The War Against Gobbledygook

By Mark Trodden | June 12, 2007 11:33 pm

I’ve just read another fine, short and clear column in The Guardian by Ben Goldacre, whose take on most things I completely agree with. In this case, he’s discussing that a distinguished British academic – Professor David Colquhoun FRS of University College London – has been forced to remove his blog – DC’s Improbable Science Page – from university servers.

Now, for some blogs, this can be a good idea, in order to separate the personal ideas of the blogger on all kinds of subjects from those of their institution. However, this blog is written by a scientist and is entirely about science. In fact, it plays one of the most important roles of science, that of educating the public about how to apply scientific criteria and standards of evidence to things that directly affect their lives. In this case, the claims made by various purveyors of alternative medicine.

This is the kind of work that universities should explicitly support. Sure it costs money to deal with complaints from quacks. Sure the university will lose popularity in some quarters for supporting the fight against charlatans. Sure it may take valuable administrative and legal time and effort to back a scientist in a dispute with cheats and liars. But isn’t this the side a university should want to be on? Either an institution values science and the scientific method or it doesn’t.

The request to take down the blog comes after a number of complaints to UCL’s Provost, including one complaining about Colquhoun’s use of the word gobbledygook. But when he’s writing about topics like psychic surgery, or homeopathy, what better word is there. One might say that ideas like these are stupid, idiotic, complete bollocks, nonsensical, pseudoscientific, claptrap, balderdash, baloney, drivel, mumbo-jumbo, or any one of a hundred other fitting and appropriately insulting phrases, but gobbledygook works just fine.

For a concrete example of the work Prof. Colquhoun does to protect the public by fighting ignorance and scientific dishonesty, here’s a letter he wrote to The Independent, after they advertised the Helios Homeopathy Travellers Kit (costing £38.95) as one of their Top Ten Best Travel First Aid Kits

Sir:

On Monday 24th July you featured The Ten Best Travel first aid kits.

One of these was the Helios Homeopathy Travellers’ kit. All the “remedies” in this kit are in the 30C dilution. They therefore contain no trace of the substance on the label .You pay £38.95 for a lot of sugar pills. To get even one molecule you’d have to swallow a sphere with a diameter equal to the distance from the earth to the sun. That is hard to swallow.

Helios was one of the companies that was pilloried by the Newsnight programme when their representative recommended homeopathic prevention of malaria. That was condemned even by some homeopaths as dangerous and irresponsible.

It is quite simple. This medicine contains no medicine. You are endangering your readers by recommending it.

David Colquhoun
PROFESSOR OF PHARMACOLOGY
UNIVERSITY COLLEGE LONDON
LONDON WC1

What a great letter; short, to the point, funny, and phrased in a way that hammers home how silly the idea is in terms the public can understand. Society is in desperate need of scientists to play this role. As Goldacre writes

… in a world where most orthodox “public engagement with science” activity consists of smug, faux-radical “science meets art” projects, Colquhoun – a world expert on single ion channels – was showing the world what science really does. He took dodgy scientific claims, or “hypotheses” as we call them in the trade, and examined the experimental evidence for them, in everyday language, with humour and verve. I would say his blog is a treat for the wider public, and arguably a rather good use of the time and resources of a public servant who has devoted his entire life to academia, on its relatively low wages, never once working for industry.

More and more of our everyday lives depend on scientific discoveries, and the decisions we must make regarding them demand at least a rudimentary understanding of the scientific method. At the same time scientists face increasing demands on their time from grants, teaching and research. The very least a university can do is to stand behind those who find time to take on this valuable role.

Update: It is wonderful to hear that UCL is doing the right thing and now throwing its support fully behind Professor Colquhoun. Goldacre’s Bad Science Blog now has the text of a joint statement from UCL and Colquhoun that states, in conclusion

UCL has a long and outstanding liberal tradition and is committed to encouraging free and frank academic debate. The evidence (or lack thereof) for the claims made for health supplements is a matter of great public interest, and UCL supports all contributions to that debate. The only restriction it places on the use of its facilities is that its staff should use their academic freedom responsibly within the law.
To this end, the Provost and Professor Colquhoun have taken advice from a senior defamation Queen’s Counsel, and we are pleased to announce that Professor Colquhoun’s website — with some modifications effected by him on counsel’s advice – will shortly be restored to UCL’s servers. UCL will not allow staff to use its website for the making of personal attacks on individuals, but continues strongly to support and uphold Professor Colquhoun’s expression of uncompromising opinions as to the claims made for the effectiveness of treatments by the health supplements industry or other similar bodies

Congratulations to Prof. Colquhoun and to UCL.

(Many thanks to Justin for pointing this out in the comment section)

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  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/joanne/ JoAnne

    Don’t forget jiggery-pokery. One of my favorite Briticisms! Here’s hoping he signs up for a nice free blogger engine, although I’m not sure I would recommend ours.

  • Carl Brannen

    Aren’t sugar pills well known to cure by way of the placebo effect?

  • dave tweed

    I’ve had a look at the site, and I must say I’m torn. In almost all cases he attributes purveyors/proponents of alternative medicines as dishonest and deceitful, which I think will probably convince a certain proportion of the audience that there’s undue persecution. In any case, I’m inclined to the (Bayesian) belief in a lot of the cases that it’s not what’s commonly known thought of as dishonesty as much as wishful thinking and a lack of desire to actively and rigorously test whether one’s wishful thinking ideas are actually right. (I’m reminded of a Feynman comment about scientistic honesty along the lines that there’s two levels of scientific “honesty”: the general world of not telling things you know to be untrue, and the more important one of being “honest with yourself” by actively trying to test and validate/disprove your ideas rather than taking it easy.) Of course, he’d probably still get the same volume of negative correspondence, but it might make the more general audience more receptive to what he’s saying.

  • http://www.pieterkok.com/index.html PK

    Carl, there is a discussion about this on Colquhoun’s new site under Dilemma’s at the heart of “alternative medicine”. There is a funny cartoon, too.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    Hi JoAnne. The link I gave is actually to the new home for the site, and so that should be safe for him – hopefully.

    Hi Carl. I’d say the placebo effect is real, but sugar cubes do nothing.

    Hi dave. I’d generally agree with you when it comes to individual consumers wanting to believe one of these things can help, or the occasional ignorant individual who is, as you say, indulging in wishful thinking. However, these things have become big business, with large companies and lawyers behind tham. They are fully aware that every possible scientific experiment shows that they can’t and shouldn’t work, and yet persist because they can con money out of the uninformed and the gullible. That’s why I think it is important to call them what they are – crooks and charlatans.

  • Justin

    Ben Goldacre just posted an update on his blog saying that the university reviewed the case and fully supports Colquhoun.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    Thanks Justin! I just posted an update to reflect this.

  • Jeremy Chapman

    It’s sad that a university (especially one as reputable and prestigious as UCL) would succumb so easily to politics in spite of the interests of the faculty (and science itself). Even if enough complaining makes them change their mind, it’s not really the point.

    What kind of person would go to the provost to complain about something as foolish as that anyway?

  • ingo

    So, I recently read “Why do people get ill” by Leader and Corfield (2007) and that has made me wary of blanket claims such as Colquhouns. I think that in this issue, a look at the content of the blog is necessary to decide whether the decision was legitimate.

    In regard to the homeopathy comment above, he quotes one of the oldest complaints in the book “that there is not anything in it and so it can’t work”. The assumption implicit here is that what makes medicine work is molecules. This might seem obvious but it is actually contested. Now, the evidence in favor of homeopathy doesn’t look too good, but still, this is a legitimate controversy.

    In general, the fight of traditional medicine against “alternative” forms has, to me, many of the characteristics of bad science: Too often, the argument is “We can’t explain it, so it can’t be true”. That is making the issue to easy. If there is evidence that can’t be explained, do more research! In particular, as outlined in the abovementioned book, psychosomatic factors are often disregarded. The interesting thing to me here is that these factors have (apparently) not been disproven by any means, but drug-based therapy has received so much more (commercial, I might add) interest that it has been overshadowed.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    Hi ingo. I very much disagree. I have taken a very good look at the blog (what makes you think I haven’t?) and agree with basically everything that Colquhoun says. In the case of homeopathy, it is just plain true that if there’s nothing in the “medicine” other than water, then it cannot do anything other than what water does. To my knowledge there are no reputable studies supporting homeopathy. But in any case, the fact that these medicines are water and nothing else is enough to know that al they can cure is dehydration.

    What do you think makes medicine work if not the molecules of medicine? (I’m assuming you won’t say something like “water has a memory”.)

  • http://thecrossedpond.com adam

    I am glad for Prof Colquhoun, although I don’t understand why he’d want his blog hosted on University servers. I understand that he sees what he’s writing about as a part of his work, but I’m just not convinced that I’d want it on there if I were he, nevertheless. On the other hand, he appears to have maintained admirable discipline in keeping to the task at hand, when he blogs.

    I think that homeopathy sucks rancid yak testicle, needless to say.

  • JF Eisman

    I find it amazing that, in this day and age, so many humans believe that scientific consensus equals fact.

    If I have to cite examples of the fallacy of that belief, then I would be wasting my time. If you cannot read history and extrapolate, then you do not have the ability to understand that science should be sceptical of everything.

    To condemn homeopathy because you do not know how it works, does in no way prove or disprove the efficacy of a remedy applied according to the rules of homeopathy.

    Pseudo sceptics have the common blind spot of believing that if a majority of experts believe in something, then that something must be true, almost as if truth were an absolute.

    Anyway, for those who do not understand, just turn to your encyclopedia and look up ‘Galileo’

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Comparison to Galileo! 40 points!

  • http://whenindoubtdo.blogspot.com/ Eugene

    Don’t forget the other 40 points for alluding to the conspiratorial scientific establishment.

  • http://jenniferhead.cfa.harvard.edu Jennifer West

    Straight from Warren Siegel’s “Are you a quack?” page, under the “personal attacks” section:


    “That’s what they told Galileo.”
    I know Galileo, and you’re no Galileo. On the contrary, you’re one of “they”, people who, without any evidence in their favor, contradict real scientists.

    Full page is here, http://insti.physics.sunysb.edu/~siegel/quack.html, and it’s as good as John’s, which is high praise. I have to admit that when I read John’s page I panicked a bit, because I just wrote a note to a student about Feyman’s lectures, not Feymann’s lectures, and I thought my god I’ve been spelling his name wrong all this time!

    Anyway, probably this will do no good, however….IF it is true that homeopathic medicine contains only water or sugar, then it is true that it can only do what water and/or sugar can do. If you take into account the fact that some people believe that homeopathic treatments cure certain ailments, the belief alone can be a cure, this is also a scientific truth. Unfortunately, it is not the treatment itself that is doing the curing, but the person with the ailment is curing themselves.

  • jongo

    to JF Eisman

    Homeopathy has been in existence for over 200 years. In all that time it has not been shown to more effective than a plecebo. It theories defy common sense and physics. It is just science that discredits it. Even other CAM practioners such as herbalists consider it to be one of the therapies that bring CAM into disrepute.

    Whilst science may not know everything, abandoning it to go back to the dark ages is not the answer.

    Homeopathy is a type of faith healing. My sister-in-law is a homepath and I have been told by her that homeopathy won’t work on me because I don’t believe in it. I asked her how she would treat someone who was uncouncious and therefore was not in a position to either believe or dis-believe, but all I got was the ‘science doesn’t know everything’ and ‘you’re not open minded’ mantras. I am still awaiting a proper answer to my question.

    If ‘belief’ or ‘faith’ is all that is required for healing as most CAM advocates, then why do we become ill in the first place. I really really do not want to become ill. I have never ever wanted to be ill, so why have I been ill in the past? Holes in my lifeforce, or a leaking aura?

    If water has a memeory as homeopathics believe, then all water we drink is a remedy. But how long does water retain this memeory, a few hours, days, weeks, years, or even millions of years? For all homeopaths know (which is nothing) it could be Bronotosaurus piss that is the cure.

    re Galileo. His theories are now accepted as fact thru the scientific process, ie they were held up to examination by other scientists and shown to be correct.

  • http://thecrossedpond.com adam

    Well, some of Galileo’s theories we don’t talk about much anymore (such as the tides stuff). Some of his theories were vindicated.

    Galileo appears to have had all the personal charm of the modern Dick Cheney, which probably didn’t help him (perhaps he filled the Pope with arrows on a hunting trip?).

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  • http://stevem2500.wordpress.com stevenm

    There is a disturbing amount of snake oil and quackery out there and people who are ill or desperate are often very vulnerable and easily exploited. It should therefore be debunked whenever possible. Incidently, I always thought a ‘homeopath’ was a gay axe killer.

  • Richard

    This is actually a fascinating subject, and Mark’s comment #10 shows exactly what the adherents of homeopathy face when speaking to most of today’s scientific community:

    To my knowledge there are no reputable studies supporting homeopathy.

    OK, but how hard have you looked? Here is a small sample of reputable studies that tend to validate the efficacy of homeopathy (where possible, citations are to full text articles):

    Lancet 1994

    Inflammation Research 2004

    Rheumatology 2004

    In the case of homeopathy, it is just plain true that if there’s nothing in the “medicine” other than water, then it cannot do anything other than what water does.

    This is where things get interesting. You can show people reputable studies until you’re blue in the face, only to hear that each and every one of them “can’t be true,” because “logically, it doesn’t make sense.” “They must have made a mistake!”

    Of course, no one who says this will take the time to read any of these studies. They just know!

    On the other hand, studies and methodologies that would be laughed out of court in just about any other field of scientific inquiry are upheld as proof that homeopathy doesn’t work.

    For example, there’s the highly-publicized August 2005 Lancet study in which the authors claimed to compare 110 homeopathic trials to an equal number of conventional ones, as you can see from the abstract. But if you read the article, you will find that only 8 homeopathic studies and 6 conventional ones were actually compared — and the authors have refused to reveal which ones they chose.

    In that context, the Lancet editorial that accompanied this article, which proclaimed “the end of homeopathy,” sounds a lot more like a cry of desperation than the confident refutation it was supposed to represent.

    For a review of the state of homeopathic research, take a look at this 2005 article from the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine.

    What do you think makes medicine work if not the molecules of medicine?

    We obviously have no idea, but wouldn’t it be great to find out?

    One of the problems with conducting basic science research about homeopathy is that people haven’t really known where to start.

    Rustum Roy, one of the founders of materials science, co-wrote a 2005 article in Materials Research Innovations, which is worth quoting from:

    “This paper does not deal in any way with, and has no bearing whatsoever on, the clinical efficacy of any homeopathic remedy. However, it does definitively demolish the objection against homeopathy, when such is based on the wholly incorrect claim that since there is no difference in composition between a remedy and the pure water used, there can be no differences at all between them. We show the untenability of this claim against the central paradigm of materials science that it is structure (not composition) that (largely) controls properties, and structures can easily be changed in inorganic phases without any change of composition. The burden of proof on critics of homeopathy is to establish that the structure of the processed remedy is not different from the original solvent.”

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    I’ll stick with this thanks:

    http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v434/n7030/full/nature03383.html

    Our results highlight the efficiency of energy redistribution within the hydrogen-bonded network, and that liquid water essentially loses the memory of persistent correlations in its structure within 50 fs

  • KG Fjtnbo

    I find it amazing that, in this day and age, so many quacks believe that a lack of scientific consensus equals spiritual fact.

    If I have to cite examples of the fallacy of that belief, thereby actually supporting my argument and making a valid case for myself, then I would be wasting my time. If you cannot read history and extrapolate, then clearly you do not have the ability to form my arguments for me, or to understand that quacks should be skeptical of nothing.

    To condemn scientific consensus, because you do not know how it works, does in no way prove or disprove the efficacy of science applied according to the laws of physics.

    Quacks have the common blind spot of believing that if a majority of quacks believe in something, then that something must be true, almost as if truth were an absolute.

    Anyway, for those who do not understand, just turn to your encyclopedia and look up ‘psychic’

  • Richard

    Thanks for your thoughtful reply, Mark.

  • http://roamnomore.blogspot.com Jonathan Dursi

    Um, those homeopathy studies you quoted were with *28* and *53* people, and the middle one was a biochemistry experiment with no followup.

    I notice you quote the 1994 Lancet study; why not the 2005 study that looked at *110* homeopathy trials and found no effect greater than placebo?

    http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140673605671772/abstract

    If you are only studying a couple dozen people, there are *always* going to be cases where you get a positive effect from random flukes. That’s why real studies involve many more people. And none of them involve bizarre 200C (that’s a `medicine’ that’s one part active ingredient in 100^{200}) concoctions of duck heart somehow curing actual people from actual diseases.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    It is a thoughtful reply Richard. I provided you with an article that demonstrates that any structural “memory” in water lasts femtoseconds. I don’t take the studies you pointed to seriously because of, among other things, the reasons Jonathan points out above.

    Extraordinary claims require solid evidence, and claims involving suspending the laws of physics are most certainly extraordinary.

  • Richard

    You raise some interesting points, Jonathan.

    First of all, I am not a medical researcher, but I would have to assume that the editors of Lancet and Rheumatology felt that the studies I mentioned would advance their field.

    I hope we can both agree, however, that higher-quality studies would be in everyone’s interests.

    As for why I wouldn’t choose the 2005 Lancet study, as I mentioned in my earlier post, the abstract doesn’t quite agree with the article it is supposed to summarize. Rather than the 110 trials of each type mentioned in the abstract,

    …if you read the article, you will find that only 8 homeopathic studies and 6 conventional ones were actually compared — and the authors have refused to reveal which ones they chose.

    As I said, there seems to be room for upping the quality of all of these studies.

    But let me ask a question here: if homeopathy is bunk, why would Lancet publish such a shoddy study to debunk it? Were they in a hurry or something? They could have had the authors do a little better job!

    Finally, your remark about the middle study I mentioned brings up an interesting point, which also relates to the quality of the research to date relating to the value of homeopathy.

    First let me mention that there are three questions at issue here:

    1. Whether homeopathy is clinically effective

    2. Whether other high dilution effects are real

    3. What the underlying mechanism might be for homeopathy and any such related effects

    The two Lancet studies we have mentioned and the Rheumatology study revolve around the first issue.

    The Materials Research Innovation article I mentioned and the Nature article mentioned in Mark’s post relate to the third.

    The Inflammation Research article relates to the second.

    The researchers in this study were attempting to determine whether “High dilutions of histamine (10(-30)-10(-38) M) influence the activation of human basophils measured by alcian blue staining.”

    The authors conclude that “In 3 different types of experiment, it has been shown that high dilutions of histamine may indeed exert an effect on basophil activity.” They finish their abstract by saying “We are however unable to explain our findings and are reporting them to encourage others to investigate this phenomenon.”

    Isn’t something this anomalous worth at least a mole or two of intellectual curiosity?

  • Avril

    If homeopathy was such a load of nonsense, how come practically the entire ruling elite used it in the 1900s?
    A HISTORY OF HOMOEOPATHY IN BRITAIN
    http://homeoint.org/morrell/articles/pm_brita.htm

  • Richard

    Mark, I realize that you will only be convinced by high-quality studies proving the efficacy of homeopathy and proof of an underlying mechanism that explains it in accordance with the laws of physics. I respect that.

    But you should realize two things:

    1. This is only an issue in 2007 because millions of people over the past two hundred years have seen remarkable improvements in their health due to the correct application of homeopathy. If it weren’t for that, homeopathy would have gone the way of bloodletting. For them this is an empirical question that outweighs any theoretical considerations.

    2. Organized conventional medicine has been saying the same nasty things about homeopathy since conventional doctors were ever so scientifically using leeches and lead and mercury on people. For them, theoretical considerations have always outweighed empirical results, even when their theories were, shall we say, rather quaint.

    People who have any curiosity at all about this issue could do a lot worse than buying an acute remedy kit like the Helios kit that was mentioned in the original post. The next time you get a bee sting, or have a cold, or suffer from insomnia, hold your metaphorical nose and follow the instructions exactly.

    Homeopathy requires pattern matching skills that may take a few tries to acquire, but once you get the hang of it, you could be pleasantly surprised.

    I realize this issue is difficult for many people, because they think homeopathy contravenes the laws of physics — but since we don’t really know how it might work, it might be more productive to think of this in terms of science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke’s famous Third Law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

    I’d also like to present a corollary: Any sufficiently advanced “magic” is unrecognizable as technology.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Congratulations to Mark for attracting an entirely new species of crackpot to the blog. I tried to poke fun at the geocentrists, but didn’t really get any takers.

  • Zarquon

    If homeopathy was such a load of nonsense, how come practically the entire ruling elite used it in the 1900s?

    The same elites that a decade later cheered enthusiastically for WW1?

    Oh yeah, them.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    We’re not getting anywhere here Richard. Anecdotal evidence is not important – real studies are. Many have been done. None show a statistically reasonable effect. This is as to be expected because there is absolutely no mechanism other than placebo through which it can work. I know people would love to think tht there was some mystical, ill-understood property of water, but it just makes no sense.

    We should not be giving people false hope or fleecing them by promising such an effect.

  • Richard

    I understand your viewpoint, Mark.

    And for now, I rest my case.

  • Clive

    “Anecdotal evidence is not important – real studies are. Many have been done. None show a statistically reasonable effect. This is as to be expected because there is absolutely no mechanism other than placebo through which it can work”.

    One of the latest homeopathic studies, a “real study” shows this statement to be wrong on both counts.
    A homeopathic preparation of sabal serrulata was shown to have an inhibiting effect on prostate cancer cells. The remedy was a 100c potency. At 100c Avogadro’s number is very much a thing of the past. The effect of the remedy was described as “stastically highly significant”
    http://www.trusthomeopathy.org/csArticles/articles/000001/000116.htm

    On the subject of placebo, unfortunately it does not state whether the cancer cells knew that they were being treated or not……..a bit like these mice…
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/3208528.stm

  • Haludza

    Geneticist Steve Jones’ favourite joke:

    Well, there was this homeopath who forgot to take his medicine and died of an overdose.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    I might read that article if I had access to it, but I’m not going to be swayed by a pres release from the BHA – hardly unbiased.

  • http://countiblis.blogspot.com Count Iblis

    Mark:

    We’re not getting anywhere here Richard.

    The “War Against Gobbledygook” can only be won by launching pre-emptive attacks. A purely defensive strategy is not going to work. Children in kindergarten and primary school are not taught much about science at all. This then exposes their brains to Gobbledygook. Once infected with it, it is very difficult to get rid of it.

  • http://roamnomore.blogspot.com Jonathan Dursi

    And again, unimpressed by the studies that `prove’ homeopathy work. The rats study (the first one Clive points out) involved *16* rats in each of the groups. Two of the rats `treated’ with homeopathy died *immediately* after `treatment’ and were excluded from the analysis. Of the surviving rats, the magical homeopathy treatment had `inhibited’ tumor growth to the tune of the tumors were ~37g instead of ~42 g in mass, and there was no significant difference in metastisis. The arsenic-poisioning study with mice involved groups of *5* mice.

    You really believe that 100C concentrations of homeopathic medicine can cure arsenic poisining? Go ahead — give yourself toxic concentrations of arsenic, refuse hospital treatment, and take your homeopathic medicine-flavoured-water. See how that works out for you.

  • Thom H.

    I have to agree with J. Dursi’s last comment. It seems as if the only thing that homeopathic medicine cures is a case of the vapors or other ambiguous malady. I like the ‘alternative medicine ambulance’ cartoon that was published in some of the other blogs on this topic. Let’s see how many people call for the “CAMbulance” instead of a traditional one, or do a study on survival rates between the two.

    I keep thinking that if homeopathy really works, some rich benefactor could buy a few thousand dollars worth of various cures, pour them into Lake Michigan or the upper Mississippi and cure a quarter of the population of the US of everything that ails them. Or some city/county could eliminate almost its entire health care budget by dumping a few bottles of homeopathic medicine into their water system. Damn, if it were only so easy.

  • Clive

    Jonathan Dursi : Your comments do not appear to relate to the study I quoted. Here is a quote from the study extract.
    “The authors’ work assessed the antiproliferative effects of homeopathic preparations of Sabal serrulata, Thuja occidentalis, and Conium maculatum, in vivo, on nude mouse xenografts, and in vitro, on PC-3 and DU-145 human prostate cancer as well as MDA-MB-231 human breast cancer cell lines. Treatment with Sabal serrulata in vitro resulted in a 33% decrease of PC-3 cell proliferation at 72 hours and a 23% reduction of DU-145 cell proliferation at 24 hours (P

  • Clive

    Sorry, Half my post got cut off..

    Here is a link to the study itself :http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/sites/entrez?db=pubmed&cmd=Search&itool=pubmed_AbstractPlus&term=%22Maclaughlin%20BW%22%5BAuthor%5D

    With reference to the second study I linked to : Your crude analogy of treating arsenic toxicity has no relation to the findings of the researchers in that study. They found that treating the mice with homeopathic potencies of arsenic increased their powers of elimination of the crude arsenic.

    Many find homeopathy implausible and to say that it cannot work because we don’t understand a mechanism of action for it is a poor defence indeed (and utterly unscientific)
    For those who are interested , “The emerging science of homeopathy : complexity, biodynamics and nanopharmacology” by Bellavite and Signorini contains many studies that show an effect of homeopathic potencies on mice, rats and living tissue.

  • http://countiblis.blogspot.com Count Iblis

    …and to say that it cannot work because we don’t understand a mechanism of action for it is a poor defence indeed (and utterly unscientific)

    Any mechanism has to be compatible with the laws of physics. If homeopathy really works then that implies that we have new physics that can be probed in ordinary chemistry experiments and not just at scales above 100 GeV (soon to be probed by the LHC).

    That’s like saying that astrology could be correct, because Copernicus could be wrong about the Earth revolving around the Sun. :)

  • Clive

    Count Iblis says “Any mechanism has to be compatible with the laws of physics”
    Does it really? What if physics can not explain something that has been shown to have an effect ? There are high quality studies that have shown a measurable effect of ultra dilutions. Richard has alluded to some already “Inflammation research” where the experiment was replicated in 3 separate labs across Europe. and this one : Rey L. Thermoluminescence of ultra-high dilutions of lithium chloride and sodium chloride. Physica A 2003; 323: 67-74

    If we cannot quantify observed repeatable effects by one school of thought, we must look for another to explain the findings. We cannot dismiss those effects just because they do not fit neatly into a well respected framework.
    It is likely that the answers to homeopathy will be found in the realms of quantum physics or materials research.

  • http://countiblis.blogspot.com Count Iblis

    Clive:

    It is likely that the answers to homeopathy will be found in the realms of quantum physics or materials research.

    Quantum physics won’t help you out, because that’s precisely part of the well established physics that homeopathy finds itself in conflict with.

    Clive:

    What if physics can not explain something that has been shown to have an effect ?

    Assuming that there is indeed an effect, then that does not imply that the “Homeopathic effect” exists. I.e. it does not imply that the reason that that effect exists has anything to do with the extremely diluted solution.

    A trivial explanation could be that due to contaminations you don’t get to the extremely low concentrations at all, and that you do end up with a final concentration that is much higher and which depends on the initial concentration.

    Note that the figure of 10^(-30) g/cm^3 mentioned in the article by Rey was not measured, but deduced from the dilution factors. Indeed, such low concentratons are nonsensical anyway, because even the most purified samples of water will contain almost all of the elements you can find in the periodic table at far greater concentrations.

  • Clive

    Count Iblis
    The point you make about contaminations is duly noted. Scientists have mentioned that it could be possible that elements from the glass itself could leach out into the mixture that is being sucussed and thus muddy the waters (no pun intended). Anything is possible I suppose but the sabal / prostate cancer study showed a specific effect for sabal itself. Two other remedies were tested.. Conuim and Thuja were prepared in exactly the same way as the sabal yet the sabal was the only remedy that showed a statistically significant effect.
    This suggests that something from the sabal remained at 100c potency. This has been called an electro-magnetic fingerprint by some and a clumping of molecules by others. If correct, this would explain why molecular theory can not apply to homeopathic potencies. It is true that many other impurities remain in even purified water, but go back to the initial dilution and look for the dominant force which is the starting substance. Some interesting studies on molecules clumping together more after each dilution were carried out in South Korea a couple of years back. Sorry, I haven’t got a link for it. Should be easy to find though.

  • Richard

    The debate is over, most people have left the building, and here I still sit in a dark corner of the Cosmic Variance Lecture Hall and Debating Salon, rooted to my chair.

    Max, the CV tour guide, led a group right past me a few moments ago, just as I muttered “absolutely fascinating” a bit louder than usual. Thinking, perhaps with some justice, that I must be some kind of nut, he steered the group towards the front of the hall, to look at the podium.

    But it is fascinating, this methodological issue that lurks beneath the surface of the debate about homeopathy.

    The more I discuss this issue with people who oppose homeopathy, the more clearly it becomes that for many of them the real bottom line is that they just don’t see how it could work.

    Of course, I have no problem with that stance. I have no idea how it might work either.

    What absolutely fascinates me is that “I don’t see how it could work” is then taken a step further to “It must be impossible” and finally to “It is impossible.”

    So what we have is a bunch of people who are interested in science, many of whom are scientists who have made important contributions to their fields. And these people, starting with an argument from ignorance, proceed to an argument from omniscience.

    As I sit here, I can’t help thinking back to my favorite moment from the Beyond Belief 2006 conference. I had never seen Richard Dawkins speak, so that was pretty cool, and it was fascinating to hear Lawrence Krauss, so I could get a deeper understanding of why I disagree so strongly with people who try to reconcile science and religion.

    But the moment I liked best was when Neil deGrasse Tyson stated that science is a culture of discovery and religion is a culture of ignorance.

    And that is what I find so absolutely fascinating: such normally resolute upholders of science arguing from the standpoint of ignorance, masquerading as omniscience.

    I know there has got to be an explanation for this, somewhere…

  • Rachel

    Well, they DID answer you. You just didn’t like their answers.

    In science, you go where the data goes. That’s “open-mindedness” in science and it’s what makes it so damn effective. No matter how much you like or dislike a pet hypothesis, if the data doesn’t support it, you can’t accept it. (Or the opposite.) It’s not a “we must accept all crackpot ideas no matter what” kind of thing.

    And homeopathy hasn’t been dismissed out of hand, as pointed out above, there’ve been real studies done on it, and the data said: homeopathy doesn’t work.

    And not only does it not work, it doesn’t fit in with anything else we know about the world. I know this is the part where people go “OMG THE ESTABLISHMENT IS SUPPRESSING IT” but it’s not true. Quantum mechanics turned physics on its ear. Scientists are quite willing to follow something…if there’s any reliable data for it.

    And well, there just isn’t. And not only is there no reliable, easily repeatable data, it doesn’t jive with basic ideas of how matter works. And that’s a Really Big Deal. If you’re trying to disprove the basic ideas of chemistry and physics, well, you better have extremely strong evidence and reliably repeatable effects. And homopathy…doesn’t.

    In science, you go where the data goes. Even if you really really really want an idea to be true, and even if you really really really think it “works” for you, if the data doesn’t back you up, you’re forced to chuck the idea out as garbage.

    That’s not being “close-minded”, that’s just being smart.

  • Clive

    Rachel : “there’ve been real studies done on it, and the data said: homeopathy doesn’t work”.
    Could we have some references for these studies please ? The only one I am aware of is the 2005 lancet meta-analysis and this has been summarily dismissed as the scientific equivalent of creative accounting, in other words a biased and flawed crock.

    “And not only is there no reliable, easily repeatable data, it doesn’t jive with basic ideas of how matter works. And that’s a Really Big Deal. If you’re trying to disprove the basic ideas of chemistry and physics, well, you better have extremely strong evidence and reliably repeatable effects. And homopathy…doesn’t”.

    The study published in “Inflammation research” (2004 May;53(5):181-8) is of extremely high quality. The results have been replicated at different labs across Europe and it was given added kudos by the fact the lead author Prof. Madeline Ennis set out to disprove the theory of ultradiluted potencies, not to prove it.

    Here’s some “smart” thinking from a very smart person :
    “When the observed fact does not correspond to a famous theory, the fact has to be accepted and the theory rejected. A theory must be modified to be adapted to nature and not nature to adapt itself to the theory” Claude Bernard.

  • Howard Leigh

    Out of curiosity, if you were suffering from a serious, potentially terminal illness for which there was a claimed orthodox medicinal cure and an claimed homeopathic cure, which would you choose?
    All the arguments appear to be based from personal standpoints, so how would all of you react to a possible real life situation?
    Would the pro-homeopathists stick to their guns?
    Personally I’d go with the known orthodoxy.

    And so it seems would my friend who is a fervent believer in homeopathy, except when it comes to controlling his cholesterol levels!

  • Richard

    Hi Howard,

    I would choose homeopathy in a heartbeat, but that’s because I know enough about it to make an informed decision that would lead me in that direction.

    In your case, of course you should choose something you feel both comfortable and familiar with.

    My own experience (both of my own medical history and the experiences of others I know of) tells me that a homeopathic treatment is likely to be deeper and more long-lasting, freer of side effects, and accompanied by a standard of care that is difficult to attain within the standard medical world.

    Given that, my choice is simple.

  • prabhat tandon

    Hi Richard ,
    I entirely agree with you. Whatever reason the Lancet & other disapproves homeopathy I personally have a number of good experiences with these tiny sweet pills with myself & my family . My son suffered from infantile eczema , myself too had a long history of bronchial asthma , my mother suffered from migraine ; all are now free from these diseases since long time. I have also seen no of allopaths here in my city are practising homeopathy sucessfully.

  • http://yahoo.com Purushottama

    Hi Dear Critics of Homoeopathy
    No matter you stick to argue the same
    thing that Homoeopathy does not work, no scientific data
    etc. etc. the people who have been benifitted will never give it up. Keep your “science” to your arguments and if possible use it to find out why people take to Homoeopathy. I and many like me who never knew anything about that system had been driven into it by your scientific medicines. We repent why we did not take to Homoeopathy earlier. I have taken it for all sorts of fever, hypotension, GI tract problems and so on and it has never failed us. A cut or wound or burn we take homoepathy and it has worked extremely well with us since last two decades. So what if someone is convinced or not.
    It appears that some want to REDISCOVER Homoeopathy as a new invention and Patent the system and it is only a concerted effort in this direction. A few years ago the Ayurvedic system was being attacked and now Pharma companies are in the race to patent Neem and Turmeric preparations which have been traditionally used in India since ages. I have been going through many Blogs and while on the one hand the Homoeopathic fraternity is bringing forth all the proof that their system works , the other side pretends not to see the truth. Nevertheless we are with Homoeopathy no matter who claims what.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    Look, your personal anecdotes are all fine, and I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of anyone commenting here. However, personal anecdotes are no substitute for actual evidence. There are extremely sound arguments that homeopathy shouldn’t have any effect beyond placebo, and since there are no convincing studies (please don’t tell me there are – I’ve read the meta-analyses that discuss how flawed and biased homeopaths’ favorite ones are), it really is necessary for you to follow the biological equivalent of Sean’s advice. In fact, you should also follow the physics version, since that is what tells you there should be no effect.

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  • http://countiblis.blogspot.com Count Iblis

    Hmmm, I guess the problem here is that for the placebo effect to be effective for Homeopathy, you must believe in it and thus cannot accept the scientific truth about Homeopathy.

    So, should someone who benefits from Homeopathy change his mind when reading this blog? Then the cheap Homeopathic drugs would no longer work and the eczemas, bronchial asthmas, migraines, etc. etc. would come back. That’s a rather heavy price to pay for scientific knowledge :)

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Mark Trodden

Mark Trodden holds the Fay R. and Eugene L. Langberg Endowed Chair in Physics and is co-director of the Center for Particle Cosmology at the University of Pennsylvania. He is a theoretical physicist working on particle physics and gravity— in particular on the roles they play in the evolution and structure of the universe. When asked for a short phrase to describe his research area, he says he is a particle cosmologist.

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