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Scientific American Declares Homeopathy Indispensable to Planet and Human Health

I recently received an e-mail from one of SBM’s readers in Brazil, Felipe Nogueira Barbara de Oliveira, a PhD candidate in Medical Science who holds an MS in Computer Science and is who is trying to promote critical thinking and scientific medicine in his country. He sent me a jpeg copy of a short piece that was published (in Portuguese) in the April, 2012 issue of Scientific American Brasil. He was appalled that this appeared under the aegis of Scientific American, and so was I.  He provided the translation which follows.

Warning: this is painful.

The Questioned Effectiveness of Homeopathy

Application of this technique in agriculture shows recuperation of plants and environment.

Homeopathy is known as an alternative treatment for human beings, but few people know about its utilization on animals, plants, soils, and water. This technique is the target of critiques regarding results and efficacy.  One of them is about the “placebo effect” of its remedies, which do not contain any trace of the raw material used in its preparation. To answer this criticism, a clarification is necessary: homeopathy is not related to chemistry, but to quantum physics, because it works with energy, not with chemical compounds that can be qualified and quantified.

The application of homeopathy techniques to agriculture is not recent, as most people might think. One of the first studies in this field dates back to the 20s, with the research on plants carried out by the couple Eugen and Lili Kolisko, based on the theories of Rudolf Steiner about biodynamic agriculture. Since then a lot of studies have been done in countries like France, India, Germany, Switzerland, Mexico, Cuba, Italy, South Africa, and Brazil. Here the Federal University of Viçosa, in Minas Gerais, is a pioneer in this field.

One needn’t be a health or environment specialist to realize that the conventional methods of treating agricultural pests and diseases produce a disequilibrium in the ecosystem and, consequently, in human beings. Pathogenic agents and pests acquire, over time, resistance to pesticides (which, by market strategy, have come to be called “agricultural defenses”). Therefore, the quantity and aggressiveness of these chemical products must be increased to overcome this situation, causing a disastrous cascade effect: the soil becomes poorer and its yield is diminished; rural workers get severely sick by constantly handling these toxic products; water supplies, including underground ones, are contaminated; and the people who depend on agricultural products get all this exposure to poison, triggering a series of health problems.

With the exception of the pesticide and chemical fertilizer industries, who else benefits from the practice of these conventional treatments?

If Hippocrates could reassess his principle of opposites, represented by allopathy, in view of its later consequences on living beings and the environment, he would remove it from his considerations. Today, homeopathy as a sustainable technique, economically viable, and ecologically correct, has become indispensable to the equilibrium of the planet and to the health of all beings that live in it.

Author: Nina Ximenes, a biologist and postgraduate environmental education student.

This is so bad, I hardly know where to start.  Homeopathy is nothing but an elaborate system for delivering placebos. It is based on magical thinking.  Basic science tells us it can’t possibly work as claimed (with water remembering a substance that is no longer present and with more dilute solutions producing stronger effects). And there is no credible evidence that it has any objective therapeutic effect on humans, much less on animals, plants, soils and water. It has nothing to do with quantum physics: quantum effects are only important at the atomic and subatomic scales, and couldn’t explain homeopathy’s claim that the water “remembers” the original substance, much less explain how that memory could affect health. The claim that homeopathy “works with energy” is just imagination, not substantiated by any evidence.

Rudolph Steiner was a philosopher who founded the spiritual movement called anthroposophy. His “science” is so-called “spiritual science.” Anthroposophical medicine and biodynamic agriculture are two branches of his “science” that are still popular in some spheres but that have been accurately characterized as pseudoscience by real scientists. If you want to know more about anthroposophical medicine, you can read what Dr. Gorski wrote about it last year here.

The author uses inflammatory language to make extravagant claims of harm from pesticides and fertilizers, with no attempt to provide any context or supporting evidence. She uses the term “allopathy,” a meaningless pejorative word invented by Hahnemann, the founder of homeopathy, to disparage his mainstream rivals. She refers to Hippocrates’ “principle of opposites,” a distortion and over-simplification of his ideas. Hippocrates was a smart guy, and I like to think if he were alive today he would have rejected the old “four humor” theory and homeopathy alike, and would have adopted scientific medicine wholeheartedly. She asks “who else benefits” from conventional agricultural practices. I would argue that there are benefits to people who might have starved from food shortages if fertilizers and pesticides had not worked to increase the availability of food. That’s not to say current practices shouldn’t be improved and made safer, but discarding them wholesale and replacing them with homeopathy is hardly the answer!

I wondered if this might be some kind of satire, but I think not. It is on a page with the heading “Advances” and is labeled “Health.”  Is she pulling our leg, or can she possibly really believe homeopathy has “become indispensable to the equilibrium of the planet and to the health of all beings that live in it”? Perhaps she is talking about some other planet in a parallel universe, or in her dreams. If Alice’s White Queen  tried to practice believing this before breakfast, her brain might explode.

If this is what passes for science in Brazil, Brazil is in trouble. Apparently things haven’t changed very much since Richard Feynman had his disappointing encounter with the Brazilian educational system. Of course it really isn’t fair to single out Brazil, because the same things happen in other countries.

If this is what passes for science in Scientific American, the magazine is a reprehensible travesty and should strike the word “scientific” from its title. What were the editors thinking when they foisted this kind of rubbish on their readers? For shame!

Note: Thanks to Felipe Nogueira Barbara de Oliveira for bringing this to my attention and for providing the English translation of Ximenes’ article. He also provided a Portuguese translation of this blog post and suggested that I include it for the convenience of his compatriots. Here it is:

Portuguese Version of the Above

Recentemente recebi um email de um dos leitores do SBM no Brasil, Felipe Nogueira Barbara de Oliveira, um aluno de Doutorado em Ciências Médicas e que possui Mestrado em Ciência da Computação e está tentando promover pensamento crítico e medicina científica no seu país. Ele me enviou uma cópia em .jpg de uma pequena matéria publicada na edição de Abril de 2012 da Scientific American Brasil. Ele ficou horrorizado que isso apareceu sob a alcunha da Scientific American, e eu também. A matéria é a seguinte.

Aviso: isto é doloroso.

 

Eficiência Questionada da Homeopatia

Aplicação dessa técnica à agricultura acena com recuperação de plantas e ambiente

A homeopatia é conhecida como tratamento alternativo para os seres humanos, mas poucos conhecem sua utilização em animais, plantas, solos e água. Essa técnica é alvo de críticas quanto aos resultados e eficácia. Uma delas diz respeito ao “efeito placebo” de seus remédios, que não contém nenhum traço da matéria-prima utilizada em sua confecção. Para responder a essa abordagem é necessário um esclarecimento: a homeopatia não se relaciona com a química, mas com a física quântica, pois trabalha com energia, não com elementos químicos que podem ser qualificados e quantificados.

A aplicação da técnica homeopática à agricultura não é recente, como a maioria das pessoas podem considerar. Um dos primeiros estudos feitos nessa área remonta à década de 20, com pesquisas em plantas realizadas pelo casal Eugen e Lili Kolisko, baseadas nas teorias de Rudolf Steiner para agricultura biodinâmica. Desde então muitas pesquisas tem sido feitas em países como Franca, Índia, Alemanha, Suíça, Inglaterra, México, Cuba, Itália, África do Sul e Brasil. Aqui a Universidade Federal de Viçosa, em Minas Gerais, é pioneira nessa área.

Não é preciso ser especialista em saúde ou em meio ambiente para perceber que o método convencional de tratamento de pragas e enfermidades na agricultura gera um desequilíbrio no ecossistema e, consequentemente, no ser humano. Agentes patogênicos e pragas vão adquirindo, com o tempo, resistência aos agrotóxicos – que, por estratégia de mercado, passaram a ser chamados de “defensores agrícolas”. Assim, a quantidade e a agressividade desses produtos químicos tem ser aumentadas para contornar essa situação, provocando um efeito cascata desastroso: o solo se torna mais pobre e diminui sua produção; trabalhadores rurais ficam gravemente doentes pelo manuseio constante desses produtos tóxicos; as águas, incluindo as subterrâneas, são contaminadas; e os seres que dependem dos frutos da terra recebem toda essa carga de veneno, desencadeando uma série de problemas de saúde.

Com exceção das indústrias de agrotóxico e fertilizantes químicos, quem mais se beneficia com a prática desses tratamentos convencionais?

Se Hipócrates pudesse reavaliar o seu principio dos contrários, representado pela alopatia, e suas posteriores conseqüências nos seres vivos e no meio ambiente, ele o excluiria suas considerações. Já a homeopatia como técnica sustentável, economicamente viável e ecologicamente correta torna-se imprescindível ao equilíbrio do planeta e à saúde de todos os seres que nele vivem.

Autora: Nina Ximenes, bióloga, é pós-graduada em educação ambiental.

É tão ruim que não sei nem por onde começar. Homeopatia não é nada mais que um sistema elaborado de distribuição de placebos. É baseado em pensamento mágico. Ciência básica nos garante que a homeopatia não pode funcionar como afirma (com água lembrando uma substância que não está mais presente e com soluções mais diluídas produzindo efeitos maiores).

E não há evidência confiável que possui algum efeito terapêutico em humanos, muito menos em animais, plantas, solos e água. Não tem nada a ver com física quântica: efeitos quânticos são significativos apenas nas escalas atômica e subatômica, e não explicam a afirmação da homeopatia que a água “lembra” a substância original, muito menos como essa memória poderia afetar a saúde. A afirmação que a homeopatia “trabalha com energia” é apenas imaginação, não demonstrada por evidências.

Rudolph Steiner foi um filósofo que criou o movimento espiritual chamado antroposofia. A ciência de Steiner é a tão chamada “ciência espiritual.” Medicina antroposófica e agricultura biodinâmica são dois ramos da “ciência” de Steiner que ainda são populares em alguns círculos, mas que foram perfeitamente caracterizados como pseudociência por verdadeiros cientistas. Se quiser saber mais sobre medicina antroposófica, você pode ler o que Dr. Gorski escreveu (em inglês) sobre isso aqui.

A autora usa uma linguagem inflamatória para fazer extravagantes  afirmações de danos de pesticidas e fertilizantes, sem nenhuma tentativa de prover alguma evidência para apoiá-las. Ela usa o termo “alopatia”, uma palavra pejorativa sem significado inventada por Hahnemann, o criador da homeopatia, para denegrir seus principais rivais. A autora refere-se ao “princípio dos contrários” de Hipócrates, uma distorção e simplificação de suas idéias. Hipócrates foi um homem esperto, e eu gosto de pensar que, se ele estivesse vivo, ele teria rejeitado a antiga teoria dos “quatro humores” e homeopatia, e teria adotado o método científico. A autora questiona “quem mais se beneficia” das convencionais práticas na agricultura. Eu argumentaria que há benefícios para pessoas que poderiam ter morrido de fome devido a escassez de alimentos se fertilizantes e pesticidas não tivessem funcionado para aumentar a disponibilidade de alimentos. Isso não significa que as práticas correntes não devem ser melhoradas e que não devem ser feitas com mais segurança, mas descartá-las de uma só vez e substituí-las por homeopatia dificilmente é a resposta!

Eu gostaria de saber se isso é algum tipo de sátira, mas eu acho que não. A matéria está na seção “Avanços” e com o rótulo “Saúde”. A autora está nos caçoando, ou ela realmente acredita que “a homeopatia torna-se imprescindível para o equilíbrio do planeta e à saúde de todos os seres que nele vivem”? Talvez ela esteja falando de algum planeta em um universo paralelo, ou dos sonhos dela. Se a Rainha Branca de Alice no Pais das Maravilhas tentasse acreditar nisso antes do café da manhã, o cérebro dela poderia explodir.

Se isso é o que se passa por ciência no Brasil, Brasil está em apuros. Aparentemente as coisas não mudaram muito desde que Richard Feynman teve seu encontro decepcionante com o sistema de educação brasileiro. No entanto, é claro que não é justo destacar apenas o Brasil, porque essas mesmas coisas acontecem em outros países.

Se isso é o que se passa por ciência para Scientific American, a revista é uma caricatura repreensível e deveria cortar a palavra “scientific” do seu título. No que os editores estavam pensando quando eles impuseram esse tipo de lixo aos seus leitores? Que vergonha!

Nota: Obrigado ao Felipe Nogueira Barbara de Oliveira por trazer isso a minha atenção e prover a tradução.

Posted in: Homeopathy, Science and the Media

Leave a Comment (77) ↓

77 thoughts on “Scientific American Declares Homeopathy Indispensable to Planet and Human Health

  1. gimpyblog says:

    It’s an April Fools gag.

  2. pmoran says:

    Seems very likely. I was about to point out that homeopaths trace their Law of Similars (essentially the opposite of “allopathy”)bback to Hippocrates. No defender of homeopathy could fail to be aware of that connection.

  3. hat_eater says:

    I hope it really is an April Fools joke, but even then it’s about as funny as a live grenade. Monthly magazines have no business making such pranks.

  4. sirfarmsalot says:

    Painful it is. I thought, it must be April Fools.

    Homeopathy is one of the strikes against the “organic farming” movement and why I want nothing to do with them anymore. I innocently identified as an “organic gardener” for years, but then when I and three others decided to start our own farm, I actually opened the certification manuals, and WHOOPEE! what a stack of baloney.

    Here in Maine, “allopathic” veterinary treatments are frowned up, but homeopathy is A-OK for “organic” livestock.

    http://mofga.org/Portals/2/Fact%20Sheets/FS%20Raising%20Organic%20Livestock.pdf

    The Steiner thing also freaked me out — like, totally!

    Hence, our farm is decidedly NOT ‘organic’ and I never want to be certified. In fact, I’ve become pretty vocal about opposing organic ideology.

    If this SA article is meant to be taken as written, then just wait: The “organic” farmers are going to be waving it around as support of their dogman.

  5. BillyJoe says:

    “It has nothing to do with quantum physics: quantum effects are only important at the atomic and subatomic scales”

    Is this exactly true?
    Any device which takes the triggering of a geiger counter as input will be effected by quantum events.
    There is also the conversion of light into energy within the leaves of plants which is 90% efficient because of quantum effects.
    I am posing these scenarios because I’m interested in a response.

  6. weing says:

    It’s water. They are correct. Water is indispensable.

  7. mousethatroared says:

    Looks like an April Fools day prank to me.

  8. WilliamLawrenceUtridge says:

    To answer this criticism, a clarification is necessary: homeopathy is not related to chemistry, but to quantum physics, because it works with energy, not with chemical compounds that can be qualified and quantified.

    Because you can’t measure energy. Because quantum physics wasn’t developed to address fundamental problems of measurement. Because quantum physicists don’t actually measure anything – they just guess.

    Boy howdy, do I ever hope it’s an April Fools’ day joke.

  9. mousethatroared says:

    Rats Draal, you bet me to it. The wonders of google.

  10. cervantes says:

    Hey, when I put water on my plants they’re healthier and they grow faster. So there’s probably something to this.

  11. Harriet Hall says:

    In Draal’s link, there is a disclaimer: “Disclaimer: This is a parody. None of the quotes are real, nor are the scientists. Happy April Fools’ Day from Scientific American!” And it contains a lot of clues: funny made-up names of scientists like “Pompass.”

    There is no such disclaimer with the Brazilian article, no funny names, and no clues. If this is an attempt at parody, it’s the clumsiest one I’ve ever seen. Such an inept parody would not merit publication in Scientific American either.

  12. Labrantes says:

    On twitter, Scientific American Brazil has confirmed the article as a “serious course with suport of CNPq and Unesco/funcação Banco do Brasil”

  13. DVSousa says:

    There is, in fact, an 800 hour course on homeopathy offered by the university through their extension program:

    http://www.homeopatias.com/

  14. Draal says:

    “There is no such disclaimer with the Brazilian article, no funny names, and no clues. If this is an attempt at parody, it’s the clumsiest one I’ve ever seen. Such an inept parody would not merit publication in Scientific American either.”

    I considered that. Since I do not have access to to original website for the April edition of Scientific American Brasil, it remains to be seen if it published else where. The article is not in the index so I don’t know what section it is from.

    http://www2.uol.com.br/sciam/sumario/

  15. DWATC says:

    My fiance and I use homepathy everyday on our plants and crops. I use homepathy with my athletes and patients on those hot, humid days. I don’t see what the problem is here… ;-) *wink wink*

  16. windriven says:

    Hmmm … clumsy satire or horrific editorial review, I have not shared the seemingly high consensus opinion of SA for some years. I cancelled my subscription in the 90s and now purchase newsstand copies when something of interest and substance appears.

  17. Labrantes says:

    When asked if the article was real, Scientific American replied via twitter

    RT @sciambrasil: Sobre a nota de homeopatia (abril): refere-se a um curso sério da UFV, com apoio do CNPq e envolvimento da Unesco/Fundação Banco do Brasil

    Translation:
    About the note on homeopathy (April): it referes to a serious course from UFV, with the support of CNPq and with envolvement of Unesco/Fundação Banco do Brasil

  18. nybgrus says:

    The Student Doctor Network has an article that came out on 1 April on homeopathy as well called The Future of Medicine: Homeopathy

    So far I have not noticed that it was a prank article and the comments from the author below seem to make it sounds serious….

  19. nybgrus says:

    …on re-reading, I am not so sure. But nothing has made it clear that it is not a prank yet

  20. Audrey Graham says:

    a hasty dip into the subject suggests that the “Law of Similars” was revived by Hahnemann after Paracelsus rather than Hippocrates. if anyone can offer a link to a reputable source tracing the idea back to Hippocrates, i’d love to see it.

    if we are to believe Wikipedia on the subject, “allopathy” (a term i first encountered in the context of alternative medicine) is…
    “Allopathic medicine refers to the practice of conventional medicine that uses pharmacologically active agents or physical interventions to treat or suppress symptoms or pathophysiologic processes of diseases or conditions.[1] It was coined by Samuel Hahnemann (1755–1843), a homeopath, in 1810. Although “allopathic medicine” was rejected as a term by mainstream physicians, it was adopted by alternative medicine advocates to refer pejoratively to conventional medicine.[2]…”
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allopathic_medicine
    the idea being that Hahnemann saw himself as “bucking the trend” of modern medicine and described it as “allopathic” to distinguish it from his own medical philosophy. if this timeline is correct, Hippocrates, and Galen after him, would have indeed been “allopaths” though they would not have defined themselves as such.

    as to the article in question, it certainly doesn’t read like an April Fool’s joke, at least not like the sort one encounters in English language publications.
    it does read like a somewhat breathless, adolescent opinion piece. whether this is representative of SciAm Brasil’s standards we can only speculate.

    @ windriven, i share your disappointment. i started reading SciAm back in the early sixties when my mother bought me a subscription. back then it was a beautifully and meaningfully illustrated magazine (the covers alone were worth the price.) articles were written by scientists who described the cutting edge research they were performing.
    while the printed SciAm has been an also-ran popular science magazine for some years now, the website seems to have developed into quite a hotbed of science bloggers worth checking out. (and it’s free!)

    it will be interesting to see if SciAm Brasil recognises the controversy it has stirred and addresses the matter.

  21. mdichristina says:

    I’m grateful to Tim Farley for letting me know about this post so that I can clear up matters.

    Scientific American does _not_ condone the pseudoscience of homeopathy.

    Duetto, the company that licenses the right to produce Scientific American in Brazil, is an independent entity; it purchases the right to translate Scientific American’s articles and also to add local stories. I have inquired about this item, and have been told included this article was included because the work is “has support of Conselho Nacional de Desenvolvimento Científico e Tecnológico (CNPq) the main brazilian agency for scientific research.” I do not yet know what that “support” entails–whether it is funded by that agency or whether it means something else.

    In any case, this piece clearly should not have been published. I have brought this problem to the attention of both the editor of the Brazilian edition and the head of the Scientific American business, who manages relationships with licensees.

    Needless to say, I deeply regret the appearance of this fatally flawed article, which would never have been published if Scientific American had been consulted beforehand.

    I am easy to find on Twitter (at mdichristina) and e-mail (mdichristina at sciam.com) if you have future questions about Scientific American.

  22. Audrey Graham says:

    @ Draal, thanks for those links; very telling.
    apparently Ms. Ximenes is a homeopath, who is somehow being represented in the Brasilian media as a “biologist.”

  23. lydia says:

    Hi, folks. Just a lurker posting for the first time. Here is the Brazilian April cover, which may be the real one:
    http://www2.uol.com.br/sciam/
    Isn’t it possible that the article was an April Fool hoax originating outside the magazine?
    I enjoy your site very much, and as a non-medical person find it very readable and (usually) easy to understand.

  24. Always Curious says:

    BillyJoe,

    I think the fuller context of the criticism is in order. Homeopathy is relying on people’s ignorance of science to generate false relationships within which to develop their fanciful ideas. Quantum mechanics is convenient target because the topic is very difficult to understand conceptually and the math is beyond most people. I don’t think Harriet’s comment are a denial that water has quantum properties and/or a statement about the observability of water’s quantum properties.

    More properly, she’s arguing that homeopathy has nothing to do with quantum physics because homeopathists making this argument have no understanding of quantum physics to begin with. Case in point, the article states, “homeopathy is not related to chemistry, but to quantum physics, because it works with energy”. Last I checked, 18th century physics & chemistry did just fine describing energy without any knowledge of nor concern with quantum effects. Additionally, homeopathy does not describe any conditions, equations or tests (hypothetical or actual) that can clarify their point. On the other hand, real scientists test quantum effects all the time and are able to describe experiments (even if not available under present conditions) that can further our understanding of this field.

    So her comment, while technically incorrect is correct enough for the context in which she’s writing.

  25. Always Curious says:

    @WilliamLawrenceUtridge

    “Because quantum physics wasn’t developed to address fundamental problems of measurement. Because quantum physicists don’t actually measure anything – they just guess.”

    Actually, that’s not really true either. Case in point: MRI technology exists because of quantum mechanics. It’s the measurement of spin states of electrons under a heavy magnetic field. Electron spin states resolve in a magnetic field field based on the atoms to which they’re attached, the frequency of an applied radio wave and a few other factors that I can’t recall right now. Basically the image is generated by using a particular series of different radio waves and measuring the response in the target tissue.

    That said, I’ll bet good money that homeopathic water will look identical to tap water under MRI or any other quantum measuring device (scientifically valid) that one might devise.

  26. Harriet Hall says:

    In case anyone missed it, commenter mdichristina is the editor-in-chief of Scientific American. I was going to write her to complain, with a link to this article, but now I don’t have to.

  27. pmoran says:

    a hasty dip into the subject suggests that the “Law of Similars” was revived by Hahnemann after Paracelsus rather than Hippocrates. if anyone can offer a link to a reputable source tracing the idea back to Hippocrates, i’d love to see it.

    The point was that this a common homeopath claim, usually also quoting Hippocrates as saying “By similar things a disease is produced and through the application of the like is cured.”.

    Why such remote pre-sceintific provenance should be thought to be a good thing is THE question. H. also believed that female hysteria was due to the “wandering womb” and should be treated by foul smells at the nose, and sweet ones at the vagina to entice the organ back where it belongs.

    Now that we know a fair bit about illness, and how to treat a lot of them, the idea is a total failure as a general principle, either of pathogenesis or of therapeutics.

  28. Ken Hamer says:

    If only The Lancet was as quick to distance itself from quackery.

  29. felipenogueira says:

    Hi, I am very happy to see the repercussion of this post.
    First of all, I want to thank Harriet Hall for all her support.
    It is very good that Scientific American clears the matters, stating that it does not condone homeopathy, and this flawed piece should never be published.

    My email is: felipenogueira@gmail.com

  30. JMB says:

    I find it very interesting that the editor-in-chief of Scientific American has demonstrated more scientific integrity in journal standards than the editors of journals claiming high impact factors in the field of medical science. It isn’t encouraging for medical science.

  31. Narad says:

    Of minor note, John Benneth made a great deal of the effect of homeopathy on plants in his ‘persecuted Jew of modern Nazi fascist medicine’ rant (preceding, IIRC, the “uppity slave” one) about Steven Novella (or with music, etc.).

  32. BillyJoe says:

    AC: “So her comment, while technically incorrect is correct enough for the context in which she’s writing.”

    This is what I meant when I asked: “Is this exactly true?”
    I wondered whether Harriet recognised the fact that what she said was not exactly true

    1. Harriet Hall says:

      @BillyJoe,
      “I wondered whether Harriet recognised the fact that what she said was not exactly true”
      The answer is yes. It is true as an approximate generalization. The exceptions and nuances would have taken too much space to explain and were not essential to the point I was trying to make.

  33. WilliamLawrenceUtridge says:

    @Always Curious

    My comment was sarcastic :)

    Apparently there’s a sarcasm punctuation mark floating around the interwebs.

  34. Always Curious says:

    William:

    I was pretty sure you were being sarcastic the first time I scanned the comments & chuckled at it. After deciding to reply to BillyJoe though, I followed through with yours. No offense intended–I enjoy reading your comments on many other articles I’ve read. I just got excited thinking about the legitimate advances that came about (and are coming about) as a result of quantum physics and went a little over the top though.

  35. Dbohr says:

    First of all, thanks to everyone who contributed to calling this load of BS for what it is, especially to Harriet Hall for the article in this blog and to #mdichristina for the stern condemnation the piece deserves.

    Rest assured, though, the brazilian readers are *not* quiet about this. Several local science blogs are tearing the editors apart for letting this one slip (I doubt it was innocent, but still) and I expect to see some sort of apology next month. Of course, if an apology is not forthcoming, then I may have to cancel my subscription and start buying the american edition.

  36. Quill says:

    Dr. Hall wrote: “It is true as an approximate generalization.”

    And that sentence right there, in an article dealing appropriately enough with homeopathy, is a perfect statement of the basis of evidence in all of CAM.

    “The exceptions and nuances would have taken too much space to explain and were not essential to the point I was trying to make.”

    As Jacques Barzun often remarks, “Next time instead of -trying- to make a point, just go ahead and make it.” :-)

    And to mdichristina: thank you very much for taking the time to post and for bringing some needed explanation for the appearance of the Brazil article and reassurance that SCIAM hasn’t been bought out by The Onion.

  37. DWATC says:

    @ Always Curious
    “That said, I’ll bet good money that homeopathic water will look identical to tap water under MRI or any other quantum measuring device (scientifically valid) that one might devise.”

    oh you know this isn’t true. Most tap water has fluoride in it, and we know how these people feel about fluoride. ;-)

  38. Ken Hamer says:

    Yes, but how does the water feel about the fluoride?

  39. Harriet Hall says:

    Quill and Jaques Barzun have a good point. It would’ve been better to just say quantum theory provides no explanation for how homeopathy might work.

  40. infoseek says:

    1) Please provide scientific evidence that has determined the smallest scales at which matter, energy, time and space influence human well being.

    2) Please provide a proven scientific theory that explains the Big Bang.

    3) Please provide a proven scientific theory that explains consciousness.

    Scientists thought they had all the answers in 1900, too. Just before the development of quantum mechanics.

    Anyone who would like to test the hypothesis that homeopathic remedies are placebos is welcome to go down to the local health food store, shell out a few bucks and gather some actual experiential data. Just do it at your own risk. I disclaim any responsibility for unwanted side effects. Alternatively, you can stay in this echo chamber.

    1. Harriet Hall says:

      @infoseek,
      Science may not have all the answers, but it has a clear answer about the effectiveness of homeopathy: it doesn’t work any better than placebo. This is entirely apart from any question of its plausibility or any speculation about how it might work.

      You ask us to try it for ourselves. That’s the wrong approach. Personal experience can mislead us; that’s why we need science. People tried balancing the humors with bloodletting for themselves for centuries; that didn’t work out so well!

  41. Lytrigian says:

    I would hope this is an April Fool’s joke, but is that a thing in Brazil?

  42. Harriet Hall says:

    @Lytrigian,
    It has been clearly established that it was not an April Fool’s joke. Please see the comment above from Scientific American’s editor in chief.

  43. Narad says:

    a hasty dip into the subject suggests that the “Law of Similars” was revived by Hahnemann after Paracelsus rather than Hippocrates. if anyone can offer a link to a reputable source tracing the idea back to Hippocrates, i’d love to see it.

    Actually, I thought the tie-in to Hippocrates was the recommendations for mandrake. It’s not particularly good, but it’s closer to the mark than invocation of the “by similar things” line, which, IIRC, refers to the categorization scheme, in which an ailment caused by, e.g., moisture, has to be treated by addressing moisture, and not some other cause.

  44. Zetetic says:

    @infoseek:

    A 100% “proven scientific theory” does not exist. Data produced and compiled by controlled scientific methods and then peer reviewed and independently replicated adds to the understanding and strengthening of and initial hypothesis. The hypothesis eventually evolves into an increasingly accepted scientific theory over time. ALL of the theories you mention are still in the works! In the case of homeopathy, after about 200 years, the growing volume of quality data garnered from well designed and controlled studies has proven NOTHING about homeopathy but its implausibility and classic placebo effect.

  45. weing says:

    @infoseek

    “Scientists thought they had all the answers in 1900, too. Just before the development of quantum mechanics.”

    Are you implying that we think we have all the answers? We don’t. We are constantly learning and revising. Well, we do know that some things, like homeopathy, don’t work. Apparently, you don’t even know that. Have you ever considered why?

  46. felipenogueira says:

    @BillyJoe,

    the geiger counter makes detection in atomic/subatomic level. In other words, in this case, the equipment is measuring a “quantum system”. As the physicist Lisa Randall put it on her book Knocking on Heaven’s Door “Macroscopic matter, which consists of so many atoms that quantum effects can’t be isolated, obeys Newton’s laws, at least at the level at which anyone could measure the success of its predictions.”

    The knowledge we have so far tells us nature works in different ways in different scales. In example, quantum physics it’s not the smaller level. Actually we don’t know what theory fits in very very tiny scale, which is Plank’s scale, when space-time might break (and when all the forces could be integrated into one). The candidate so far is M-Theory. Above M-theory, quantum physics dictates the rules in atomic and subatomic level. If we are starting to go up to the molecular level, we can use chemistry. In the macro world, like the rules affecting a ball movement, quantum effects can’t be isolated, so we can use Newtow’s law as very good description of the laws of physics.

    The important point involving homeopathy is quantum physics offers no explanation how it might works. Also, we have a very good evidence that homeopathy does not work beyond placebo effect. Rigorous clinical trials can’t tell the difference between placebo pills and homeopathy. Until today, doctors and medical scientists don’t need to be reductionist and understand what happen in the quantum level to treat their patients and understand diseases.

  47. fcampelo says:

    Hi!

    Unfortunately it does not seem to be an April’s fool joke. SciAm Brazil seems to have embraced pseudoscience, at least where medicine is concerned. A recent post on their blog (http://blogdasciam.blog.uol.com.br/arch2012-03-25_2012-03-31.html – Portuguese only) written by Ulisses Capozzoli, Editor of the Scientific American Brazil takes a completely credulous position with regard to acupuncture when discussing a recent decision by Brazilian courts restricting the practice of TCM to MDs. Seems like critical thinking is not high on the magazine’s list of priorities…

    P.S.: The Google Translation of the blog is quite readable, in case anyone out there wants to take a look (http://translate.google.com/translate?sl=pt&tl=en&js=n&prev=_t&hl=en&ie=UTF-8&layout=2&eotf=1&u=http%3A%2F%2Fblogdasciam.blog.uol.com.br%2Farch2012-03-25_2012-03-31.html&act=url)

  48. mdichristina says:

    Mariette DiChristina, editor in chief of Scientific American, here again. The edition in Brazil has posted a note on the home page as well as an apology. Here is the link (in Portuguese): http://blogdasciam.blog.uol.com.br/

  49. Harriet Hall says:

    @mdichristina,

    That’s very encouraging. Thank you so much for intervening and for taking such a strong position against the pseudoscience of homeopathy.

  50. Mark P says:

    2) Please provide a proven scientific theory that explains the Big Bang.

    You are making a category error. Explaining “why” and “how” are different.

    We can’t explain gravity, but we are still able to predict it’s effects with extreme accuracy. The fact we don’t know why there is gravity is no impediment to us showing how it works in practice.

    Our knowledge of chemistry and physics is now such that we can predict with extreme accuracy that homeopathy doesn’t work. When that is backed up by experiment, then we have as solid a proof as is ever possible.

    If you asked for the evidence there was a Big Bang, that would be easy. Background radiation is old news, as is the expanding universe.

  51. felipenogueira says:

    @Mark P

    We know why there is gravity. Einstein general relativity tell us the space-time is curved due to matter or energy.

  52. nybgrus says:

    @mdichristina:

    I would like to echo the sentiments of others here and laud your rapid and decisive efforts regarding the article. I think we can all understand that bad articles can get through to just about anywhere from time to time, but it is the response after that is the true test of whether the periodical is up to snuff. Rather than defend it, you demonstrated SciAm’s dedication to actual science.

    Thank you.

  53. Dbohr says:

    @mdichristina

    Capozzoli’s note came short of an apology and looks more like a sulky teen doing what he has been told to do. He begins by saying the homeopathy course offered by Viçosa Federal University has full support of the CNPq (National Council for Scientific and Technological Development). That’s unfortunatelly true, as anyone can see in their page. Since homepathy is legally recognized as a medical practice, says Capozzoli, his personal content filters let this article slip.

    (Never mind his statement that he personally reads each article before publication; never mind Ximenes’ absurd line about homeopathy “having to do with quantum physics because it works with energy”; in Capozzoli’s mind the fact that homeopathy is supported by brazilian law seems to be all that matters).

    The zinger comes at the end, though. He quotes some flunks and bloopers made by real scientists, saying they were all honest mistakes, “some even more serious than mine”. He has a flowery prose and sounds genuinely contrite. But as his past articles indicate (some offered at the same blog linked above by DiChristina), this is a man who has a lot of sympathy for quack-based science.

    I, for one, will remain vigilant.

  54. phayes says:

    +1 @mdichristina and Sci. Am. from me too. I can’t resist comparing it to the less than laudable way the editor of New Scientist handled the notorious EmDrive incident:

    http://www.newscientist.com/blog/fromthepublisher/2006/10/emdrive-on-trial.html

    Apparently not smart enough to realise he should’ve just admitted the error and joined in the hilarity (although Costella rather spoilt that aspect of it).

  55. pfd says:

    “If this is what passes for science in Brazil, Brazil is in trouble. Apparently things haven’t changed very much…”

    Given that you received this message from a brazilian student, you could have at least guessed that things HAVE changed in Brazil and that *no serious* scientist or academic in this country would agree with the claims made in this magazine. Your comment is misplaced and outrageous.

  56. infoseek says:

    ===================
    “# Harriet Hallon 04 Apr 2012 at 5:54 pm
    @infoseek,
    Science may not have all the answers, but it has a clear answer about the effectiveness of homeopathy: it doesn’t work any better than placebo.”
    ———————-
    >> On what basis are you dismissing studies that show otherwise, like the recent Swiss government’s findings?

    ====================
    # Mark Pon 05 Apr 2012 at 10:27 pm
    2) Please provide a proven scientific theory that explains the Big Bang.

    You are making a category error. Explaining “why” and “how” are different.
    ——
    >> I’m refuting a logical error, which appears in many of the posts on this page. That error is to assume that if there is no scientific theory to explain something, it cannot exist. That’s bad use of “science”, and I don’t see it being critiqued.

    I noticed that you declined to touch the topic of consciousness.

    =============================

    # weingon 05 Apr 2012 at 10:14 am
    @infoseek

    Are you implying that we think we have all the answers? We don’t. We are constantly learning and revising.
    ——
    >> As far as “learning and revising”, most of what I’ve seen on this site is a blanket rejection of homeopathy as placebo or self-deception. I haven’t seen much open-mindedness left for learning and revising views about homeopathy.
    ========
    Well, we do know that some things, like homeopathy, don’t work. Apparently, you don’t even know that. Have you ever considered why?”
    ———————–
    >> I don’t know that it doesn’t work because I have had hundreds of experiences of it working. My spouse and I have given it to the family cats and watched abscesses heal overnight. Not magic: re-activated immune response. I have worked with instructors that have trained hundreds of licensed MD’s (the ones with the little plaques on their walls) in homeopathy, and my spouse has seen scores of live case studies in treatment. I’ve also personally taken plenty of remedies that either did not work or that created distinctly undesirable effects. So for me to say homeopathy is placebo would be like hitting my thumb with a hammer and trying to explain it to myself as phantom pain.

    Let me turn this around: do you have any direct experience that homeopathy doesn’t work? Do you know anything about the actual practice of homeopathy? Do you know that it is *specifically* very personal, because each person has a unique physiological state at any point in time?

    That’s the reason homeopathic treatment is not particularly amenable to double blind trials that start with the assumption that all patients with medical symptom code 341-1321-234 need the same drug treatment.

    But, what, if it can’t fit into the paradigm of double blind studies, then it can’t be real?

    ========================

    # Zeteticon 04 Apr 2012 at 7:28 pm
    @infoseek:

    “the growing volume of quality data garnered from well designed and controlled studies has proven NOTHING about homeopathy but its implausibility and classic placebo effect.”
    ——
    >> There ARE well designed and controlled studies that have demonstrated the effectiveness of homeopathy. Google “Dana Ullman” and work into the details from there.

    Alternatively, you could provide SOME credentials behind your statement that would indicate that you are not just making a blanket assertion without any informed basis at all.

    ======================

    # felipenogueiraon 05 Apr 2012 at 1:36 pm
    @BillyJoe,

    Rigorous clinical trials can’t tell the difference between placebo pills and homeopathy.
    ——-
    >> See statements above. Rigorous clinical trials can only test a narrow range of phenomena to begin with. Plus, they have been manipulated by the scientific community since they were invented. They are now used by Big Pharma to “prove” that marginal changes to drug formulations deserve additional patent protection, and that allopathic doctors should continue to over-prescribe them.

    ===================

    # Harriet Hallon 04 Apr 2012 at 5:54 pm
    @infoseek,

    You ask us to try it for ourselves. That’s the wrong approach. Personal experience can mislead us; that’s why we need science.
    ————–
    >> Civilization somehow managed to progress from neolithic villages to the Renaissance without the use of the modern scientific method. I believe it made it that far based on…collective personal experience. Personal experience can indeed mislead us, but it is the only way to understand certain things, such as “Are you feeling better today? Do you think the remedy helped? Would you like to keep taking it for a few more days, or try something else?”

    From another angle, please testify that you have never made a life-changing decision based on a powerful personal experience, and I’ll tip my hat to your dedication to a life guided by reason and science. OR, you could try experimenting with homeopathy yourself, and THEN make a judgment about the value of personal experience.

  57. Chris says:

    How to use a blockquote: <blockquote>Put paragraph of person you are quoting in here.</blockquote>

    That should help you make your comment easier to read. It also helps to add the space between the person’s name and the “on.” For instance:

    Harriet Hall on 04 Apr 2012 at 5:54 pm

    Science may not have all the answers, but it has a clear answer about the effectiveness of homeopathy: it doesn’t work any better than placebo”

    >> On what basis are you dismissing studies that show otherwise, like the recent Swiss government’s findings?

  58. Chris says:

    infoseek:

    On what basis are you dismissing studies that show otherwise, like the recent Swiss government’s findings?

    Citation needed. That often involves the title, journal and date of a PubMed indexed paper, but if it is a “government finding”, then a link to the Swiss government’s website on that particular study. We need to know what was done. Because not all studies are created equal. Dr. Hall reviewed a very good book on that for her first article here. You should read both her review and the book, as she says:

    The book includes valuable lessons on how to tell credible research from the other kind. Even the most experienced researchers will find food for thought here, and for the layman it will be a revelation.

    Civilization somehow managed to progress from neolithic villages to the Renaissance without the use of the modern scientific method. I believe it made it that far based on…collective personal experience.

    You must not have read much history, especially that of Egypt, Greece, Rome, etc. There are whole sections of the library with books on how on how math, science and technology progressed as people tried to figure out how to work in their environment. Some entertaining reading suggestions:

    Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee
    An Edible History of Humanity and A History of the World in Six Glasses by Tom Standage
    The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean
    Postcards From the Brain Museum by Brian Burrell
    The Great Influenza by John Barry
    A History of Pi by Petr Beckmann
    Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea by Charles Seife

    And unlike homeopathy, the scientific method has progressed in the last two hundred years. I just finished read The Age of Wonder Richard Holmes, and am in the middle of Ian Stewart’s In Pursuit of the Unknown: 17 Equations That Changed the World. I am presently at Fourier transforms, something I often used as an engineer. It is all fascinating stuff, and much more interesting than your evidence free speculations.

  59. Chris says:

    Aagh, we need a preview. the first blockquote is quoting Dr. Hall, the second blockquote is quoting infoseek.

  60. Geekoid says:

    This reminds of when OMNI started carrying articles about Bigfoot and UFOs n the ‘Red Pages’.

    Mariette DiChristina – Thanks for clearing things up.

  61. BillyJoe says:

    Does anyone else get the impression that infoseek is not living up to his name?

  62. Narad says:

    My spouse and I have given it to the family cats and watched abscesses heal overnight.

    Well, there’s a rancid little sideline.

  63. pmoran says:

    On what basis are you dismissing studies that show otherwise, like the recent Swiss government’s findings

    Presumably referring to this –

    http://www.sott.net/articles/show/243828-The-Swiss-Government-s-Exceedingly-Positive-Report-on-Homeopathic-Medicine

    and –

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16883077

    Interesting, but offering little solid support for the several highly improbable principles of homeopathy. We know that there are a great many inexplicably negative studies, and that certain kinds of study are very liable to provide spurious “positive ” results, especially in the hands of enthusiasts and drug companies. Systematic reviews will then inevitably show the positive “trend” described in the abstract.

    And not only with homeopathy — there is an obvious “class effect”, such that dozens of versions of CAM, ranging from traditional chiropractic through to TCM can be made to look good on paper if you emphasize the positives and overlook the negatives, and this despite requiring their own sets of extreme scientific oddities to be true if they are to work as claimed. The parsimonious conclusion is that they “work”, to the extent that they work, as placebo and other non-specific nurturing influences.

    There is a separate question — “to what extent can homeopathy safely serve as medicine in countries that have a strong tradition of it, like Switzerland?” There seems to be little concern about injudicious use of homeopathy, which suggests that public and local practitioners have been able to work out when it is appropriate to try it and when not to.

  64. Harriet Hall says:

    @infoseek,

    “On what basis are you dismissing studies that show otherwise”

    On the basis that many more studies show that homeopathy is not effective, and that the better the study, the less likely that the results were positive.

    “please testify that you have never made a life-changing decision based on a powerful personal experience, and I’ll tip my hat to your dedication to a life guided by reason and science. OR, you could try experimenting with homeopathy yourself, and THEN make a judgment about the value of personal experience.”

    Neither my testifying nor my experimenting would do anything towards answering the question of whether homeopathy was effective. If you don’t understand why, you have missed the whole point of this blog.

  65. Chris says:

    BillyJoe:

    Does anyone else get the impression that infoseek is not living up to his name?

    Even if he isn’t looking for information, I provided him with plenty of reading material. Now it is up to him to actually find a library and read the books.

Comments are closed.