My Take on Homeopathy

Boots homeopathy

Sugar pills, available at your local Boots!

One of the disadvantages of starting a new blog is that all the articles that make your position clear on certain subjects disappear into the ether. Therefore I thought I’d write a few words about one of my favourite topics, homeopathy.

What is Homeopathy?

Homeopathy is a form of quackery. It was cooked up by Samuel Hahnemann in 1796, who came up with three “laws” for homeopathy:

  1. The law of similars. This is the idea that “like cures like”, that something that will cause symptoms in a healthy person will cure those symptoms in an unwell person.
  2. The law of infinitesimals. This states that the more you dilute something the stronger it gets. No joke.
  3. The law of succussion. This is a believe that dilutions should be firmly struck against a hard yet elastic surface following preparation.

Homeopathic preparations are usually made by taking a substance, diluting it multiple times, and succussing each dilution (a process homeopaths like to call potentization). The final dilution is then placed on a sugar pill and left to dry. So usually there is no active ingredient, and there isn’t even any solvent.

And that is pretty much it! The basics of homeopathy.

What do you have against homeopathy?

I have many issues with homeopathy. Firstly, the premise of it is ridiculous. Homeopaths teach that if you dilute something, you make it stronger. Anyone who has ever made a glass of orange squash knows that diluting a solution makes it weaker! Added to that, homeopaths dilute their preparations to an absurd degree:

Homeopathic preparation are diluted using the C (centesimal) scale. In this scale, each ‘C’ preparation is a 1 in 100 dilution of the one before. So, 1C is 1 part of the the original solution to 99 parts solvent. 2C is 1 part 1C to 99 parts solvent, etc. So, every time you go up one C, you are decreasing the concentration of the solution by a factor of 100. Most homeopathic preparations are 30C, which means the original solution is diluted by a factor of 1060.

To appreciate just how dilute this is, we need to consider Avogadro’s constant. This tells us the amount of molecules in one mole of a substance, and is about 6 x 1023. A typical solution will contain 1 mole per liter of solvent (1M), or 6 x 1023 molecules per liter. Every time you dilute it by 1C, you decrease the concentration by a factor of 100, so a 1C dilution of our original solution will contain 6 x 1021 molecules per liter. If you keep going along the C scale, you have less than 1 molecule per liter at 12C. With this perspective, you can see how dilute 30C would be! So, homeopathic preparations above 12C have practically no active ingredients.

However, my major problem with homeopathy is that it can lead to death if used in place of conventional medicine. A list of these occurrences can be found at whatstheharm.net.

Is there any evidence that homeopathy works?

In short, no. There is certainly no reliable scientific evidence that it works. However, in order to define “works” we need to consider two terms, “efficacy” and “effectiveness”. In medicine, a treatment is considered effective if it “does what it says on the tin”, but to qualify as efficacious it must do this in a controlled clinical setting, where the placebo effect can be measured. The placebo effect is considered when judging effectiveness, it is not when judging efficacy.

So, the important question is “how efficacious is homeopathy?”. According to the UK House of Commons Science and Technology Committee’s Evidence Check on homeopathy, it is not efficacious. It merely acts as a placebo. The best evidence for this comes from Randomized Controlled Trials (RCTs). These trials are designed to eliminate the placebo effect and other biases from the trial, so that efficacy can be gaged. While some of these trials do show that homeopathy can work better than placebo, these results are not statistically significant. When these trials are examined with meta studies, homeopathy comes out as being no better than placebo (Shang et al 2005).

Why do people believe homeopathy works?

When someone claims that homeopathy has worked for them, they usually attribute the success of the placebo treatment to one of three things:

  1. Regression to the mean (a posh way of saying “You would have gotten better anyway”).
  2. The placebo effect, where you feel better because you expect to feel better.
  3. If they are taking homeopathy as a “complementary” medicine, the real medicine the patient is taking has done it’s job.

Again, the important thing to consider here is quality of evidence. As someone with a scientific background, I like to think that I would place evidence from RCTs in the forefront of my judgment. However, someone who has experienced regression to the mean after taking homeopathy may not understand this, and they will take their own anecdote as evidence for the efficacy of homeopathy. To believe that homeopathy works, you have to put anecdotal evidence ahead of scientific evidence, something that I simply can’t do.

What is being done about homeopathy?

10:23 campaignHomeopathy costs the NHS an estimated £4 million per year, and understandably many people are not happy about this. For this reason, and the others mentioned above, the 10:23 campaign was formed. The group promotes homeopathy awareness and campaigns for it’s  removal from the shelfs of Boots, a major UK pharmacy chain. In January 2010, they organized a worldwide demonstration against homeopathy, which saw several hundred people “overdose” on Boots brand homeopathy, to show that there is nothing in it. I wholeheartedly support this campaign, as you can see in the video below. The next demo is planned for the QED conference in February 2011, so see you there!

Of course, I could say so many more things about homeopathy, but this will have to do for now!

Beef Fajita and Margarita Recipes

MargaritaOK, OK, I know I get annoyed by divergences in skepticism, but I met a guy called Mark at the latest Liverpool Skeptics Society social and promised I’d share my beef fajita recipe. Besides, it’s my blog and I’ll do what I want!

First off a little history about the beef fajita. The word “fajita” means “little strap”, as the recipe initially used beef strap. I’m not even sure if that cut is called “strap” in the UK, so I use skirt, a very meaty but quite tough cut. Now, if you ask for beef skirt in a supermarket you’ll get pointed towards clothing, so to get some you really need to go to your local butcher.

This recipe will easily make enough for 6 people, and no-one should go home hungry!

Ingredients

Fajitas

  • 3 pounds (1.5 kg) beef skirt
  • 8 limes
  • Bunch of coriander
  • Garlic
  • 2 shots (50 ml) of tequila

Margaritas

  • 2 parts tequila
  • 1 part triple sec
  • 1 part freshly squeezed lime juice
  • Salt

Bear in mind that the beef should be marinated at least overnight, ideally 48 hours. Cut the beef into chunks and place into an airtight container. Season well with salt and pepper, then rub the seasoning into the beef. Juice the limes, then pour the lime juice over the beef. Roughly chop the coriander, then place in the container. Peel and crush (or finely chop) the garlic before placing in the container, then pour over the tequila. Rub everything together, then leave in the fridge to marinate. If you can, give everything a mix every 6 hours or so. When ready to cook, simply fry the beef over a high heat for five minutes, turning once. Serve with your choice of accompaniments, perhaps flour tortillas, sour cream, guacamole and pico de gallo.

For the margaritas, fill a jug with ice, then add the tequila, triple sec and fresh lime juice. Place the salt on a plate, and rub half the rims of the glasses in the salt (this makes the salt rim optional). Give the contents of the jug a stir, then pour into the glasses. Enjoy!

Morgan Spurlock with Mike Adams shock

I have a huge amount of respect for Morgan Spurlock. In his 2004 shoestring documentary “Supersize Me“, he famously ate nothing but McDonald’s food for 28 days in a row. The film charts his resultant ill health, and was a real eye-opener for anyone who uses the fast food industry.

So, imagine my shock and surprise when I learned from @gimpyblog on Twitter that Morgan Spurlock has teamed up with “Health Ranger” Mike Adams, everyone’s favourite testicle-obsessed antivax lunatic. They are involved in the “Raw for 30 days” program, in which participants are encouraged to eat nothing but uncooked, unprocessed “raw” foods in order to combat diabetes. You can see the Spurlock interview below:

However, I think it would be wrong to judge Morgan Spurlock straight away. You’ll notice in the video that he just talks about the ‘detox’ diet he went on after Supersize Me, where he cut out pretty much all processed food, caffeine, sugar etc, and ate lots of fruit and veg. Perfectly sensible after eating over 5,000 calories a day for a month! He does not mention a raw diet, and does not talk about Mike Adams or any kooky program. Could it be possible that Morgan Spurlock was innocently interviewed about his post-supersize diet, and Mike Adams has disingenuously included it in his latest propaganda?

Amateur Anthropology from Iowa

I really love it when someone with a lack of understanding of a scientific principle learns a little bit about it, uses what little they know to come to a silly conclusion, then treats their conclusion as fact. That could be why I’m a big fan of Karl Pilkington.

Anyway, a cracking example of this has recently emerged from Iowa. Right now, Iowa sounds like a really interesting place to live: last year gay marriage was legalised, and this of course has lead to protests from right wing groups.

Randy Crawford belongs to one of these groups. He is unsurprisingly against gay marriage, and he’s got a very interesting reason for believing gay people are “obsolete”:

“It used to be useful when we were cavemen and we needed people to guard the caves full of women and children. If I’m a guy out hunting, I want to leave someone back at the cave tending to my wife and kids, and I don’t want a normal guy having that kind of access to my wife and kids. So, in our evolution, you can see that there use to be a utility for homosexuality, but that was when we were cavemen and we aren’t cavemen anymore. So, homosexuality is obsolete.”

This is amazing. He’s got absolutely no evidence to back this up, but it makes sense in his head, so it must be true! I wonder if anyone has put him right yet?

Event Review: Elizabeth Pisani @ Liverpool Skeptics in the Pub

Elizabeth Pisani

Elizabeth Pisani

The evening of Wednesday the 27th of October 2010 the Merseyside Skeptics Society hold one of their regular ‘Skeptics in the Pub events’, set as always in the grandiose Vines pub in Liverpool, a stones throw from Liverpool Lime Street station. The guest speaker was one Elizabeth Pisani, epidemiologist and author of The Wisdom of Whores, a controversial book about HIV/AIDS.

Elizabeth took us through her work on the spread and prevalence of HIV, explaining the people who became infected in the 1980’s, how the virus spread, and what could be done to prevent it. Each point was very eloquently made, and well backed up with solid data.

The core of the talk was fascinating, but that wasn’t the only reason why I found the talk as a whole to be completely engrossing. There were many important lessons to be learned. Firstly, we saw that most of data lead to some conclusions that the “Politically Correct” would find pretty ugly. However, Elizabeth wasn’t at all afraid to tell us of these conclusions, simply because they were supported by good evidence. Secondly, we were told that to raise money for HIV research, the whole issue of HIV had to be made politically attractive. In a sense, the science had to be somehow sacrificed to appeal to a wider audience. This was partly accomplished by some sneaky data presentation. I found it amazing how a graph could be made to tell a different story just by changing the X axis from absolute values to percentages!

The Q and A following the talk was very lively, with Elizabeth answering a wide range of questions. Treatment plans, the effect of treatment on the spread of the disease, the role of religion and the destigmatization of AIDS patients were all covered. Elizabeth continued to be charming and engaging throughout.

Overall, I found this to be one of the most intellectually stimulating ‘Skeptics in the Pub’ events yet. Highly recommended!

Elizabeth Pisani

Elizabeth Pisani

PS – Many aspects of the talk reminded me of a brilliant piece of satire on the Chris Morris show Brass Eye. Here’s “Good AIDS/Bad AIDS“.

The World Has a New National Flag: Burma/Myanmar

The unveiling of a new national flag often signifies a dramatic change in world politics. It could relate to the birth of a new country (such as the recently independent Montenegro), or a country looking to move on from it’s dark past, for example Rwanda.

Sadly, the recently adopted flag of Myanmar (Burma) appears to be in no way positive. Burma is currently ruled by a military junta that has been in power since the 8888 revolution of 1988. The military government has placed severe restrictions on personal liberties, and the leader of the National League for Democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi has been under almost constant house arrest since the NLD won elections in the country in 1990.

As part of the government’s wide-ranging constitutional changes, the new flag was ordered to be flown nationwide on October 21st 2010, and the old flags were ordered to be burned, in an attempt to further cement and symbolize the power of the government. The flag itself is three horizontal yellow, green and red stripes, with a large white five pointed star in the center. The colors are supposed to represent (amongst other things) peace and prosperity, but they are in fact the colours of Burma’s flag during the Japanese occupation of World War 2. The star is supposed to represent the unity of the country, but it bears a close resemblance to the stars seen on communist flags, particularly that of Vietnam. The new flag is not to be confused with that of Lithuania.

New flag of Myanmar

The new flag of Myanmar/Burma

Of course, it is my hope that the military government of Burma will eventually make way for a democratically elected government. Once that happens this new flag will most likely be consigned to history, a sign of brutal dictatorship. I can only hope that this day will come soon.

When Uri Geller Failed

When James Randi was interviewed by Robin Ince at TAM, Randi regaled us with a story about Uri Geller appearing on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in 1973.  He was due to bend a few spoons with the power of his mind, and determine which film can out of ten contained some water using his psychic powers. Carson was keen to test Geller, and so phoned Randi for some advice. Subsequently, the spoons that Geller were due to bend were kept well away from Geller and his people, and each film can was weighed down slightly so the one with the water couldn’t be distinguished from the rest. You can see the clip of this below:

Now, I’m keen on people like Uri Geller who claim to have paranormal powers to be exposed, but you have to give credit to Geller for the way he handles the situation. He knows something is wrong straight away, and rather than ploughing on with the tricks, he starts to play the blame game. He talks about being put under too much pressure by Carson, and complains of having “low energy”.

In the end, this becomes a perfect example of why TV chat shows aren’t keen to expose psychics on live TV. The psychic just goes into a shell, nothing happens, and it makes for excruciatingly boring viewing. And anyway, I’m sure Geller would have appeared on another show the week afterwards and performed his parlor tricks successfully, therefore no-one remembers his appearance on the Carson show. In conclusion, exposing psychics is great, but they are tricky and know that giving nothing is better than failing.

TAM London Review Part 1

The weekend of October 16 and 17th saw The Amaz!ng Meeting come to London. Run by the JREF, it promised two days of “science, critical thinking and entertainment in the heart of the city”. I was a TAM virgin, so my expectations for the weekend were sky high. On the whole, the meeting lived to my expectations with some special moments, but like others I felt that some aspects could have been even better.

After we were introduced to our compare for the weekend Richard Wiseman, Saturday kicked off with one of many performances by the Amateur Transplants, who kept us all entertained with their nerd-inspired versions of pop songs. I don’t want to give too much away, but I will never think of tiny batteries in the same way again!

The first talk of the meeting was from Susan Blackmore, who told us about her research into the paranormal and how it eventually lead to her becoming a skeptic. As someone with a scientific background, I found the start of her story to be very strange, as she described how her quest to detect the paranormal began after a drug-induced episode when she was a student in the 70s. It reminded me of a story from Karl Pilkington, where he said something along the lines of “My mate took some drugs then had a telepathic conversation with someone across the room. How do explain that?”. Easy. Drugs. However, Susan’s talk was entertaining and she did believe the statistical analysis of her experiments, so although she pursued what I would call silly endeavors for a long time, it had a happy ending!

Following Susan was the speaker I was most looking forward to, one Richard Dawkins. His talk was based on his belief that evolution should be considered the new classics, to replace ancient Greek and Latin.  The base of this belief is that evolution touches on pretty much any subject you can think of, from biology to history. Whilst I agree that an understanding of evolution is absolutely essential to comprehend life, I disagree with the classics analogy on a couple of points. Firstly, classics is often seen as the preserve of the more exclusive schools, whereas the teaching of evolution should be readily available to everyone. Second, it is a bit unfair on classics itself! Nevertheless, Dawkins was highly engaging and not at all aggressive, it was a very entertaining and educational talk.

Next on was Cory Doctorow, science fiction writer and co editor of the site Boing Boing. He looked resplendent in his bar code inspired suit and spoke very eloquently, but his talk was on copyright law. Now, I know that copyright law is a hot topic for many skeptics, and I’m all for the liberalisation of it. Cory used an evidence based approach to defend his position, which was great to hear, but I really struggled to maintain interest over the 50 minutes. Moving on…

Jim Humble renames Miracle Mineral Solution

My personal highlight of TAM London 2010 was Rhys Morgan receiving an award for his campaign against Miracle Mineral Solution (MMS). In case you don’t already know, Miracle Mineral Solution is nothing but a 28% solution of sodium chlorite. Users are instructed to mix it with citric acid. This produces chlorine dioxide, a powerful industrial bleach. Of course, drinking bleach is a very bad idea, and government agencies such as the FDA are coming down hard on MMS.

The inventor of MMS, one Jim Humble, has decided to slightly rename MMS to MASTER Mineral Solution (my emphasis). He may have done this to try and throw off the FDA, but how stupid does he think they are? He may at least have clocked on to the fact that science doesn’t deal in ‘miracles’ (sorry ICP), but to me, the word ‘master’ sounds pretty ominous. This quote from Humble is particularly chilling:

“Someday, hopefully soon, there will be dozens of master minerals and MMS will just be one of a line up of Master Minerals. Until that time comes, however, MMS remains the most important mineral known to the human race.”

That suggests he has more in the pipeline. Who knows what toxic substances he will sell to vulnerable people next? Don’t be fooled people. Jim Humble knows exactly what he is doing. MMS needs to be eradicated, whether it’s called Miracle Mineral Solution or Master Mineral Solution. One question: why isn’t Jim Humble (or perhaps Jim Scumball) in prison?

Photos from TAM

I got to meet lots of friends and people I admire at TAM, here are a few photos.

 

Update 18/09/2015: this page used to feature a picture of myself with Graham Linehan. However, it has been brought to my attention that Graham Linehan has recently publicly supported a self-confessed paedophile. I utterly detest and deplore paedophilia in all it’s forms, so I feel it is not at all appropriate for the photo to remain on my site.