Archive for July, 2009

It’s always nice to find that someone else has already done such a thorough job of covering a particular point, that I don’t really need to add anything myself.

Certain idiotic blatherings on Fox News, about some atheist bus adverts in the US, were among a number of things I’ve seen lately which annoyed me enough to catch my attention, but also frustrated me enough to put me off trying to write anything coherent. If I tried describing this from scratch I think I’d just end up pounding the keyboard halfway through the first paragraph, and that’d probably just make me seem even less successfully witty and erudite than usual.

So a big thank you to Michael Rosch for this article at the Examiner, which very neatly takes apart this video.

The posters causing all the furore bear no more provocative a slogan than “You can be good without God”. It’s an entirely positive message, and demonstrably true. It says nothing critical about anyone, such as those who might choose to be good with God. It’s just a message of inclusiveness, letting the non-religious know that not everyone sees them as immoral monstrosities, and reminding the religious that sometimes other people who think a bit differently from you might be okay.

And there are still some people who’ll say things about it like:

I feel it’s an outright attack on Christianity.

I feel like the language of it is inflammatory…

You have to realize that there are a lot of Christians in that area who are highly offended by this.

It’s quite staggering how puny, flimsy and fragile your most deeply held convictions must be if they’re so easily threatened. Nobody even has to mention Christianity for you to feel as if you specifically are suffering an “outright attack”. The claim that “You can be good without God” – the mere suggestion that people who don’t share your religious views are not pure evil – is “inflammatory”.

And if some Christians are “highly offended” by the way that people with contrary ideas sometimes don’t just shut up and let Jesus have the complete run of the place… well, I refer you to the always eloquent Mr Stephen Fry, who asks: So fucking what?

Ugh, I’ve already spent far more time thinking about this than is good for me. I’m going to bed.

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And the exciting news is… there’s a new Skeptics’ Circle up. Hey, don’t act like that’s some kind of anti-climax, it’s a good one. And it’s taking a weight off my shoulders by letting me feel like telling you about it has fulfilled my blogging obligations for today, because I haven’t got the energy to write anything properly.

So… yeah. I should have something more over the weekend. I still really need to get better at this.

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The following is a reprint of an article by Simon Singh, which first appeared in the Guardian last year, and has been the focus of all the legal fracas to have followed. Ben Goldacre summarises the circumstances for anyone who hasn’t been paying attention to any of this. Everyone in the skeptical blogosphere has been posting this today, so you’ve probably seen it before a few times by now, but I’m just doing my bit. The version below has been slightly modified from how it originally appeared, but Orac and others have reproduced the original intact. Follow the campaign supporting Simon Singh at Sense About Science.

Some practitioners claim it is a cure-all, but the research suggests chiropractic therapy has mixed results – and can even be lethal, says Simon Singh.

You might be surprised to know that the founder of chiropractic therapy, Daniel David Palmer, wrote that ‘99% of all diseases are caused by displaced vertebrae’. In the 1860s, Palmer began to develop his theory that the spine was involved in almost every illness because the spinal cord connects the brain to the rest of the body. Therefore any misalignment could cause a problem in distant parts of the body.

In fact, Palmer’s first chiropractic intervention supposedly cured a man who had been profoundly deaf for 17 years. His second treatment was equally strange, because he claimed that he treated a patient with heart trouble by correcting a displaced vertebra.

You might think that modern chiropractors restrict themselves to treating back problems, but in fact some still possess quite wacky ideas. The fundamentalists argue that they can cure anything, including helping treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying – even though there is not a jot of evidence.

I can confidently label these assertions as utter nonsense because I have co-authored a book about alternative medicine with the world’s first professor of complementary medicine, Edzard Ernst. He learned chiropractic techniques himself and used them as a doctor. This is when he began to see the need for some critical evaluation. Among other projects, he examined the evidence from 70 trials exploring the benefits of chiropractic therapy in conditions unrelated to the back. He found no evidence to suggest that chiropractors could treat any such conditions.

But what about chiropractic in the context of treating back problems? Manipulating the spine can cure some problems, but results are mixed. To be fair, conventional approaches, such as physiotherapy, also struggle to treat back problems with any consistency. Nevertheless, conventional therapy is still preferable because of the serious dangers associated with chiropractic.

In 2001, a systematic review of five studies revealed that roughly half of all chiropractic patients experience temporary adverse effects, such as pain, numbness, stiffness, dizziness and headaches. These are relatively minor effects, but the frequency is very high, and this has to be weighed against the limited benefit offered by chiropractors.

More worryingly, the hallmark technique of the chiropractor, known as high-velocity, low-amplitude thrust, carries much more significant risks. This involves pushing joints beyond their natural range of motion by applying a short, sharp force. Although this is a safe procedure for most patients, others can suffer dislocations and fractures.

Worse still, manipulation of the neck can damage the vertebral arteries, which supply blood to the brain. So-called vertebral dissection can ultimately cut off the blood supply, which in turn can lead to a stroke and even death. Because there is usually a delay between the vertebral dissection and the blockage of blood to the brain, the link between chiropractic and strokes went unnoticed for many years. Recently, however, it has been possible to identify cases where spinal manipulation has certainly been the cause of vertebral dissection.

Laurie Mathiason was a 20-year-old Canadian waitress who visited a chiropractor 21 times between 1997 and 1998 to relieve her low-back pain. On her penultimate visit she complained of stiffness in her neck. That evening she began dropping plates at the restaurant, so she returned to the chiropractor. As the chiropractor manipulated her neck, Mathiason began to cry, her eyes started to roll, she foamed at the mouth and her body began to convulse. She was rushed to hospital, slipped into a coma and died three days later. At the inquest, the coroner declared: ‘Laurie died of a ruptured vertebral artery, which occurred in association with a chiropractic manipulation of the neck.’

This case is not unique. In Canada alone there have been several other women who have died after receiving chiropractic therapy, and Edzard Ernst has identified about 700 cases of serious complications among the medical literature. This should be a major concern for health officials, particularly as under-reporting will mean that the actual number of cases is much higher. If spinal manipulation were a drug with such serious adverse effects and so little demonstrable benefit, then it would almost certainly have been taken off the market.

Simon Singh is a science writer in London and the co-author, with Edzard Ernst, of Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial. This is an edited version of an article published in The Guardian for which Singh is being personally sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association.

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Ooh goody, someone else hilariously thinks I’m wrong about everything. That’s always nice.

The full comment left can be read in response to my homeopathy article, here. I’ll quote just the relevant bits. Well, “relevant” is pushing it, but here goes.

Well well well, what have we here? Yet another rant against Homeopathy? Well, for something so nonsensical, there sure seems to be a lot effort expended in “refuting” it.

Well well well, what have we here? Yet another rant in favour of Homeopathy? Well, for something so sensible, there sure seems to be a lot effort expended in “defending” it.

Seriously, can you not see why some people consider it worth the effort to argue against something that costs people billions of dollars a year, as well as costing lives when it diverts people from effective medicine? Nonsense != trivial.

Angry anti-Homeopathy fanatic spend much time on tirade, even mention Benveniste fiasco but not bother look for confirming research. Thanks Charlie.

I don’t have a response to this, I just enjoy that sentence. Thanks Charlie. But what confirming research would that be exactly?

Because if our Rubik blogger here had bothered to look up the research, blah blah blah Madeleine Ennis blah blah…

Now this is not a proof of Homeopathy, but it sure is indicative of the necessity for more research. She said so herself and admitted there was no known explanation. The experiment has been repeated by others, with the same results.

First of all, Charlie, the name of this blog is Cubik’s Rube. It’s not that confusing or impenetrable a pun to keep track of.

Beyond that… Well, you’re close. Sort of. Ennis’ results have been repeated by others… but not so much “with the same results” as “with completely different results”. A subtle difference. In fact, it was Ennis’ results that various experts were trying to replicate under skeptical supervision in that study I cited. This one here. They tried, but they couldn’t. The results still haven’t been reliably replicated, anywhere. If water has a memory as described, then this has earth-shattering implications well beyond the field of Inflammation Research (the journal in which Ennis’ results appeared). Why have reproducible results not been published in every significant scientific journal the world over?

Don’t start whining about not getting enough funding for studies to be done, either. Billions have spent on alt-med testing. It’s not a frail and floundering industry struggling to get by.

Roy says that it is structure, not just molecular composition that determines the properties of a substance and he’s right. Diamond and graphite – one very hard the other soft, but, hey, it’s just Carbon. No laws of physics being violated at all there, huh?

Charlie is referring to Professor Rustum Roy, whose PhD is in ceramics, and who has written in defence of homeopathic principles like water memory. And apparently neither he nor Charlie is aware of any significant difference in the physical structures of solids and liquids.

I don’t know if you’ve ever tried comparing a lump of coal and a glass of water, but if you look closely, you should find that one of them is much wetter and sloshier than the other. This is quite important when considering their fundamental structure.

If molecules of carbon are arranged in a hexagonal lattice, you get graphite. If they’re in a diamond cubic structure, you get diamond. Here’s a picture comparing the two. It’s a big difference in how they’re built. It’s like the distinction between getting a crowd of people to hold hands in a line, or form a queue. The nature of the arrangement of the molecules has a huge effect.

But the parallel really can’t be drawn to water. Molecules in a liquid don’t hang onto each other in the same way that they do in a solid. (Sloshy, remember?) You just don’t get different structures of water that are in any way comparable to the graphite/diamond distinction of carbon. Any “persistent correlations” in the structure of water are lost within femtoseconds.

The parallel between water and carbon is kinda like claiming that cats have a predilection for auto-erotic asphyxiation on the grounds that dogs are known to lick their own balls.

Another interesting point is made over at Depleted Cranium which hadn’t even occurred to me. The active ingredients on which homeopathic treatments are based will affect body chemistry in various ways. The example used is caffeine, which stimulates certain receptors in the brain. For homeopathic caffeine (that is, ultra-diluted water that used to have caffeine in it) to have any effect at all, it’s not enough that it has to be able to retain some kind of structure. The water also has to affect those same receptors in the same way, despite being an entirely different substance. It has to interact with the human body in exactly the same way the coffee would have – and, presumably, in a completely different way to ordinary water.

This is kinda like making a potato-print painting, and then expecting the resulting artwork to taste great with your Sunday dinner.

[Edited 01/08/09: As DrBuzz0 points out, this isn’t actually quite what he was saying in that post. I’m still not sure who’s right on the details, but the same arguments work just as well either way.]

blah blah huge body of clinical research, case studies and perfectly sound MD’s descriptions blah blah

Um. And this huge body of research and studies would be hiding where, exactly? So far you’ve offered Madeleine Ennis, whose results other researchers have tried and failed to replicate, and one really terrible analogy from Rustum Roy, which comes with no supporting data at all. Maybe I’m still distracted by the rather disturbing nature of my own analogy about the cats, but am I missing the bit where you offered any evidence?

Seen any double blinded randomized placebo controlled studies done for heart surgeries, chemotherapy or gall bladder surgeries lately?

Yes. Yes. Yes.

What’s your point?

None of this proves the validity of Homeopathy – that is the task of the researchers. But it does indicate the lopsided, anti-scientific innuendo used against it, which poses a genuine threat to real scientists and researchers because it pays lip service to scientific research while undermining it with innuendo, ridicule, misrepresentations and omissions – a very irrational sort of politicization or attempt to make Homeopathy politically incorrect while denying, in advance, that any scientific basis might be possible. Such an attitude, now being applied selectively, might be used to shut down all scientific research and therein lies the danger of this particular subversion.

Oh, fuck off.

For all that you claim that you’re not offering “proof” that homeopathy works, you do seem really worked up over the fact that I’m suggesting that it doesn’t. It’s entirely incompatible with the laws of physics, you admit there’s currently no proof it works, and people are spending billions of dollars on it annually. What’s wrong with calling bullshit?

Homeopaths are not the poor, unfairly maligned underdogs in this story. This is not a tale of dogmatic oppression of hard-working researchers doing their best to honestly present their unconventional findings to a biased community of stick-in-the-muds. They have no evidence. Experiments have been done to test their claims time and again, and no effect has been found. The principles of homeopathy are profoundly implausible and unsupported by data. The people who stick to the idea and seem oblivious to this fact are lambasted for doing bad science, not persecuted for being radical or subversive.

I admit I haven’t reviewed all the medical literature recently, but I’m pretty sure there hasn’t been much serious peer-reviewed discussion on phlogiston, virgin birth, or unicorns lately either. This doesn’t need to be because a closed-minded establishment is suppressing dissent.

Homeopathy isn’t a load of crap because I ridicule it. I ridicule it because a serious, sober analysis of the science shows it to be a load of crap.

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It’s logical fallacy hour again, here in Skeptictionary corner. These tend to be a little lighter and less research-intensive, and I don’t want to wait another month before being able to post something else, so I’m scaling down a bit from the recent mammoth on homeopathy. [Spoiler from the future: I ended up rambling on for over a thousand words on this anyway. But at least it only took me a week this time.]

Therefore, A causes B

So, what’s the deal with the latin up there in the main title? Damn Romans, you’d think they invented being wrong, the way they get to name everything about it.

Post hoc ergo propter hoc translates to “After it, therefore because of it”. It refers to the idea that, because two things were seen to happen in sequence, the thing that happened first must have (or probably) caused the thing that happened next. It’s fallacious reasoning because, as is commonly pointed out, correlation does not imply causation.

Some examples:

I had a hole in my sock when I attended an event or competition featuring my local team of sportsmen or athletes, and they won! It must be my lucky sock!

I let a spiritual homeopathic healer acupuncturate my feet with his natural quantum reflexopractic needles, and just two weeks later my minor cold had been completely cured!

I did a traditional tribal rain-dance for three days straight, and sure enough the heavens finally opened, and the gods gave us water for our crops!

A guy at work bought a car out of the paper. Ten years later, Bam! Herpes.

The Family Guy gag (the last of the list) highlights how ridiculous this kind of reasoning can be, but it’s often more subtle and pervasive than that, and the first three quotes are exactly the kind of ideas that do genuinely persuade people that they’ve discovered some secret magic which gives them power over the universe. Throw in a good dose of confirmation bias, and it’s easy to become convinced that your choice of tattered footwear can affect a soccer game several miles away, and to write off all the times it hasn’t worked as minor, irrelevant aberrations.

We like finding patterns to things, and it’s a big advantage in nature to be able to connect related concepts and predict the future. If I know that tigers tend to make rustling noises in bushes, then when I hear a rustling bush I can run away before I see the tiger, without having to have his presence confirmed by seeing his teeth where my arm used to be. This sort of low-level prognostication comes in handy for a burgeoning species.

But it’s an instinct that can lead us astray, in our enthusiasm to build up a neat, logical picture of how things in the world are ordered, because sometimes things aren’t very neat or logical. When two things appear to be occuring in tandem, there might be other things going on more complicated than simply “therefore A causes B”.

For instance:

B causes A

I know that post hoc implies a temporal sequence, so the thing that happens later can’t really go back in time and cause the thing that already happened first. So maybe I’m really talking about the more general cum hoc fallacy (“with it”, rather than “after it”), but whatever. Sometimes you might just have the causitive effect backwards.

Hospitals must be unbelievably dangerous places to go. Have you seen how many sick and dying people are in there?

You know, it’s pretty suspicious how the police always seem to turn up after a crime’s been committed. Returning to the scene to admire their handiwork, perhaps?

That kind of thing, though there are probably some less silly examples I could have thought of if I’d got more sleep last night.

Some third thing C causes both A and B

In this case too, the correlation is real. You will likely find that instances of these two things you’re looking at tend to go together. But it’s not simply that one causes the other – there’s actually something deeper going on beneath both of them.

I’ve noticed that people with grubby teeth seem to get lung cancer more often than the rest of us. Does the cancer spread to the teeth? Or is the yellow stuff they get on their teeth giving them cancer?

Everyone keeps getting presents when they put a tree inside their living room. I guess their hospitality is being rewarded by a generous wood-nymph.

One way this kind of fallacy can lead you astray is if you start trying to change one thing by manipulating the other, when actually they’re both just side-effects of some deeper principle, and don’t affect each other at all. (Say, putting up a Christmas tree in June and waiting expectantly for the gifts to accumulate underneath it.) A fascinating example of this can be seen in cargo cults, of which more at some indeterminate future date, maybe.

Blind luck and dumb animals

There’s a lot of stuff going on in the world at any particular moment. There are many variables which go up and down over time. Sometimes, some of these will line up for a bit, with no underlying significance whatsoever, purely by coincidence. Pastafarianism makes good use of this by attributing global warming to a lack of pirates (or possibly vice versa), but a lot of more common magical thinking falls into this category as well.

Get barely over a thousand people flipping coins, and it’s more likely than not that one of them will get ten heads in a row on their first try. If you look hard enough, there’s probably something unique about that one person, to which you can attribute this “luck”.

And if 20,000 people regularly turn up to sporting events and take note of exactly what they’re wearing each time, some of them are going to find pretty convincing patterns between their chosen attire and the performance of their team. (And, again, some of them will see entirely unconvincing patterns but remember the hits and forget the misses.)

I’m sure we’re all mature enough here to be beyond such utter bullshit, but the whole “lucky socks” thing, as I’m going to categorise it, pisses me off enough to be worth focusing on for at least another paragraph. I know you want to feel important, and it’s tempting to leap to what seem like justified conclusions, but can you really not get over that instinct and just grow the fuck up? If you honestly believe that any ritual you compulsively go through actually has any effect on the “luck” of something as unconnected and multivariate as a Cup final, then you are literally too retarded to be allowed to handle crayons without supervision. And by “literally” I of course mean “figuratively”, but you’re almost certainly too moronic to know the difference.

Why would your own magic talisman cancel out every other equally lucky object owned by every single other person watching this sports game, let alone the relative skills and efforts of all the actual players? By what inanely trivial divine law would the outcomes of such events revolve solely around a single banal and irrelevant action by, of all people, you? If circumstances like sports results and the weather are going after you personally, why do they completely ignore everybody else’s schedule but your own?

You are seeing patterns where none exist.

Pigeons believe this kind of thing, or rather they learn to perpetuate arbitrary behaviour patterns in their efforts to achieve an unrelated goal. They’re not animals known for a natural talent for critical analysis, but they’re just about smart enough to realise that, if they were tapping a pattern with their left foot when the food turned up last time, it might be worth tapping it out again to see if it still works. But we’re really supposed to be more intelligent than fucking pigeons, and we really ought to have grown up beyond the point where we think there are mischievous leprechauns pushing footballs around mid-flight based on whether some guy watching the match is wearing the right underwear, or whatever the fuck the logic’s supposed to be.

Stop ranting, this is supposed to be one of your serious and informative bits

Sorry. Where was I? Oh, I think I was about done.

I’ve said before that humans have a crappy natural grasp of things like probability, and maybe that deserves a whole post of its own. But we have things like science, and statistics, which mean we don’t need to rely on our appalling instincts in determining the truth. We can do some tests and look more closely at alleged relationships like this, and if there’s really something there, we can find out more about it. But if we’re not doing any of that, then we’re wandering blindly in a world of wrong ideas, with no way of knowing how misguided are the concepts we’re snatching at.

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Bill Maherrrrrr.

I am very ashamed. I couldn’t think of anything to use as a title, so I decided to just say Bill Maher’s name in a stupid voice and throw a laboured pirate reference in for no reason to try and turn it into comedy.

Let’s just pretend that never happened.

So, apparently Bill Maher really is kind of a kook.

I don’t know that much about the guy. I only know he’s an outspoken atheist with a chat show I’ve never really seen. I enjoyed Religulous, but it wasn’t really a coherent argument for anything. It was just a chance to mock some of the more mockable aspects of mainstream religion, which he did well and made me laugh a lot – but I think the only people who found it all that funny were those of us already sitting smugly on his side. It was preaching to the choir, and didn’t actually make a convincing case for anything – which is perfectly fine, except I think he thought it was some kind of manifesto.

So, there’s that, but he’s also an anti-Western medicine nutcase. Which seems a shame. And he’s just been awarded the Richard Dawkins Award. Which just seems rather odd.

It’s not an award given out by Dawkins himself, or by his foundation, but by Atheist Alliance. However, Ritchie D has specifically approved their decision.

I guess it’s fair that the priorities of Atheist Alliance are more about atheism than vaccines, and okay, the guy did make a decent anti-theistic movie, which is to be encouraged. But their intention is for the award to go to someone who, among other things, “advocates increased scientific knowledge”. And for a guy who said…

A flu shot just compromises your immune system.


…people get sick because of an aggregate toxicity, because their body has so much poison in it, from the air, the water…

…that just doesn’t fit.

I like Dawkins more than a lot of atheists seem to, and I’m usually keen to defend him against some of the accusations, involving words like “strident” being used as invective, often levelled against him even from our own camp. But I’m hoping his otherwise excellent brain was having only a fleeting moment of squishy foolishness when he endorsed this award. (At least, this year’s award. The past winners all seem like fine choices.)

And I’m tired and sleepy – enough that I don’t even notice when I’m being redundant, apparently, because surely those both mean the same thing – so this is just going to end abruptly now.

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See, my response to things like blasphemy laws and censorship is usually just to swear a lot and do my best to piss the relevant people off. Atheist Ireland, on the other hand, have been putting together this letter to the President, laying out in fantastic detail, point by point, just what an unfair, illiberal, incoherent, inconsistent, and useless piece of legislation the new blasphemy law is. It’s got a preface and numbered bullet points and a conclusion and everything. I just can’t put together literature like that. Even when I’ve researched my subject matter and redrafted a piece several times to give it some sort of order, I’m still just a guy typing shit.

Anyway, well done guys. Keep on making me feel like a rank amateur.

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The planet we live on is around eight thousand miles across. It’s a pretty big ball of rock, floating in empty space. The ball of burning gas it’s spinning around is nearly a hundred million miles away. That’s further than a supersonic jet could travel in a decade. Cold, black vacuum stretches out in every direction from us, for a long, long way.

The nearest thing to us is the Moon, around a quarter of a million miles away. If you could drive there in a straight line, at the kind of speeds you’d normally travel along a motorway, it’d take you around six months, non-stop. Start now, and you’ll just be coming up on it in 2010. If I’d run a complete marathon every day of my life up to now, I’d be nearly there.

We can’t do that. The closest I’ve ever come is when I was driven up to the top of Mount Evans in Colorado. That’s a couple of miles above sea-level, but in a way you’re still very much on the ground. It’s one of the highest points on Earth, but it’s just a knobbly ridge on a not-quite-sphere. I’ve been in some tall buildings too, but our artificial efforts to reach upward leave us equally earth-bound.

If I leap up and stretch, I can get a few feet off the ground, into the air, into space, toward the Moon and the Sun, thousands and millions of miles away. A few feet, on a good day, when I’m feeling agile. Or I can climb a tree, and make it a little higher. Look out of my window, see that I’m maybe ten metres above the pavement.

Up until a little over a century ago, this was pretty much the limit of man’s endeavour as regards travel throughout the universe. We were utterly confined to within a cosmic micron of our ball of rock. Everything that went up had to come down. We were stranded, as we had been for millennia, on the ground. However high we leapt, it always pulled us down, always down again. However we pushed, we were glued firmly in place. Stuck on our ball of rock, hovering alone in space, surrounded by nothing, emptiness, for more miles than your feet will ever take you.

Our planet is vast, but its hugeness is dwarfed by the gaps that separate it from anything else in space. Even if we extended our reach a million-fold, we’d make the barest dent in our isolation. The distance above and around us all, through which we would have to struggle as the Earth drags us back down with all the might of six quintillion tons of rock, is unimaginable.

I mean… there’s just no way we’re ever getting off this place. It’s just completely impossible.

And forty years ago today, people walked on the fucking Moon.

I’m trying to talk myself into being as absolutely amazed by this as it deserves. I’ve managed it before, where something about my perspective has shifted, and rather than it just being something that happened years before I was born (and therefore something which has simply always been true), it suddenly seemed utterly astonishing. The Onion have the right idea. I’m not sure the hastily scribbled lofty rhetoric is quite doing it this time, but it’s a start. Maybe I’ll go watch The Dish again.

Actually, you know what’s much funner than all my rambling on about the scale of the universe? Watching Buzz Aldrin punch some dickhead in the face. Yes, violence is bad, this doesn’t prove anything, logical argument should never be replaced by exertion of might… but I can’t even find a tiny corner of myself that doesn’t love this. You fuckin’ tell him, Buzz.

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Yep, it’s the big homeopathy rant. I’ve been feeling curiously medicinal of late, so let’s see how this turns out.

All good bullshit needs an exciting origins story

In 1796, a German doctor called Samuel Hahnemann first published a description of a thing he’d made up called the “Law of Similars”. He’d taken a popular malaria treatment while he was healthy, in the name of science, and noticed that it seemed to give him symptoms of malaria. From this, he generalised that stuff normally taken as a cure, if taken while healthy, could actually give you the symptoms of whatever it usually cured. And it therefore followed, by reasoning I am yet to fathom, that the converse was also true: something which would normally make a healthy person ill could also be used to treat the illness which it induced.

So, if you’ve got insomnia, you need some homeopathic coffee. If hay fever’s your problem, get some homeopathic pollen in you. Vomiting? Homeopathic ipecac. (Even if it doesn’t work, it’s fun to say.) These are apparently among the most common homeopathic remedies available today, all based on this principle that “like cures like”.

For reasons that also remain unclear (to me and, unless my research is severely lacking, to everyone else on the planet as well), Hahnemann also declared that homeopathic treatments were more effective the more dilute they were. Ideally, you’d keep on watering your mixture down and down and down, until there was practically nothing left of the coffee, or pollen, or ipecac, or whatever, in your solution. This, by means unknown, would make it much more potent.

These days, this is exactly what they do when they make homeopathic treatments, but without the “practically”. In a lot of cases, it’s literally watered down to nothing. Homeopathy is really just water.

Water, water, everywhere, but not a drop to pharmacologically affect your biochemistry

The dilutions in homeopathic treatments are generally given labels like “10X” or “30C”, to indicate how much dilution has taken place. In “10X”, the active ingredient (that is, the bit that’s actually supposed to be medicine) has been diluted to one part in ten (that’s the “X”, the Roman numeral for 10), ten times over (that’s the “10” in front of the “X”). 30C means that it’s been diluted to one part in a hundred (“C” being the Roman numeral for 100), thirty times over. That means that only one part in 10030 of what you’re drinking – or one million billion billion billion billion billion billionth – is actual medicine. In practice, this means you’d need vast lakes, oceans, or solar system-sized doses to expect to find even a single molecule’s worth of active ingredient. Every 30C homeopathic treatment out there (and they often come even more dilute than that) can be virtually guaranteed to be pure water.

But that’s okay, because it’s magic water. Admittedly that’s not a word homeopaths tend to use to describe the mysterious process by which water which used to have some stuff in it demonstrates medicinal properties dubiously attributed to the stuff it used to have. But they might as well. Hahnemann thought that the way the treatments were prepared “spiritualizes the material substance itself“. These days, it’s more commonly claimed that water has memory.

A short list of things to remember about water having a memory

1. It doesn’t.
2. It really doesn’t.
3. Grow up.

To suggest that molecules of dihydrogen monoxide can maintain some sort of internal arrangement, which “remembers” the chemical properties of stuff that’s been diluted out of it, is to laugh in the face of every law of physics we understand. And if you do that, the laws of physics will laugh back, louder, and harder, and then punch you in the neck, because they’re bigger than you, and they’ve been around a lot longer than you have, and you’re an idiot.

If you’re trying to do scientific research that isn’t an exercise in futile bullshit, you shouldn’t really be positing explanations that completely overthrow well established branches of science just so that your pet theory makes sense. The whole water memory (or “spiritual essence”) idea is something that was plucked out of thin air to rationalise how homeopathy could possibly work, when all its patients are doing is drinking water. There’s never been any direct evidence to actually suggest that this is what’s going on; it just has to be blindly assumed to explain the results of their tests the way they want to explain them.

Now, sometimes this isn’t a totally ridiculous thing to do. A large part of science involves coming up with totally new ideas to explain things. But crucial to this is that there needs to be something unexplained in the first place. And the more outrageously wacky the new idea you’re introducing, the more of an unbelievable stretch it must be to just explain it through normal means.

So there would have to be a huge, massive, staggeringly vast, astonishingly overwhelming amount of evidence that the magic water actually does something, before we can be justified in following Tim Minchin’s advice:

Take physics and bin it! Water has memory, and whilst its memory of a long-lost drop of onion juice seems infinite, it somehow forgets all the poo it’s had in it!

So, as is so often the case when you insist on being all rational about stuff, it all comes down to the evidence. Maybe those crazy water-shakers really have discovered a new and unfathomable set of physical laws, which have eluded every actual physicist throughout history, and which are entirely incompatible with the consensus built up over millennia of research. But that’s a lot that you’re asking us to believe, and the evidence is gonna have to be both big and honkin’.

Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, homeopathy is distinctly lacking in any kind of proof. Over and over, clinical trials show that people respond to homeopathic treatments exactly like they respond to plain water. Some of them get better. Some don’t. There’s the occasional miracle cure completely out of the blue. In general, they do slightly better than people not taking anything at all, who don’t get the associated placebo effect. But if you’re taking tap-water and just think it’s homeopathy, then you actually get every single drop of benefit that can be squeezed from the treatment itself.

And no direct observations, of any kind, have ever been able to distinguish homeopathic treatments from standard H2O, either. There’s absolutely no discernible difference between regular water and magic homeopathy. Nothing in its effects on patients, or the way it appears under close examination, has ever shown any noticeable distinction between the two.

Oh, wait. There’s that Benveniste guy.

The curious case of Jack Benny Jacques Benveniste

After Hahnemann, Jacques Benveniste is the name most associated with homeopathy. In 1988, he had a paper published in the journal Nature (an achievement which tends to carry a good chunk of scientific credibility with it), which provided the most famous evidence to date of homeopathy having any basis in reality. As one of the conditions for publication, though, Nature’s editor John Maddox and renowned skeptical rogue James Randi supervised a repeat of the experiment in Benveniste’s lab.

As they watched Benveniste’s team going through the procedure again, it all seemed to be working – there was a definite difference in the results, between the plain water and the homeopathic water. Modern science stated they should have been identical, but these results seemed to support Benveniste’s assertion, that the homeopathic concoction possessed special qualities related to whatever had been ultra-diluted in it. But it was clear to the investigators that what was being done was not a double-blinded trial. The assessment of the two types of water involved a subjective evaluation by a researcher – and the researchers knew which was the plain water, and which the homeopathic.

This is really important. Whether or not an experiment is blinded makes a huge difference to how meaningful its results are. If I want to impress you with how my spirit guide can tell me what card you picked from a deck, it’d be a lot more impressive if you’re not also showing me the card while I guess. “Look, it’s the seven of hearts! Just like he told me!” It’d be like claiming that you knew what the lottery numbers were going to be, right after watching the draw on TV, but you didn’t buy a ticket.

Much more impressive would be to do something in advance – use the hypothesis in contention (“Water has memory”) to actually predict something that you couldn’t possibly know otherwise. And if the hypothesis is right, then doing this ahead of time should be just as easy. If my spirit guide’s any good, then he should be able to peer at the card where you’ve hidden it behind your back, and tell me what I can’t see. If homeopathy’s real, there should be noticeable differences between plain water and magic water, even if you don’t know which is which.

But if the effect disappears whenever you don’t know which way you want the results to turn out (thus shutting out any possible subconscious biases that might otherwise sneak in), then the homeopathy hypothesis doesn’t explain your results, and is rendered pointless.

So, once they’d tightened up the protocols to meet basic scientific standards, the paradigm-shattering effect went away. Benveniste bitched about how unfairly he was being treated, which is pretty typical when someone’s idea is so totally blown out of the water by such a conclusive, cut-and-dry result. Boo hoo, the nasty mean rationalists actually checked your facts and found you couldn’t do what you said you could, call the fricken waahmbulance. (Sorry, I haven’t quite kicked the habit of slipping into personal mockery from time to time. It’s not logically sound, but it is funny, which is nearly as good.)

Another condition of Nature agreeing to publish Benveniste’s paper was that other labs around the world would try and replicate his results using the same protocols. They couldn’t. Presumably because they were already double-blinding their experiments as a matter of general practice. Y’know, like scientists.

Fiddler with the proof

So, homeopathy doesn’t have proof. What it does have is provings. And don’t they sound just as good?

These “provings” are homeopathy’s own standard of determining whether or not treatments work – but, ingeniously, they do it by measuring something completely different, and totally ignoring whether or not the treatments work. It involves giving a treatment to somebody healthy, and seeing what symptoms present over the following weeks.

Yep, they determine how well their magic water can cure sick people, not by giving it to sick people and seeing how well it cures them, but by giving it to perfectly healthy people instead. That’s a very helpful shortcut. By that reasoning, I’d like to offer proof that I can read anybody’s mind and tell what number they’re thinking of: if I tell them what number I’m thinking of, then ask them if they’re now thinking of it too, they almost invariably say yes.

This could only possibly work if this homeopathic “law of similars” idea was completely reliable, utterly inviolate, and a link between the two ideas could be absolutely guaranteed. But… no. If you wanted to test my mind-reading skills, you’d probably want to see how well I actually read minds, not just look at how well I do something else that’s the complete opposite of reading minds and assume that there’s a link. And if homeopathy’s going to have any value as a medicine, you should really be looking at whether it makes people better.

There’s a good reason why homeopaths are hoping you won’t do that.

But the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency in the UK don’t seem to mind. They decided in 2006 to let homeopaths make claims for their products based on these provings, on the labels they slap on their bottles of magic water. Which seems kinda like if they gave me a license to practise medicine because I’d watched a few people recovering from surgery and said “Yep, that guy definitely needed his appendix out.”

Refuting a bad argument that nobody’s really making anyway

Here’s one more misunderstanding which I’ve heard a few times. A common form of vaccination works by introducing a small amount of a virus into the body, intended to immunise you against later catching the disease caused by this virus. I don’t think homeopaths tend to claim that their remedies are in any way comparable to this, but it seems to be how some people rationalise it.

However, in the case of vaccines, doctors aren’t relying on some nebulous concept that “like cures like” simply because it feels like it makes sense. There’s an actual physical mechanism at work. Normally when you get infected by a virus, bacteria, or something else that shouldn’t be there, your immune system will notice that there’s something wrong, and set about trying to fight whatever intruders it can identify. But this is sometimes tricky, because often these intruders have replicated, spread, or evolved and adapted into new and different versions by the time your natural defences have had a chance to respond.

When you get immunised, say by a vaccine, it’s like lobbing your immune system a few soft balls so that it can get some practice in. (As ever, I apologise for the poor quality and likely incoherent nature of my sporting analogies.) There’s no significant risk of infection from the (generally inactive) virus being introduced, but your body gets a chance to recognise it and respond. Then, if you later inadvertently scarf down a mouthful of smallpox or polio, your body will already be prepared for it, and be able to respond faster to stop you from becoming ill.

So this is clearly distinct from the way homeopathy “works”, both in that it actually makes some goddamn sense, and that there’s actual evidence showing that it does something.

Asking the big question

So if homeopathy is such obvious bollocks, why do people think it works?

Well, there’s all the usual reasons that alternative medicine is often so convincing, which I’ll cover in a separate article in due course. But there are some specifics worth noting about homeopathy. Although I’ve been liberal with my use of terms like “bullshit” throughout this piece, there have been times when opting for homeopathy over conventional medicine has actually been a good idea.

At the London Homeopathic Hospital in 1854, the rates of survival for cholera sufferers during the epidemic were significantly higher than at the nearby Middlesex Hospital, where there was more conventional stuff going on. People seemed to do better with the magic water treatment than with the supposed non-quackery of actual doctors.

Sadly, this doesn’t lead to the inevitable conclusion that homeopathy cures cholera. For one thing, there’s no way this counts as good scientific data, because there was no way to control for numerous other variables – many other things might have been different about the patients at the Homeopathic Hospital and the way they were treated, as well as just the magic water – but the simplest point is that conventional medicine at that time was a complete disaster. People were often much better off having absolutely nothing happen (for instance, taking homeopathic remedies) than letting mainstream doctors start hacking away at them.

Mainstream medicine at the time was also composed primarily of stuff which had basically been made up because it sounded good, and “tested” unscientifically and with no concern for the cognitive biases and errors in reasoning which can lead people to faulty conclusions. (Opening a vein and draining some blood was used as a cure for pretty much everything. When people got worse from having half of their blood taken away, this was taken as a sign that the doctors had better bleed them faster before it was too late.) But people thought it worked, because of exactly the kind of unscientific observations that are used to support homeopathy these days.

And it’s not like being prescribed a homeopathic treatment has literally zero benefit whatever. It’s entirely possible to get something worthwhile out of having a doctor in a reassuring lab coat sit down with you and listen caringly to your problems for an hour, and even taking a medicine that doesn’t do anything can trick your body into making an effort on its own (more on the placebo effect later, i.e. when I get around to writing it).

Homeopathy has been built on a foundation of wishful thinking and unicorn farts since its inception, but it can require some careful critical thinking to really uncover this. The notion that “like cures like” is a nonsense, and it’s now thought by some that Hahnemann’s onset of malaria-like symptoms – which prompted the whole idea in the first place – might have been due to an allergic reaction to quinine, the malaria treatment he took (in the form of cinchona bark).

Now, this might seem like an unscientific post hoc rationalisation, which the brainwashed followers of science-based medicine have had to concoct, to explain things to their satisfaction, blindly maintain the status quo, and protect their fragile ideology.

“…and so when he noticed his malaria-like symptoms, that’s what first set him thinking about the law of similars, which he’d write about formally years later, laying down the foundations for homeopathy.”
“You don’t think maybe he was just allergic to quinine?”
“Oh, come on, there’s no evidence of that, you’re just plucking ideas out of the air so you don’t have to admit that alternative medicine works.”

But is this really the right way to look at things? Are we really choosing the right one to dismiss as unreasonable? What if the conversation happened the other way around?

“…and so, given his reaction of drowsiness, palpitations, trembling, fever, and so forth, we conclude that Samuel Hahnemann was probably allergic to quinine.”
“You don’t think maybe he’d discovered a new and completely unknown medical principle, with staggering implications in numerous fields of study, not least rewriting every law of physics since Newton, but which is so elusive and mysterious that it’s still yet to be reliably observed in any rigorously controlled tests?”
“Um. Wow, you’re really reaching.”

There is a much, much simpler explanation available than the fanciful notions homeopathy requires you to believe in, and which explains the complete lack of supporting evidence admirably. It’s bunk.

More reliable (but often less delightfully droll) info can be found at SkepticWiki, RationalWiki, the other wiki, The Skeptic’s Dictionary, and in Trick or Treatment?, Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst’s thorough analysis of all the actual evidence of the efficacy (or lack thereof) for various alternative treatments. Gosh, did I just properly cite some sources? How charmingly academic.

[Edited 28/7/09: In response to this comment, I’ve yammered on about this some more in this post.]

[Edited 15/3/10: This is an excellent metaphor for the different approaches to reality taken by homeopaths and actual scientists.]

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Just a quick round-up today, of a few things which I might talk about in more depth if it wasn’t Friday night and I wasn’t distracted by pizza, Mitchell & Webb, and being extremely lazy:

Orac on divisiveness within the world of woo. I love this, and it’s a great summary of the situation. Bigfoot fanatics scoffing at chiropractors, ufologists distancing themselves from astrologists… I get to laugh and feel smugly superior. Those are two of my favourite things!

Hemant sums up another debate, on “accommodationism” in atheism. I’m distinctly on PZ’s side on this one. Science does directly contradict a lot of specific religious claims. Not being upfront about that is disingenuous. We’re all for people’s right to their own beliefs, and it’s clearly true that people can be good scientists and still believe in God, because there are thousands of fine examples all over the place. But it’s really not our place to be bowing and scraping as we back apologetically away from saying anything factual which might offend someone’s faith.

Richard Dawkins has been putting up some very brief and very cool little edumacational videos on YouTube lately. Go look.

– And the latest Skeptic’s Circle is up! And I’m in it! With massive chess pieces and spiders! Yes, really. Go look at that too, it’ll all make sense.

And with that, goodnight.

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