Homeopathy: not as bad as genocide

Last week in the Spectator I wrote a piece which I knew was going to get me into trouble. And indeed, to read some of the reaction since, you’d think I’d been advocating military intervention in support of Col Gaddafi or compulsory puppy drowning classes at primary school. Actually though, all I was doing was questioning the bizarre witch-hunt atmosphere that now surrounds the subject of homeopathy. Here’s what I said:
But as a general principle, when it comes to complementary medicine my sympathies are with the Prince of Wales (unusually) and with another, more famous prince: ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’

For Horatio, read any number of celebrity debunkers of religion, magic, pseudoscience and superstition, from Ben Goldacre and Richard…

(to read more, click here)

9 thoughts on “Homeopathy: not as bad as genocide”

  1. I don’t understand. Don’t some of our basic medicines come from plant extracts? Did not some of those wild age-old homeopathic remedies actually pass the scrutiny of the Victorian scientific eye and make it onto the shelves of our pharmacies in tablets, pastes and powders?

    The trouble with the post-Marxist closed-minded system of science is that it is political by design, and relies on the auto-scoff response to fend off any challenges to it in the first instance. Inevitably, this engenders a legion of semi-educated experts who are officially assured that they know best.

  2. “Don’t some of our basic medicines come from plant extracts? Did not some of those wild age-old homeopathic remedies actually pass the scrutiny of the Victorian scientific eye and make it onto the shelves of our pharmacies in tablets, pastes and powders?”

    There’s a difference between “Natural” medicine and homoeopathy. What you describe is the process whereby medicines were once created. That bears no relationship to homoeopathy. People chewed White Willow Bark because it had a pain killing effect. We know it contains natural aspirin.

    Homoeopathy says here’s a disease. The disease creates symptoms. We find in nature a substance that causes the same symptoms (doesn’t have to create the disease). NOTE: Does not cure the symptoms OR the disease in this natural state. Then we dilute this active substance, save a minuscule fraction, dilute again, save a minuscule fraction etc for several rounds till the amount of the active substance might be less than one molecule in a litre of water. Then add this to something like a sugar tablet and give to the patient. It cures the patient.

    Note: Homoeopathic “doctors” fax the medicines to each other.

    Now prove me wrong by giving me a homoeopathic remedy equivalent of White Willow Bark.

  3. The following got mangled

    “We know it contains natural aspirin.” should read

    We now know it contains natural aspirin. From there it is a short step to refine the active ingredient increasing its potency and removing impurities.

  4. Speaking of Dawkins, a couple of years ago I asked on his website: if his membership of the New Humanist Society, and his associations with Polly Toynbee, was a tacit admission of him being a Fabian?

    His devoted acolytes on the website, subtitled: “A Clear-Thinking Oasis”, subsequently censored all my posts; though credit to a few who did complain, mainly as they wanted me there to be a writhing punch-bag for their own invectives.

    Thankfully they offer the critics from the ranks of the dull and ordinary variety of atheist, the clear demarcation of their re-brand: New Atheism. They seem to hide behind the stalking horse of science, as the Nazi’s hid behind German heroism; seducing an otherwise rational people, into sterilizing the children of a lesser god, because they just didn’t fit the utopia of the ubermensch, or worse, they threatened to vitiate it.

    So we now have an ugly dwarf, spawned from the intolerance of ‘clear-thinking’, posing as science and reason, imploring rational people to regard unorthodox personal philosophies, as the spastic minds fit for intellectual sterilisation, or worse.

    Those who have experienced any form of scientific pursuit, from A-level to PhD research, would have experienced the sheer delight that is hypothesising: “It is a good morning exercise for a research scientist to discard a pet hypothesis every day before breakfast. It keeps him young.”[Konrad Lorenz]. Indeed, it is the inexactitude of real science that allows the creative mind to explore the unknown, given only some of the facts of all of the universe, real scientists have achieved marvels. This comes about because for every good idea, there are dozens of wrong ones, and this is the necessary intellectual entropy that ensures the success of real science.

    But these new-wave, intolerant, politically motivated scientists, are putting science at the brink of a credibility abyss; simply by insisting on the gleichshaltung of ‘clear-thinking’. They have opened the cage of the science dwarfs, which spit and kick at all that are non-scientific, because their creative genus has been transplanted by political manifesto; like drunken brown-shirts, enthused by their new found status of herrenvolk, yet lacking real attributes, resort to attacking the other, in the hope of advancing by default.

    And here we are, looking down at the homoeopathy spastics in the gutter, next to all manner of misfits and unorthodoxy, writhing in pools of obloquy. They’re not us, so we’re OK… for now.

  5. “Now prove me wrong by giving me a homoeopathic remedy equivalent of White Willow Bark.” – TDK

    Witchcraft spells! The placebo effect! Give milk powder capsules disguised as aspirin, and it will have some effect in some people (though I don’t recommend this as an alternative to real aspirin for all conditions, especially as a blood-thinner during aircraft flights for people at risk of deep vein thrombosis). The placebo effect is the power of mind over matter. People in the nuclear industry with malfunctioning dosimeters have suffered all the symptoms of radiation sickness, from vomiting to hair loss, until blood counts finally disproved their lethal dose. Homeopathetic medicines which are so diluted with pure water that none of the original drug is present can hardly be a poison; they’re a psychological complement to modern medicine and are guaranteed not to interfere with any drug! Water is harmless. As with religion, horoscopes and the supernatural, many people who go in for this kind of thing find it useful for other reasons, such as groupthink rebellion against mainstream authority, or entertainment.

    The strawman argument against complementary medicines is to take the most diluted “15C” homeopathetic medicine, prove it to be pure water chemically, then claim it is misleading the public and causing everyone to take useless medicine in place of proven remedies. Part of the problem here is that proven remedies are proven in a way that ignores the placebo benefit, and there is also the problem that pure water has no side-effects, unlike most “proven remedies”. So the comparison can be misleading. If the patients are all prehistoric morons who can’t think for themselves, then the argument would be 100% valid.

    “And here we are, looking down at the homoeopathy spastics in the gutter, next to all manner of misfits and unorthodoxy, writhing in pools of obloquy.” – JimmyGiro

    Orthodoxy is the definition of organized religion, which is anathema to scientists. The professional “scientist” who fits in to an orthodox dogma in exchange for a research grant of thirty pieces of silver, is hardly a scientist. A better name is priest. Example:

    “Lack of boundary conditions: Most well-supported scientific theories possess well-articulated limitations under which the predicted phenomena do and do not apply.” – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pseudoscience#Use_of_vague.2C_exaggerated_or_untestable_claims

    This is the definition of pseudoscience dressed up as a definition of science. The argument is that “every good theory must be wrong beyond certain limits”. So what happens if someone discovers a theory which is correct for all instances, not merely a limited range? Answer: it is censored out as being “wrong”. Let’s give a personal example. Via page 896 of the October 1996 issue of Electronics World, I published a prediction of the cosmological acceleration, a ~ Hc = 7 x 10^{-10} m/s^2 (it was also published in the Feb 1997 Science World, ISSN 1367-6172). The prediction was confirmed by two different teams, including Perlmutter who published in Nature, from automated CCD telescope supernova redshift observations a couple of years after I had submitted my paper to Nature, CQG, and other journals early in 1996.

    The “proper” journals rejected it as “speculative” before confirmation, and as “ad hoc” after publication. The CQG (Classical and Quantum Gravity) journal editor sent me a “peer”-reviewer report saying that the paper was nonsense because it wasn’t based on “superstring theory” (which doesn’t exist, since there are is a landscape of 10^500 metastable stringy vacua, each a different stabilized compactification of 6/7 extra spatial dimensions).

    Both prediction methods used gave the same prediction, but they were entirely unconnected. First, transferring Hubble’s 1929 recession law v = HR into spacetime rather than merely spatial distance R, predicts the acceleration. Second, a quantum gravity theory in which gravity is produced by forces generated by the exchange of gravitons, predicts the correct cosmological acceleration, and completely independently of the v = HR or a ~ Hc prediction. In “scientific” arguments over this, other people always hurl vitrol such as false claims based on ignorance, and then close the discussion without allowing a reply. This includes, unfortunately, those who claim to be outsiders themselves.

    The groupthink-based Wikipedia article on pseudoscience states:

    “A field, practice, or body of knowledge might reasonably be called pseudoscientific when (1) it is presented as consistent with the norms of scientific research; but (2) it demonstrably fails to meet these norms.”

    Problem is, as Professor Paul Feyerabend explained in “Against Method”, norms are invariably wrong and hold back science. Science is not a methodology, but is whatever works. In superstring theory and CO2 AGW theory, we have good examples of things that work in the sense of sucking in money for “research”, while producing no useful output. No core theory falsifiable predictions have come out of superstring. It does generate research funding, science fiction, and numerous false, overblown, or overhyped media spin doctor claims. Similarly, the only use of AGW – besides providing about $1 billion a year in research funds to NASA – is that it massages the egos of the self-righteous, sanctimonious liars. Wikipedia defines pseudoscience as follows:

    “Pseudoscience is a claim, belief, or practice which is presented as scientific, but which does not adhere to a valid scientific methodology, lacks supporting evidence or plausibility, cannot be reliably tested, or otherwise lacks scientific status.”

    In this case, superstring theory and AGW theory are both pseudoscience. Here is an alternative definition of science, from Jerome Y. Lettvin’s “The Second Dark Ages” in the UNESCO Symposium on “Culture and Science”, Paris, 6-10 September 1971 (published in Clarke, “Notes for the Future”, Thames and Hudson, London, 1975, pages 141-150):

    “There are two distinct meanings to the word ‘science’. The first meaning is what physicists and mathematicians do. The second meaning is a magical art, about which the general public has superstition. … What is of harm is the blind faith in an imposed system that is implied. ‘Science says’ has replaced ‘scripture tells us’ but with no more critical reflection on the one that on the other. … I have fear of what science says, not the science that is hard-won knowledge but that other science, the faith imposed on people by a self-elected administering priesthood. … In the hands of an unscrupulous and power-grasping priesthood, this efficient tool, just as earlier, the Final Man, has become an instrument of bondage. … A metaphysics that ushered in the Dark Ages is again flourishing. … Natural sciences turned from description to a ruminative scholarship concerned with authority. … Our sales representatives, trained in your tribal taboos, will call on you shortly. You have no choice but to buy. For this is the new rationalism, the new messiah, the new Church, and the new Dark Ages come upon us.”

  6. Right let’s see.

    Advocates of homoeopathy claim that their medicine have an effect above and beyond the acknowledged placebo effect and your counter-examples lead off with …. the placebo effect.

    Says it all really.

    Then you try and widen the discussion by talking about supposed problems with the tests, complimentary medicine in general or definitions of pseudo-science.

    Well done.

  7. BTW for the record I don’t believe in homoeopathy but I certainly don’t want to ban it or restrict its availability. If people choose to believe in it, that’s no threat to me. I would agree with James that there is an over-reaction to these ideas.

    Also for the record my wife and I are friends with a couple. He is a solicitor and she a teacher. She earns extra money in her spare time as a homoeopathic practitioner and has the certificate proudly framed. She also believes passionately that mobile phones and electricity pylons cause cancer and … that man-made global warming is not only real but that IPCC is understating the dangers. No bearing on this issue either way but I find it amusing how frequently catastrophism comes in package with sandal wearing woo.

  8. “Advocates of homoeopathy claim that their medicine have an effect above and beyond the acknowledged placebo effect …” – TDK

    Claims require evidence, but you’re generalizing without any examples, which seems to be a strawman attack, irrespective of particular cases and dilution factors for “remedies”. The placebo effect (or its opposite) is actually present in all kinds of currently accepted trials, like radiation effects on humans in the RERF study of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The control groups they took was the population beyond say 3.5 km from ground zero, who knew they had received very little radiation. All through the 1950s, the highly irradiated exposed groups within 3.5 km were bombarded with media scare stories that they were all doomed to die from cancer. The 1958 book “Formula for Death” and subsequent books document some the effects of this pro-disarmament radiation scare story propaganda, such as increased stress, depression, smoking, and other effects in the highly irradiated groups.

    Actually the effects of radiation in mammals do show evidence of hormesis for exposure at low dose rates. At Oak Ridge National Lab, Tennessee, in the 1950s, there was the “megamouse” project where millions of mice were exposed at various dose rates to determine long-term effects from radiation. There was a threshold dose rate of 0.5 R/hour (5 mSv/hr) before any genetic effects appeared in female mice, which is 50,000 times natural background! The mechanism for hormesis at low dose rates is the natural DNA repair enzymes like P53, which exist in all cell nuclei repairing single and double strand breaks before somatic or genetic replication. This effect doesn’t appear in short-lived insects and plants like Muller’s fruit flies or corn, which were used to produce the misleading “linear-no threshold” (LNT) legislation for dose limits back in the 1950s. There is some evidence that the whole basis of radiation health physics on doses is wrong, and the correct approach is to limit the dose rate.

    Using your aspirin example, the health consequences are more closely correlated to the number of aspirin you take each day, not the total lifetime dosage. It’s the dose rate, not the dose, that matters. You might be able to take a dose rate of 1 aspirin a week for 10 years (total dose = 520 aspirins) with no effect at all, not even stomach ulcers! But if you took the same dose of 520 aspirins all at once, you’d probably bleed to death. It’s the same with the incredibly high dose rate from the air burst nuclear explosions in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Most of the doses were received from initial fireball radiation over about 20 seconds before the fireball rose high to form the mushroom, so multiple double-strand DNA breaks occurred all at once, resulting in recombination errors when the fragmented DNA was “repaired” by P53 and other repair proteins. This resulted in the higher cancer rate in survivors. If you spread out the dose, the repairs can be done in-step with the damage. Similarly, if you break a vase into thousands of pieces all at once, it’s harder to repair it correctly than if you break it one piece at a time and repair it before the next break occurs!

    What happens with homoeopathy is similar to radiation hormesis where radiation damage to DNA drives the body to devote more resources to DNA repair enzymes, costing more energy but reducing the cancer rate. It’s similar to the over-compensation after regular exercise. If you do too much too infrequently, it can be harmful, but spread out it stimulates a compensation by the body, a biological version of LeChatelier’s principle in chemistry. Disturb an equilibrium, and the system tends to compensate.

    Mathematically, existing medicine and also things like the LNT theory of radiation dose effects and CO2 AGW theory, are naive. They result in a relationship where the effect E is related to dose D by a formula like E = cD (where c is a constant) or for population growth or global warming (with assumed positive feedback from H2O evaporation and increased humidity), E = c*exp(D).

    Nature rarely conforms to such simplistic linear or exponential models, preferring either a “saturation” model, E = c[1 – exp(-D)] or the “pulse” model, E = c[{exp(-aD)} – {exp(-bD)}].

    In the saturation model, for low doses the effect is linear, but for large doses it reaches a maximum limit and then ceases to increase any further.

    In the pulse model, it starts off with a rise that reaches a peak, and then returns to normal with an exponential decay. If you mix two chemicals for an exothermic reaction, the temperature rises to a peak as the reaction progresses, then falls to ambient as the system reaches a stable equilibrium. I’m working on a paper about CO2 effects on temperature, and it seems that this is the correct analogy. Pump CO2 into the atmosphere, and the temperature initially rises a little, but this causes the oceans to gradually warm very slightly, which increases the evaporation rate and cloud cover, which cancels out the temperature rise by increasing earth’s albedo slightly! The same mechanism can result from taking low doses of herbal remedies; you get a slight shift in natural processes, maybe boosting the immune system or the DNA repair enzymes.

  9. “Pump CO2 into the atmosphere, and the temperature initially rises a little, but this causes the oceans to gradually warm very slightly, which increases the evaporation rate and cloud cover, which cancels out the temperature rise by increasing earth’s albedo slightly! ”

    Wrong. Cloud formation is not only dependent upon atmospheric water vapour but also aerosol concentration, which provides condensation nuclei. If not enough condensation nuclei are present then the air becomes supersaturated and cloud formation is inhibited. Furthermore, the various different cloud types produce the albedo effect to different degrees. One must also consider the effect of the clouds reflecting radiation from the ground back towards the Earth.

    Secondly, nature rarely conforms to pulse or saturation models either. With such an enormously complex system, nothing models will also be comparably complicated. Modelling the atmosphere with a couple of exponential functions is greedy reductionism in the extreme.

    As an aside, the IPCC have taken increasing atmospheric aerosol concentrations into account in their models, as well as cloud formation and the albedo affect (see IPCC AR4 WGI), and these negative feedback forcing mechanisms do not counter-balance the effect of atmospheric CO2 rise.

    If this your paper is accepted and published I will buy a (edible) hat and eat it.

    As an honest question, what breed of scientist are you? I ask because you appear to have written two papers on quite different subjects.

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