Homeocrappy and the Bad Science Blogger

I don't want to bag on the NHS really, not while the US is in the midst of utterly misleading its population about exactly what state funded health care would really do for them. But I have to say, if I was living in Britain I would be a tad cheesed off to know that my taxes were being used for something like .... homeopathy.

I actually tried it out once. Gagan wanted me to give it a go in India when I was so sick (there's news!), and the options were very limited. He felt it had worked for him once when he was young, for a skin problem, so he wanted me to try it for migraines. I didn't know anything about it, had had great success with acupuncture in LA (which I couldn't get in Bombay) and was a bit desperate, so sure, I guess so. I wasn't enthusiastic, but I went. The doctor was awful and the experience very uninspiring, and at the end .... they gave me a small, unassuming bottle with round white balls in it. Little round balls the size you might decorate a cake with. When I asked what herbs or drugs were in it, I was told that was secret, proprietary, Colonel's 11-herbs and spices type stuff. Nope - no information forthcoming. So, fork over a considerable amount of money and take these sugary little pills. Um.... yeah.

That night I read up online about homeopathy.

I'm not sure I have the oomph to really get it all down. Perhaps a summary?

"Like cures like"  - in other words - if I can give you something that makes you feel like you have the symptoms of malaria, then I can use it to cure you. Um... wtf kind of science is that? No kidding - if you now are having the aches, pains and fevers of the illness then we're onto a cure!

These 'remedies' (that cause the symptoms, mind you) are made of over 3,000 different animal, plant, mineral, and synthetic substances. Anything from diseased fecal matter, snake venom, table salt, snot or rainwater.  If this seems at all rational, please let me know.

Not finished yet, the juju, I mean remedies, are diluted. And when I say diluted - I mean seriously diluted!  Not every one has exactly the same level of dilution, but here is where we need some comparisons.   For example, the acceptable level of arsenic in US drinking water is 8X (or 1 part per 100,000,000).  For most of the homeopathic remedies, the recommended dilution is.... wait for it.... 60X.   That is 1 part in 1 with 60 zero's after it!!  I think wikipedia has the best way to describe that:  on average, this would require giving two billion doses per second to six billion people for 4 billion years to deliver a single molecule of the original material to any patient.  As one physicist put it, even a 30X solution would need a container more than 30,000,000,000 times the size of the Earth just to contain one single molecule.  So bearing this in mind, the science behind homeopathy is - well.... balony, and a lot of people are getting very rich.

One caveat, I am entirely intrigued by the placebo effect. I think it should be studied, explored and is a secret door to all sorts of new discoveries about how our minds and bodies work in tandem. I'm not saying that some people don't actually get better when they take this stuff, but it's just not for the reasons they think.

So, as the NHS goes ahead with its feasability studies, lets hope someone with sense can wave their hand and remind people to think with their brains.



11/28/09, 11:43 PM

omg I could type your ear off on this one.

I was sooooo shocked when I first got a high-tech job and discovered how many technical people believed in this snake-oil. It still happens, all I have to do is mention that I feel under-the-weather and somebody who majored in engineering will tell me to swallow that anti-cold junk. What is it about medicine that makes people so willing to discard the scientific method?

A lot of it is, actually, a lack of knowledge about scientific methods in the first place. Programmers, engineers, etc., these people don't deal with uncertainty too often. They are used to having great control over the problems they solve. Something as complicated and inaccessible as a virus doesn't come into their occupations. Do they have to run their programs on 1000 computers, gather statistics on how well they worked? Of course not. If it works on one computer it works on the next.

Another big issue is subjectivity. Of course there's no cure for that but there are degrees. When one's own health is involved, objectivity takes a flying leap down the rabbit hole.

When someone says "It worked for me," what they really mean is "I was sick, then I swallowed this pill, and today I am not sick." They love to believe that they took the initiative and fixed their own problem. And probably they feel a little better about themselves having found an answer that not everybody knows. And they want to share that with their friend in need. Who wouldn't?

And don't ignore the price. More expensive quack solutions work better. Who's going to admit to their friends that they paid a bundle for a treatment that did nothing? "Oh no, it was the best choice I ever made."

To be fair, though, there are some medicines which have been shown effective and yet the mechanism behind their effectiveness remains unknown. When the mechanism is unknown, however, effectiveness is determined through rigorous repeated trials, not by individual testimonials.

It's that part — understanding that one's own experience is not science — that is so lacking. (And that one lack is responsible for soooo much trouble.)

Speaking of subjectivity, when people have children.... ;)



12/20/09, 9:37 AM

Oh my goodness... I am so so glad you replied with what must be the best EVER reply to a blog post. :) I'm so glad someone else is as riled up as me about this ridiculous practise. I'm so sorry for the delay in replying... I've been sick (and not taking homeopathic remedies.. haHA).

I didn't even mention the whole 'water memory' bollocks!

I agree with everything you have said. To me it's like the bad part of an old wives tale... just word of mouth spreading ideas about what someone thinks works. Of course there is validity in 'MY own' placebo.... what better medicine than making myself better! But there is absolutely NO scientific validity in saying that it will make YOU better.... other than if you can believe in it yourself ;)

Interestingly, in studies of placebos, they have found that it does matter if someone pays more for one. Also, if it hurts more or the pill is bigger! The newest thing I heard a few days ago from one of my heros, the neurologist V.S. Ramachandran, is that they have found the brain reacts the same way to placebos even when the patient KNOWS it is a placebo! very intriguing... certainly something worth studying.

Regardless, to me that has nothing to do with quacks practising bad medicine. I have no problem with a *real* doctor helping me as a patient in careful ways that include the placebo affect (boy would that need to be careful!) but I heavily object to some person masquerading as a physician dispensing water and saying it will cure my warts/lumbago/migraines/liver disease!

But - as you said, people don't know how to put subjectivity aside when it comes to health. It's an emotional and scary topic, so of course it's subjective to an extent, but the choice about treatment shouldn't be. How the treatment is *given*, and the care and empathy... all that is where subjectivity has a role. Speaking as a chronically ill person, I'll take science every time thankyouverymuch! Keep yer bloody water pills to yourself! :)


1/5/10, 8:27 PM

You should subscribe to WNYC's Radio Lab podcast. All their programs are excellent, and they did one on the placebo effect a while ago.



1/11/10, 3:23 PM

Ooh thanks.. always looking for new things to listen to and watch! :)


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