Respectful Insolence

It would appear that during my mini-hiatus (indeed, a homeopathic hiatus, so to speak) to celebrate having passed the fifth anniversary of the start of this blog and being irritated by some of my colleagues enough to risk getting myself in a little trouble, I actually missed something that normally I’d leap on like a starving hyena. Normally, such woo would have been like waving the proverbial red cape in front of the bull, holding a slab or bloody red steak in front of a starving pit bull, or a rabbit zipping in front of my late lamented dog. The not-so-Respectful Insolence would have been flying fast and furious. Oh, well, better late than never, I guess. This is especially true since a blogger who normally doesn’t write about these sorts of topics pointed it out to me.

She pointed out to me that everybody’s science-challenged homeopath is back. With a vengeance. I’m talking, of course, about Dana Ullman.

You remember Dana, don’t you? He’s the Energizer Bunny of Woo, a homeopath who shows up in many blogs, including mine, to whine whenever a skeptic has the temerity to point out that homeopathic remedies are a mixture of water and magical thinking, all serially succussed until any hint of science, logic, or reason has been diluted to nothing. Just like a real homeopathic remedy, come to think of it. This time around, he’s back at that repository of all things anti-vaccine and quackery, that home to luminaries of woo such as Deepak Chopra, that online publication in which no form of quackery is too quacky to be included. That includes Dana Ullman’s latest dive into sympathetic magic entitled How Homeopathic Medicines Work: Nanopharmacology At Its Best.

Before I delve into the woo, I love the way that Ullman slaps a coat of science onto his pseudoscience by appropriating science-y terms like “nanopharmacology.” However, it should be pointed out right here that when it comes to putting a science-y gloss on homeopathic nonsense, Ullman is a rank amateur compared to Lionel Milgrom. Now there‘s a creative homeopath. I mean, come on! His concepts of quantum homeopathy, likening homeopathy to a quantum gyroscope, and, finally, viewing homeopathy as a chiral tetrahedron. That just leaves appropriating, well, lame terms like nanopharmacology. Don’t get me wrong. Nanotechnology is being used in pharmacology, and the combination has been termed nanopharmacology, although there appears to be a lot more hype there than reality at the moment. Appropriating it to describe homeopathy is what’s lame. Lame like this:

It is commonly assumed that homeopathic medicines are composed of extremely small doses of medicinal substances. And yet, does anyone refer to an atomic bomb as an extremely small dose of a bomb? In actual fact, there is a power, a very real power, in having atoms smash against each other.

Wow. Just wow. Amazing. Too bad there isn’t any real power, other than perhaps a homeopathic dilution of power, in having Ullman’s brain cells smash against each other. We used to have a saying about particularly dim bulbs that their brain consisted of two neurons connected by a spirochete. In Ullman’s case, I’m not so sure about the spirochete. In any case, it never occurs to Ullman that there is a vast difference between reactions occurring at the molecular level and chain reactions occuring at the atomic level. And what is it with homeopaths and atomic bombs, anyway? Remember Charlene Werner, the homeopath who produced a cringe-worthy video allegedly describing the physics behind homeopathy that likened homeopathy to a molecular “bomb” releasing all the energy in the matter involved, which sounds an awful lot like an atomic bomb to me.

Be that as it may, unfortunately Ullman takes his analogy and goes wild with it:

Homeopathic medicines are made through a specific pharmacological process of dilution and vigorous shaking. However, when skeptics say that there is nothing but water in homeopathic medicine, they are proving their ignorance, despite the incredible arrogance in which they make these assertions. Dr. Martin Chaplin, a respected British professor who is one of the world’s experts on water, has verified that “homeopathic water” and “regular water” are not the same, and his review of almost 2,000 references to the scientific literature on water (!) confirm this fact (Chaplin, 2009).

I like the reference at the end. It looks almost official, like a real citation in a real peer-reviewed paper. It’s not. It doesn’t even really support his belief in homeopathy. Chaplin even concedes while dissing skeptics:

One of the main reasons concerning this disbelief in the efficacy of homeopathy lies in the difficulty in understanding how it might work. If an acceptable theory was available then more people would consider it more seriously. However, it is difficult at present to sustain a theory as to why a truly infinitely diluted aqueous solution, consisting of just H2O molecules, should retain any difference from any other such solution. It is even more difficult to put forward a working hypothesis as to how small quantities of such ‘solutions’ can act to elicit a specific response when confronted with large amounts of complex solution in a subject. A major problem in this area is that, without a testable hypothesis for the generally acknowledged potency of homeopathy, there is a growing possibility of others making fraudulent claims in related areas, as perhaps evidenced by the increasing use of the internet to advertise ‘healthy’ water concentrates using dubious (sometimes published but irreproducible) scientific and spiritual evidence.

But whether or not a reference really supports him or not has never been something that Ullman has worried overmuch about. He doesn’t even pause as he launches into a meandering mess of a montage of uncritical thinking writ large, which means that in homeopathic terms it must be very weak because the woo is so very, very concentrated. This mess leads into Ullman declaring that homeopathy isn’t quackery or woo. Oh, no. It’s science! It’s nanopharmacology! Really, it is! He then goes on to liken homeopathy to phermones and various forms of chemical communication that animals use:

For instance, it is commonly known that a certain species of moth can smell pheromones of its own species up to two miles away. It is no simple coincidence that species only sense pheromones from those in the same species who emit them (akin to the homeopathic principle of similars), as though they have developed exquisite and specific receptor sites for what they need to propagate their species. Likewise, sharks are known to sense blood in the water at distances, and when one considers the volume of water in the ocean, it becomes obvious that sharks, like all living creatures, develop extreme hypersensitivity for whatever will help ensure their survival.

No, no, no, no, no, no! This is a classic non sequitur. All of the examples that Ullman gives are based on known chemical mechanisms. The chemical structure of hte phermones can be isolated; their concentrations can be measured; the cell receptors to which they bind and thereby activate biochemical responses can be characterized. There’s nothing magical about this. There’s nothing that requires the “memory of water” about this. It is not homeopathy; it is chemistry and biochemistry. It does not follow from the fact that sharks can sense blood in the water at very low concentrations and follow the chemical gradient back to its prey that homeopathy works. It does not follow from the fact that moths can detect phermones from two miles away that homeopathy works. It does not follow that various creatures other animals can detect extremely low concentrations of various molecules that homeopathy works.

Yet that’s exactly where Ullman goes with this:

That living organisms have some truly remarkable sensitivities is no controversy. The challenging question that remains is: How does the medicine become imprinted into the water and how does the homeopathic process of dilution with succussion increase the medicine’s power? Although we do not know precisely the answer to this question, some new research may help point the way.

Actually, we do know the answer to this question. Homeopathy is water. Period. It is the dilution of a substance that may or may not have anything to do with relieving symptoms or curing disease because the choice of said substance is based on a prescientific understanding of how the body works based more on sympathetic magic than anything scientific to the point where not a single molecule remains. I’d be willing to consider the possibility that homeopathy might be something more than a collective delusion passed down for 200 years from Samuel Hahnemann to his followers, including a certain Energizer Bunny of a homeopath. Homeopaths have never been able to develop convincing evidence that homeopathic remedies are anything other than water or that they do anything more than a placebo. Instead, they cherry pick studies that seem to support their viewpoint or find studies that are among the “false positives” that are positive by random chance alone, ignoring the bulk of the evidence against homeopathy, not to mention its inherent scientific ridiculousness.

Now, I’m not going to go into the ridiculousness of Ullman’s abuse of quantum theory. After all, I’ve dealt with such abuses of physics in the service of quackery time and time again by homeopaths, Deepak Chopra, and a wide variety of quacks. Rather, I want to point out his invocation of, in essence, the Galileo Gambit in which he likens homeopaths physicists who discovered quantum mechanics:

Quantum physics does not disprove Newtonian physics; quantum physics simply extends our understanding of extremely small and extremely large systems. Likewise, homeopathy does not disprove conventional pharmacology; instead, it extends our understanding of extremely small doses of medicinal agents. It is time that physicians and scientists began incorporating both Newtonian and quantum physics into a better understanding of what healing is and how to best augment it.

The difference, of course, is that there was copious evidence that there were deficiencies in pre-quantum physics. It didn’t explain a number of observations. Quantum mechanics explained these observations and phenomena better. Numerous experimental, observational, and theoretical studies converged on quantum theory, which has been further refined over the last century by further experimentation and observation. Homeopathy, on the other hand, has never been shown to do anything beyond what a placebo can do. Unlike the case of quantum mechanics, no scientific observations have been made that can’t be explained any other way than invoking homeopathy. In marked contrast, it was observations that only postulating the concept that energy is quantized could explain that drove the development of quantum theory. No similar burning discrepancies between what is observed and what theory predicts drives the acceptance of homeopathy. That’s because homeopaths put the cart before the horse. They have their belief, and then they try to cherry pick data that seems to support. Likening homeopathy to nanopharmacology doesn’t change that. Heck, nanopharmacology isn’t even primarily concerned with the concentration (ultradilute or otherwise); it’s concerned with the size of the drug or drug delivery device.

Truly, homeopathy is the One Woo To Rule Them All, One Woo to find them, One Woo to bring them all and in the darkness bind them, and Hahnemann is the Sauron of Woo. Meanwhile, Dana Ullman is nothing more than one of his Ringwraiths. Still, that’s scary enough.

Comments

  1. #1 JohnV
    December 15, 2009

    wow………………………

  2. #2 Dangerous Bacon
    December 15, 2009

    Sherlock Holmes once explained (in a published monograph*) that one could infer the existence of a Niagara from a single drop of water. This is additional proof that homeopathy works. At least, it’s as good as the Ullman’s other proofs.

    People like Ullman and Milgrom get trapped into constructing these Potemkin villages of pseudoscience because they’re convinced from faulty personal observation that homeopathy works, therefore there’s got to be some logical explanation for it. But all their airy theories accomplish is to make the marks feel more confident that they’re getting their money’s worth.

    Which is a happy outcome for all concerned, except for those with serious medical conditions getting useless therapy.

    *Holmes, S. Deductive principles for the Victorian age. Annals of Crime, pp.. 467-490 1886

  3. #3 Dr Aust
    December 15, 2009

    DUllman got very irate on Twitter when blogger gimpy queried the misuse of the term “nanopharmacology”.

    DUllman’s, errm, erudite responses were:

    “Hey Mr. Daft…lost the ability to read? Learn the derivation of “nano”. You might learn something (this time).”

    “So, now your dictionary has one 1 defintion for each word. You’re a fundamentalist of the worst sort.”

    So in Dana-World, insisting that prefixes like “nano-” have a particular meaning in a scientific context is “fundamentalism”.

    I hope Dana’s idea doesn’t catch on with people who prepare doses of real drugs. I’d get worried if I thought that my physician or anesthesiologist was going to decide that:

    “milligrams / kg”

    - was an outmoded fundamentalist concept and s/he could use any quantity s/he preferred.

    Re. DUllman, my personal suggestion is that he pulls these terms straight out of his a**, so what he really meant, rather than “nano-” was

    “anopharmacology”

  4. #4 The Perky Skeptic
    December 15, 2009

    The Ullfailure, it burnssssssss us, Precioussssssss!!! Nasssty elves succusssssed it!!!

  5. #5 PalMD
    December 15, 2009

    the dude is Hahnemann’s cognitively-impaired bulldog. it’s almost sad.

  6. #6 MikeMa
    December 15, 2009

    With as obvious a scam as homeopathy is, I often wondered how so many people were taken in. But I met a homeopath socially and found him earnest and charming and not at all what I’d expected.

    From his ‘patients’, I learned that he listened very carefully to the complaints of his subjects and explained at length about the ‘science’ behind his pills. He never took his critics to task or badmouthed science or skepticism. He just quietly listened.

    Our modern insurance linked medicine doesn’t give many doctors the time to do this and since the homeopath wasn’t trying to stay within insurance guidelines, his time was freer. I guess he made up for his billable hours in white magic pills.

  7. #7 MikeMa
    December 15, 2009

    What I meant to comment and why I should always use preview….
    ————————————————————

    With as obvious a scam as homeopathy is, I often wondered how so many people were taken in. But I met a homeopath socially and found him earnest and charming and not at all what I’d expected.

    From his ‘patients’, I learned that he listened very carefully to the complaints of his victims subjects and explained at length about the ‘science’ behind his pills. He never took his critics to task or badmouthed science or skepticism. He just quietly listened.

    Our modern insurance linked medicine doesn’t give many doctors the time to do this and since the homeopath wasn’t trying to stay within insurance guidelines, his time was freer. I guess he made up for his billable hours in white magic pills.

  8. #8 justme
    December 15, 2009

    Just a “silly question” about the whole “memory of water” concept:
    If water has “memory” of solutes … why doesn’t it retain the memory of excrement it comes in contact with?
    ;-)

  9. #9 Paul Browne
    December 15, 2009

    You think this is bad, just wait until they discover “pico-”.

    The quacks see a phrase line “nanopharmacology” and know that many people will have heard of it from news headlines and know that it is one of the newer and more exciting branches of medicine but be pretty hazy about what it actually involves. So it makes perfect sense for the quacks to try to associate homeopathy with this new scientific frontier that few people understand, just as they have done for years with quantum chemistry.

    “Heck, nanopharmacology isn’t even primarily concerned with the concentration (ultradilute or otherwise); it’s concerned with the size of the drug or drug delivery device.”

    It strikes me as somewhat amusing that the size of the particles/delivery vehicles that circulate around the bloodstream in nanopharmacology are in fact usually several orders of magnitude larger than those used in regular pharmacology.

  10. #10 Todd W.
    December 15, 2009

    I guess it’s fair to say, then, that Ullman using “nanopharmacology” to explain homeopathy is more a case of Ullman demonstrating nanointellectualism.

  11. #11 superdave
    December 15, 2009

    Ullman is is really one of the worst bloggers i’ve seen. The anti vaccine crowd at very least, has the health of kids at heart, but this guy is just all about self promotion. I always try to point out that there is a fancy link at the end of every article he writes that puts you right to the amazon.com page of his book.

  12. #12 James Sweet
    December 15, 2009

    The comparison to atomic bombs is extra-stupid, because the amount of fissile material it takes to make a reasonably-sized atomic bomb is by no means microscopic. For example, the Hiroshima bomb used 141 pounds of enriched uranium, with about 112 pounds of that being U-235. Very much not homeopathic.

    I think people get a warped vision of the power of a nuclear reaction. Fission of a single U-235 atom — or even the fusion of a pair of hydrogen atoms — produces a “huge” amount of energy only relatively speaking, i.e. as compared to typical energy yields from a single chemical reaction. But the absolute amount of energy is minuscule. By my back-of-the-envelope calculations, in order to power a 100-watt lightbulb for one hour, it would require the fission of about 10 quadrillion U-235 atoms.

    (A single fission event produces about 200 MeV. A Joule, which is the same as a watt-second, is about 6.24*10^18 electron volts. Multiply everything out, and you wind up with 1.1*10^16 fission events to yield 100 watt-hours.)

    So yeah. If Ullman wants to argue that a homeopathic remedy is just as powerful as the fission of a U-235 atom, that would still make homeopathy complete and total quackery.

    (It’s also especially annoying, because one of the major technical obstacles to building an atomic bomb is uranium enrichment, i.e. increasing the concentration of the active ingredient. A technology more different from homeopathy, one would be hard-pressed to find…)

  13. #13 James Sweet
    December 15, 2009

    If water has “memory” of solutes … why doesn’t it retain the memory of excrement it comes in contact with?

    On the same note, I recently heard one of the more clever refutations of homeopathic medicine (not that a clever refutation is required, but I liked this one anyway).

    When creating a homeopathic medicine, at each phase of dilution 90% of the “solution” is discarded. Where does this 90% go? They cannot use all of it to make medicine, because there would not be enough water on the earth to make a single “dose”. So presumably, this 90% goes down the drain. Including the 90% from the penultimate dilution.

    This 90% then goes into our groundwater, where it is further diluted. Eventually, given enough time, those same water molecules (memory intact, presumably!) return to our taps. With homeopathy having been around for about two hundred years, uncountable “memory” molecules must have found their way back into our water supply.

    Tap water is the uber-homeopathic remedy! It cures all ailments! So throw out those expensive homeopathic remedies, and turn on your taps!

  14. #14 Becca Stareyes
    December 15, 2009

    Justme @ 8: If water has “memory” of solutes … why doesn’t it retain the memory of excrement it comes in contact with?

    More ‘practically’, I remember being drilled in the water cycle in school. The idea was that the water I drink has been cycled millions of times on Earth. Surely, at some point, it must have dissolved any sort of homeopathic ‘active’ ingredient. So why can’t I just stay home and drink tap water for free instead of buying homeopathic rememdies? If the answer is a sort of ‘Three Stooges’ thing, where the wrong amounts of substances get rid of the intended effect, how do homeopaths clear their water before they prepare their remedies? Dilution and filtration wouldn’t work under homeopathy, since that just makes the impurities stronger. (I suspect it’s just ‘boil the water, then condense the steam out’, with some reason why this works — probably ‘water memory’.)

  15. #15 Skeptico
    December 15, 2009

    The challenging question that remains is: How does the medicine become imprinted into the water and how does the homeopathic process of dilution with succussion increase the medicine’s power?

    Actually, no.  I’ll fix Ullman’s question(s):

    The questions are: does the medicine become imprinted into the water and does the homeopathic process of dilution with succussion increase the medicine’s power? And the answers are (respectively) no and no.

  16. #16 Denice Walter
    December 15, 2009

    In my “travels”, I’ve come across another use of *nano-* in woo-world,(warning: viewing this site may endanger cortical cells: put on your *mithril*-framed protective glasses,please)”The Staninger Report”(Nanotechnology Research) and it’s *not* about homeopathy- it’s *even* worse.(Although I present this in a spirit of jest,I am uncomfortabley aware that this “doctor” actually provides “treatments” to people).

  17. #17 leigh
    December 15, 2009

    “pharmacology” implies that the substance in question actually has some sort of effect, demonstrable as a function of dose. there is no substance in question because it has been diluted out, and there is no function of dose when there is no dose to be had.

    “nano” remains several orders of magnitude too high to describe the concentrations of wtfever they are putting in their homeopathic nonsense and then diluting out. i have worked with real drugs that have <1 nanomolar dissociation constants at their physiologic targets. atto is probably still a too-generous prefix for their nonsense, unless you’re referring to their knowledge of pharmacology.

    a cloak of fancy sounding science terms that aren’t even applicable to the topic at hand. logical fallacy via non sequitur.

  18. #18 leigh
    December 15, 2009

    weird, one of my sentences got cut off. i originally stated that i have worked with real drugs that have dissociation constants of less than 1 nanomolar.

  19. #19 Pablo
    December 15, 2009

    The comparison to atomic bombs is extra-stupid, because the amount of fissile material it takes to make a reasonably-sized atomic bomb is by no means microscopic.

    Moreover, the amount of energy involved in that process is easily calculated by first year chemistry students. I literally teach hundreds of students how to do this in their first week of college. It’s not magic.

  20. #20 Calli Arcale
    December 15, 2009

    Dr Aust wins the internets. :-D

    James Sweet — that is the most brilliant refutation I’ve ever heard. The “homeopathic poo” argument is always easily refuted by homeopaths, who tell you that the magic only works if its shaken just so, which is why they are careful to only use distilled water when they prepare a solution. Wouldn’t want to potentize any poo particles, after all. But what happens to the discarded solution, which presumably has been potentized just the same as the rest? Are homeopaths the biggest polluters of all?

  21. #21 rob
    December 15, 2009

    screw nanopharmacology.

    femto-pharmacology is the way to go!

    no wait!!!

    attopharmacology is…

    no wait!!!

    YOCTOPHARMACOLOGY!!!!

    yeah!! that’s the ticket!!

    quantum-electro-magneto-hydro-porno-yoctopharmacology is the FUTURE!!!!!

  22. #22 JohnW
    December 15, 2009

    James Sweet @ 13:

    Tap water is the uber-homeopathic remedy! It cures all ailments! So throw out those expensive homeopathic remedies, and turn on your taps!

    Magic shaking. Don’t forget the magic shaking.

  23. #23 trrll
    December 15, 2009

    I imagine that Dana has no real idea of how big a nanometer is. Otherwise, he’d realize that conventional drug molecules are nanometer-scale, so nanopharmacology is just a highfalutin’ name for classical small-molecule pharmacology

  24. #24 Chris
    December 15, 2009

    trrll, I’ve seen on other blogs and forums (like JREF where he posts as “JamesGully”) the term “nano” explained to him multiple times. He doesn’t care. It would be bad for his business of selling crappy books and stuff on his blog if he actually cared about accuracy.

  25. #25 ztrewq
    December 15, 2009

    Hey, haven’t you heard that homeopathy actually works? There was a recent paper about a homeopathic medicine actually having an effect on the olfactory receptors… :-)

  26. #26 Greg Fish
    December 15, 2009

    And yet, does anyone refer to an atomic bomb as an extremely small dose of a bomb?

    Ow. My brain.

    First off, if he was going to be scientific, he would’ve said nuclear bomb. Atomic bombs are colloquial misnomers because the fission process splits nuclei to start a chain reaction, not smash atoms like a particle collider.

    Secondly, nuclear weapons can weigh as much as a tank because they’re packed with high explosives and very dense plutonium and uranium pellets. They’re not little by any stretch of the imagination.

    Finally, the only thing small about a nuclear reaction is the amount of matter that turns into pure energy. In a 10 megaton thermonuclear device, that amounts to 465 grams. The rest becomes lethal fallout. At the risk of a shameless plug, here’s a link to a post where I provide a quick primer of how nukes actually work…

    http://worldofweirdthings.com/2009/10/28/in-space-no-one-can-hear-you-nuke/

    That single quote from Ullman told me all I need to know about what’s going on in his empty little mind.

  27. #27 Skeptico
    December 15, 2009

    Calli Arcale:

    You are quite correct that homeopaths are the biggest polluters of all. In fact, Homeopathic Drugs have been found in US Drinking Water!

    It’s a scandal if you ask me.

  28. #28 Adey
    December 15, 2009

    Surely the analogy of sharks and blood would have the sharks swimming away from the source into lesser dilutions, if “Nanopharmacology” holds true.

  29. #29 Prometheus
    December 15, 2009

    One of my favorite DUllman quote from this piece is:

    “It is commonly assumed that homeopathic medicines are composed of extremely small doses of medicinal substances. “

    It is commonly assumed, but that is a common misconception of homeopathy. In reality, homeopathic “medicines” contain no amount of medicinal substances.

    Let’s “run the numbers”, shall we?

    Homeopathic 30X human growth hormone (HGH) has 1 gram of HGH in every 10^30 milliliters of water (“30X” means 30 consecutive 10-fold dilutions). This works out to one gram of HGH in 10^24 tonnes (1,000 kg, equal to roughly 1,000 liters or 1 cubic meter) of water.

    Now, HGH has a molecular weight of 22,124 Da, which means that a single molecule would weigh 3.67X10^-20 grams. In a 30X homeopathic solution of HGH, one molecule of HGH would be diluted into 36,700 (3.67X10^4) tonnes of water.

    That means that there is only a 1 in 1.22 billion chance that the 30 ml bottle of 30X homeopathic growth hormone sold in my local “health food” shop even has one, single molecule of HGH.

    Since the prefix “nano-” means “one billionth”, we finally see the “nano” aspect of homeopathy – you have slightly less than one nano-chance (one chance in a billion) of having a single molecule of the “medicinal substance” in a bottle of homeopathic HGH.

    That’s not an “extremely small dose”, that it – for all practical purposes (and most impractical purposes) a zero dose.

    It’s little lies like these that the homeopaths use to fool the public.

    Prometheus

  30. #30 EL
    December 15, 2009

    I love the water bit. Is this like holy water? For the longest time, people used to be sprinkled with holy water to rid them of “demons”. Same thing?

    Also, this reminded me of the episode of Eureka where nanowater kills people. Nanowater turned out to be condensed water. But not a plug for homeopathy.

  31. #31 Jon
    December 15, 2009

    Are there any standard, evidence-based medical treatments commonly in use for which we can’t discern a plausible mechanism of action? And another question, in the SBM blog recently, the author mentioned evidence v. science-based medicine as two separate ideas that differed in how they addressed plausibility. What is that difference?

  32. #32 Roland J Branconnier
    December 15, 2009

    John Sykes said it all in his song: “Nothing Means Nothing”

  33. #33 Prometheus
    December 15, 2009

    Inhaled anesthetics currently lack a “plausible mechanism of action” in that we have nothing more than a hypothesis (or two) with no good experimental data to support them.

    Thus, we have a medical therapy that has been extensively documented to work yet still lacks a rigorously tested mechanism of action.

    The difference between inhaled anesthetics and homeopathy is that there is no question about the efficacy of inhaled anesthetics. All tests have shown inhaled anesthetics to have an efficacy many orders of magnitude greater than placebo.

    You can even test this at home, if you have previously had surgery under an inhaled anesthetic.

    First, write down your recollections of the discomfort and pain you suffered during your previous surgery.

    Next, take a sharp scalpel (sterile, if available) and make a deep incision along the scar from your previous surgery.

    Finally, record your observations of the discomfort and pain you experienced without the inhaled anesthetic.

    Most people will note that the pain experienced without anesthetic is significantly greater than that experienced with anesthetic.

    Now, compare that to even the most favorable placebo-controlled studies of homeopathic efficacy. In all studies I am aware of, the homeopathic “remedy” is either indistinguishable from placebo or – at most – slightly more effective (than placebo).

    Of course, to anyone with a brain, the reason for this is obvious – homeopathic remedies are placebos!

    Thus, something can be “evidence-based medicine” without a “plausible” mechanism so long as its efficacy is significant and well-supported.

    Prometheus

  34. #34 Jon
    December 15, 2009

    Thanks, Prometheus. Will probably not perform the experiment you suggest. Was hoping for something a little more mysterious, but maybe my question should have been ‘for which we have no plausible theory to account for its efficacy.’ I know I’m moving the goalposts, but please let me do so, as this is for my own enjoyment and not because I am hiding a woo agenda. Homeopaths are lying fucks, so far as I can tell.

  35. #35 James Sweet
    December 15, 2009

    First, write down your recollections of the discomfort and pain you suffered during your previous surgery.

    Next, take a sharp scalpel (sterile, if available) and make a deep incision along the scar from your previous surgery.

    Finally, record your observations of the discomfort and pain you experienced without the inhaled anesthetic.

    Hmmm, I dunno, this experiment is neither random nor blinded.

    I think it only works if somebody stabs you with a knife when you aren’t expecting it. Er, if somebody who is blindfolded stabs you with a knife when you aren’t expecting it.

    Then I think we’ve got an experiment, here!

    @Jon, IANAD, so I can’t answer the question authoritatively… but while there may be some legitimate treatments for which the mechanism is a bit dodgy, I don’t think there are any for which it’s implausible that they would work at all (like homeopathy).

    It’s one thing to have a treatment that’s like, “We don’t know how this works.” It’s another to have a treatment that’s like, “If this works, then everything we know about chemistry is wrong.”

  36. #36 KeithB
    December 15, 2009

    There is a little problem with that experiment, Prometheus: Don’t most Anesthesia cocktails that they inject before hand contain drugs that cause amnesia? You might just not remember that you woke up in the middle of the operation in great pain:
    http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/1307/do-some-people-remain-alert-but-paralyzed-under-anesthesia

    However, it seems to me that Ullman is missing the boat. It is not “medicine” in the homeopathic solution, since what is diluted *causes* the problem. It can only be considered “medicine” after the whole process is performed. Indeed, a good question to ask a homeopath would be just when does diluted caffeine become a sleep aid?

    Seems to me that they should just cure something relatively benign like toe fungus so that they can ethically prove that homeopathy works.

  37. #37 Andreas Johansson
    December 15, 2009

    I’m so going to start making homeopathic nukes and sell to woo-afflicted dictators. Excessive wealth, here I come!

    (Any random rock in my garden has more fissile material in it than what homeopathic remedies have of their alleged active ingredients, so the nukes won’t be too explody, but I needn’t tell them that do I?)

  38. #38 Igor
    December 15, 2009

    “I’m so going to start making homeopathic nukes and sell to woo-afflicted dictators. ”

    And if we learned anything about “crank magnetism” Ahmadinejad is our prime candidate. He is already a well versed Holocaust denialist. But why stop at nukes? I propose 100C dilutions of anthrax, more potent than ever, at mere pennies an ounce. Or is it supposed to cure anthrax, thus rendering them useless to dictators. I’m confused.

  39. #39 Mojo
    December 15, 2009

    @rob: “YOCTOPHARMACOLOGY!!!!”

    Presumably that could be used to describe any potency of 24X (or 12C) or higher.

    Since they’re all the same by that point.
    ;)

  40. #40 D. C. Sessions
    December 15, 2009

    For those questioning the “inadvertent dilution of who-knows-what” question, the homeopaths do have an answer. They don’t like to give it, but if pressed they do:

    It all depends on the intention of the preparer when he succusses the stuff.

    You can tell that this embarrasses even them by their reluctance.

  41. #41 Daniel J. Andrews
    December 15, 2009

    homeopathic remedies are a mixture of water and magical thinking, all serially succussed

    If homeopathy actually did work, would this make it a “succussful” treatment? ;-)

    James Sweet (13)…great point! If the stuff actually worked we’d have to get the EPA after homeopaths.

  42. #42 PeterD
    December 16, 2009

    Homeopathy as “nanopharmacology”? The only thing “nano” is the quantity of the science involved

    Mega priceless! :)

  43. #43 Boris
    December 16, 2009

    Is a red flag to a bull really “proverbial”? In any event:

    “In marked contrast, it was observations that only postulating the concept that energy is quantized could explain that drove the development of quantum theory.”

    This strikes me as needlessly teleological. Quantization was obviously known in the eigenmodes of the ideal, macroscopic, simple harmonic oscillator. The matrix formalism (starting with Cayley?) preceded the later physical application.

  44. #44 grasshopper
    December 16, 2009

    I’ve said it before, but here it is again.
    If water has a ‘memory’ then it already ‘remembers’ all the cures that have been used. You don’t need to visit a homeopathist, you just need a drink of water, any water.

  45. #45 Tracy W
    December 16, 2009

    The atomic bomb analogy interests me. One piece of common knowledge about atomic bombs is that they create nasty radiation that causes ongoing health problems.
    So how come people read this comparison of homeopathy with atomic bombs and don’t go “Oh no, homeopathy is going to cause cancer!”?

    Well, I know how come most commentators here don’t have that response, but how about the people who are convinced by the analogy?

    This also puzzles me about all the people who talk about energy medicine (in the alternative approach). Given what happened to Marie Curie when she discovered a new form of energy, why don’t the punters run screaming for the doors?

  46. #46 dt
    December 16, 2009

    Homeopathic nukes?

    Already been done, and by our old friend, the AIDS-curing homeopath Jeremy Sherr no less. Read about it all for only $29.00!
    http://www.minimum.com/b.asp?a=plutonium-nitricum-sherr

  47. #47 OleanderTea
    December 16, 2009

    “…all living creatures…develop extreme hypersensitivity for whatever will help ensure their survival…”

    If that were the case, I’d be able to sense a vodka tonic at a hundred paces.

    “…memory of water…”

    And if that were the case, wouldn’t the damned ice cubes in my vodka tonic “remember” that they are a solid and never, ever melt?

  48. #48 Alareth
    December 16, 2009

    Why is it homeopaths never mention or discuss the incredibly high concentrations of dihydrogen monoxide contained in their “medicines”?

  49. #49 Igor
    December 17, 2009

    Why is it homeopaths never mention or discuss the incredibly high concentrations of dihydrogen monoxide contained in their “medicines”?

    It’s a proven cure for dehydration.

  50. #50 Randy
    December 18, 2009

    I think Hahnemann deserves a bit more credit than he gets from Skeptics. At the time he proposed his system there was no scientific medicine deserving of the name. A person was generally better off doing nothing than going to a physician, where they might be bled, given mercury, arsenic or lead containing drugs, or have wounds probed with hands laden with filth. Hahnemann offered a way to do both-go to a physician AND do nothing. He really did get better results for all but a handful of complaints than the “allopaths” of his time. We should not blame Hahnemann, he proposed a hypothesis and confirmed it by getting better results than his contemporaries. We should blame the quacks who cling to Hahnemann’s methods long after they have been shown to be placebo.

  51. #51 phantomreader42
    December 18, 2009

    So, Randy, what you’re saying is that Hahnemann came up with a way to do nothing while pretending to do something. That is, he created an organized method for perpetrating fraud. And you think he deserves credit for this?

    If he honestly thought homeopathy would work when he came up with it, if he actually thought that diluting poison until nothing was left would result in a miracle cure, then he was totally wrong and basing his “treatment” on something wholly unsupported by evidence. If, as you seem to be implying, he knew that homeopathy was equivalent to doing nothing, then he was a liar bilking people out of their money selling diluted snake oil. Either way, I see nothing admirable here.

  52. #52 BoxNDox
    December 18, 2009

    Igor – in order to make a bio-weapon I think you’d need to subject the treatment for anthrax or whatever to homeopathic processing, not anthrax itself.

    But maybe this only works on simple chemicals. So we could just start with atropine. A few rounds of dilution and we should have a nasty nerve agent, right?

    Really, the potential for making really dangerous shit through homeopathic techniques seems a bit … underutilized. But perhaps that has something to do with homeopathy being a complete and total crock.

  53. #53 Todd W.
    December 18, 2009

    @BoxNDox

    Good point. Would that mean, then, that a homeopathic preparation of antibiotics would cause a bacterial infection? That highly dilute antivirals would result in viral infection? And that a 30C dilution of a chemotherapy drug would cause cancer?

  54. #54 Badly Shaved Monkey
    December 18, 2009

    It does bear pointing out again, and my comments at Huffington Post keep disappearing due to their weird moderation process, that the “memory of water” has nothing to do with homeopathy as typically practised.

    The water is dripped onto sugar pills that are evaporated to dryness. So, beyond all the technical issues about the possibility of water having a memory, we must never forget THERE IS NO WATER!

  55. #55 Badly Shaved Monker
    December 18, 2009

    Oh, and when the remedies are liquid they are often in ethanol not water.

    Only a small point, but another example of the homeowoos never letting the facts get in the way of a good story, and always makes sure the story serves your financial interest.

  56. #56 Julia B
    December 19, 2009

    More or less on topic…I was flipping through the local alternative weekly earlier this evening, and ran across an ad for a homeopathy clinic where they offer homeopathic immunizations. Apparently this is an alternative to regular vaccines, but perfectly safe because, and they actually say this on the website, there is “no actual disease matter left in the medications.”

    *Sigh* I knew I lived in woo-central, but this is ridiculous…

  57. #57 Gordon Grieder
    December 19, 2009

    Great article, thank you!

    Homeopaths are either:

    1) deluded folks who believe in their magic water
    or
    2) liars

    I don’t think it’s a false dichotomy; what other options are there?

  58. #58 Prometheus
    December 19, 2009

    Gordon (#57),

    I’m not sure those two options are mutually exclusive. They may be deluded folks who lie about their results because they are convinced that homeopathy “really, truly works!” and that the data simply isn’t relevant to whether or not homeopathy is effective.

    I know that sounds crazy, but I’ve heard that exact explanation (excuse) given by homeopathy “believers”.

    Prometheus

  59. #59 Dr. Nancy Malik
    December 20, 2009

    Real (homeopathic) medicines cures even when Conventional Allopathic Medicine (CAM) fails

  60. #60 Chris
    December 20, 2009

    And Nancy Malik is a robot who shows up with her pointless little declaration every so often.

  61. #61 Chicago liposuction
    February 8, 2010

    Physics and chemistry. If the law of infinitesimals is correct that would alter all that is known about both of those subjects.

    Biology and physiology would have to be be completely changed as you have cellular effects not mediated by receptors, proteins, lipids, etc. The law of simliars would also cause a great deal of changes here.

  62. #62 Dr.P.K. Sumodan
    April 29, 2011

    If woodoo works, if prayer cures, then of course homeopathy too.

  63. #63 Chris
    April 29, 2011

    Wow, it took you a whole year to think that up!

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