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A paper we covered has been retracted, and we couldn’t be happier

Enlarge / Dikembe Mutombo rejects your flawed publication. (credit: DAVID MAXWELL / Getty Images)

Well, that took a while. Five years after Ars’ Chris Lee pointed out that the authors of a homeopathy paper were doing little more than offering up “magic” as an explanation for their results, the editors of the journal it was published in have retracted it. The retraction comes over the extensive objections of the paper’s authors, who continued to believe their work was solid. But really, the back-and-forth between the editors and authors has gotten bogged down in details that miss the real problem with the original paper.

The work described in the now-retracted paper involved a small clinical trial for depression treatment with three groups of participants. One group received a standard treatment, another a placebo. The third group received a homeopathic remedy—meaning they received water. According to the analysis in the paper, the water was more effective than either the placebo or the standard treatment. But as Chris noted in his original criticism, the authors leap to the conclusion that treating people with water must therefore be effective.

The problem with this is that it ignores some equally viable explanations, such as a statistical fluke in a very small study (only about 45 people per group) or that it was the time spent with the homeopathic practitioner that made the difference, not the water. These are problems with the interpretation of the results rather than with the data. (This probably explains why the paper ended up published by PLOS ONE, where reviewers are asked to simply look at the quality of the data rather than the significance of the results.)

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