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Science vs Homeopathic Pseudoscience

Science is a philosophy, a technology, and an institution. It is a human endeavor- our collective attempt to understand the world around us,  not something that exists solely in the abstract. All of these aspects of science have be progressing over the past decades and centuries, as we refine our concepts of what science is and how it works, as we develop better techniques, and organize and police scientific activities more effectively. The practice of science is not relentlessly progressive, however, and there are many regressive forces causing pockets of backsliding, and even aggressive campaigns against scientific progress.

So-called complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is one such regressive force. It seeks to undermine the concepts, execution, and institutions of medical science in order to promote sectarian practices and ideological beliefs. Examples of this are legion, exposed within the pages of this blog alone. I would like to add another example to the pile – the recent defense of homeopathy by Dana Ullman in the Huffington Post (names which are already infamous among supporters of SBM).

In a piece titled: Homeopathy for Radiation Poisoning, Ullman demonstrates yet again the pseudoscientific aspects of homeopathy and its proponents. The primary principle that is abused by Ullman this time is the need for scientists to carefully define their terms and concepts. Scientific concepts should be defined as carefully, precisely, and consistently as possible. Squishy concepts are very difficult to deal with in science – but are the bread and butter of pseudoscience.

The fuzzy concept is particularly useful to the pseudoscientist (someone pretending to do real science, but whose activity is devoid of genuine scientific exploration or rigor). Pseudoscientists generally start with a desired answer and then work backwards to their logic and evidence. Whereas genuine science endeavors to follow logic and evidence wherever it leads. Having a poorly defined term or concept allows pseudoscientists to better shoehorn in evidence and logic – to create the appearance of support for their beliefs where none exists.

Ullman’s article is typically full of anecdotes, cherry picked evidence, and tortured logic. There is far too much there to pick apart in detail, so I want to focus on his exploitation of poorly defined concepts. He writes:

Grubbe got the idea of using radiation as a treatment for Lee’s breast cancer from Reuben Ludlam, M.D., a professor at the homeopathic medical school. Ludlam knew that Grubbe had previously experimented with X-ray as a diagnostic procedure so much that he developed blisters and tumors on his hand and neck as a result of overexposure to this new technology.

Because one of the basic premises of homeopathic medicine is that small doses of a treatment can help to heal those symptoms that large doses are known to cause, Ludlam suggested to Grubbe that radiation may be a treatment for conditions such as tumors because it also causes them.

The toxicity and medical uses of radiation have absolutely nothing to do with any concept that can reasonably be considered part of homeopathy. But Ullman exploits superficial similarities to twist it into support for the deliberately squishy concept of homeopathy. Radiation is toxic to cells – high energy particles impart their energy to cell structures, breaking chemical bonds, killing cells outright in some cases or damaging their DNA. Radioactivity has greater toxicity to cells that rapidly reproduce, because they are more sensitive to DNA damage (partly because they have less time to repair DNA damage).

Low levels of radiation exposure carry a low risk because the repair mechanisms of cells can largely handle any damage done, and the number of lost cells is insignificant. It is not clear if low levels of radiation (such as the background radiation in which we all live) conveys zero risk or simply a very low risk – that type of distinction is inherently difficult to make with empirical studies.

But at all levels of exposure the effect of radiation is a toxic one – to do damage to cell structures. In this way radiation is very much like a drug. All drugs cause biological changes to the body. But those used as pharmaceutical agents have a dose range in which their effects can be exploited while the risk of negative effects is minimal. There are threshold at which certain toxic effects  become significant, but at lower doses they are still present, just tolerable or insignificant. Some effects may display a threshold effect because of compensatory mechanisms, or because there are certain levels at which metabolic processes are overwhelmed.

Radiation damages and kills cells. Rapidly dividing cells are more susceptible to damage. There is therefore a dose range in which radioactivity can kill rapidly dividing tumor cells significantly more than surrounding healthy tissue. But in order to exploit this effect techniques must be use to focus the radiation on the tumor while minimizing exposure to surrounding tissue. And a certain level of damage to surrounding tissue is unavoidable. There is even the risk of later damage, and even cancer, from therapeutic radiation exposure. The use of radiation, like the use of drugs, is about risk vs benefit, or beneficial effects vs side effects. Given that the condition being treated is a potentially fatal cancer, a high level of side effects and risk are considered reasonable.

Ullman, however, would have you believe that what I described above is analogous to homeopathy, in which tiny or (more commonly) non-existent doses of a substance that causes certain symptoms in a healthy individual will treat those symptoms in an unhealthy person. This is not analogous to exploiting different levels of toxicity for a therapeutic effect. There is a superficial similarity in that different doses cause different effects – but with drugs and radiation there are specific mechanisms for this dose-response effect. Homeopathy does not display a dose-response effect – even as homeopaths understand it.

Science and evidence dictates that homeopathy shows no effect at all, but even within the belief system of homeopaths there is no consistent dose-response curve for their potions. There is, if anything, a mysterious and inconsistent relationship between dose and effect, without any plausible mechanism at all. This bizarre relationship between dose and effect claimed by homeopaths is such that dilutions where not even a single molecule of original ingredient is likely to remain behind are often claimed by homeopaths to be the most potent.

Further, while there are specific mechanisms for toxicity and therapeutic effects for interventions like radiation and drugs (although certainly we do not fully understand the precise mechanisms of every drug), there is no plausible mechanism behind the claims of homeopathy. The best that they can come up with is false analogies to vaccines, the speculative concept of hormesis, and now the dose-response effect of standard treatments. When pushed they speak vaguely about the “essence” of the drug, and restoring “balance”. But this is no closer to an actual explanation of how homeopathy might work than saying that it is “magic”, “witchcraft”, or “faith healing.”

Conclusion

The exploitation of poorly defined concepts is a hallmark of CAM. We see it in homeopathy, as above, with strained analogies and fallacious logic. We see it with acupuncture, for example, when “placebo acupuncture” (where there is no needle penetration and no acupuncture points) and electroacupuncture (where electrical stimulation is given) are used as support for acupuncture. This leads to the question – what is acupuncture? What is it that is specific an unique to acupuncture?  Nothing, apparently – but this allows for a wide range of non-specific and other effects to be used as support for the vague concept of “acupuncture.”

And we can ask – what is homeopathy? What scientific concept that has been validated by experimentation constitutes the body of knowledge that is homeopathy? The answer is – nothing. There is no law of similars, nor a law of infinitessimals. There is no plausible mechanism to explain homeopathic potions. So instead we are given invalid analogies, innuendo, and a desperate attempt to confuse the public as to what homeopathy actually is.

Posted in: Homeopathy

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15 thoughts on “Science vs Homeopathic Pseudoscience

  1. windriven says:

    Dr. Novella,
    Clearly you are not open-minded;

    Your science obsession blinds you to the power of modalities that science can’t explain;

    A billion screaming Chinese have used these techniques since the days of dinosaurs;

    Science treats symptoms, not diseases;

    Your Qi(ch) is not balanced with your Qong (groan);

    Now hurry up and irradiate me till my spleen glows.

  2. Scott says:

    Ullman also seems to miss the fact that this is the exact OPPOSITE of what the homeopathic “law” of similars would predict. A LOW dose of radiation increases the risk of cancer, while a HIGH dose can be used to treat it. According to homeopaths, it should be the other way around.

  3. daedalus2u says:

    The doses of radiation that are used to treat cancer are in no way homeopathic or diluted from dosages that would cause cell death and harm. That is the whole point of using radiation on tumors, the radiation is at a high enough dose that it damages the tumor cells such that they die.

    The effects of different doses of different things are different. The effects are different because of physiology which is sometimes idiosyncratic, not because of some universal principle of homeopathy.

  4. Jan Willem Nienhuys says:

    Because one of the basic premises of homeopathic medicine is that small doses of a treatment can help to heal those symptoms that large doses are known to cause,…

    Superficially that is what homeopaths say. The classical example is coffee which ’causes’ sleeplessness, so should be (in a ridiculous small amount) used as a cure for a disease which has sleeplessness as one of its symptoms.

    But the founder of homeopathy, Hahnemann, was against isopathy. One should not treat a sickness caused by A by administering small doses of A. Later he changed his mind. The homeopathic dilution process changes the nature of the medicine. However, then one should do provings with the diluted stuff and base the choice of medicine on the results of those provings.

    Then, homeopathic X-Ray is obtained by irradiating alcohol with X-rays, and then applying the dilution steps over and over again. But any scientist can tell you that irradiation with X-rays will not confer radiative properties to a substance like alcohol. So the dilution process is nonsense from step 1. It is just as silly as homeopathic black holes (probably made by whispering the name of a real black hole into a remedy maker). But homeopathy says that one first should do a proving with the diluted product. There is no guarantee that the diluted stuff will act as an antidote to the undiluted stuff.

    Of course you may try to contradict me. That is easy. For each view there are lots of homeopaths past and present who hold that view. Homeopathy is one big circus of mutually contradictory and crazy ideas. For example Hahnemann believed that all chronic diseases are caused by three agents: syphilis, gonorrhea (called ‘sycosis’) and ‘psora’, by which he meant scabies, and psora is the most important of these. Later homeopaths believed the psora theory in a modified form: they thought that the real psora actually was tuberculosis (this was in a time that virtually everybody had been in contact with tuberculosis). Consequently a homeopathic preparation called Tuberculinum wes recommended for every chronic disease.

    The remedy oscilloccocinum is based on the same idea: oscillococci are the universal cause of all diseases, hence diluted oscillococci are the cure for everything.

    The quoted phrase seems to be a version of the Arndt-Schulz principle (ASP, a general hormesis idea) which is very much beloved by the homeopaths, except the ASP supposedly worked for ponderable doses (a little alcohol works as a stimulant and lots of alcohol makes you dull) and homeopaths use it to defend their crazy dilutions.

    Ullman also says

    Dr. Paul Curie was the first homeopath to use and experiment with safer homeopathic doses of radium.

    This phrase from Dana Ullman is puzzling. This Paul Curie died in 1853, long before the discovery of X-rays and radioactivity (Röntgen’s publication is of 28 December 1895) and the subsequent discovery of radioactivity 24 January 1896 by Becquerel). Radium was discovered 1898 and isolated 1902, so how can the quoted phrase be remotely true?

  5. Josie says:

    Maybe he meant Pierre?

  6. No – because he later references Pierre. Apparently, the fact that Paul’s grandson won a Nobel prize is supposed to lend credibility to homeopathy.

  7. daijiyobu says:

    The S word. How bold!

    And I don’t mean science, squishy, so-called, substance, or specific.

    Also, perhaps the “like” in their law truly describes their kind of reasoning:

    “the presenter of an analogy will often demonstrate how two things are alike by pointing out shared characteristics, with the goal of showing that if two things are similar in some ways, they are similar in other ways as well”

    (from http://www.copyblogger.com/metaphor-simile-and-analogy-what%E2%80%99s-the-difference/ ).

    Let’s call it forced analogy. Something like the absurdity: mice are horses because both have four legs and a tail.

    I prefer how science gets to ‘the things themselves’.

    -r.c.

  8. cervantes says:

    It seems to me utterly feckless to try to argue with homeopaths or other quacks. (Not adherents of “CAM” because if it works, it’s medicine; if it doesn’t work, it’s neither complementary nor alternative. Can we please discipline ourselves about that?)

    They are not traveling in the precincts of reason. They cling to their beliefs because of tribalism; because they have built their identity around them; because they make money off of the scam; because it allows them to claim the prestige of being a “Doctor” (e.g., of Naturopathic Medicine); because it’s just too humiliating to admit they were wrong after all; for whatever the real cause may be. Arguing with them is like arguing with a slug. Why bother?

  9. Jan Willem Nienhuys says:

    Arguing with them is like arguing with a slug.

    With a difference: anyone can see that a slug is not very communicative. But it’s the general public that needs to see clearly that the CAMers are not answering reasonable questions.

  10. Geekoid says:

    @# cervantes – It’s important to remember then while the discussion is with the believer, it’s the audience of the discussion that you are really addressing; which is why it’s important to be level head, don’t misrepresent their claims and be frank.

  11. JPZ says:

    @geekoid

    Well put! Their goal is to trivialize science as too limited and offer “a greater truth.” Our goal is to show science is objective and discredits their beliefs. The believer will be unswayed by these facts, but the casual observer might. The trap is in trying to convert the believer. When I am in a 1-on-1 discussion with a believer, I spend the time asking questions to better understand what drives their belief and what made them a believer. This knowledge is very helpful in discussions with potential believers and when you have an audience for your discussion.

  12. GLaDOS says:

    Arguing with them is like arguing with a slug. Why bother?

    Because their tears are delicious.

  13. dchamney1 says:

    I got a charge from Windriven’s post. I’m not sure what or which ‘Modalities’ he mentions. That first sentence is really just jargon
    He also talks about Chinese medicine being around for a long time, but, homeopathy is not Chinese.
    Third World Shamen and Medicine Men have also been around for a long time, and their techniques are just as effective as the Chinese ( that’s probably why he mentions the billion SCREAMING Chinese(

  14. Gabor Hrasko says:

    Ullman wrote: “Dr. Paul Curie was the first homeopath to use and experiment with safer homeopathic doses of radium”

    One mentioned that radiation had not yet been discovered in the times when Paul Curie had lived. That’s correct, but Ullman did not state that. The real problem is that the element RADIUM had not been discuvered yet at that time. It was discovered by Pierre and Madame Curie in 1898, 46 years after grandpa Paul had died.

  15. Jan Willem Nienhuys says:

    Hi Gabor Hrasko,

    that one was me, I guess
    http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/?p=11919&cpage=1#comment-66186

    and I gave the discovery date of radium too. I thought that the discovery (and isolation) was so inextricably tied up with the discovery of radioactivity that both merited mention. The discovery consisted in observing that uranium ore was radiating so intensely, that there must be something besides uranium doing that. After that discovery it took Pierre and Marie about four more years of hard work to isolate polonium and radium.

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