Pathetic government response to criticisms of homeopathy

The Science and Technology Committee investigation into homeopathy concluded that homeopathic products should not be exempt from requirements of efficacy. Here’s the Government’s response:

37. Homeopathy has a long tradition in Europe and is a recognised and widely used system of medicine across the EU. The Government takes the view that consumers who choose to use homeopathic medicines should be fully informed about their purpose and assured that standards of quality and safety are maintained. If homeopathic medicines were not subject to any kind of regulatory control consumers would not have access to such information or assurances. Conversely, if regulation was applied to homeopathic medicines as understood in the context of conventional pharmaceutical medicines, these products would have to be withdrawn from the market as medicines. This would constrain consumer choice and, more importantly, risk the introduction of unregulated, poor quality and potentially unsafe products on the market to satisfy consumer demand.

Oh well, that’s fine then. It’s obviously more important that people have access to all ‘medicines’ ever dreamt up, than that anyone ensure they work.

Don’t talk homeopathy to a mathematician

A friend and I once spent a confused few minutes trying to make sense of the mental numbers that fall out of analysing homeopathy. We’d read that a centilitre of magical ingredient, diluted at ’30C’, is equivalent to 1cl of ingredient mixed into a cube of water with dimensions of over 100 light years. We weren’t disputing the claim – it doesn’t take much to realise some pretty large numbers are involved – but we were confused as to how homeopathic solutions are manufactured. Even if the water is re-used12, they aren’t using 1003 light years’ worth – so what’s going on? We eventually realised the amount of magical ingredient must be incredibly tiny – small enough to counter the insane dilution exponentials.

So a centilitre is obviously way too much, but how about just one molecule? In yesterday’s Times, mathematician Matt Parker runs the numbers:

…the process of consuming enough pills to get that one molecule also boggles the mind. You can try imagining Wembley Stadium completely filled with people, all drinking pints of medicine at the rate of two an hour. For just one of these people to eventually consume one molecule, you would need a million Wembley Stadiums all at full capacity with people who have drinking pints constantly since the Earth formed 4.5 billion years ago. Oh, and you’d need 737 million such Earths.

That’s only for one molecule. Molecules are tiny: it takes about a billion of them to cover a standard metric full-stop. To put homeopathy in a medicinal context, if you wanted to consume a normal 500mg paracetamol dose you would need ten million billion homeopathic pills. Where each pill is the same mass as the Milky Way galaxy. There is actually not enough matter in the entire known Universe to make the homeopathic equivalent of a single paracetamol pill.

The charming working-out is here. It seems like you’d still need a stupid amount of water to produce a 30C dilution by homeopathic methods, though.

This is part of a media blitz around the 10:23 campaign, which will see 300 skeptics taking simultaneous homeopathic ‘overdoses’. 10:23 is very nicely put together – the strapline is particularly excellent – and hopefully it’ll help embarrass Boots into taking homeopathy off the shelves. My only worry is the solutions themselves: it’s been known for ‘homepathic’ treatments to actually contain active ingredients – totally against the nature of the treatment, obviously – but hopefully the campaign has taken this into account.

Via New Humanist.

  1. which would be a bit dodgy []
  2. what with water supposedly having a memory and all []
  3. not really a footnote []

13 unsolved scientific puzzles. Kinda.

The Times has a rather odd list of 13 Unsolved Scientific Puzzles. They’re a bit odd, and the accompanying review is even worse. Here are a few of the ‘puzzles’:

1. MOST OF THE UNIVERSE IS MISSING – We can only account for 4 per cent of the cosmos

Yep, that’s a big one. Dark matter + dark energy aren’t understood. Here’s what the other article says:

One of the great discoveries of 20th-century science was that our universe is expanding. The discovery, however, led straight to another puzzle. The puzzle is, there’s nowhere near enough matter to prevent the expanding universe from blowing apart completely into a vast, sterile infinity of lifeless interstellar dust. So how come we live in a lumpy universe, one of the lumps being the planet on which we live? There must be more matter than we can see: the famous dark matter and, to go with it, something even more mysterious – dark energy.

No – what? That’s nothing to do with anything, is it? This could be the still-lumpy phase of an expanding universe. The main problem is the acceleration itself: gravity should at least be slowing the expansion down, but it’s actually increasing. That’s dark energy, and it’s an unknown. Dark matter is the discrepancy between the mass we can see and the mass we can detect by its effect on matter. 

To date, however, there’s not a shred of evidence for either, even though teams of scientists have been looking for years. (The UK’s search “takes place 1,100m underground, in a potash mine whose tunnels reach out under the seafloor”.) The only alternative to dark matter is to tweak Newton’s most fundamental laws of physics and suggest that they don’t apply everywhere, all the time, in quite the same way. But physicists are a law-abiding bunch, and detest this idea.

No, there’s evidence for both. We can see where dark matter is, we just don’t know what it’s made from. And if it’s detectable, it must by nature be difficult to detect, so years of looking is probably necessary. Dark energy is more of an unknown quantity, but we see its effects, so something must be going on. And yes, scientists are unwilling to reject the laws of gravity (actually Einstein’s at this kind of accuracy, but whatever), since they’ve made incredibly accurate predictions up to now, and the Pioneer anomaly isn’t yet a clear-cut case of a violation of those laws.

2. THE PIONEER ANOMALY – Two spacecraft are flouting the laws of physics

Yes again. The Pioneer space probes aren’t where they should be, and it’s a bit odd.

“Nasa explicitly planned to use them as a test of Newton’s law,” explains Brooks. “The law failed the test; shouldn’t we be taking that failure seriously?”

 The article also says “decades of analysis have failed to find a straightforward reason for it”. This is what as known as taking something seriously: you try very hard to explain something unexpected, and see where that takes you. I don’t see the problem here.

4. COLD FUSION – Nuclear energy without the drama

But, despite what you might have heard, “cold fusion” never really went away. Over a 10-year period from 1989, US navy labs ran more than 200 experiments to investigate whether nuclear reactions generating more energy than they consume – supposedly only possible inside stars – can occur at room temperature. Numerous researchers have since pronounced themselves believers.

Cold fusion. Right. Not really an ‘unsolved scientific puzzle’, as there’s no evidence it exists, as far as I’m aware. And if you think the scientific establishment is deliberately ignoring a potential source of safe, clean energy that would completely transform the world, you’re bonkers.

5. LIFE – Are you more than just a bag of chemicals?

Fair enough. But wtf:

In labs across the world, people are taking the raw materials of living things and trying to put them together in a way that makes them come alive. In an effort to resolve the anomalous nature of life, the idea of scientists playing God has taken a whole new turn.

It’s almost like you’re referencing some fiction there…can’t think what. And when ‘God’ is just your word for ‘anything I don’t understand’, which it clearly is, then scientists are always going to be ‘playing God’, and it’s a silly thing to say.

6. METHANE FROM MARTIANS – NASA scientists found evidence for life on Mars. Then they changed their minds

On July 20, 1976, the Viking landers scooped up some Martian soil and mixed it with radioactive nutrients. The mission’s scientists all agreed that if radioactive methane was released from the soil, something must be eating the nutrients – and there must be life on Mars. The experiment gave a positive result, but NASA denied an official detection of Martian life. 

Yeah, because the results were contradictory and ambiguous. Yeesh. The atmospheric methane increases are pretty cool, though.

Ok, I need to skip a few or I’ll run out of time. Arguments over sexual reproduction and death seem somewhat misprepresented, lack of free will1 is given short shrift (rejected out of hand in the accompanying article) and the placebo effect is indeed genuinely mysterious, but then at the end there’s this:

13. HOMEOPATHY – It’s patently absurd, so why won’t it go away?

How the hell did this get in here? He says “there remains some slim evidence that homeopathy works” – and this is what, exactly? And what of the many, many double-blind trials that suggest otherwise? I would like to point out that people still worship Greek Gods. It’s ridiculous, but why won’t it go away? Maybe we should look again at Greek Gods.

The ‘puzzles’ are all taken from a book, which gives me pause – maybe the full text is more rigorous, and these quick generalisations are written by someone who doesn’t understand the issues. But Uncertain Principles perhaps has some insight: the author worked for New Scientist, and the book apparently has the typical New Scientist attitude of glorifying fringe work, making dramatic declarations on the imminent overturning of long-held theories, and paying little attention to consensus. Seems to fit with the above.

  1. edited later []

There’s more to medicine

Ben Goldacre’s latest column starts off making fun of the Telegraph for publishing crap like this:

The resident homoeopath, Katie Jermine, quizzed me about my diet, stress levels and lifestyle. She then strapped on a wristband and plugged me into an electronic device called the Quantum QXCI, which scanned my system for vitamins, minerals, food intolerances, toxicity, organ function, hormone balance, parasites, digestive disorders and stress levels.

But his investigations into the Quantum QXCI machine reveal…well, I don’t have the words. But there’s a video. Oh, is there a video. Be sure to stick with it until 2:50.

Defending homeopathy against evil nasty bigoted scientists

The Guardian has an article defending homeopathy, which includes a moment of genius. Most of it is the usual:

I am sure that there is a placebo effect in homeopathy, but it is a fact that many of the people who end up visiting a homeopath do so as a last resort, when nothing else is working. That such people often see an improvement suggests that the remedies themselves are contributing to the wellness of the individual.

Bit of a non sequitur, there. Then there’s:

Homeopathy seeks to understand everything we are, everything we do, as a web of relatedness. The reason why I have a recurring sore throat will not be the reason why you have one, and what helps me may not help you.

This seems to be partly why tests used for conventional medicines fail when used to test homeopathy.

If only there were some kind of testing system based on, oh, I don’t know, efficacy? Ah, right – the reason your homeopathic remedy doesn’t work for me is that it’s designed for someone else! Now I get it.

I take New Scientist every week [I am not sure this is wise – Andrew] and I am continually amazed at how the seemingly well-known physical world of ours is beginning to show itself as stranger than anyone imagined.

You see? New things are being discovered, therefore my made-up-crap is true. This is the logical fallacy of Completely Missing The Point.

And finally, if you’re particularly masochistic:

Objections to homeopathy begin with what are viewed as the impossible dilutions of the remedies, so that only nano amounts of the original active substance remain, and in some cases are only an imprint, or memory. Yet our recent discoveries in the world of the very small point to a whole new set of rules for the behaviour of nano-quantities. Thundering around in our Gulliver world, we were first shocked to find that splitting the atom allowed inconceivable amounts of energy to be released. Now, we are discovering that the properties of materials change as their size reaches the nano-scale. Bulk material should have constant physical properties, regardless of its size, but at the nano-scale this is not the case. In a solvent, such as water, nano particles can remain suspended, neither floating nor sinking, but permeating the solution. Such particles are also able to pass through cell walls, and they can cause biochemical change.

We do not know whether this has a bearing on homeopathic dilutions, but it may well be that nanoparticles offer a clue.

I don’t know where to start. I expect it was a bit of a shock when somebody first accidentally split an atom, though. Thus far, the article is nothing particularly interesting, but then I saw this:

This homeophobia is[…]

Homeophobia. Genius. Google turns up a few previous references, but I’d never seen it before. I can see that term spreading. Article via Bad Science.

The Independent goes bugnutty over wi-fi

I didn’t think I could be surprised by mainstream coverage of pseudoscience, then along came the Independent with “My war on electrosmog: Julia Stephenson sets out to clear the airwaves”. The subtitle is:

How one woman fought back after being diagnosed by her naturopath with overexposure to Wi-Fi and mobile phone frequencies

and the whole thing similarly reads like an Onion article. To say it gets worse is an understatement. Here’s a sample:

“Any imbalance in our electromagnetic field creates a disturbance in cell structure and function, which can lead to illness in sensitive individuals,” says London-based complementary health practitioner Dr Nicole de Canha.

Even cordless hands-free home telephones – such a boon to multitaskers, enabling one to patiently listen to friends and family for hours while cleaning cupboards, re-potting house plants and reorganising the CD collection – are now off-limits. Their electrical force-field is nearly as powerful as that of a mobile phone. Since I’m now chained to a phone on a lead, my cupboards are filthy and my friends are neglected. But at least I’m less radioactive.

Radioactive?! (also, why the filth and neglect?)

We also have magical ‘holograph field’ pendants, ‘electro-dictatorships’, homeopathic drops that may ‘reduce the amount of radiation in the body’ and liberal quoting of people who appear to have no training in electrical engineering or medicine, all wrapped up in a brightly coloured cape of paranoid scaremongering.

Anybody playing a pseudoscientific drinking game would die. Do you think it could be a spoof? It’s almost too ridiculous. As ever, Bad Science has the best coverage.

Degrees both sensible and silly

I have discovered that the dean of Westminster University’s Harrow campus, who I briefly spoke to yesterday, is an associate editor of New Humanist magazine. Cool. In my little fond-of-rationalisation head, this cancels out the wider university’s unfortunate stance on homeopathy. They offer a degree in the subject, justifying this partly on the basis that it teaches methods of critical analysis. I think they should have a degree in the Magical Night Time Activities of Garden Gnomes and Associated Fearie. As long as it’s critically taught, obviously.

I’m almost sure I’m going to apply for the part-time Photography BA. The course sounded excellent, and it’s too good an opportunity to miss. The finances can be sorted one way or another, and the whole idea is instinctively positive, like the first time I walked into my flat. Yes. I hope this post doesn’t harm my application…:-)

The Daily Mail on homeopathy: so near, yet so far

Spotted by a commenter at Bad Science, this from today’s Daily Mail:

Despite homeopathy’s popularity, there is little evidence that it works, other than as a panacea, making people feel better simply because they are receiving care and attention.

Admittedly there are a few problems with that sentence, but I think the word the author was looking for is ‘placebo’. It’d be great if homeopathy only worked as a panacea. The article’s on the right track otherwise, though. Offering BScs in homeopathy etc. is just appalling.

Homeopathic ear drops

I just heard about the existence of homeopathic ear drops. As somebody with experience in this area, I have two problems with this. Homeopathic remedies are just water, which is often the cause of blocked ears in the first place when it disturbs the wax. Pouring in more water seems unlikely to help, unless you do it with an ear syringe, or apparently a super soaker. Secondly, homeopathic remedies are based on like-cures-like, and the only thing which causes the symptoms of excessive wax is…wax! So even if it weren’t just water, it’d just be pouring wax into the ear.

Two Extremes of Medicine

Wonderful medicine:

Two men have been cured of cancer, after being told they had 3-6 months to live. This was done by altering the body’s defence mechanisms so that they attacked cancerous cells:

Dr Stephen Rosenberg and his team isolated T cells from the cancer patients and multiplied them in the lab.

Next they used a virus to carry receptor genes into the T cells. These receptors are what enable the modified T cell to recognise specific cancers – in this case malignant melanoma.

When the modified T cells were transfused into the patients they began to attack the tumour cells.

15 other patients in the trial were not so lucky, but this is apparently a very promising procedure.

Disastrous medicine:

Previously, homeopathic ‘remedies’ were required to say “Homeopathic medicinal product without approved therapeutic indications” on the label. From today, however, the labels can instead claim to ‘treat’ medical conditions. According to Bad Science:

All you need is evidence of manufacturing quality and safety, and “bibliographic evidence that the product has been used in the indications sought”.

What you don’t need, of course, is any evidence that your tablets treat the thing you’re selling them as treating.

Homeopathy is theoretical and demonstrable nonsense. There is no rational argument to the contrary, and it’s unbelievable that this regulatory change has been made. The government body who made the decision to market magic as medicine describe themselves as follows (my emphasis):

[The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency] is the government agency that is responsible for ensuring that medicines and medical devices work, and are acceptably safe. We keep watch over medicines and devices, and we take any necessary action to protect the public promptly if there is a problem. No product is risk-free. Underpinning all our work lie robust and fact-based judgements to ensure that the benefits to patients and the public justify the risks.

That’s clearly untrue.