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Experimenting with phenomena...

18th June 2009 (19:58)

... which aren't actually there at all

[BPSDB] It's Homeopathy Awareness Week, and I can think of no better way of stopping people wasting time and money on homeopathy than by making them aware of exactly what homeopathy thinks it is. To this end, we have jdc325, Zeno, APGaylard, AndyD, Zygoma, The Quackometer, David Colquhoun, Orac, and Steven Novella (Homeopathy Awareness Week, Homeopathy Awareness Week, Homeopathy Awareness Week, Homeopathy Awareness Week, Homeopathy Awareness Week, Homeopathy Awareness Week, Homeopathy Awareness Week, Homeopathy Awareness Week, Homeopathy Awareness Week) helping to spread awareness of what a great big pile of nonsense homeopathy is. It's not “herbal,” it's not “natural,” it doesn't “work” by “stimulating your immune system” and it's not a viable alternative to the Western Big Pharma hegemony. This is because homeopathic preparations contain nothing of the ingredient(s) listed on the label (although other stuff may be in there), what with it/them having been diluted out of existence in a strange procedure invented about 200 years ago in Germany (while many modern pharmaceuticals are based on plant extracts, more tightly controlled in terms of dose and purity than herbal medicines themselves); if there's no active ingredient then obviously it can't be anything more than placebo, a result repeatedly found in trials of homeopathy, so there's no reason to try to invent increasingly far-fetched explanations of how homeopathy “works”.

Following Lionel R. Milgrom's1 editorial, which had very little to do with what Otto Weingärtner2 wrote, it's the turn of Alex Hankey.3

“As a theoretical physicist, Weingärtner seems an unlikely candidate to have made several useful contributions to understanding homeopathy,4,5 but “seeing is believing,” and he belongs to the ranks of those like myself, for whom seeing particular medical conditions improve by applying homeopathy convince that genuine phenomena await scientific explanation. Characteristic reactions to prescribed remedies result in the most spectacular cases, differing completely from improvements seen in placebo cases, where pathology improves without a “healing crisis.” In my opinion, conducting trials on cases for which such extreme reactions may be expected would be the best way to demonstrate that potentized remedies do indeed have systematic, observable physiologic effects. If a “healing reaction” is induced by taking a homeopathic remedy, as often occurs on the path to cure, only the remedy could have produced it. What better proof could be given of actual physiologic effects of taking a potentized remedy?”

Hankey is right in his implication that a theoretical physicist ought to know better; however, a scientist is well within his job description to try to find out what science is going on behind an apparent observation. The obvious answers are nearly always the right ones, though, and if medical conditions really seem to improve after the patient has taken some water (usually with ethanol or salt in it) from which all traces of an irrelevant substance have been removed, or some sugar pills onto which a drop of this water has been allowed to fall, or some pills which were once in contact with the pills in the previous subclause, then you really need to ask yourself if the patient wouldn't have got better anyway. The workings of the human immune system give a far more satisfy explanation. Bear in mind that patients with minor acute conditions are often going to get better anyway, and that patients with fluctuating chronic conditions often seek help when they are feeling particularly bad, and then it's obvious how something called “regression toward the mean” can make people think that whatever they tried last did the trick. But the “healing crisis” is something particularly insidious which homeopaths have invented in order to explain the other possibility - that the patient is going to keep getting worse since the treatment is doing nothing. Once you're in the mindset that whatever happens to the patient is because of homeopathy, you are lost, rationalizing desperately as random stuff happens. All those boring times when the remedies do nothing at all are filtered out of your memory (“... even Kent said that sometimes with the best intention and the best homeopathic prescribing, the remedy doesn't work - so what is going on? Entanglement is a much more subtle thing than just intention. I don't quite know what it means yet.”).

“But some scientists seem prepared to assert that, if a phenomenon does not yet possess a shadow of a scientific theory, then no scientific theory is possible, and the phenomena concerned must lie beyond the domain of science.”

No, we're prepared to assert that, when presented with a phenomenon whose purported explanation goes against a couple of centuries' worth of extremely successful science, that we're going to need pretty good proof that this phenomenon is actually happening. That proof does not exist,6 so there is no reason to make up new science and instead there is perfectly good other science (psychology instead of physics) to explain why people believe things which are not true.7,8 It is the quacks who keep telling us that our science is inadequate to explain their results, but they can't resist appropriating sciency-sounding language to make their nonsense more impressive9 just like they are always willing to flag up a double-blind randomized, controlled trial of a non-individualized remedy when they think it gives them the result they want10,11,12,13,14,15 but then claim that RCTs don't work and that remedies need to be individualized when,16 as in the majority of cases,17 it doesn't. Knowing how something works comes long after we decide whether it works or not at all.

“Weingärtner's present contribution is to formulate a means of analyzing a series of experiments that contain conflicting results.”

His insight is that you should take an average of lots of measurements. It really is as simple as that. The more times you measure something, the closer the average should get to the true value. That's why big trials are better than small ones.17

“Many medical disciplines present similar challenges to science.”

Do they? There's no citation for this. Does he mean that physics can't be used to gain insight into psychology or does he not realize that biology is also a science? Of course we don't have all the answers yet as science continues to grow and progress on all fronts.

“The idea that we now possess all the theories we shall ever need to treat either day-to-day or laboratory phenomena is a gross exaggeration of our scientific expertise.”

There would be no reason to be in the laboratory if we had all the theories we shall ever need, and I for one am happy that there is still a job for me to do.

“Many disciplines of science are slowly undergoing revolutions. New forms of fundamental physics are proposed annually.”

Are they? Like the superstring theory review18 Hankey cites (wrongly) from 1986?

“Scientific studies of out-of-body experiences, hypnotic regression, past lives, and the afterlife, are revolutionizing our understanding of the world in which we live, and bringing hope to millions.”

It's particularly heinous to tack this sentence about paranormal phenomena onto the end of a paragraph about advances in science, since the science here is in the psychology, not the paranormal.

“These minor scientific revolutions prove that the metaphysics of classical physics and Bohr-Heisenberg quantum physics is simply too limiting. Such “materialist” metaphysics bears no relation to the wider world of human experience, only to the narrow world in which the scientific community's leaders allocate funds for experiment.”

Now that's just nonsense. Quantum physics bears no relation to “the wider world of human experience” only in the sense that it's not feasible to derive psychological principles directly from quantum electrodynamics (which isn't exactly “Bohr-Heisenberg”),19,20,21 even if chemistry is built on physics and biology is built on chemistry.22 I don't know quite what to say about manner in which “the scientific community's leaders allocate funds for experiment”. I wonder who these “leaders” are and if I can submit a proposal? We're currently having to ask the CARIPLO foundation or the European Commission.

“So how does this affect CAM?”

I don't know, Alex, why don't you tell me?

“The idea that CAM disciplines can be theoretically understood by extending known laws of biophysics is slowly gaining currency.”

No, not according to people who understand biology or physics it isn't.

“Many CAM disciplines have excellent phenomenologies.”

... but most have rubbish ones.

“This makes it much easier to frame theoretical hypotheses for how they may work.”

... if they work (which they don't).

“Ayurveda is a case in point. Clinical observations over several millennia have developed a coherent phenomenology that can be tested and verified by theoretical models and predictive experiment.”

Well, my online access to the journals doesn't go back that far.

“Ayurveda basic concepts are proving highly susceptible to theoretical study.”

No they aren't: if there's no citation it isn't true.

“When this has been achieved for homeopathy,”

... it won't be, because homeopathy doesn't work.

“... and associated aspects of energy medicine and vibrational medicine,”

“Associated” according to you, but every quack seems to have their own strange mental map of how different made up things relate to each other.

“... it will become possible to design better experiments. Until that time, Weingärtner's new approach should rule the roost.”

You already know what counts as a better experiment,17 and why there's nothing to design.6 You just choose to ignore the evidence rather than admit you might be wrong. You are not doing science.free hit counter javascript

  1.  L. R. Milgrom, J. Alt. Comp. Med. 15, 205 (2009).
  2.  O. Weingärtner, J. Alt. Comp. Med. 15, 287 (2009).
  3.  A. Hankey, J. Alt. Comp. Med. 15, 203 (2009).
  4.  O. Weingärtner, Homeopathy 92, 145 (2003).
  5.  H. Walach, W. B. Jonas, J. Ives, R. Van Wijk, and O. Weingärtner, J. Alt. Comp. Med. 11, 813 (2005).
  6.  J. Maddox, J. Randi, and W. W. Stewart, Nature 334, 287 (1988).
  7.  J. Kruger, and D. Dunning, J. Personality and Social Psychology 77, 1121 (1999).
  8.  P. Bloom, and D. S. Weisberg, Science 316, 996 (2007).
  9.  A. Sokal, and J. Bricmont, Intellectual Impostures (Economist Books, 2003).
  10.  Orac, Homeopathy in the - cringe - ICU (2007).
  11.  P. B. Hill, J. Hoare, P. Lau-Gillard, J. Rybnicek, and R. T. Mathie, Vet. Record 164, 364 (2009).
  12.  S. J. Baker, and G. J. Baker, Vet. Record 164, 634 (2009).
  13.  G. W. Tribe, Vet. Record 164, 634 (2009).
  14.  M. G. Kerr, C. A. Hebbern, P. Wilson, and J. J. Magrath, Vet. Record 164, 635 (2009).
  15.  P. B. Hill, J. Hoare, and R. T. Mathie, Vet. Record 164, 635 (2009).
  16.  L. R. Milgrom, Evid.-Based Compl. Alt. 4, 7 (2007).
  17.  A. Shang, K. Huwiler-Müntener, L. Nartey, P. Jüni, S. Dörig, et al., The Lancet 366, 726 (2005).
  18.  J. Ellis, Nature 323, 595 (1986).
  19.  R. P. Feynman, Phys. Rev. 76, 749 (1949).
  20.  R. P. Feynman, Phys. Rev. 76, 769 (1949).
  21.  R. P. Feynman, Phys. Rev. 80, 440 (1950).
  22.  H. M. Wiseman, and J. Eisert, arXiv.org e-Print archive physics, arXiv:0705.1232v2 (2007).

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