Junkfood Science: Oh, but a memory

September 16, 2007

Oh, but a memory

With some fanfare last month, the British Homeopathic Association and Faculty of Homeopathy released a special issue of their journal Homeopathy, saying it had brought together scientists from around the world to present, for the first time, the best data and scientific evidence for the memory of water. They reported that “there has never been more evidence for the effectiveness of homeopathy than now.” That part was true, but not in the way some consumers may have thought.

For those unfamiliar with the BHA, it provides “accurate, reliable and evidence-based-information you can trust” ... on homeopathy. ‘Evidence-based’ homeopathy may be an oxymoron to some, but not to this organization. It has published a peer-reviewed science journal since 1945 (first titled the British Homeopathic Journal). The overview of its educational mission states:

Heightened public awareness of the dangers of chemicals in the food chain, growing resistance to antibiotics through over-use, and concerns about the side-effects from some conventional drugs are contributing to a massive rethink about the way we live and how we seek to regain health. Homeopathy — with its use of natural substances in minute doses, absence of harmful side-effects, and holistic and person-centred approach — is attracting an ever-widening public.

By presenting homeopathy as a medical modality based upon sound science with clinical evidence, this special “Memory of Water” issue allowed homeopathy to be examined under scientific scrutiny and without all of the emotional, political and religious beliefs that usually muddle things. It provided a valuable illustration of the differences between science and pseudoscience, and the differences between how science develops and tests concepts in order to understand the natural world, compared to alternative approaches.

The Memory of Water issue was obligatory reading for most skeptics, but only a few had the forbearance to critique it. Most readers will understand the “been there, done that” feeling that overcomes many skeptics rebutting the same rehashed claims again, again, and again. To their credit, experts at Ars Technica and science author, Philip Ball, took the time to examine this issue with a scientific eye. Their indepth reviews may be helpful for those less familiar with the science of water.

As Ars Technica concluded:

The articles in this special edition of Homeopathy display a number of consistent themes: internal inconsistency; a rejection of scientific standards and methods; and established science is applied to inappropriate situations (for example, quantum entanglement between people is proposed). In cases where mechanisms are suggested, they frequently violate our basic understanding of the natural world. Tying things together are unsupported assertions and logical leaps that have no place in science. The experience of reading the journal was like seeing a science publication reflected through Alice's looking glass.

As they noted, the Editorial opening the issue defined the bias that prevailed throughout much of the issue. The Editor claimed to know what the results of scientific inquiry would be, saying: “at this stage we can say one thing with certainty: the assertion that homeopathy is impossible because the 'memory of water' is impossible is wrong.” Sadly, nowhere in the issue was any evidence provided which shifts the body of evidence to support the memory of water, they said.

Water memory claims violate several deeply held physical principles that are backed by a great deal of evidence, so proof of the failure of these principles should require solid data. Instead, we are subjected to increasingly wild and far-fetched proposals that, in the absence of direct evidence, must be investigated as a substitute.... In the end, this overview provides a clear demonstration of tactics used by many practitioners of pseudoscience: make a large number of vaguely scientific arguments in the hope of making the desired conclusion seem inevitable. It is essential to recognize that a disconnected assemblage of weak arguments does not create a single, strong scientific argument.

Writing for Chemistry World, Philip Ball took a careful, patient approach and looked at all sides, having known one of the charismatic authors. Still, as he wrote:

In at least one sense, this volume is valuable. The memory of water is an idea that refuses to go away, and so it is good to have collected together all of the major strands of work that purport to explain or demonstrate it. The papers report some intriguing and puzzling experimental results that deserve further attention. Moreover, the issue does not duck criticism.... But perhaps the true value of the collection is that it exposes this field as an intellectual shambles.... I have to say that the cavalier way in which ‘evidence’ is marshalled and hypotheses are proposed with disregard for the conventions of scientific rigour shocked even me – and I have been following this stuff for far too long.

Besides examining the unscientific mathematical model that sufficed as proof for the validity that dilutions of the mother tincture must be made by factors of ten and not other number would work, Ball went to the original sources for each of the sources cited in support of claims made in this journal. As he found: “One of the challenges in assessing these claims is that they tend to play fast and loose with original sources, which obliges you to do a certain amount of detective work.”

After a laborious examination of the sources and evidence, he concluded:

What emerges from these papers is an insight into the strategy adopted more or less across the board by those sympathetic to the memory of water. They begin with the truism that it is ‘unscientific’ to simply dismiss an effect a priori because it seems to violate scientific laws. They cite papers which purportedly show effects suggestive of a ‘memory’, but which often on close inspection do nothing of the kind. They weave a web from superficially puzzling but deeply inconclusive experiments and ‘plausibility arguments’ that dissolve the moment you start to think about them, before concluding with the humble suggestion that of course all this doesn’t provide definitive evidence but proves there is something worth further study.

One has to conclude, after reading this special issue, that you can find an ‘explanation’ at this level for water’s memory from just about any physical phenomenon you care to imagine... The tiresome consequence is that dissecting the idea of the memory of water is like battling the many-headed Hydra, knowing that as soon as you lop off one head, another will sprout....

Some may wonder why scientists and doctors care about exposing homeopathy. As Ars Technica noted, “giving patients water is probably a lot less harmful than many folk remedies that fly under the scientific radar,” but, they said, it’s important because innocent people are being convinced to spend money — nearly half a billion dollars in 1999 by U.S. citizen alone — on worthless homeopathic modalities.

But this is so much more than just how well-to-do, worried well may choose to spend their money for a placebo relief. The real dangers of sugar pills come when they’re used to prey on innocent, scared or desperately-ill people, the elderly, or those suffering from life-threatening illnesses and who resort to homeopathy rather than seek medical care than could actually save their lives, reduce their suffering, or prevent permanent disability.

This isn’t a sensationalized concern, as is demonstrated by this disturbing flyer being distributed by the Society of Homeopaths promoting the Homeopathy Project in Botswana. In that region of Africa, its poor people have the highest rates of HIV and AIDS in the world, with more than one out of every three people stricken. This project lures people to their clinics to treat their HIV/AIDS using homeopathic remedies created by Peter Chapell, founder of the Society of Homeopaths. Chapell’s remedies are called “PC remedies” and are said to be more than typical homeopathics but are a “revolutionary new way of healing diseases by using the natural resonance within our immune system to stimulate holistic self healing of diseases.” The flyer, which promotes their upcoming HIV/AIDS conference, says that with these remedies “the AIDS epidemic can be called to a halt.”

On his website, VitalRemedies.com, Chapell sells his remedies to the public and to homeopaths, for numerous other serious and not-so-serious health problems, with a troubling focus on targeting poor people in Africa. [Access to the homeopath sections requires logging in and answering secret questions (hint: Hahnemann, Kent, Pulsatilla) and checking that you “agree and promise upon the souls of my ancestors or by the God I worship to use these remedies ONLY in the form they are supplied, not to duplicate in any way, and to use exactly according to the instructions provided.”] The website states: “It is our vision that this new, effective form of treatment will become available to all.”

Some of the medical conditions homeopathic remedies are being sold to treat include:

malaria, botulism, bubonic plague, broken bones, burns, spinal cord injuries, schizophrenia, dengue fever, diphtheria, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, hepatitis C, rabies, toxoplasmosis, cancers (colon, cervix, Hodgkins, Kahler’s larynx, leukemia, ovarian, pancreatic, prostate, stomach, thyroid, testicular, uterine), congenital heart defects in Africa, lupus, marfan’s syndrome, abscesses, allergies, environmental toxins, food poisoning, gluten intolerance, mobile phone toxicity, multiple organ tonics, abuse trauma, chronic blaming, chronic selfishness, chronic hopelessness, incest trauma, evil/devil, fear of change, genocide trauma, near death experience, poverty consciousness, unburied relatives trauma, alcoholism, anorexia, ADHD and attention deficit disorder, bed wetting, eating disorders, obesity, smoking, bird flu, candida albicans, chlamydia, fungal infections, German measles, herpes, whooping cough, asthma, hypertension, dandruff, diabetes type 1 and 2, epilepsy in Africa, diarrhea in infants and children in Africa, leprosy, gingivitis, infertility, irritable bowel, migraines, scoliosis, tooth decay, eye defects in Africa, varicose veins, hemorrhoids, metabolic syndrome, old age, ear and hearing defects in Africa, and more.

No sound, replicated clinical evidence is provided proving homeopathy works for any of these conditions. The best cases for memory water were presented in that special issue of the journal Homeopathy.

This is the real danger of alternatives as seemingly innocuous as water. How many innocent people are using homeopathic remedies, trusting them over modern medicine, with tragic results? We’ll never know.

Unsuspecting online customers are given a lengthy disclaimer absolving Peter Chappell of any responsibility if they don’t work or something goes wrong: “The laws of the world are weird, contradictory and variable. The laws often protect the rich and are oppressive of the poor....If you buy vital remedies you are completely and utterly responsible for their use, legally and in health terms. Peter Chappell, his agents, advertisers, promoters are not responsible, as that's completely impractical due to the complexities of the world. WE DO NOT GIVE ANY WARRANTY as your situation is outside of our control. We cannot guarantee any effects as this is dependant on proper use. There is NO REFUND if the vital remedy does not work....” [emphasis in the original]

Look again at the educational mission statement of the BHA. Frightening you about dangers in the tiniest presence of a chemical in parts per billion in your water and food — taking advantage of the nocebo effect — is the opposite end of the very same spectrum trying to convince you of the healing powers of tiny, unmeasureable amounts of something in your water — taking advantage of the placebo effect. Both are founded on beliefs without good science.

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