Natural Stupidity: The Rejection of Science for Homeopathy

Take a flower and dilute it so far that it's no longer present in the solution. That should work.  Homeopathy.
Take a flower and dilute it so far that it’s no longer present in the solution. That should work.

Mike Adams, the “Health Ranger”, is a frequent author of articles over at Natural News. While I don’t normally mind questioning of established wisdom—in fact, it’s laudable provided it’s reasonable—his particular brand of misguided, misinformed, belligerent dishonesty and tactless bullshit needs to be taken to task. As with all brands of unscientific nonsense, there are too many who find it enticing to buy into long words and an intelligent sounding prose.

The downside, of course, lies in the fact that what he says is so completely deprived of any semblance of reality that any advice he offers is blatantly harmful. There are two articles of his which I would like to address, one slightly older than the other, so this article might be a little longer than normal. I apologise if I drawl on a little, but the points of nonsense this idiot raises need to be deconstructed and ground to a fine powder.

Time for another vaccination against bullshit.

Homeopathy: It Requires An Elevated World View

Anybody who uses the phrase “world view” seems to fall into the same kinds of nonsensical mindset as fundamental creationists. They tend toward a rather blunt lack of nuance, hyperbole and fallacious arguments against their opposition. About the only thing that I can commend him on (though, I’m sure it’s more the website administrator’s doing than his own) is the fact that he allows open commenting on his articles.

I could be wrong on that score—if you’ve ever been silenced by him, feel free to let me know and I’ll amend this article accordingly. At any rate.

The article we’ll start with is this one, in which he criticises the James Randi Educational Foundation’s rather wide-spread criticism of homeopathy. Namely, the organised “overdosing” on homeopathic remedies of hundreds of volunteers back in 2010. The problems, however, begin immediately with the angle of his criticism.

“Teaching the so-called “skeptics” about how homeopathic medicine really works is a bit like trying to convince flat Earthers that the planet is really spherical.”

The invective is his own, an appeal to emotion of sorts in which he, essentially, accuses skeptics of being stupid. Ignoring, for the moment, his complete lack of linguistic understanding (ie, what it means to be skeptical) the attack does nothing but to inflame the emotions of those who are already in opposition to his point of view. Like so many others before him, he’s settled on a “we’ll insult them into allegiance” approach which never actually works.

Oh, and for the record, there is substantial evidence to support the claim that the world is spherical (actually, it’s an oblate spheroid, but that’s neither here nor there). There is no such evidence to support the claim that homeopathic remedies are effective.

It’s Not A Chemical, It’s A “Resonance”

James Randi doesn't buy your nonsense, either.
James Randi doesn’t buy your nonsense, either.

What, exactly, he means by this is entirely beyond my ability to comprehend. He alludes, again, to the inferior wisdom of the entire body of theoretical physicists and then, emptily, offers us a lesson on the physics of homeopathy. We’ll get back to that in a second as there’s a point I’d like to make first.

“Homeopathy, you see, isn’t a drug. It’s not a chemical. So you can drink all you want and you won’t overdose on it. That’s not a defect in homeopathy — it’s a remarkable advantage! It means that while 200,000+ Americans are killed each year by toxic pharmaceutical drugs, no one is harmed by homeopathy. Not even those who are desperately trying to be harmed by it!”

There are two major problems I see with this kind of an assertion. The first is the unsourced figure he quotes. A brief search across Google puts the number of “Americans” killed each year by “toxic” pharmaceuticals between 48,000 and 200,000. So, evidently, he likes to go with the most outrageous figures rather than the more conservative. Ignoring that little nit-pick, how does it actually compare? The estimated number of cancer related deaths in the United States are 306,920 male, 273,430 female for a grand total of 580,350. That’s a figure that is increasing. (Source)

Now, let’s compare that figure to the number of new cases expected. We have 854,790 for males, 805,500 for females for a total of 1,660,290. This means that the number of estimated cancer related deaths in the United States for 2013 is around 35%. It should be easy to see that, without modern medical methods of combating cancer, the death rate would be significantly higher. Without medical intervention, the one-year survival rate for liver cancer is 20%. The five-year survival rate is only 6%. Medicine may, on occasion, be inappropriately prescribed or abused by the patients themselves, but to take that fact and then imply that modern medicines are dangerous is flat out lie.

More often than not your physician, along with the wonders of medical science, can and will save your life.

The Physics of Homeopathy

“But homeopathy isn’t a chemical. It’s a resonance. A vibration, or a harmony. It’s the restructuring of water to resonate with the particular energy of a plant or substance. We can get into the physics of it in a subsequent article, but for now it’s easy to recognize that even from a conventional physics point of view, liquid water has tremendous energy, and it’s constantly in motion, not just at the molecular level but also at the level of its subatomic particles and so-called “orbiting electrons” which aren’t even orbiting in the first place. Electrons are vibrations and not physical objects.”

This is very quickly followed by the incompetent implication that physicists don’t understand physics—apparently we won’t learn this kind of stuff until 2020! Let’s take this a little at a time.

What is an electron? Is it a particle? Is it a “vibration”? I can only assume that when he says “vibration” he means “wave”, but I’m not entirely convinced of that either. The correct answer, however, is that an electron is neither and both at the same time. Under some circumstances, electrons behave like particles and under other circumstances they behave like waves. This is especially easy to note with the double-slit experiment. It has been performed with steady streams of light (photons) and electrons, as well as with single photons and electrons. The conclusion that I draw is that really small things behave really strangely.

When it’s a steady stream, it’s easier to grasp. A beam of light behaves like a wave and, so, when it passes through the two slits you get an interference pattern. When it’s a single electron (or photon) per second being passed through, you’d expect to see that some electrons pass through the slits, some are absorbed or reflected from the material the slits are in, and that it would draw only two lines. Again, this is not the case. Even single particles eventually manage to draw out an interference pattern—this is counter-intuitive and, as usual, a good example of why quantum systems defy common sense. Electrons behave like particles and waves at the same time. They are neither one or the other.

Electrons are just plain weird.
Electrons are just plain weird.

Personally, I really don’t have quite the grasp of quantum mechanics required to say anything about the resonance of wave functions. It is a real thing (PDF), but not in the way that Mr. Adams seems to insist.

“Yep, magic teleporting particles! That’s the “scientific” explanation of these folks. No wonder so many of them are magicians: Believing their explanations requires that you believe in particle magic!

Unlike practicers of homeopathy, we don’t make physics up on the spot. We can’t help that the observations seem to suggest “magic teleporting particles”. As I often quote;

“The Universe is the way it is, whether we like it or not.” – Prof. Lawrence M. Krauss.

The Molar Limit

No, I’m not talking about teeth. I’m talking about molecules diluted within a substance (in the case of homeopathy, normally distilled water). A quick look at Wikipedia gives you some good analogies as to what’s actually in homeopathic remedies. My favourite from there is the duck-liver flu remedy.

“A popular homeopathic treatment for the flu is a 200C dilution of duck liver, marketed under the name Oscillococcinum. As there are only about 1080 atoms in the entire observable universe, a dilution of one molecule in the observable universe would be about 40C. Oscillococcinum would thus require 10320 more universes to simply have one molecule in the final substance.”

That’s the number 10 followed by 320 zeros more universes to find just one molecule of the “active” ingredient. It doesn’t take a genius to realise that it is entirely unreasonable to assume that the “solution” would have any effect what-so-ever. You might as well eat a spoon of sugar or drink a glass of water, you’ll be getting roughly the same stuff.

But, if their hypothesis is correct—that water has a “memory” of things that have been diluted into it—then it raises a rather disturbing question. How much water (and, indeed, homeopathic medicines themselves) do you drink every day with the “memory” of feces or urine in it? Does that have an effect? What about rain run-off into oceans? Mineral memories, the memories of decaying corpses of whatever animals were in the way. It would all be there, in whatever you drank or took homeopathy-wise.

Remember. Everytime you take homeopathic “medicines”, you’re consuming the water’s “memory” of every fish that has ever reproduced, defecated, urinated, died or otherwise that, likely, has ever lived. That’s a fun thought, isn’t it? Thankfully, there is no evidence that this is true.

The Efficacy of Homeopathic Remedies

Homeopaths have often been known to say things like, “We don’t know how it works, only that it does.” What they fail to tell you is that none of their remedies have undergone serious clinical trials. They haven’t been tested for efficacy. The only evidence they have at their disposal is anecdotal and we all know—or, at least, we should know—that anecdotal evidence is not evidence at all.

In fact, the evidence to support homeopathy’s efficacy beyond that of a placebo effect is virtually non-existent. A few studies of low quality (ie, small sample groups) have shown a slightly higher rate of effectiveness in homeopathic remedies than with placebos, though the higher quality (ie, large sample groups) have contradicted this. Homeopaths quite often cite the low quality studies as evidence for homeopathy, despite the disparity still being relatively tiny, and ignore the higher quality studies. This is intellectually dishonest in the highest regard, no self-respecting scientist accepts the findings of a low quality study over a higher quality one. RationalWiki covers this quite well.

And that’s not to mention the collaborative effect of huge numbers of varying studies which all converge on a similar conclusion. Namely, homeopathy is no more effective than a placebo. Thus, I conclude, homeopathic remedies are placebos—nothing more!

If you’re still not convinced, then here is an exhaustive list of studies which have conclusively demonstrated the efficacy of homeopathic remedies.

A Few Final Thoughts

Right at the end of his article, after trying to convince “skeptics” that they should consume huge doses of real medicine, he says;

“That outcome, my friends, would be sad, but newsworthy. More importantly, it would prove an important point: Medicine should be safe for people to consume, not so deadly that you drop dead after consuming it, which is what often happens with pharmaceuticals.”

If you take your medicines as prescribed, the chances are that not only will there be no long-term side-effects, but you will actually recover from what they’re supposed to help you recover from! Like with all things within the purview of real science, medical science has a track record for working.

Yes, medicine should be safe for people to consume, but it should also have some measurable effect!

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