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Your Friday Dose of Woo: A homeopathic journal club

So, after nearly two weeks of torturing myself trying to put together an R01-level grant on short notice and make it actually competitive, I’m finally free. The grant has been submitted (amazingly, the online submission process went through without a hitch), and, sleep-deprived but still hopped up on the Sudafed that kept the mucus membranes in my nasal passages from exploding outward at a high velocity, scattering watery goo everywhere.

Not a pretty sight when it happens, hence the Sudafed.

Fortunately, the pollen has subsided to the level where I am only mildly miserable, allowing my thoughts to turn to this blog’s weekly feature that it can’t do without. Yes, indeed, it’s time for some woo. I figured that, after spending almost every waking moment (and sometimes even non-waking moments) thinking about rigorous science and how to persuade the reviewers that my science is worthy of more funding, I could use a break. And what better break from rationality than some serious woo? Thanks to Ben Goldacre, I found just the rich mother lode I needed, so much so that I really only intend to dwell on a small part of it.

We’re talking all homeopathy, all the time, baby!

But not just any homeopathy. No, we’re talking about the journal Homeopathy, which has devoted all of its most recent issue to articles on the “memory of water.” There’s such a rich vein of woo there that it is far beyond the space and time I have here to devote to it, but, thanks to Ben, you can read it for yourself even if you don’t have institutional subscriptions that allow you to access Homeopathy.

I was half-tempted to look at this article, The octave potencies convention: a mathematical model of dilution and succussion, by David J. Ainck, but I decided that the mathematical woo there is probably better addressed by my blog buddy Mark over at Good Math, Bad Math. One bit, however, is just too tasty not to quote, though. Consider it a little wafer to cleanse the palate before diving into the even more outrageous woo:

How does succussion raise the concentration by a factor of H (typically H=100)? The answer depends on what the active ingredient is alleged to be. For the nano-bubble hypothesis, a nano-bubble might, during the pressure wave of succussion, organize the adjacent H2O into another copy of the same nano-bubble, and both bubbles might survive as structural features after the pressure wave passes.

For the silica hypothesis, silica might be released into solution as Si(OH)4 monomers by the mechanical agitation of succussion, and the specific silica nanocrystals might catalyze the formation of more copies of themselves out of the newly released monomers. It is beyond the scope of this article to assess or justify whether such notions are plausible.

Actually, it’s beyond the scope of all the books ever written to provide a scientifically plausible hypothesis for how homeopathy “works,” although this issue of Homeopathy certainly did appear to impress one homeopath who has been known in the past to take the occasional swipe at skeptics like Ben Goldacre who point out how scientifically bogus the entire concept is, even at one point comparing him to Lord Voldemort. Heck, she’s even taken a swipe at Orac himself over an earlier edition of YFDoW.

In actuality, one mathematical point that I’d really love to see addressed about homeopathy is what it is that’s so special about the number 100? After all, nearly homeopathic dilution is done by a series of dilutions of 1:100 and succussions (shakings). Each 100-fold dilution is called a “C.” Consequently, a 20C dilution has been diluted 100-fold 20 times, for a total of a 1:1040 dilution. But there are a number of ways to get to a dilution of 1:1040 that don’t involve the number 100? So what is magical about the number 100 and why do we never see homeopaths using any other dilution step to reach their desired dilution? For example, a frequent homeopathic dilution seen is 30C (1:1060). Why thirty 100-fold dilutions? Why not reach 1:1060 through 100 thirty-fold dilutions? Or fifteen 10,000-fold dilutions? Why–

Hold on, I’m starting to sound like Andy Rooney. I’d better stop with this and move on.

The woo gets better. True, the last bit had many impressive-looking equations, which is always a good thing for making your woo appear scientific, but another article, The nature of the active ingredient in ultramolecular dilutions by Otto Weingärtner kicks the woo up a notch:

When we talk about the active ingredient of ultramolecular dilutions as used in homeopathy, we mean a non-material quality which–according to the principles of homeopathy–can be traced back to a substance. Moreover, this quality is understood to be able to make the symptoms of a patient disappear when administered via a vehicle. Many people call this quality ‘information’.

And there are some who call me…Tim, too.

But if that’s not enough, just read a little further, and there’s more:

In physics, fields are inevitably linked to interaction between material partners via interaction-particles. Photons, for instance, are the interaction-particles of the electromagnetic field. Thus, potentization as well as treatment with potencies–procedures that implicitly do not depend on matter-matter-interaction–are not primarily based on physical fields. Both procedures, however, suggest mind-matter and matter-mind correlations.

  1. Neither a specific chemical nor a specific physical property of the original substance is known to be transferred during the preparation of potencies although mother tinctures, which of course contain many molecules of the original substance, are mandatory for a starting point of this procedure. Potentization here appears to embody a procedure that relates matter to mind.
  2. No common donor-acceptor-mechanism is known to be responsible for the effects of potencies. Treatment appears to embody a procedure that relates the ‘mind of matter’ to the ‘mind of illness’. The latter of course itself is strongly related to biological matter and is often looked upon as a relationship belonging to psychosomatics.

Are these correlations better described by interaction mechanisms that are not linked to particles? A possible alternative is non-local correlations, known from specific effects in quantum physics.

It looks like we’re back to quantum homeopathy. Of course, whenever there’s quantum homeopathy, there’s one man who can’t be far away. Yes, I’m talking about the man who’s done more to torture quantum theory to make it appear to justify the pseudoscience of homeopathy that any man alive, indeed, so much so that he was the man who gave me the inspiration for Your Friday Dose of Woo and provided the fodder for the very first article and later produced the quantum homeopathic gyroscopic circle.

It’s Lionel Milgrom of course, and he’s produced a doozy for this special issue of Homeopathy, entitled Conspicuous by its absence: the Memory of Water, macro-entanglement, and the possibility of homeopathy.

I bow before the Master of Homeopathic Woo, as he begins:

Despite increasingly sterile debates over ‘whether’ homeopathy works, the ‘how’ and ‘why’ have yet to be seriously addressed by science. One need not look far to see why.

Formerly a successful allergy researcher, Jacques Benveniste spent the last 20 years of his life out of the scientific mainstream because of his fascination with the ‘Memory of Water’.3 Despite democratic appearances, when it comes to dealing with what it considers ‘heretical’ (eg, homeopathy), science can be as narrow-minded, unforgiving, and vicious as any inquisition. Disregarding the burning stakes of peer opprobrium however, some are seeking answers to the question of how homeopathy might be possible.

Yes! It’s the Galileo Gambit and claiming persecution, all in the first two paragraphs! Even better, Milgrom seems to be in essence conceding that there is no good evidence that homeopathy works. After all, he explicitly states that some are “seeking answers to the question of how homeopathy might be possible.” That’s the problem with Milgrom (and, for that matter, pretty much all the homeopathy “theorists” who publish long-winded screeds of Orac-ian length full of thought experiments about the “memory of water” and how homeopathy “might” work without actually providing any evidence that homeopathy does work! They put the cart before the horse in a big way! After all, why should scientists bother to address the “how” and “why” of how homeopathy “works” if there is no good evidence in the first place that it does, in fact, work? Not surprisingly, this latest Milgrom opus is no different. Just watch as Milgrom discusses the two main types of “theories” for how homeopathy “works”:

Two types of hypothetical ‘mechanism’ are under consideration. Labelled ‘local’ and ‘non-local’, they depend, respectively, on conventional scientific positivism, or appeal to generalised quantum theoretical concepts of complementarity and entanglement. Local hypotheses envisage homeopathic remedies behaving in a way similar to any other medicine, ie, ‘pharmacologically’. The problem is that most homeopathic remedies are diluted out of molecular existence. In order therefore to comply with the causal principles of positivist science, a mechanism has to be envisaged by which some kind of information transfer (usually thought of as electromagnetic) can occur to a molecular substrate (eg, water), via homeopathy’s unique method of remedy production. Involving successive iterations of dilution followed by violent agitation collectively known as succussion, it is this information transfer to the solvent which has been called the Memory of Water (MoW).

Non-local hypotheses, are concerned less with the remedy per se, proposing generalised forms of quantum entanglement as the basis for homeopathy’s efficacy. They suggest instantaneous, acausal correlations are somehow established between various combinations of patient, practitioner, and remedy, ultimately leading to an observed change in the patient’s state of health. These ideas are in their infancy and even more controversial than MoW: indeed, to many the idea that quantum theory might be applicable in our macroscopic domain is anathema. The received conventional wisdom is that non-deterministic quantum theory describes the world of sub-atomic particles, atoms and molecules, while deterministic Newtonian (classical) and Einsteinian (relativistic) theories are sufficient for the macroscopic world of material objects. Non-local hypotheses however, have the advantage of being generalisable outside homeopathy to other healing disciplines.

“Instantaneous, acausal correlations are somehow established between various combinations of patient, practitioner, and remedy”? No wonder he’s The Man when it comes to quantum homeopathic woo! Of course, the wag in me wants to point out that the reason that the non-local hypotheses that Milgrom uses to “explain” homeopathy are “generalizable” to other healing disciplines is because the “healing disciplines” for the justification of which woomeisters like to invoke quantum theory and other nonlocal principles are, by and large, just as much a load of crap as homeopathy.

Quite frankly, the reason Milgrom’s article defeats all other woo in this issue of Homeopathy is because it distills down the essence of all of his arguments about homeopathy, including abusing quantum theory and his concept of the “vital force” as a quantum gyroscope upon which homeopathy can act. If you want a summary of Milgrom’s amazing woo all in one place, this is the place to be. Then, if your brain hasn’t exploded, you can then proceed to read his woo in more depth. What I find more amusing is that now Milgrom adds the one element that’s been missing from his woo, the one element that makes it the perfect woo. Yes, I’m talking about a postmodernist attack on those nasty scientists who don’t accept homeopathy:

Most people assume that science starts from secure reproducible observations out of which ‘facts’ about the world are distilled, an ideal enshrined in logical positivism. Its core beliefs are that scientific questions can be answered completely objectively; that experiments allow scientists to compare theory directly with facts; and that science is a sure route to ‘truth’. In this respect, it is scientifically established ‘evidence’ that is now supposed to provide the only basis for the ‘facts’ on which medical decisions are to be based, regardless of practitioners’ empirical ‘hands on’ experience and intuition.[12] and [13]

However, since the second half of the 20th century, logical positivism has been under sustained attack as being too simplistic from Post-Modernist philosophies of science. There is no such thing as unbiased observation free of any sociological or cultural conditioning, even in science and even under the most stringent experimental circumstances. Therefore, our acceptance or rejection of ‘evidence’ is also open to serious question. Our tendency is to reject evidence which does not fit with currently-held theory. Consequently, positive results from even the highest standard scientific trials are rejected by those who will not accept homeopathy’s claim that remedies diluted out of molecular existence might have any effect. For black swans, read homeopathy.

Yes! No good woo is complete without a little postmodernism thrown into the mix, the better to call critics fascists who want to impose their narrative on the brave “outside of the mainstream” scientists. (And, of course the woomeisters’ narratives are just as valid as the scientific narrative, at least according to the woomeisters.) Even better, he invokes “quantum entanglement” and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle to explain why high quality randomized clinical trials of homeopathy have been negative:

One application of the PPR entanglement metaphor I have described is to provide a rationale for why RCTs of homeopathy often return equivocal results.45 It suggests the double blind RCT ‘collapses’ the three-way patient-practitioner-remedy entangled state in a way analogous to that by which observation collapses a particle’s wave function in the Copenhagen Interpretation of orthodox quantum theory. Thus, while unobserved, a particle exists in an indeterminate state; its evolution in time expressed as a wave function. Observation causes the wave function to ‘collapse’ to a particle whose complementary position and momentum are related via Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. The profound meaning of this is that the act of observation in part creates that which is observed. Or, even more starkly, “The price of knowledge is the loss of an underlying ontological physical reality”. In a similar way, the observational procedure of the RCT may ‘collapse’ the three-way entangled state, leading to the loss of the underlying homeopathic effect, a therapeutic equivalent of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.

Wow. Just wow. Milgrom has outdone himself. Not only has he summarized his two greatest accomplishments in woo, quantum homeopathy and the Vf (vital force) quantum gyrosocope, but he’s added a bulletproof woo rationale to explain why RCTs have consistently failed to demonstrate any efficacy due to homeopathy by invoking the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. I’m not entirely sure how the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle could explain this difficulty, but it sure sounds all physics-y and impressive, doesn’t it? I suppose if homeopathy is claimed to “work” through a quantum entanglement of the practitioner, patient, and remedy, then it follows, in woo world, at least, that trying to observe this entanglement might affect it somehow. After all, in Milgrom’s world, where metaphor is the scientific argument, you might as well carry the metaphor to its conclusion, no matter how misguided and warped the metaphor is.

In a way, I’m glad that Homeopathy put all these articles in one issue. If you really want to see the intellectual bankruptcy–and, yes, outright bullshit–of homepaths and homeopathy, it’s all here on display for all to see. I will give them credit for one thing, though.

Some of their woo is really entertaining.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

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