Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Proof - Or Any Proof...

This was posted by Anonymous in response to my post yesterday; I think it worth featuring:

It's interesting how skeptics always use the scientific / clinical trial approach when arguing against homeopathy; and now you've compared it to the idea that 400 years ago, we thought the earth was flat; but it never occurs to you that maybe science doesn't no everything about the properties of the universe or matter - for that matter - and that maybe clinical trials are limited by what science understands now?

Perhaps you could explain to me then why water, when frozen at different altitudes exhibits unique crystal structures - then when thawed and re-frozen at much lower or higher altitudes, it maintains the same original crystal structure? Perhaps you could explain why the ultra-violet spectrum water exhibits microscopically is unique based on the homeopathic substance present in the dilution?

The truth is, there are very good reasons why homeopathy doesn't work in clinical trials. The main one is that clinical trials don't work in homeopathy!

The fact is, homeopathy requires individualized diagnosis and treatment - it's not a one size fits all method. Equally important, it requires a completely different definition of the term "works". What works? How does it work? What to expect?

You're free to go on filling your body with chemicals and believing everything the pharmaceuticals are feeding you... keep drinking the cool-aid. Ultimately, what I'm suggesting is that you are the one with your head buried in the sand. You are the one ignorant of the facts.


Anonymous: It’s not at all interesting that sceptics use the scientific / clinical trial method of testing – it’s eminently logical as that’s how we test claims. What’s really interesting is how the magic brigade persists in maintaining that magic defies testing. The argument that the test is not applicable to whatever brand of magic is being touted is a bit hackneyed and frankly intellectually bankrupt. It’s the favoured cry of the religious zealot.

Trials of efficacy have nothing to do with the applicability of science to what is known now. It’s binary – either it works (beyond placebo), or it doesn’t. It’s a basic double-blind, randomised trial and not some wild thought experiment from the outer realms of theoretical particle physics.

I have found nothing on t’internet about your ice crystals, so please point me in the right direction for the research; however, I fail to see the relevance. The ultra violet thing is, I presume, something to do with the paper by Manju Lata Rao, which has been refuted a number of times – see Dr. Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science blog for an example from 10 years ago. Seems not all was as it appeared and two graphs that were meant to be different (and the proof) were in fact the same when subsequently analysed. In essence, part of the result was faked, whether knowingly or unknowingly.

Those who promulgate nonsense have a habit of finding one initial paper that supports their thesis and then neglect to look at the mountain of follow-up research that fails to replicate the results of that single paper. It suits their purpose to use science when it supports their view, but ignore it when it doesn’t. It’s called bias and is a perfectly natural human condition.

I’m not particularly a fan of Big Pharma, as they have a lot of ethical questions to answer, but so do homeopaths and all who knowingly purvey sugar pills for profit or make unsubstantiated and potentially dangerous medical claims. Pharma does make big money, but given all the testing that has to be done the cost of developing drugs that are proven to save life and be safe is phenomenal. It can cost billions to develop a single drug and that cost has to be recouped at a profit in order to fund the next round of research. For every drug that makes the grade, hundreds or thousands fall by the wayside.

No-one in the UK can afford to criticise the cost of medication – we get charged £6 odd by the NHS for something that would cost you a fortune if paid for privately. Yes, it’s clawed back in tax, but it’s a drop in the ocean when shared amongst us all, rather than being levied solely on those in desperate need. Without Big Pharma you could say goodbye to any research into cures for cancer or AIDS and a lot of people would be dead long before their revised lifetime following treatment for diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure.

Having said that, there is an argument to nationalise the big drug companies; however, government is spectacularly unwilling to do that as there would be an ethical conflict of interest when the research is being scrutinised by the same body that’s doing it – i.e. the government. In any case, innovation only thrives in a competitive environment, and we all know that the dead hand of nationalisation stifles any innovation. No drugs of any significance came from the former Soviet Union or China.

James Randi offered $1m to anyone who could prove homeopathy works. The prize has yet to be claimed, despite many attempts. Surely someone among all the practitioners can prove it works?

Science has never claimed to know everything – there are areas science will never penetrate; any scientist will tell you that. That’s why science exists – to push the boundaries of knowledge beyond their current limits. Sometimes science charges up blind alleys, sometimes there’s a paradigm shift. Many times the old guard conspire to prevent publication of stuff that refutes their long held views on which they established their reputation; however, the scientific method triumphs in the end.

The real mystery is why placebo works at all, and no-one has yet come up with the full answer. The placebo effect must not be dismissed, as it’s an important weapon in the medic’s arsenal; however, it must not be used as a first line of defence, as it only works in a small number of cases.

So – bring on the proof and I will believe. To date that has been conspicuously lacking. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof – or simply any proof beyond anecdote.

On another matter; yesterday I took possession of some clove flavoured e-juice for my e-cigarette. Heavenly and most excellent! Reminds me of Indonesian kretek cigarettes, to which I was addicted at one time.


  1. And so you're now walking round smelling like an apple pie?

    An excellent rebuttal Chairman - It's a great pity that the original was posted anonymously - unless it was of course posted by someone we all know - is that you HRH?

    I think the confusion about the ice crystals is something to do with the different forms of ice - Ice 1 to Ice 14 which is observable and to do with how the hydrogen atoms freeze given the lattice work of already frozen oxygen atoms - Google "Ice Phase" - Mind you water is a very odd and rare liquid being one of the very few that expands as it gets close to freezing - at 4°C I think - otherwise life on Earth would be impossible as Earth would be an iceball.

    I am always interested in how desperately so many people want to believe in magic - whether it be homoeopathy, crystal healing, Yogic flying, life after death, gods and goddesses, prayer and the power of incantation. The world is truly a wonderful place that is filled with wonder and excitement and really doesn't need magic. If you don't understand something then go and study it, don't just wave a crystal at it.

  2. I admit that I use homeopathy! Along with HRH! Okay, so I am not ill - usual stuff, colds, coughs etc. This I treat with homeopathy as it appears to work as well as anything else and at a fraction of the cost.
    Clinical trials are difficult to estimate in homeopathic medecine as when you initially sign up with a H doctor your assessment will last a good hour - from that assessment he will have your 'profile' and will subsequently prescribe accordingly.
    There is no way H medecine will cure cancer, heart disease or whatever - what it can do is help. For those going through the sickness associated with chemotheraphy, many doctors will prescribe H treatment to alleviate symptoms.
    Is it a placebo? Who knows. It works. There are people who believe in acupuncture ... this has never worked for me, but that doesn't mean it doesn't work for others.

  3. Dragondays: I would think it's fair to say that those who tend to visit homeopaths are, in general, those most susceptible to the placebo effect (and those who derive the most psychological benefit from the 1 hour consultation), thus it working for them is a self-fulfilling prophesy.

    However, as it does not work beyond placebo (in terms of percentages), then it is not a good idea to spend NHS money on it and thus portray it as if it were as effective as a medicine with a near 100% success rate.

  4. Dragondays - what you are paying for, and obviously enjoying, is attention. And no, the homoeopathic elixir cannot work, but it's cheap and the the fuss is enjoyable and the illness - coughs, colds etc. probably clears up by itself in the natural progression of time - the body does have an amazing immune system.

    Richard x x x

  5. Actually there has been some good work done on why placebo works; the leading thinkers on this suggest that it's to do with our evolutionary heritage and the balance between the energy required to fully engage our immune systems and the likelihood of surviving a disease anyway.

    Evolution has essentially selected us to unconsciously hold back our immune systems because most conditions aren't life threatening and our immune system consumes a lot of energy (back in the Pleistocene on the plains of Africa a lack of energy could have been more life threatening than the actual condition).

    A placebo simply gives us psychological "permission" to fully engage our immune systems, which is why it's important that it's administered by an authority figure.

  6. Promise, IR, that I don't go to see the doctor to seek attention! I haven't been into a bug ridden surgery in at least 10 years! It's only the first visit that lasts an hour or so, subsequently it's 5 minutes or even by 'phone.
    I agree that if you have a cold, whatever you take, you are lumbered with it for 4/5 days - I use homeopathy when I feel a cold coming on and if it doesn't work, then I use other things to stop runny noses etc + large doses of Nurofen!
    I don't know if H medecine works for all or some people ... the underlying thing that bugs me is that I read last year that the NHS are desperate to close down the Royal Homeopathic Hospital in London and would therefore make a fast buck on selling the site ...
    Will this escalate the closing of the hospital?!
    In France homeopathic medecine is also described as complimentary medecine and this is personally how I see it.

  7. Dragon days: That's the classic 'thin end of the wedge' argument, a well known fallacy.