Tuesday, 25 December 2018

Homeopaths, Holocaust Deniers and 'Philosophers of Science'

On January 20, 2010, at 10:23 (Oxford time, we may suppose), thousands of brilliant minds tried to prove, by guzzling homeopathy pills, that homeopathic remedies could not kill people, and thus that homeopathy doesn't work (and that "there's nothing in it"). A magnificient demonstration of public adherence to the scientific method!
Reposted and updated from Pi Alpha. Edited by Martin Cohen with original research by Perig Gouanvic

“The misrepresentations of history presented by Holocaust deniers and other pseudo-historians are very similar in nature to the misrepresentations of natural science promoted by creationists and homeopaths. ... we find a wide variety of movements and doctrines, such as creationism, astrology, homeopathy, and Holocaust denialism that are in conflict with results and methods that are generally accepted in the community of knowledge disciplines. ”

- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

The Mass Suicide of Homeopathy Skeptics

Almost all of the systematic reviews in conventional journals start on a skeptical note. Indeed, nine out of ten of the articles begin with a statement that questions the scientific plausibility of homeopathy. Some of the articles use relatively strong language to make the point. For example, one by ‘Ernst and Pittler’ suggests that it is the use of ‘highly diluted material that overtly flies in the face of science and has caused homeopathy to be regarded as placebo therapy at best and quackery at worst’.

But to get a good sense of what the masses, including those who make up ‘the scientific consensus’, really think, Wikipedia is a passable indicator. Wikipedians, amongst them, in such articles, we find watchdogs of ‘reason’, including various hired professionals from the ‘Public Understanding of Science’ (and their trusted mercenaries) love to indulge in this dusty old strawman argument:
‘a 12C [homeopathic] solution is equivalent to a 'pinch of salt in both the North and South Atlantic Oceans'... One third of a drop of some original substance diluted into all the water on earth would produce a remedy with a concentration of about 13C.’
This is a stunning demonstration of the lack of intelligence not only of the ‘scientific consensus’, but of the democratic process of knowledge itself. And leading the process is Wikipedia, which turns donkeys into horses on a daily basis, as Socrates would say, while in the background is the poor state of debate between the Orthodoxy and the scientists and philosophers who are trying to make sense of homeopathy. Hahnemann spoke about a ‘forc’ that remained after dilutions and succussions, but pseudoskeptics have kept making the same strawman argument for the last 200 years.

The reality is that Hahnemann wrote a great deal and never shied away from philosophical questions. He argues:
‘A substance divided into ever so many parts must still contain in its smallest conceivable parts always some of this substance, and that the smallest conceivable part does not cease to be some of this substance and cannot possibly become nothing; - let them, if they are capable of being taught, hear from natural philosophers that there are enormously, powerful things (forces) which are perfectly destitute of weight.’
You may not agree, but it is not foolish stuff. Indeed, these days, the ‘homeopathic force’, for instance, could be described in a context of systems biology.

According to Ilya Prigogine, a Russian-born Belgian chemist best known for his definition of dissipative structures ‘and their role in thermodynamic systems far from equilibrium’(work that led him being awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1977), in the domain of deterministic physics, all processes are time-reversible, meaning that they can proceed backward as well as forward through time. As Prigogine explains, determinism is fundamentally a denial of the arrow of time. With no arrow of time, there is no longer a privileged moment known as the ‘present’, which follows a determined ‘past’ and precedes an undetermined ‘future’. Instead, all of time is simply a given, with the future just as determined as the past. With irreversibility, the arrow of time is reintroduced to physics. Prigogine notes numerous examples of irreversibility, including diffusion, radioactive decay, solar radiation, weather and the emergence and evolution of life.

This applies especially well to homeopathy. Orthodox scientists evaluate homeopathy through the lens of the results (it’s only water/alcohol!) and tirelessly calculate oceanographic metaphors to deride what they believe is homeopathy, oblivious of the fact that dilution is conceived as a process leading to a change in the way the molecules of the solvent behave together — a change in the structure of water and a concurrent change in the forces likely to make these structures possible.

Brian Josephson, Nobel laureate of physics, has commented on a typical debunking exercise made by the New Scientist journal that:
‘criticisms [of homeopathy] centred around the vanishingly small number of solute molecules present in a solution after it has been repeatedly diluted are beside the point, since advocates of homeopathic remedies attribute their effects not to molecules present in the water, but to modifications of the water's structure. Simple-minded analysis may suggest that water, being a fluid, cannot have a structure of the kind that such a picture would demand. But cases such as that of liquid crystals, which while flowing like an ordinary fluid can maintain an ordered structure over macroscopic distances, show the limitations of such ways of thinking. There have not, to the best of my knowledge, been any refutations of homeopathy that remain valid after this particular point is taken into account.’
The particular homeopathic claim that water can ‘remember’ substances with which it has been in contact, and that such memory might be mediated by hydrogen bonds has also been criticised, typically on theoretical grounds. Many such arguments involve the short duration of individual hydrogen bonds in liquid water ( which is about a picosecond).

However, it is not to be assumed that the mesoscale structure of water must change on the same time scale. For example, in ice, hydrogen bonds are also very shortlived but an ice sculpture can ‘remember’ its shape over extended periods. (Here our essay assumes a suitbly seasonal feel - Editor.) On a smaller scale, cation hydrates are commonly described with particular structure (for example,  the octahedral Na+(H2O)6 ion) even though the individual water molecules making up such structures have very brief residence times (measured in microseconds).

Such arguments ignore the fact that the behaviour of a large population of water molecules may be retained even if that of individual molecules is constantly changing, just as a wave can cross an ocean, remaining a wave although its molecular content is continuously changing.

Evidence denying the long life of water clusters is mostly based on computer simulations but these cover only nanoseconds of simulated time. Such short periods are insufficient to show longer temporal relationships, for example those produced by oscillating reactions. They also involve relatively few water molecules and small (nanometre) dimensions, insufficient to show mesoscale (micron) effects. In short, they use models of the water molecule whose predictions correspond poorly to the real properties of water.

Certain 'memory' effects in water are well established and uncontroversial: for instance the formation of clathrate hydrates from aqueous solutions whereby previously frozen clathrates within the solution, when subsequently melted, predispose later to more rapid clathrate formation. This is explained by the presence of nanobubbles, extended chain silicates or induced clathrate initiators.

Can a homeopathic remedy work if it contains none of the original curative substance?

John Dalton (1776 - 1844) was able to estimate relative atomic masses of various molecules, the smallest unit that a chemical can exist in without losing its identity. His values were soon improved by Amadeo Avogadro (1776 - 1856), in 1811. Avogadro made the very important proposal that the volume of a gas (strictly, of an ideal gas ) is proportional to the number of atoms or molecules that are present. Hence, the relative molecular mass of a gas can be calculated from the mass of a sample of known volume. BUT neither Avogadro nor Dalton knew how many molecules there were in a given mass of a substance.  This is historically significant because it means that, although Hahnemann realised that there was a limit to the dilutions that could be used, he had no way of knowing what that limit was. An historical curiousity - or confirmation of the importance of the homeopathic principle? - is the fact that Darwin tested out ultrahigh dilutions on carnivorous plants. In Insectivorous Plants (1875) he writes:
‘The reader will best realize this degree of dilution by remembering that 5,000 ounces would more than fill a thirty-one gallon cask [barrel]; and that to this large body of water one grain of the salt was added; only half a drachm, or thirty minims, of the solution being poured over a leaf. Yet this amount sufficed to cause the inflection of almost every tentacle, and often the blade of the leaf. … My results were for a long time incredible, even to myself, and I anxiously sought for every source of error. … The observations were repeated during several years. Two of my sons, who were as incredulous as myself, compared several lots of leaves simultaneously immersed in the weaker solutions and in water, and declared that there could be no doubt about the difference in their appearance. … In fact every time that we perceive an odor, we have evidence that infinitely smaller particles act on our nerves.’
But we have to be careful; homeopathy was not the declared, explicit, subject of this text, although it may have been an underlying riddle for Darwin (we know that he visited an homeopath, out of despair about his condition, and felt better after).

In any case, in the Sixth edition of Hahnemann's Organon, which is the ‘Bible’ for practising homeopaths, Hahnmann explicitly moves beyond ‘physical’ cause and effect into the mystical world of mesmerism - or healing by the mystical agency of the so-called vital force (popular at the time and perhaps similar to the notion of chi in Chinese medicine.)
‘I find it necessary to allude here to animal magnetism, as it is termed, or rather mesmerism (as it should be called, out of gratitude to Mesmer, its first founder), which differs so much in its nature from all other therapeutic agents. 
This curative power, often so stupidly denied, which streams upon a patient by the contact of a well-intentioned person powerfully exerting his will, either acts homoeopathically, by the production of symptoms similar to those of the diseased state to be cured; and for this purpose a single pass made, without much exertion of the will, with the palms of the hands not too slowly from the top of the head downwards over the body to the tips of the toes, is serviceable in, for instance, uterine haemorrhages, even in the last stage when death seems approaching; or it is useful by distributing the vital force uniformly throughout the organism, when it is in abnormal excess in one part and deficient in other parts, for example, in rush of blood to the head and sleepless, anxious restlessness of weakly persons, etc., by means of a similar, single, but somewhat stronger pass; or for the immediate communication and restoration of the vital force to some one weakened part or to the whole organism, - an object that cannot be attained so certainly and with so little interference with the other medicinal treatment by any other agent besides mesmerism.’
According to the German newspaper Bild, a seventh edition of the Organon was recently unearthed in his native Germany, and this reveals that the doctor had continued his work on replacing dilutions with mesmerism and had completed experiments on the resuscitation of dead dogs. Alas, as the newspaper puts it, ‘He died shortly afterwards.’

The bottom line is that homeopathic dilution has not been shown o work, but nor yet has it been shown to be impossible. Some will say ‘well, you cannot prove a negative’ which may be true, but clearly the history of science is of things that people rejected as impossible becoming accepted in the light on new and more sophisticated understandings. The same could yet be said for the mystery of homeopathic dilution.


Keith said...

An interesting discussion, Perig and Martin; it’s always the right time to question orthodoxy. There is mention in the essay that ‘homeopathy [has been] regarded as placebo therapy at best’. Yet, might ‘being placebo therapy’ not be censure, as some might still assert, but instead an accolade? Interestingly, placebo effects are gaining refreshed currency, as they are being researched through the advantages of today’s technology and science, and by extension are better understood and found increasingly convincing. (Even if admittedly still not yet a common arrow in the medical profession’s quiver.)

On one level, explanations of the placebo effect are couched as the result of complex neurobiological processes. On another level, the placebo effect is considered to entail the mind’s reaction to what some have called the ‘rituals’ of treatment: examination by medical professionals, in the environment of a doctor’s office or hospital, conducting seemingly authoritative yet mysterious procedures, administering officiously named ‘medicines’. The operative word here being ‘rituals’, as if script and stagecraft profoundly matter — leading, according to the mind-body duality, to the body reacting in ways that elicit the desired palliative outcomes.

Tessa den Uyl said...

The comment under the picture; would that mean that only if medicine kills that should be called medicine?

Martin Cohen said...

Thanks for the comments, Keith and Tessa! Yes indeed, I agree with you on both points: the placebo effect is actually a wonderful and important part of medicine, which should be first of all recognised and then secondly, embraced and built upon. Because it seems to improve the actual, real world outcomes of all treatment, whether the treatment is actually doing something or merely seems to.

But yes, and Tessa's point is exactly on this, 'real medicine' insists that there should be these physical mechanisms, and there is fascinating research into how the placebo effect is significantly strengthened when the patient feels negative consequences from the treatment. Doctors who warn patients that the drug is 'powerful' and may cause them to feel sick, tired, giddy, headaches... actually seem to persuade the patient that the drug is 'powerful' and thus its curative powers are greater too. Those harmless homeopathic mini pills, on the other hand, advertised as guaranteed to have no side-effects immediately lose a certain amount of credibility in the patients 'sub-conscious' (if they actually favour homeopathy) - and in their conscious 'prejudices' if they don't.

Thomas Scarborough said...

This brought to mind a recent article on Hindu science on the BBC https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-46778879 Not that Hindus don't do good science, but some subordinate it to their belief systems.

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