Once again: "Plausibility" does not mean "knowing the mechanism"

I tend to get lost in complexity from time to time.

I know, big surprise to my regular readers, but I suppose it's a good thing that at least I know that this is a weakness of mine. Indeed, it must be part and parcel of my seeming tendency to produce epic posts of ridiculous length that sometimes surpass 5,000 words, although, in all fairness, my average post length is probably less than 2,000 words, which is still too long for many people but not beyond the pale. Of course, part of the reason for this is that I like to leave no stone unturned. In particular, I tend to like to make my refutations of the various bits of pseudoscience, quackery, and antivaccine nonsense that serve as the fodder for Orac-ian Insolence, Respectful and otherwise, as comprehensive as possible. I imagine the various targets topics of this blog, stung by having their bad science, logical fallacies, and bad reasoning punctured, looking for a single weakness that they can attack, believing that doing so will cause my entire argument in a post to come tumbling down. That's why I try to construct many of my posts like the proverbial spider web, with intermeshing arguments weaving together into what (I hope) is a seamless whole, where, even if I made a mistake in one area, the rest of the web remains sound. My computer 'nym notwithstanding, I am actually human and do occasionally make mistakes from time to time that go beyond typos or the occasional fragment or run-on sentence.

So it's a rare treat when I find a bit of nonsense that is not only allows me to explain a nice, simple principle that quacks frequently try to misrepresent for their benefit but actually foreshadows a post I was planning to do in the near future, I can't resist. It's therapeutic. Maybe I can even keep this post under 1,500 words (although I'm sure some smart-ass will note that I've already used up over 300.) That nonsense is, not surprisingly, a defense of homeopathy. It is, however, a defense based on a single statement and entitled If Homeopathy Can't Work, Then Neither Can Anesthesia. Not surprisingly, it's written by Heidi Stevenson, a homeopath whom we've met before pontificating about how anecdotal evidence is better than clinical trials and making nonsensical attacks on Stephen Barrett, but her screed is so brain dead that it could well have been written by Dana Ullman. Let's take a look, shall we.

The first paragraph pretty much sums up the fallacy upon which Stevenson constructs her nonsensical argument. It's basically the argument against prior plausibility. Regular readers migh twonder why I (and other skeptics) write about homeopathy so much given how utterly ridiculous and easily refuted it is from a scientific standpoint. The reason that homeopathy is so useful for discussing the science of clinical trials is that it is, basically, water. As has been explained so many times before, the original remedies are often diluted to the point where it is incredibly unlikely that even a single molecule remains. That makes it a perfect vehicle to discuss the issue of plausibility (because homeopathy has none) and prior probability that homeopathy will work in a clinical trial (which is about as close to zero as it is possible to get an not actually be zero).

I'll talk a bit more about the prior probability issue in a future post. For purposes of this post, I'm more interested in plausibility. What really bothers homeopathy supporters is the argument that homeopathy is incredibly unlikely to be doing anything beyond placebo because it's so incredibly implausible on basic science considerations alone given that its tenets...oh, you know...break multiple laws of physics and chemistry. Quacks, particularly homeopaths, like to turn this objection into a straw man, and Stevenson does just that:

One of the most common arguments against homeopathy says: It can't work, therefore it doesn't. Another throws out the challenge to explain how it works. Neither is a fair argument, since they do not care about evidence showing its efficacy, but only attempt to demean both homeopathy and the person who believes it works.

No, Heidi. The argument is not "It can't work; therefore it doesn't." The argument is that it is so incredibly implausible on basic science considerations that homeopathy is in essence an extraordinary claim. To convince scientists and skeptics that an extraordinary claim is true (or at least plausible) requires extraordinary evidence. The way I like to put it is that the amount of evidence that it would take to make homeopathy scientifically plausible should at least be in the same order of magnitude as the quality and quantity of evidence amassed over centuries of physics, chemistry, and biology that currently leads to the conclusion that homeopathy is scientifically impossible. Equivocal clinical trials with barely statistically significant findings of low magnitude do not constitute evidence sufficient to conclude that physics, as we understand it now, is in doubt.

More amusing is Stevenson's example:

These same people do not place the same burden on their own belief in allopathy. Let's pose that question to an anesthesiologist, Michael Alkire of the University of California School of Medicine, who is recognized as an expert in his field. Surely he knows the answer. His response is in a quote from the Encyclopedia of Consciousness:

How anesthesia works has been a mystery since the discovery of anesthesia itself.

Do those who keep attacking homeopathy care that no one understands how anesthesia works, either? Oddly enough, that never seems to come up. Why do they hold homeopathy to a different standard? Not knowing the mechanism behind how something works is hardly a legitimate argument that it doesn't.

No, no, no, no no, no, no!

Repeat after me: Implausibility (as applied to considering the claims of homeopathy) does not equal "not knowing the precise mechanism." We base our conclusion of the extreme implausibility of homeopathy not on our lack of knowledge of its mechanism (although there's no doubt that in general plausibility is bolstered by knowing the mechanism by which a treatment works). It is based on the reasonable scientific assessment that any mechanism that anyone can possibly think up by which homeopathy might possibly work violates very well established laws of physics and chemistry. In other words, as I'm so fond of saying, perhaps to the point of repeating it too often, for homeopathy to be true, huge swaths of physics and chemistry would have to be not just wrong, but spectacularly wrong.

It would take a hell of a lot of evidence to start to make me (or any other scientists) begin to think that.

I would also point out that, yes, there is a lot about anesthesia that we don't understand. There is a lot about the brain that we don't understand. We do, however, know beyond a shadow of a doubt that anesthesia does in fact, work. In fact, the very article Stevenson linked to is anecdotal evidence of that! Carl Zimmer, who wrote the article, describes his surgery for appendicitis and how it was odd how it seemed as though the couple of hours he was out was as though the anesthesiologists had "cut a few hours out of my life and joined together the loose ends." We know that anesthesia works, under what conditions it works, how much and what kind of drugs it takes to achieve certain affects, and the dose-response curves and pharmacology of the agents used. Some agents have mechanisms of action that we understand quite well (opiods), some not so well (inhalational agents). But we know they work. We know that they must work through chemical interactions between the agent and cellular proteins that can be studied and characterized. We know that, unlike homeopathy, even though we don't know all the mechanisms by which some anesthetics work, their working does not require the violation of even a single law of physics. The same cannot be said of homeopathy.

It's also a bit of a bait-and-switch on Stevenson's part. Zimmer's article wasn't so much about how we don't know how anesthesia works, but rather musings on how little we know about consciousness, how unconsciousness is achieved through anesthesia, and how the brain maintains consciousness. We do, however, know that there are many changes in brain activity during anesthesia. These can be measured and characterized, allowing scientists to infer potential mechanisms and then test them. In other words, Stevenson zeroed in on the one sentence in Zimmer's article and ignored the rest.

The next passage from Stevenson's article couldn't help but make me think of Insane Clown Posse:

Do we understand how electricity works? Outside of observations of its effects, we do not. It is a subatomic phenomenon, and that field is in extreme flux right. In a world in which things do not exist unless they are observed, as postulated by modern physics--and not having the slightest idea how this can possibly be--we cannot possibly claim to know how electricity works. So, is it legitimate to suggest that electricity cannot work because it consists of particles that, quite impossibly, exist only when they're observed?

The real world is a very complex and mysterious place. Though we certainly must make determinations of what is and is not real, isn't it best to do that based on experience and observation, rather than presumptions of what can and cannot be?

Did the sun suddenly come into being the day we humans were finally able to theorize a means by which it shines?

Must we give up anesthesia because we have no idea how it works?

How can rational people make the claim that homeopathy doesn't work simply because we don't know how?

"F*ckin' magnets, how do they work?" Really, how do they work? And this is how magnetism and electricity work, Heidi. You are clearly an ignoramus. Maybe you should talk to real scientists. I suppose if I told Heidi that electricity and magnetism are related it would crack her fragile eggshell mind. The hilarious thing is that several commenters (assuming they aren't deleted by the time this post goes live) are taking Stevenson to task for her extreme ignorance, pointing out that we've understood pretty well how electricity works for a hundred years. My favorite is the one who pointed out that the result of our understanding how electricity works is the very computer upon which Stevenson wrote her article and the web servers that serve up her bloggy nonsense to the world, not to mention my computer upon which I unfortunately came across her bloggy nonsense. That doesn't even count how the microprocessors in computers relies on an understanding of quantum physics to work.

Stevenson's whole argument is basically one huge argument from ignorance. In essence, she is saying, "If we don't completely understand how, for instance, anesthesia works, then that means total pseudoscientific quackery like homeopathy could work." Yes, her argument is just that awful.

But, then, what do you expect from a homeopath?

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Cart before horse?

Homeopaths pontificating about mechanisms seem to be engaging in a futile exercise when they can't even show that there is an effect. I always found this whole line of reasoning utterly bizarre - "You just hate it because your science doe3sn't understand it".

What is there to understand? Nothing, nada, zip....

So basically you have them coming and going. Their proposed woo-enabling mechanisms are bunk, and there's no effect to require explanation anyway.

By nastylittlehorse (not verified) on 08 May 2012 #permalink

I find the idea that Heidi Stevenson earns a living selling exceptionally high priced water and sugar pills to the ignorant and gullible most implausible. But the evidence suggests that she owns a computer, has access (sadly) to the internet, and continues to feed herself.

I posit, in the absence of absolute proof of Heidi's existence, that a computer program could be written that responds to criticism of homeopathy in ways very similar to the (alleged) human.

For example, if a critic says, "No active ingredient exists after dilution and succussion." A computer could be programmed to respond with, "I understand that you believe no active ingredient remains after dilution and succussion but the quantum effects of the field density of the energy that did exist can persist providing a near infinite healing effect."

A collection of jibberish serious homeopath responses could be collected and combined with the common pattern of restating of the question (for that human touch) to provide thoughtful, bogus, answers to most skeptical inquiries about homeopathy-as-fraud.

My knowledge of the workings of anaesthesia is limited to an article in Scientific American, which must have been 15 or 20 years ago because it was when Sci.Am. was still worth reading, but back then there was a working model of how the inhalational anaesthetics worked (dissolving in cell membranes of neurons, physical pressure on post-synaptic channels, etc.). A physical process as much as a chemical one (hence the anaesthetic properties of xenon).

I say this as an illustration of what a person who doesn't know the slightest goddam thing about anaesthetics might still reasonably be expected to know. Please break it to me gently if this picture has been abandoned in its entirety.

By herr doktor bimler (not verified) on 09 May 2012 #permalink

Can you list the laws - with short explanations accessible to lay people like myself - of physics and chemistry that homeopathy actually violates? (I suspect you've already written about that, and if so could you link to those posts instead?)

MikeMa @2

"I understand that you believe no active ingredient remains after dilution and succussion but the quantum effects of the field density of the energy that did exist can persist providing a near infinite healing effect."

"Water has memory!

And while its memory of a long lost drop
of onion juice seems infinite!

It somehow forgets all the poo it's had in it!"

Tim Minchin's Storm the Animated Movie

By Fred Magyar (not verified) on 09 May 2012 #permalink


The nature of tumbling molecules in liquid and the making and breaking of hydrogen bonds and reorganizing dynamic cages around polar compounds and ions. There is no plausible evidence for water memory. Period.


Thanks for that. So, if their claim is that water has memory, does that mean that other liquids posses this property, too? If they claim that water has memory, then this property should be shared by other substances like water. Have homeopaths ever tried testing out other substances?

And if their claim were to be true, then presumably it would have other practical implications beyond mere medical use. I mean, just on top of my head, have the homeopaths ever tested their "memory claim" by producing "homeopathic fuel"?

if their claim is that water has memory, does that mean that other liquids posses this property, too?

Some of the homeopathic products are alcohol rather than water. Then there are the dry ones like "Berlin Wall" where the substrate used to dilute the original ingredient into non-existence is lactose -- no liquid at all.
This molecular memory is a flexible phenomenon...

By herr doktor bimler (not verified) on 09 May 2012 #permalink

Wow, Heidi Stevenson is really dim isn't she? I guess the fact that anaesthesia has a rather profound, qualified effect whilst homeopathy does not completely escapes her vapid little mind.

"Do we understand how electricity works? "

I actually laughed out loud when I saw that. Not only do we have Maxwell's equations -- an apparently complete and correct theory of classical electromagnetism -- but quantum electrodynamics (QED), which is simply the most accurate, best-tested physical theory in existence. [see "Anomalous magnetic dipole moment " in Wikipedia -- the magnetic moment of the electron agrees with theory to 10 significant digits!]

This person is really bone-ignorant. The mind shouldn't boggle, but it does.

By palindrom (not verified) on 09 May 2012 #permalink

Why not test it. Give heidi a homeopathic preparation of stimulants as anesthesia and then do an appendectomy. That will prove that homeopathy works.

@ Sarah:

A fellow I know, on seeing a brochure I pilfered from a vitamin store, asked how homeopathy worked, so I told him; ( accompanied by gales of laughter) he
speculated that if this were indeed true, we could become billionaires by *next week* through diluting (and thus increasing) fluids that were more expensive than water: gasoline, vegetable oil, perfume, energy drinks, gin, vodka....

Needless to say, we have not as yet, implemented this plan.

By Denice Walter (not verified) on 09 May 2012 #permalink

Among the many ways homeopathy flies in the face of physical laws, the most obvious is the dilution. Orac and others have done a good job describing this in other posts. I even saw a video of a guy doing a standard homeopathic dilution of his own urine, which, after all the steps, he drank.

From the wiki on 'Homeopathic Dilutions':

Hahnemann advocated 30C dilutions for most purposes (that is, dilution by a factor of 10^60). In Hahnemann's time it was reasonable to assume that remedies could be diluted indefinitely, as the concept of the atom or molecule as the smallest possible unit of a chemical substance was just beginning to be recognized.

Note that 10^60 is a 1 with 60 zeros after it. So whatever you are diluting has been completely diluted out of most of the final products. The homeo-scammers claim all sorts of mitigating circumstances which amount to a belief in magic but you cannot get around the basic math.

Altho' Ms Stevenson bows before the mysteriosity** of the universe- which isn't nearly as incomprehensible to most of us- I find it far more instructive for woo-watchers when alt med dissemblers postulate *exactly* how their treatment plans work.

Usually it has a lot to do with vibrations: an unhealthy cell vibrates at the wrong frequency and the herb vibrates at the correct frequency, so taking the herb *tunes* the out-of-tune cells so they harmonise.

Or taking supplements *fixes* "broken DNA" by filling in the gaps or suchlike.

Energy healing involves an energy exchange - I think that's similar to the tuning fork analogy: the healer vibrates correctly while the healee, does not. Through a laying on of hands or chakra-allignment, the latter's unruly, bad-boy vibes are discliplined into harmonic obeisance via the former's scrupulously harmonious perfection.

There are many other expliques that delve into the mechanisms of serious illness or developmental conditions - often the GI tract is involved. The mechanism here invokes images of cleaning out stopped plumbing or filtring out impurities.

Occasionally, someone will boil all ills down to 'inflammation' and/ or 'bad faith': take your pick.

** or *el misterioso*-ness, with apologies to Mr Wolfe.

By Denice Walter (not verified) on 09 May 2012 #permalink

@herr doktor bimler:

Some of the homeopathic products are alcohol rather than water. Then there are the dry ones like "Berlin Wall" where the substrate used to dilute the original ingredient into non-existence is lactose -- no liquid at all.

Most remedies seem to be prepared using a water/alcohol mixture. Water on its own generally seems to be used only for higher dilutions (greater than 30C).

Pretty much all the remedies I've ever seen on sale have been in the form of sugar pills onto which the alcohol/water preparation has been dropped, and from which it has evaporated, even for remdies prepared from soluble substances. And even for the insoluble ones, "trituration" (the process of grinding with lactose) is only used for the first few dlutions - after that they just dissolve the resulting lactose preparation and continue the dilution with water/alcohol. Then they drop that onto the sugar pills.

Of course, there will be some water of crystallization in the pills, but any structure it has will be entirely dependent on the structure of the lactose, not on whatever the remedy was allegedly made from.

Instead of getting worked up when I see the stupidity of the homeopathy promoters, I go and drink a nice glass of water. Works every time!

By Old Rockin' Dave (not verified) on 09 May 2012 #permalink

Of course according to the whole "like cures like" paradigm, where a substance found through 'provings' to cause a symptom when properly diluted and succussed magically cures someone suffering that symptom, homeopathic vodka should make you more sober. Don't see a large market for it.

@ Mojo:

Oh my. It's especially relevant because alt med folk would scowl upon most of the prophylactic treatments, treatments and potential vaccines as products of pharma: Natural News and AoA have already discussed the inherents dangers of these products. Those scared off of realistic notions might try this nonsense. Perhaps they won't despise products made from *artemisia* as much. Natural product and all.

@ Mojo:
Ha! But as I said, we're not working on that.

By Denice Walter (not verified) on 09 May 2012 #permalink

The difficulty with knowing the mechanism of action of anesthesia is not the lack of a plausible mechanism, but rather an overabundance of plausible mechanisms. At the concentrations at which anesthetics are effective, they interact with multiple biological molecules. An early idea was that anesthetics produced their clinical effect by dissolving in cell membranes and altering membrane fluidity or thickness (with possible indirect effects on proteins embedded in the membrane). These are real effects that can be readily measured in the laboratory. On the other hand, it can be shown that anesthetics also interact directly with soluble proteins such as enzymes, binding within the hydrophobic "core" of the protein. Again, this is very well documented. So the problem is determining which of the well-documented effects of anesthetics on biological molecules are responsible for its well documented clinical effects. The current view is that the clinical effects of anesthetics are mostly due to direct interactions with the hydrophobic core of neurotransmitter receptors embedded in the cell membrane.

This is quite the opposite of the situation with homeopathic preparations. Instead of strong evidence of interactions with multiple biological molecules at therapeutically relevant concentrations (many different studies, reproduced in many different laboratories, with a high degree of statistical significance), there are very small number of poorly reproducible claims at a borderline level of statistical significance. And whereas the physical principles whereby anesthetic molecules interact with biological molecules at clinically relevant concentrations are well documented, based upon known (and equally well-established) molecular interactions and consistent with the (also well established) energies of those interactions, homeopathic substances are claimed to act at vanishingly small concentrations that would require enormously high energies of interaction that cannot be achieved by any known molecular interactions. Claims that the original substances somehow "imprint" upon water molecules run up against the quite well understood molecular interactions of water molecules, which these days can readily be simulated in a computer. Basically, the energies of molecular interactions of water molecules are much too low for water molecules to hold together at room temperature in any configuration for more than a very brief period of time, far, far too brief to persist through the lengthy process of homeopathic dilution. And again, these properties of water have been repeatedly demonstrated in multiple labs, by multiple physical techniques, in very robust experiments. Claims that the shape of the original homeopathic molecule is somehow communicated to contaminants (bits of glass broken off in decussation, or "nanoparticle" metallic contaminants--i.e. dirt--in the diluting water, run into similar problems.

So then we have the appeal to quantum magic. The problem is that quantum mechanics, counterintuitive as it may seem, is actually well understood in a mathematical sense, using equations that were developed decades ago and that have been confirmed in numerous experiments to an extraordinary degree of precision. All of the "quantum weirdness" is in fact predicted by these equations. Needless to say, nobody has been able to show that these equations predict an effect of homeopathic preparations on any biological molecule, and there is no experimental evidence of such an effect. So the appeal to some kind of "quantum weirdness loophole" is sheer grasping at straws, with no actual theoretical basis.

Of course according to the whole "like cures like" paradigm, where a substance found through 'provings' to cause a symptom when properly diluted and succussed magically cures someone suffering that symptom, homeopathic vodka should make you more sober. Don't see a large market for it.

What you are proposing is (apologies to Terry Pratchett) something that will make you knurd: the opposite of drunk, a state of heightened awareness (and not in the mystical sense) which, if you have ever been there, you would vow never to go back.

Better marketing idea: cure for hangovers. I'm sure you can find people who would be willing to buy homeopathic vodka if it were marketed as a hangover cure.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 09 May 2012 #permalink

And find even more people willing to sell it, regardless of whether or not it cured hangovers.

@Eric Lund
Hangover cures are a good idea but you are thinking small. You wouldn't offer a cure for all hangovers in a single pill. Each spirit would have its own remedy. I envision a whole shelf of nostrums at the local health food/woo store. Scotch, vodka, gin, rum, wine (by grape?), beer, each with its own fake pill. Subsequent marketing for combo pills for the suicidal drinkers among the woo crowd could bring in extra cash.

There truly is a fool born every minute in this group.

The real world is a very complex and mysterious place. Though we certainly must make determinations of what is and is not real, isn't it best to do that based on experience and observation, rather than presumptions of what can and cannot be?

I think Ms. Stevenson has been trying out some arguments from what I call the "Sgt. Schultz School of Apologetics: 'Ve Know Nuthink -- Nuthink!" Everything is mystery, all knowledge is up in the air, it's all impenetrable muck so it's everyone for themselves. Anything is possible; thus, there are no wrong answers.

And now that my own answer has gained acceptable status -- your answer is wrong.

What always gets me about homeopathy specifically is that I can't figure out the analogy they're drawing from. As Denice points out, most alternative medicine tries to seem plausible by appealing to common, ordinary experiences like one 'vibration' setting off another, or plumbing. But "something becomes stronger the more you dilute it?" What sort of intuition is that? Can even the homeopaths think of something, anything, that becomes stronger the less of it there is?

The only thing I've managed to come up with is some variation of "absence makes the heart grow fonder." Which I have trouble seeing as applicable here, even by the notoriously loose standards of the altie.

They're not even making sense on the "folk physics" level.

Sastra -- it may have made sense before people understood how dissolving stuff really works. It's like magic: you dissolve sugar into water, and the water becomes *clear* again. The sugar has disappeared! At the molecular level, of course, it's obvious this isn't really what's happening. The sugar's still there. It hasn't been reduced to some ineffable essence of sweetness; the molecules are still present and responsible for the sweetness. Hahnemann was initially surprised by his observations that these substances appeared to trigger inverted symptoms when absurdly diluted, so even in his day it was counterintuitive. But if you look at how he was going about his research, it's wildly unscientific. Again, perhaps more excusable in his day than today, but it's pretty obvious he saw a coincidental effect (possibly even an imagined one), drew a conclusion, and then it was all confirmation bias and placebo effect there on out.

But what probably made a lot more difference to homeopathy's early acceptance wasn't any of that, nor even any sort of common sense; the competitors to homeopathy weren't really any better in those days, so the general public generally had no expectation of actually understanding what their doctors were saying. That, and the fact that at least homeopathy was harmless. People were drinking sugar water. That was a big improvement over the various poisons people were drinking as medicines instead. The conventional approach was basically "no pain no gain", an ideal that probably had a lot of basis in Puritanism. Remedies should hurt; it's how you know they work. That makes early acceptance of homeopathy a lot more understandable, since it didn't hurt so much, wasn't as liable to kill you, and didn't ever involve surgery (which in those days was practically russian roulette).

By Calli Arcale (not verified) on 09 May 2012 #permalink

Mojo, I just looked at your link to malaria and homeopathy. I can't believe there is a Royal London Homeopathic Hospital..... that just sounds wrong on so many levels.

By Kelly M Bray (not verified) on 09 May 2012 #permalink

Sastra @24 --

"the Sgt. Schultz School of Apologetics: 'Ve Know Nuthink -- Nuthink!"

[Laughter; Applause]

By palindrom (not verified) on 09 May 2012 #permalink

...."(although I'm sure some smart-ass will note that I've already used up over 300.)"

As I sit here, like a dear caught in headlights. I calmly put my pencil down and decide I will stop counting.

@ JGC: my second @ # 19 should be addressed to you, not Mojo.

@ Sastra:

The simplistic metaphors employed reveal their articulators' inabilities to understand abstractions and biology. I have no idea to which concept the 'less is more' analogy relates. Aesthetics? It must be too esoteric for my pragmatic, materialistic self.

Most woo does hint at divine essences, life energies, ghosts-in-the-machines and spirit. I imagine that they might envision some sort of a scale with levels of purity or fineness that range from the material to the totally insubstantial soul or spirit, with vibrations and energy standing betwixt the two opposites either as their common denominator or as go-betweens or a messenger service. Sometimes deities are suggested as well. When you run out of ideas, throw that in.

I once heard an idiot explain that all human interactions are "energy exchanges"- thus, proving my point that metaphors often reveal a dearth of knowledge, in this case, adding mis-understanding psych to his already abysmal understanding of bio, chem and physics.

By Denice Walter (not verified) on 09 May 2012 #permalink

Mojo, I just looked at your link to malaria and homeopathy. I can't believe there is a Royal London Homeopathic Hospital..... that just sounds wrong on so many levels.

It just doesn't sound wrong, it was wrong (it is now the Royal London Hospital for Integrated Medicine, big difference you know /sarcasm). We can thank the Royal Family and NHS for that embarrassment.

Give Heidi a break! After all, sheâs a homeopath! Back in early 19th century, when homeopathy was invented, we didnât know how electricity works. And since homeopathy hasnât really progressed since those days, why would it occur to a homeopath that other fields, such as science, have?

Heidi Stevenson: "One of the most common arguments against homeopathy says: It can't work, therefore it doesn't."

Actually, the argument against homeopathy I see most often is "Homeopathy doesn't work, and the justifications by believers as to its mechanism are so ludicrous that it's no wonder it doesn't work."

If you're sufficiently credulous as to believe homeopathic water is a magical cure, you're either 1) stuck with the nonsensical "memory" explanation, 2) doomed to invent equally idiotic explanations like Lionel Milgrom and his quantum theory weirdness, or 3) forced to say "Who cares, duh, it works!"

You know, it would have been fun if Geico's "taste test" insurance ads had featured different homeopathic dilutions instead of whatever liquids they actually used. "Geico car insurance is like a 30X homeopathic dilution of strychnine, I felt better fast!!!"

By Dangerous Bacon (not verified) on 09 May 2012 #permalink

I cannot be alone in thinking, as soon as I see Homeopathy as a subject, I know the word quantum is going to pop up.

Does that make me psychic? I think it does, but only when slapped with a bible or leather pad.

Heidi Stevenson: "One of the most common arguments against homeopathy says: It can't work, therefore it doesn't."

A more precise wording would be: for homeopathy, as it is described, to work, it will have to do it in a way which is contrary to how we know things work.
(oh, and for the occasional lurker, let's precise, we talk about homeopathy, not herbalism; the two are often conflated. Herbalism works, for a certain value of "works")

I would like to propose the following simile:

For a few quantum physicists (err, possible urban legend alert), it's possible, yet highly improbable, to experience a reversal of the timeline: by example, to see the glass you just let drop and broke to spontaneously reassemble itself and jump back into your hand.
However, the probability for this to happen is so low (i.e., it's implausible) that it would be very naive to base your decisions expecting this to happen and very dishonest to commercialize self-fixing drinking glasses.

You can always say that you invented an Infinite Improbability Drive. But this, too, is highly implausible...

By Heliantus (not verified) on 09 May 2012 #permalink

chemomo @31

By the powers invested in me by my dogs (who think I am Napoleon) I hereby award you one internet.

Sastra - OT, but what on earth is "Abundance" (in the newage sense)?

By Militant Agnostic (not verified) on 09 May 2012 #permalink

Anyone who uses both sides of their brain, with an IQ over 95, should have learned from history that there is hardly anything that is fully understood or known in the natural world. It doesn't matter what your background is, what soap box you stand on, who you worship. If you're a human being, your brain does not know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, what the hell is really going on. That's why it's called "Practicing" medicine. If everything was known, there would not be anymore to discover. Over and over and over we read about new discoveries in the past, theories that were unproven, hypotheses that some lowly clerk had, or some Royal's daughter, or a random astronomer, that were persecuted and later proved to be correct; without the theory in the first place, there would not have been an idea to prove or disprove.
Know who Louis Pasteur was? I'm sure we all do. So who is Gerald Geison, and how does he relate to Louis Pasteur? Did Pasteur's contemporaries believe his theories were correct? Nope. And so it goes, on and on, never changing.
Only in a spirit of discovery and humility, and respect for others, can science progress. If you only stand on what you already know, and refute anything that is not already in the archive, it is literally impossible to discover anything else. Unproven theories are not "WRONG" because they are unproven, if they are unproven then NO ONE knows whether they are right or wrong. That's the point of scientific method. The text book does not think, or wonder, or make new connections, or make observations, or theorize. When I see people of science debating over anything, and calling other people names, it brings me right back to junior high school when I was trying to show my classmate how to document an experiment, and he just couldn't understand why the experiment was even necessary at all. "It's been done already, why do we have to do it again? And anyway we already know how it comes out..."

By Marianne Black (not verified) on 09 May 2012 #permalink

Ms. Black, it is pretty obvious that when you dilute something past Avogadro's Number there is no possibility for the remedy to have any kind of biological effect. It is just no in the realm of reality, much less plausibility.

Marianne seemingly fails to appreciate the difference between "no evidence either way" and "overwhelming evidence against." Is it POSSIBLE that all the evidence demonstrating that homeopathy couldn't possibly work is incorrect? Yes, but it's so overwhelmingly unlikely that it may be ignored.

No, we don't have perfect knowledge. That is a very different statement than claiming that we know nothing. And unless you want to claim that we don't actually know anything at all about the workings of the universe, homeopathy can't work.

Marianne, do you also claim that we should assume that a dropped rock may fall up next time? And build an entire industry around selling rocks that will fall up, while claiming that it's certain that they will do so? THAT is where homeopathy stands today.

That's why it's called "Practicing" medicine.


No, this is not why it's practicing medicine. The etymology of practice/practise (from Wiktionary):

From Middle English practizen, a variant of practisen, from Middle French pratiser, practiser, from Medieval Latin practizo, from Late Latin practico (âto do, perform, execute, propose, practise, exercise, be conversant with, contrive, conspire, etc.â), from prÄctica (âpractical affairs", "businessâ), from Ancient Greek ÏÏακÏική (prÄktikÄ), from ÏÏακÏικÏÏ (praktikós, âpracticalâ), from ÏÏάÏÏειν (prassein, âto doâ)

The use of 'practice' as a synonym for 'rehearse' or connected to improvement via repetitive activity (e.g. going to soccer practice) is not connected to the use of 'practice' in the context of 'practicing' medicine or law.

Homeopaths really shouldn't talk about Pasteur. Pasteur was disbelieved by his contemporaries, sure, but then he delivered the goods. He delivered actual, reproduceable, experimental results.

Homeopathy has yet to do that. Given how absurd its premises are from the perspective of a 21st Century understanding of physics and biology and chemistry (as opposed to the 19th Century one at the basis of homeopathy), I doubt it ever will... but should it do so, that's the time to take a serious look at incorporating it into medical practice. Not before.

Show me some real proof, not the same sort of testimonials used by snake-oil salesmen, and I'll take it seriously. Until then, homeopathy is just water sold at a huge mark-up.

-- Steve

is there some kind of feminist, homeopathy connection? I am starting to see some common buzz words

By Kelly M Bray (not verified) on 09 May 2012 #permalink

Mojo @16:
Most remedies seem to be prepared using a water/alcohol mixture. Water on its own generally seems to be used only for higher dilutions (greater than 30C).

The Whackyweedia informs me that Bach Flower remedies use a 50:50 mixture of rum and water. Apparently the alcohol improves the water's memory. I find this works for me too.

He believed that early-morning sunlight passing through dew-drops on flower petals transferred the healing power of the flower onto the water,[11] so he would collect the dew drops from the plants and preserve the dew with an equal amount of brandy to produce a mother tincture which would be further diluted before use

And even for the insoluble ones, "trituration" (the process of grinding with lactose) is only used for the first few dilutions

The Google has introduced me to homeopathic preparations of Quartz and Oyster shell, made by this serial trituration process. And of course T Rex.

By herr doktor bimler (not verified) on 09 May 2012 #permalink

Unproven theories are not "WRONG" because they are unproven, if they are unproven then NO ONE knows whether they are right or wrong.

Given how blatantly wrong and ignorant your statement here is Ms. Black, you have a lot of nerve trying to lecture anyone about experimentation and the scientific method. Try to learn the difference between hypothesis, theory and anecdote. Homeopaths have had nearly two centuries to demonstrate efficacy, hell not even mechanism of action, just does it work or not and no decent studies can demonstrate any efficacy beyond a placebo effect. So worship your magic all you like but don't lecture anyone about what science is; you're clearly out of your depth.

The Google has introduced me to homeopathic preparations of Quartz and Oyster shell, made by this serial trituration process. And of course T Rex.

All praise be to the Great Googly Moogly!(*)

(*) term 'Great Googly Moogly' shamelessly ripped off from a Frank Zappa song. Take from that what you will.

Assuming that Marc Stevens Is Insane found the "right" Marianne Black, I'm particularly amused by the fact that she just acknowledged that about the stuff she sells, "NO ONE knows whether they are right or wrong."

Well, maybe she doesn't, but the rest of us do know that it's wrong, to within a 30C dilution of doubt.

@21 Trrll,

Do you have a few PMID regarding these 2 mechanisms of action about anesthesia? I could do a pair of independant studies courses at my school on the subject and this is a subject which interest me a lot.



By Autistic Lurker (not verified) on 09 May 2012 #permalink

Homeopathic fuel. I've got to use that someplace!

Only because the research was done at my university, I get to say this:

Cold Fusion=Homeopathic Fuel

"is there some kind of feminist, homeopathy connection?"

Grrrr. There better not be, Kelly.

I didn't get bored at all those meetings and sunburnt at all those marches in the 70s for mindless morons to get a free pass on the ideology of women's freedom to make their own decisions.

Making your own decisions is not supposed to be easy or trivial. It's certainly not supposed to be mindless.

Marc Stephens Is Insane @40:
It is now your responsibility to e-mail the real Marianne Black of Canada and warn her that some dingbat has stolen her name to make stupid comments in the internet.

By herr doktor bimler (not verified) on 09 May 2012 #permalink

Re: homeopathy and feminism:

I wouldn't know *but* when I ran through the list of CEASE (so-called) therapists, it appeared that most were female.( CEASE is a form of homeopathy used to "combat" vaccine "damages" created from whole cloth by Dr Smits in the Netherlands which has been spreading westward; cease-therapy.com/ Orac's post earlier). There also are many female advocates of homeopathy who will present at AutismOne 2012. ( -btw- Dana Ullman- is male)

Purely speculatively: while I imagine that woo's audience *may* be predominantly female, it seems that the high-ranking woo-meisters are, er, misters. Some of whom unctuously dictate health measures that inform women on how to live, think, eat et al while pontificating about SBM** trampling upon women's rights and taking away their freedom to persue their own Gaia-ness or suchlike: staying in tune with Mother Nature on the green path of righteousness. Into oceans of smarminess and condescension.

There's a line in Goethe's Faust ( Part II) where he, awe-struck, confronts *the Mothers*- the primaeval, chthonic feminine g-ds. And we have the mothers @ AoA and TMR to contend with - they strick fear into my heart. And I am a feminist.

** e.g. prescribing SSRIs to women takes away their rights (@ PRN, last week).

By Denice Walter (not verified) on 09 May 2012 #permalink

@48 Autistic Lurker
Try these-

PMID: 20735416
PMID: 21213095

I guess, I have to: so, just for Narad:
- "The surfers around the Pump House use that word, mysterioso, quite a lot. It refers to the mystery of the Oh Mighty Hulking Pacific Ocean and everything. Sometimes a guy will stare at the ocean and say, 'Mysterioso.'" -Tom Wolfe

By Denice Walter (not verified) on 09 May 2012 #permalink

My favourite is still how they gloss over the ocean.

After all, the ocean contains diluted *everything*, and their much-vaunted "but you have to shake it around" succession thing is surely covered by the actions of the waves. So in theory seawater should be Homeopathic Everything Except Salt.

In fairness, clean seawater does wonders for (minor) open wounds, as minor skin injuries that are soaked in the ocean for a bit tend to heal quickly and cleanly, but in my experience, the same effect can be achieved by dissolved salt in tap water, too. So I expect that the healing power of the ocean is the healing power of saline solution, not the healing power of Homeopathic Whale Poo.

MikeMa @ 2: In fact there is just such a computer for "postmodernism," another form of obnoxious quackery that took hold in the humanities a few decades ago:


Someone ought to do the same for a "homeopathy generator" that can even prescribe homeopathic "remedies" automatically. Best of all, take its output to actual human homeopaths and see if they agree with it and what they think of the author.

Yes Alan Sokal is a hero of mine for unmasking and debunking postmodernism. And yes I had to deal with postmodernists in my undergrad years, and when I first ran into them I thought I'd truly found a nest of subclinical schizophrenia.


TDoc @ 12: YES! "Anyone who believes in homeopathy is welcome to use homeopathic anaesthetics." Start by testing this stuff on common dental procedures that are mildly painful and then ask if they want to repeat the experience when they have a root canal.


Denise @ 13: Thanks much for the truly excellent business idea. If you ever see the results on store shelves, you can tell your friends it was your idea to begin with. Hell, one could start a whole supermarket chain based on this stuff: "HomeoMart, where everything can be used as everything else!" Yes, with knowledgeable store staff too. "Sorry, Ma'am, we're out of Homeo Hairspray, but you can use Homeo Bugkiller, it'll work just as well, and your hair will look great!"

In point of fact there have been attempts to do something like "homeopathic gasoline," via fraudulent "carburetor conversion kits" that purport to run cars on water. Typical price $200., hardly too much for a fool to be parted with.

And there is a whole industry devoted to this approach of "de-materializing" products. Keyword search "virtualization." Eeek!


Denise @ 15: Yes, mystification to the max. As I've said elsewhere, the cure for this is to ask for definitions of terms and operationalizations of variables, which will cause these people to grab their bug-out bags and scoot like they'd just heard a tornado warning.


JGC @ 19, and others: Oooh, thanks for the marketing ideas! If I can persuade a few friends this is worthwhile, we're going to have some serious fun.

Homeopathy 101:

How to successfully sell ice to Eskimos (or Inuits), sand to Bedouins and bullshit to cattle farmers.

Well, you might be able to sell some camelshit to some Dutch politician, who admitted he had eaten some to fight an infection. I don't know what's the mechanism is, that is supposed to be behind this, but well, who cares.

You do realise of course that by diluting her argument you've magnified it's powers a thousand fold!?! Strike her down and she'll become more powerful than you can possibly imagine Lord Vader!

Postmodernism is less like homeopathy and more like quantum mechanics. Homeopathy does not have a core of truth or insight. Postmodernism and quantum mechanics both have a core of truth, even if 99% of the people you hear excitedly blabbing about how their pet hobby horse is now Proven True because quantum/postmodernism says so are simply talking crap.

The core of postmodernism is simply that all critical assessments and analyses are rooted in preceding assumptions, and therefore only have force for someone who accepts the assumptions. It's the equivalent of saying, "Hey, Archimedes? All this stuff you're coming up about levers is great and true - but uh, here in the real world, those immovable places to stand don't actually exist." Of course, just as plenty of idiots will assure you "Quantum physics means that all I have to do is think of good things and they will be attracted to me!" there are plenty of idiots who will assure you "Postmodernism means that all dead straight white male authors are evil and all female, queer, and/or POC authors are awesome!" That's more the fault of the idiots than anything else.

By Antaeus Feldspar (not verified) on 10 May 2012 #permalink

@ g724:

I can't take credit for the homeopathically diluted commodities: they are attributable to the ( former) International Business Dude. My own product list includes Homeopathic Education and Homeopathic Counselling Services wherein the educator or counsellor makes a few meaningful statements inter-mixed with volumes of nonsense.

Actually, if you think about it, that's how woo-ful websites operate: they get their foot in the door with customers by saying things with which *everyone* can agree, then they start spewing the un-believable, confabulated material which is their stock in trade.

While your suggestion about asking for operationalisation is good- these guys ( and it's *mostly* guys) are adept at putting up a smokescreen of impressive dimension to distract and divert attention ( see AJW *et Cie*). This works for their adherents, who may not know enough science to baulk at the impossibility of their many atrocious ideas. Often, listening to their enraptured audience ( @ PRN) or reading comments at the other dungpiles, I discover that they are often congratulated at their *success* at 'sticking it to the man' and "winning" debates.

Because they have audience appeal, our attempts to "talk sense" usually fall upon deaf ears. Seriously, last summer I tried this on a certain young advocate from AoA: it seemed to strengthen his resolve ( there have been studies like this cited at research blogging @ right). Your tactic MIGHT work for a selected part of the audience- those 'not in too deep' or 'on the fence'.

We have to accept that some are unreachable. I try to focus my own explorations into the ways they talk people into stuff, how they operate, how they use advertisement techniques et al. Even people who aren't students of science can understand unseemly business activities and prevarication.

By Denice Walter (not verified) on 10 May 2012 #permalink

@Marianne Black
Scientific ideas can follow a number of trajectories. Of course, we are all familiar with the trajectory of a successful idea: initially faced by skepticism, it nevertheless interests a few researchers who see it as a possible way to explain observations that are poorly explained by existing theory. Their research, guided by this new idea, yields valuable scientific insights, as well as additional observational evidence supporting their hypothesis. Apparently conflicting observations are either shown to be in error, or else are accommodated by minor modifications to the hypothesis that preserve the key concepts. These successes, published in the peer-reviewed scientific literature, attract other scientists, and acceptance of the new theory grows exponentially, until it is almost universally accepted, with the inevitable exception of a handful of die-hard hold-outs for older theories, publishing only in increasingly obscure journals with lax peer review. Pasteur's germ theory is a fine example of a successful theory. It would take me more than the length of an Orac posting to summarize, even in the most general terms, all of the new discoveries that it has led to, or all of the evidence that now exists in favor of the theory.

But there are other trajectories. Most new ideas don't go anywhere. It is rapidly realized that the hypothesis has logical inconsistencies or cannot accommodate very well established observations. The originator may discard it almost immediately, or he may pursue for a while but fail to achieve success or interest other scientists in the idea.

But sometimes, a new idea seems at first promising, particularly when it offers a possible explanation for phenomena that are poorly understood. It grows, and accumulates new adherents, but then it runs into problems. Observations that at first seemed supportive turn out on closer observation not to be reproducible. Scientists who guide their research based on the theory fail to make important discoveries. New theories emerge that offer better explanations for phenomena that the idea purported to explain. It's adherents abandon the idea or retire, and it withers away until all that are left are a tiny group of die-hard adherents (see above).

Theories that "wither on the vine" in this way almost never recover (indeed, offhand I cannot think of a single example). There are plenty of examples of such failed theories: creationism, Lamarkian evolution, drug abuse by homosexuals as the cause of AIDS, cold fusion. And, yes, homeopathy. Homeopathy was once quite respectable. My own institution arose in part from a homeopathic hospital. But scientists who guided their studies based on this theory failed to make progress. Even after over two centuries, there is no mechanistic basis for homeopathic principles such the "law of similars." Other theories, such as that of Pasteur, emerged that better accounted for observations. Phenomena that at first seemed consistent with homeopathy, such as drug tolerance or immunization, turned out on detailed investigation to be explained by mechanisms that did not relate to the fundamental concepts of homeopathy. Today, it has been abandoned by all but a few die-hards--mostly people who have a personal financial interest in merchandizing "homeopathic" remedies.

Hey Marianne, what's your game now (can anybody play)?

"there is hardly anything that is fully understood or known in the natural world."

"...so no matter what ridiculous claim someone makes, it has to be accepted."


"Over and over and over we read about new discoveries in the past, theories that were unproven, hypotheses that some lowly clerk had, or some Royal's daughter, or a random astronomer, that were persecuted and later proved to be correct"

Over and over and over to the nth power we have heard about nonsensical theories whose authors were never persecuted (unless you consider being laughed at or ignored a form of persecution) and their ideas were demonstrated false and/or vanished without a trace (except for the devoted worship of the equally deluded).

"Unproven theories are not "WRONG" because they are unproven, if they are unproven then NO ONE knows whether they are right or wrong. That's the point of scientific method."

No, the point of the scientific method is to generate sufficient good evidence to support a theory. Until that point is reached, it's an unproven theory (and in the case of ridiculous theories like that of homeopathic's magic water, it's a ludicrous unproven theory and homeopathy worshippers don't deserve a "no one knows" copout - they've got nothing).

By Dangerous Bacon (not verified) on 10 May 2012 #permalink

No, the point of the scientific method is to generate sufficient good evidence to support a theory.

Or to falsify a theory. Homeopathy has been successfully falsified.

MESSAGE BEGINS------------------

So few defenders of the faith, and me freshly molted and with my claws recently sharpened. I don't suppose they have the spleen for it, which reminds me, it's lunch time.

Carry on shills and minions,

Lord Draconis Zeneca, VH7ihL

Foreward Mavoon of the Great Fleet, Monkey Master of Mars, Pharmaca Magna of Terra,

Glaxxon PharmaCOM Terrabase DIA

------------------------MESSAGE ENDS

My dearest Lord Draconis,

I am ALWAYS defending the faith: even when it *appears* that I am not; whether I'm shopping, going to parties or entertaining shills, it is *always* in the service of defending the faith. Because the better I look and feel, I better I can serve my pharma masters, Uncle Rupert and most of all- you, my dearest darling. You *want* me at my absolute best, don't you? I thought so.

-btw- at Friday's cocktail hour, for *hors d'oeuvres*, PLEASE sample the crudites and the Beluga on toast, not the lovely minions and handsome shills: they are for bossing around, not for snacking upon. No. No. No. Some are hard to replace.
Bye bye,
Kiss kiss,
Most sincerely yours,

But scientists who guided their studies based on [homeopathic] theory failed to make progress.

How can you say that, when the Materia Medica has grown to include 'homeopathic positronium' and 'homeopathic shipwreck'?! PROGRESS!

By herr doktor bimler (not verified) on 10 May 2012 #permalink

MESSAGE BEGINS------------------

Honored Cadre Leader DW, DL, etc., etc. . . .

Pardon my lack of razor clarity, having just molted and emerged from a much needed envatting, I see that I was not being clear. I meant that the Homeopath faithful were decidedly absent from the thread.

I do so love a good firefight and it seems that aside from a weak defense of magic from Ms. Black, there are no staunch defenders of Dr. Hahnemann here with us today. How dreadfully sad. If only Heidi were not tending her goats and would come down from her sylvan meadow and play with us it should very much make this PharmaDespot's⢠day.

I have the Bard of Evaak VII working on a new opera, it shall be called Please Don't Eat the Shills and Minions, it will be a heartwarming story of a harried Intergalactic Predator, his galaxy-trotting wife and hatchlings . . . so very, very . . . many . . . hatchlings.

But I digress. I do hope you're enjoying your new pharmaceutical company, I hear you are one "hella" mean boss. I'm very flattered. And as for your displeasure with your new automobile, we can remove the in-dash kitten dispenser. Obviously, it was intended for the Shikknvak Consul and somehow the order got mixed up with the requisition for your new S7. While it's in the shop, is there anything you'd actually like the dash to dispense? We want our Cadre Leader to stay happy

Lord Draconis Zeneca, VH7ihL

Foreward Mavoon of the Great Fleet, Goader of Goatherds, Pharmaca Magna of Terra, Beloved of Astra the Victorious

Glaxxon PharmaCOM Terrabase DIA

------------------------MESSAGE ENDS

herr doktor bimler @69

You forgot homeopathic light of Saturn. Perhaps we should hold a contest for the most ludicrous homeopathic preparation. Or perhaps not due to the risk of creating a homeopathic black hole of stupidity.

By Militant Agnostic (not verified) on 10 May 2012 #permalink

Lord Draconis,

Please review your patent portfolio to ensure immunity from infringement lawsuits on the basis of your opening paragraphs from Gozer the Gozerian.

My dearest Lord Draconis,

So clever! "What would I *like* it to dispense?" OK, money. Bet you thought I'd say something else..hmmm?

And what *do* you mean? I am not mean. I am above the mean.
And I actually am very close with several of my assistants.

You can be assured that we shall continue to ferret out the weasles who oppose PharmCOM by exposing their tactics, revealing their MO and above all- making sport of them. That last one is like shooting fish in a barrel. Please don't take that literally- it's a *metaphor*.

Have a nice day.


MESSAGE BEGINS---------------------

Dearest Stew,

Are you a shill or a minion? Neither, I imagine, for if you were you'd surely have observed Corpus protocol in addressing us. Now, of course, Gozer and I go way back. The same goes for Captain Ahab, Xenu and Yaweh, Kilgore Trout and Huckleberry Finn. That's because we're all etirely fictional. The product of overwrought monkey minds. Phantoms. Fairy tales . . . or is that exactly what we want you to think? (cue sinister music and thunder sound effect)

Besides, patents are for devices, copyrights are for intellectual property and Gozer can meschak m'vokk!

etc., etc.,

Glaxxon PharmaCOM Terrabase DIA

-------------------------------------MESSAGE ENDS

By Glaxxon Pharma… (not verified) on 10 May 2012 #permalink

the risk of creating a homeopathic black hole of stupidity.

Too late.

By herr doktor bimler (not verified) on 11 May 2012 #permalink