stand-up career and social activism could stoop to the level of trying to make scientific criticisms of his claims go away by hinting at a lawsuit threat. If the NRA would try to do anything similar against him, he would probably be furious and for good reason.
Finally, he blocked the Debunking Denialism account on Twitter.
A more productive approach would have been to tweet that he was wrong about homeopathy and move on. That would have been the intellectually honest thing to do. Changing your position based on scientific evidence is something good, not something bad. For instance, when gun violence defenders change their minds and start supporting real gun regulations, this is not a failure, but a success.
Changing your beliefs to fit the evidence is something to be proud of.