Friday, 25 July 2008

Shock! Horror! Incredulity! Homeopathy isn't real!

20th Anniversary of Homeopathy... yay

This article gives a brief summary of the history of homeopathy, and the genuine scientific experiment which seems to have given it such 'credibility' by hoards of 'experts' who espouse on about it's 'healing properties' and that 'ignorant' scientists are 'covering up' the 'truth' about homeopathy, and there's me using up my entire ration of inverted commas in one paragraph.

It's easy for someone who's scientifically educated to PhD level, or even GCSE level come to that, to take the mickey out of homeopathy, what with it violating pretty much every established fact of physics, chemistry and biology, so I'd like to at least put the case forward in favour of homeopathy, before I slag it off.

But I can't, because there isn't one. I know of no feasible reason why water would retain the properties of molecules that used to be in it but aren't any more. And I'm not some pure sceptic, I like to try and think up feasible reasons for alternative medicines and techniques. Feng Shui, for example, a lot of people dismiss it as mindless nonsense, but our spatial awareness is a big part of our sensory make-up, we're always forming cognitive maps of our surroundings. So who's to say that some spatial arrangements wouldn't be more or less pleasing than others? I can't see why this would happen exactly, but then why would one specific arrangement of abstract noises be more or less pleasing than others? And yet, music exists.

But homeopathy can go and hang as far as I'm concerned. I think the worrying part of the article is this bit

"the number of prescriptions for homeopathic medicines written by GPs in England has nearly halved in just two years"

Since when were qualified GP's prescribing homeopathic medicines? There's no real evidence that it works at all, and yet NHS funded professionals seem to be pushing it? But then, I wondered, are they just prescribing it to people who don't have an illness anyway but believe they do? A placebo for hypochondriacs, perhaps. Makes sense, a non-existent cure for a non-existent illness.

My great gran, towards the end of her life, kept telling my mother to (seriously) call Columbo to come to her flat and find out who keeps rubbing jam tarts all over her couch. My mother kept trying to convince her that Columbo wasn't real, but as I kept pointing out, neither were the jam tarts. Or the couch. You might think it's wrong to mock senile dementia, and it is, but my great gran was the same person who once said "if I could live my life again, I wouldn't live this long, it gets boring", so I don't think she'd mind.

Another part of the article was the description of the scientist behind the one and only supposedly valid demonstration of homeopathy. Jacques Benveniste. I don't know about the guy, but even from the brief description offered, he seems shifty. And that's not because he's French. The article describers him as charismatic, a label also applied to L. Ron Hubbard, Hannibal Lecter and Hitler. It also describes how surprised he was when he first made the discovery.

It really bugs me when researchers do that. "I was so surprised by the results!" This is bilge, people don't do experiments that look for things they don't expect to happen. I'd be surprised if you could cure piles by rubbing mango juice on your hips, but I'm not going to conduct many experiments where I get people to do that, just to be sure. He must have suspected it might work, because he made the effort to research it. And what do you know! It did work!

He maintains the results were a complete surprise, and even after what I just said. But despite his surprise and shock, he still tried to sell it. Apparently, not only does water have a memory, but you can digitise it, email it to someone (for a fee) and download it into some different water, which you can then use as medicine. Sort of the ring tone market of medicine. You may be surprised to know that this guy was kicked out of academia.

It's very annoying when people take some concern and attention for whatever reason, and then promptly ruin it by going too far. He might have retained some credibility if he'd behaved rationally, rather than make up some complete gibberish in a disgusting attempt to get rich quick by exploiting people who are, let's be honest, morons.

I knew a guy in university. Complete wanker, arrogant, mouthy, self-obsessed and nobody could stand to talk to him for more than 5 minutes. However, he got seriously beaten coming out of a pub once, suffered some serious injury, everyone was shocked (but not surprised so much). He got sympathy for once, rather than derision. He could have become more popular, a more accepted person, but he ruined it. Always the attention seeker, he claimed that, during the attack, when the guy with a broken bottle jabbed at him, his liver became separated from his brain, and since then he couldn't get drunk.

He told this story to myself and a friend once, who just stared at him agog. My friend (a biologist) explained that in order to remove your liver without killing you, it takes a team of expert surgeons the best part of a day under operating theatre conditions. You can't do it in seconds with half a bottle. I (a neuroscientist) explained that that was irrelevant, as the Liver isn't attached to the brain in any direct manner, and even if it somehow was, the liver removes alcohol from your system, so you'd get drunk and stay drunk. And die.

He didn't talk to us after that, but carried on telling other people (who he'd met for the first time) the same story. Whilst drunk, ironically.

Jacques Benveniste has done the same. He got some attention from his bizarre data, but went way to far in exploiting it for personal gain. Even after he was debunked, he now has hoards of charlatans claiming his results were valid and ignorant and narrow minded experts are arrogantly refusing to accept the truth. I don't know where to begin pointing out the holes in that argument, so I won't bother. It won't make a difference anyway.

But let's take homeopathy to it's logical conclusion. Let's say water does have a memory, therefore embodies the characteristics of substances that have been in it. How long does that memory last? Seeing as adding more water doesn't dilute it, then the memory is clearly self-propagating, so technically has no limit. So the memory lasts for ever. Now, the water on earth isn't brand new. A lot of the water that we use has been around since the creation of the planet itself. Now how many chemicals has it encountered in that time? And it apparently remembers the 'active ingredient' of a drug? How can it tell? A paracetamol tablet is about 3% talk I think, so if I dissolve a paracetamol tablet in a glass of water, will 4% of the glass be talc like? A wet liquid form of a dry chalky powder?

Let's assume that water, which is a molecule made of 3 atoms don't forget, can somehow tell what's an active ingredient and what isn't. How does it know which active ingredient is the right one? Like I said, the water on this planet has been around a long time, and it must have encountered countless 'active' ingredients in that time. Every glass of 'fresh' water would be the equivalent of drinking a steaming glass of sulphur, pesticides, fertiliser, urine and dinosaur dung. Why bother purifying it, water 'remembers'.

So yeah, 20 years of homeopathy. Let's hope all practitioners get some disease that can only be cured by actual medicine.

And I'm sure many believers will dispute my rant. You could say I've just taken facts that support my argument and discarded the rest in a transparent attempt to disparage anyone who's opinion differs from my own.

You're right. Terrible behaviour isn't it.


kelly said...

learn to think outside the box! My neurosurgeon at Mass general in Boston has great respect for homeopathy's impact on healing and health.

do yourself a favor and buy some Belladona. Take a pellet and watch what happens.:you will demonstrate symptoms of the remedy.

Dean Burnett, Neuroscientist said...

I'm OK thanks, I like it in the box, the laws of physics are consistent in here.

Symptoms are usually the result of diseases, not remedies, if by 'symptoms of the remedy' you mean a general feeling of not being ill, then I probably will experience that, seeing as I'm currently quite well. I could just save the money and not buy any medicine, real or otherwise.

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