Monday, December 19, 2005

Snake Oil

Imagine this:

You are on a luxurious cruise liner in the South Pacific (not one of those tacky floating pubs full of bloated tourists in loud Hawaiian shirts - I'm talking 1920s-chandeliers-and-monogrammed-crockery type affairs. Only A1 class analogies here at TCA). A waiter pours you a shot of vodka, but before you even get to take a sip, a careless socialite waltzing across the deck with her dashing lover bumps you, and you drop the shotglass into the ocean. The ship sails on. When you reach port two weeks later, you tell your amusing lost-vodka story to an acquaintance and they say: "Don't worry, just take a shot glass, go down to the ocean and scoop up some sea water. If you drink it, it will still have the same effect!"

Are you with me? Are you thinking what I'm thinking? You would say to them: "You are a CRAZY FUCKING LUNATIC. Of course it won't have the same effect."

If they insisted that it would, then you know that they are into homeopathy, one of the daftest belief systems to have originated this side of Scientology.

(Actually, the analogy I gave above is exaggerated. The usual homeopathic 'remedy' has even less 'active' material than the amount of your spilt vodka in the entire volume of water of all the oceans on the planet. Seriously.)

It's hard to know where to start in picking on homeopathy. It's like shooting a very fat fish in a very small barrel.

A brief lesson in how it is supposed to work (for anyone who's been on a Pacific island for the last seventy years and thinks the war is still on):

1: You acquire a substance that is meant to have some kind of prophylactic effect.

2: You then dilute it with distilled water so much that there is, in many cases, literally none of the original substance in the remaining liquid.

3: You then swallow it according to a variety of regimes, none of which need concern us here because the preceding two steps have enough nonsense to sink a ship (just riffing on the original Luxury Liner analogy).

In recent times, homeopaths have had to agree (mainly because it is unarguable) that a typical homeopathic remedy contains none of the supposed active original substance. But lately, because they really need to defend a couple of centuries of investment in an increasingly shaky belief system, advocates of homeopathy have come up with a new idea; that even though the original ingredients have been diluted out of existence, the water somehow remembers what was dissolved in it. This concept has come to have been rather surprisingly called 'Water Memory'. Let me give you a potted explanation of this (stick with me - there's a lot of willing suspension of disbelief involved): You take a small amount of a substance. You dissolve it in purified water, say, at a ratio of 100:1. Now you do this again, with your 100:1 solution, and you do it again and again and again. Many times. Many, many times. So many times that there is possibly, even probably, no molecule of the original substance left in the water (I'm not making this up). In fact, homeopaths assert that the more times you dilute it, the more effective it is. You simply can't dilute it too much*. But this is totally OK, because even though there is no remnant of the original substance in the water, it somehow† leaves some kind of 'imprint' on the water. This final solution (you may as well call it water, because it is), is the thing that is meant to cure your ills.

I don't know about you but I when I hear stuff like this I get the urge to do something like staple my hand to a table just to make sure I'm awake.

Thing is, the concept caught the fancy of a few scientists who have a bit more tolerance for loonies than I have, and who quite scientifically thought "Why not test this assertion? It should be easily verifiable in a controlled experiment!" Consequently, lots of non-conclusive experiments have been performed over the last few years. The jury is still out on 'water memory' largely because no-one has managed to do a proper double blind experiment on it, but if I was a gambling man, I know where I'd place my life savings.‡

The real mistake these diligent scientists made, though, was that they didn't consider the whole question. They tried for "Does water have a memory?" but completely missed "What are the original substances that homeopaths choose to dissolve in water, why are they deemed to be effective, and who decided that?". The scientists fell for a classic magician's smoke-and-mirrors distraction: they tackled the part of the theory that was mysterious and missed the bit that was just plain deception. But by giving credence at all to a small part of the idea, they lent weight to the entire spurious argument that is homeopathy.

To answer those last three important questions (and I emphasise, these are the things you should really consider if you are even contemplating using a homeopathic treatment): Homeopathy was invented in 1796 by a physician named Samuel Hahnemann and uses an archaic belief system traceable back to the original alchemists, called The Law of Similars. The Law of Similars is basically medieval superstitious thinking that says if you have, say, a stomach pain, then it should be treated by, maybe a pig's intestine because pigs have a good constitution and hardly ever get sick (!) Or something like that. Truly, it's that nutty. There is pretty much no rational reasoning, let alone science, involved. Hardly anyone I know who uses homeopathic medicines seems to realise this.‡‡

Let me leave you with one last thought: If homeopathy is a valid concept, then you should beware every glass of water you ever drink. Because, according to the laws of homeopathic ultradilution, every cure and every cause for every illness ever known to humankind has over the millennia passed through, and is 'remembered' by, that glass of water. Feel a bit queasy?

Me? I stick with single malt whisky. And I believe in Santa Claus because he's comparatively plausible.

*There are further aberrant behaviours involved, such as 'striking' or 'tapping' the container with the final dilution ten times to 'potentize' (ugh, even the language is ugly) it to 'make it more effective', but I've left these out because, well, it's hard enough to believe this shit even without including them.

†No one has even mooted a mechanism for how this might work. Unsurprisingly.

‡Even generously allowing the benefit of the doubt in favour of homeopathy that there is some kind of effect it must be staggeringly small. In the order of success of about one in a million treatments. This is hardly something you'd want to stake your health on.

‡‡A great thing about The Law of Similars is that in some cases, the 'cure' is the disease itself, such as a rabid dog's saliva being used to cure rabies. But that's OK, because it's diluted so much, it isn't there. Oh, I just can't go on. Even writing about it is just absurd.


Blogger Radioactive Jam said...

I'm thinking homeopathy must be some kind of duck, what with all the "quack" vibes emanating from it.

Emanating but of course not echoing. I read that somewhere; did you know a duck's quack doesn't echo?

Nudge, nudge.

December 20, 2005 12:37 AM  
Blogger Joe Fuel said...

I am left with one question...

What inspired you to post about this?

December 20, 2005 1:07 AM  
Blogger Joey Polanski said...

Haffa me agrees wit ya, haff dont. The haff that does agrees wit only haffa what you say. An the agreement is only haff agreement. An ...

December 20, 2005 2:07 AM  
Blogger r.fuel said...

Ha. Fools.

December 20, 2005 3:12 AM  
Blogger Jill said...

I so much enjoy your verve for deconstructing stupidity.

December 20, 2005 3:23 AM  
Anonymous anne arkham said...

Can we do chiropractors next?

December 20, 2005 7:25 AM  
Blogger anaglyph said...

RaJ: Duck quack echoes? Homeopathy? Same planet. Just not this one.

Joe: It's been on the PBT (Possible Blog Topics) list for a while, but I try not to put long posts in too often - and I knew this one would be long.

Joey: That's OK, as long as eventually you remember what it is you thought. You might need to drink a lot of water for this to work.

Jill: I hope it's half as much as I enjoy doing it.

Anne Arkham: I thought I might go straight for Scientology. Then again, that would be a really long post. Or a really short one I guess: "Scientology is a crock of shit."

December 20, 2005 8:40 AM  
Blogger Joey Polanski said...

Im assumin yer familiar wit th JREF, but in case yer not, heres th link:

James Randi Educational Foundation

December 20, 2005 10:08 AM  
Anonymous Universal Head said...

BTW, I noticed the underside of a juice cap the other day had some kind of 'Funny Facts' note on it (does this kind of thing really sell more juice? - hold on, that's another story), and guess what? The fact was "a duck's quack doesn't echo." Unbe-frackin'-believable.

December 20, 2005 10:46 AM  
Anonymous Universal Head said...

And please, please Reverend, do Scientology!

December 20, 2005 10:46 AM  
Blogger jedimacfan said...

Hey, Revered, will I get better healing powers if I use the Glacier self bottling system at Wal-Mart?

December 20, 2005 11:24 AM  
Blogger Joey Polanski said...

I hope youll admit that yer criticism dont apply t holy water, Revrend. Evryone nose a blessin aint soluble in water. In chrism, perhaps, but not in water.

-- J. Polanski, Docter of Holyopathic Medcine.

P.S. I thougt a homeopath was somone who allows a home t bcome a hovel.

December 20, 2005 1:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Homeopathy has worked for me, many times. But hey, I'm no doctor nor scientist so I guess my experience isn't valid. Love the Cow BTW.

December 20, 2005 4:45 PM  
Blogger anaglyph said...

Anonymous: Of course your experience is valid. Couching it in sarcastic terms doesn't help your case though. If there's meat in your argument, put it forward like you believe it.

There may be reasons that you think homeopathy has worked for you. Indeed, it may have even really worked for you. I can give a few explanations as to why the following course of events took place: You felt ill. You took a homeopathic remedy. You felt better. But none of those reasons have to do with the antiquated concepts like The Law of Similars or massive ultra-dilution. Just use your brain - those things are simply nonsense. Would you think it was a good idea to bleed a patient if they had fever? Or would you use a concoction of pus to fix gout? Would you hold a perfumed handkerchief over your mouth to ward off The Plague? The Law of Similars is that kind of stupid. RaJ is right - it's made of the same stuff as the Echo of a Duck's Quack.

What I am saying is that homeopathy is not science. You see, this is where homeopaths have got it all wrong. If they just said "We're selling magical cures, no-one knows how it works - it's magic! Try it!", at least that would be honest. Unfortunately, they can't bring themselves to say that because, well, that's unbelievable, right? So, to fit in with a world view that has gone well past the beliefs of Alchemy, they try to compete on the same footing as science. But they can't because it isn't.

Here's a thought for you: lots of people maintain "homeopathy worked for me". And yet, under what is now in the hundreds of controlled experiments, no such evidence is forthcoming. None. Where are the multitudes of successes you'd expect if homeopathy was as good as it's claimed? I'm not disputing that the process you followed when seeking a homeopathic remedy did not have some beneficial effect for you. I'm disputing the concepts behind homeopathy as a belief and the homeopathic remedies themselves.

December 20, 2005 5:40 PM  
Blogger anaglyph said...

Joey: Yeah, thanks for posting the JREF link. People might be interested to know that James Randi is offering a million US bucks for solid evidence that homeopathy works. You folk that believe it does - go collect the money. Use it to set up your own Homeopathy Foundation and have the satisfaction of rubbing it in his face as well...

The money's been safe for over a decade now I believe.

December 20, 2005 5:47 PM  
Blogger Joe Fuel said...

Anonymous - I would ask you to look up the word "psychosomatic" and just think about it...

December 21, 2005 1:28 AM  
Blogger Joey Polanski said...

Tecknickly, a ducks quack DONT echo. It quachoes.

(*yankd off stage by a giant hook*)

December 21, 2005 2:53 AM  
Blogger Cate said...

Oh my Holy Hannah and Freaking Hades. The world is too full of stupid ideas.

December 21, 2005 6:57 AM  
Anonymous anne arkham said...

I know someone who's sure she cured her own cervical cancer by wearing quartz crystals around her neck. Sure, she had a radical hysterectomy and went through chemo, but she's convinced that it was the crystals alone that got rid of her cancer.

December 21, 2005 12:04 PM  
Blogger anaglyph said...

Joey: Someone got to the hook faster than I did.

All: Please note that I have not said anywhere that modern Western medicine is the be-all and end-all of healing. There's room for all kinds of different thought. But the thing to keep in mind is that we should be learning from the centuries of medical practice that we have behind us, not carring on antiquated belief systems and trying to defend them in some kind of adversarial jousting match. One of the things I find most disturbing about homeopathy (and it's not just homeopathy, but it's a particularly bad culprit) is that it sets itself up against Western medicine as if it's capable of doing some of the most marvellous things we can now do. It can't.

Maybe there is something in the style of homeopathic treatment that we can learn from. But it doesn't lie in the irrational and antiquated 'cures' that you stick under your tongue. It just doesn't.

Someone who takes homeopathic cures - take me up on my glass of water example. All the cures already exist in that water. Just drink water. Anyone: tell me why this wouldn't work?

December 21, 2005 1:41 PM  
Blogger Joe Fuel said...

If the body is composed of mainly water, and I've been drinking water my whole darned life, why am I not immune to everything? If your water theory works, then I would never be sick and no cure would be necessary.

(Was that the answer you were looking for?)

December 21, 2005 4:43 PM  
Blogger Joey Polanski said...

Yeah, an if th bodys composed mainly o water, an I been drinkin water my hole darnd life, hows come I aint like sproutd a hole nothr body by now?

December 21, 2005 6:19 PM  
Blogger anaglyph said...

Joe: Yes, but I want someone who believes that homeopathic remedies work to explain why that wouldn't work. I really would. Everyone I know who uses homeopathy evades that question. Typically they say things such as "Yes, but my remedy is tailored specifically for me", which says a lot more about the treatment system than it does about the remedy.

December 21, 2005 7:07 PM  
Blogger jedimacfan said...

How it all works

December 22, 2005 11:27 AM  
Anonymous Vox said...

I hadn't thought of this, but I have a mixture and mishmash of bloodlines. A real product of hasty unplanned back alley genetic diversity throughout the ages. However, like most of us Americans out West, I am largely Irish. About 65% or so.

That being said, shouldn't the singlemalt thing work? Like some good Bushmill's? It's got to have some element or memory of cures for the race of poor drunks I take my lineage, if not endowment, from.

So as I sit drinking my water, which began life in its current state atop the Grand Mesa, I have to wonder: how much bear shit memory am I drinking?

Fuck, how much trout sperm am I drinking? To hell with this shit, Wild Turkey should be pretty damn forgetful of whatever kind of manure makes it into the water in Kentucky. It make me forget a lot of shit anyway.

December 23, 2005 11:29 AM  
Blogger anaglyph said...

See, the thing is about single malt whisky - who bothers pretending that there's anything scientific about its healing powers? It's just a miracle.

December 23, 2005 1:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not that it is pertinent to this post, but I won't get back here before Monday and I wanted to say Merry Christmas to you

December 24, 2005 9:29 AM  
Blogger anaglyph said...

Thank you Anonymous. Here's wishing you all the very best things for 2006, whoever you are.

December 24, 2005 2:17 PM  

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