In which I take on Homeopathy

I am a bit late to the party. I have been meaning to write up several posts to commemorate the occasion of the World Homeopathy Awareness Week (April 10-17, 2010), but haven’t been able to manage the time until now.

My esteemed peers (Scienceblogger and surgeon, Orac; Richard Grant and Austin Elliott) have already touched upon the significance of WHAW. One aspect of the modus operandi of the modern purveyors of pseudoscience is the appropriation of scientific terminology to describe their particular brand of quackery. This is intended to provide a modicum of “science”-iness and concomitant respectability to the said quackery. Never mind that the woo-woo rarely, if ever, stands up to close scientific scrutiny, be it in vitro or in vivo tests, or in randomized clinical trials; never mind that the prior plausibility of the quack nostra showing any biological effect is exceedingly low. “Alternative medicine” always has alternative explanations to the non-appearance of the relevant outcomes, and such explanations often depend upon a weird construct that can only be called “alternative science”. Steven Novella, neuroscientist and blogger, has touched extensively upon the prior plausibility issue. Orac has described in detail the alternative science construct. I, on the other hand, am going to touch upon that mother of all quackery, homeopathy.

Recently, I got my hands on two special issues of the journal Homeopathy1, which purportedly focused on “biological models of homeopathy, ranging from whole animal behavioral, intoxication and inflammation models through diseased and healthy plant models, isolated cell and cell culture methods to enzyme models”. In the editorial of the first special issue2, editor Peter Fisher indicates:

The controversial aspect of homeopathy is its issue of very high dilutions, variously referred to as ‘ultramolecular’ or ultra low dilutions (ULD), or BRAN (Beyond the Reciprocal of Avogadro’s Number)…

Indeed, homeopathic dilutions, which go way beyond the inverse of 1023 (Avogadro’s constant, ~6.022 x 1023, is the number of elementary entities (atoms or molecules) in one mole of an element or a substance), make it physically impossible to retain any of the substance that was originally put in the diluent. So Fisher’s further assertion — “[…] most of our papers concentrate on research aimed at investigating whether biological effects attributable to such dilutions occur” — piqued my curiosity. Therefore, in this series of posts listed below, I shall attempt to critically examine a few papers that were published in those issues.

I did notice with a sense of irony the attempt at shifting the goalpost (something the pseudoscience purveyors are rather adept at) with the very next statement, which goes:

However, it is important to remember that the primary idea of homeopathy is not the use of very high dilutions but the principle of similitude, and there has been relatively little research on this.2

Be that as it may, I now jump in headlong into the murky depths of the quackiverse. See you soon.

Bibliography:

  1. Homeopathy (2009) volume 98 and Homeopathy (2010) volume 99: available online at Sciencedirect.
  2. Homeopathy (2009) 98, 183-185.

Post 1: Homeopathy and Mouse Model.

2 Comments

  1. Austin Elliott

    April 13, 2010 at 5:30 pm

    The overwhelming proportion of papers in the Alt.Med journals, like the one you turn over in the other post, are basically the epitome of “Cargo Cult Science”, in Richard Feynman’s immortal phrase. It kind of looks like a scientific paper, but in reality it isn’t.

    The main exception is the occasional one from a real scientist researching some alternative modality and reporting a negative result. These are typically accompanied by an “Editorial” from one of the Cargo Cultists Editorial Board explaining why it isn’t really a negative result at all.

    The trouble is that a whole swathe of these Cargo Cult pseudo-journals are listed on Pubmed. Which is another story.

  2. I was hoping you’d come by, Austin. I agree. It is quite painful, but I am making myself go through those two issues of the Homeopathy journal trying to find original papers that report data, rather than ones that lead the reader into a runaround using circular references to papers from within the same group. I shall post more if I find any.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: