Dropping the H-bomb, naturally.

In a lecture dedicated to academic misconduct and misleading the public, the absence of error bars in the example peer-reviewed article was, according to this esteemed academic of the University of Melbourne, deemed to be possibly a deliberate action to mislead the readers. He likened this practice to those often found in reports championing “more questionable sciences, like homeopathy”.  A snigger echoed around the auditorium triggered a word so blasphemous to modern science.

Few “medical” practices trigger such a disdainful response from the biomedical scientific community. But why? Is homeopathy the biggest con of them all?

As someone who has experienced success with acupuncture for a lower back injury and has experimented with naturopathy, I thought that perhaps homeopathy was a little misunderstood. At the point the extent of my knowledge on homeopathy was based on the explanations detailed in the wonderful fantasy-metaphysical (and fictional) novel The End of Mr. Y by English author Scarlett Thomas. Incidentally, the book neither condoned nor condemned the practice of homeopathy, rather the protagonist using a homeopathic recipe as a tool to transport to a different plane or dimension called the “Troposphere” that connects the consciousnesses of all living beings, clearly drawing inspiration from The Matrix.

As an alternative medicine, homeopathy was conceived in the late 18th Century by Samuel Hahnemann, following the observation of cinchona bark, used to treat malaria, induced symptoms similar to that of this disease. Very briefly, practitioners of homeopathy follow the philosophy of “like cures like”. Most controversially, in complete contradiction to modern pharmacological theory, homeopaths purport that the potency of homeopathic medicine is actually increased in highly diluted solutions. Responding to this, homeopaths claim that water possesses a “memory”, which that following many serial dilutions, potentiates the potency of the solution.

As a pharmacologist, the immediate reaction is to dismiss this practice as a legitimate science. What well-respected scientist would support such a claim?

Dr Luc Montagnier, the French virologist awarded the Nobel Prize for discovering the AIDS-causing human immunodeficiency virus, is perhaps the most credible supporter of homeopathy as a legitimate medicine. He is currently overseeing research into the nature and effects of “electromagnetic signals” of water molecules found in highly diluted solutions of pathogenic DNA at the Jiaotong University, Shanghai, China. “I can’t say that homeopathy is right in everything. What I can say now is that the high dilutions (used in homeopathy) are right. High dilutions of something are not nothing. They are water structures which mimic the original molecules”, quotes the Huffington Post of Montagnier. Science reported in 2010 that Montagnier “fled” France to escape “intellectual terror” he experienced by pursuing these ideas. Montagnier drew inspiration from the work of Dr. Jacques Benveniste, a once universally respected immunologist, who died in 2004. Benveniste antagonised the scientific community following the publication of a study in Nature, which examined chemicals at highly-diluted concentrations that triggered an effect in basophils.

Another Nobel Laurete, retired Cambridge University professor Brian Josephson has been a supporter of many “unorthodox” ideas. Josephson shared the Nobel prize in 1973 for the pioneering work in superconductivity, which revolutionised the efficiency of silicon chips used in computers. Josephson’s later research focussed on parapsychology, namely the possibility of telepathy (you read that correctly), which would obviously draw hostility from many scientists. Josephsen also wrote to New Scientist in support of homeopathic treatment:

“Simple-minded analysis may suggest that water, being a fluid, cannot have a structure of the kind that such a picture would demand. But cases such as that of liquid crystals, which while flowing like an ordinary fluid can maintain an ordered structure over macroscopic distances, show the limitations of such ways of thinking. There have not, to the best of my knowledge, been any refutations of homeopathy that remain valid after this particular point is taken into account.” Interestingly this letter is not available online from New Scientist and can only be found on Josephson’s website.

In The End of Mr. Y, whilst the protagonist initially requires the homeopathic solution to enter the Troposphere, she later learns to do this without the medicine, which could be interpreted as a metaphor that homeopathy does only function as a placebo. Not that a fictional work can be included as scientific evidence, of course. The point is, the placebo effect does show how positive thinking and belief in the effectiveness of a treatment, conventional or unconventional, has been associated with speedier recovery times and up-regulation of the immune system. Perhaps the best example of this response is the dismal of Vitamin C as an effective immune system booster against the various strains of influenza and rhinovirus.

Additionally many doctors encourage yoga, remedial massage, acupuncture etc. to assist in treating conditions ranging from muscle injuries to mental health issues, whilst insurance companies now provide cover for these “extras”. This shows some acknowledgement within the community that some aspects of alternative medical practices are considered beneficial, at least in providing hope and belief of regaining one’s health. But one would be hard-pressed to find a GP who would recommend homeopathy as a complimentary form of treatment.

Josephson was later asked by New Scientist how he became an advocate more unconventional theories: “I went to a conference where the French immunologist Jacques Benveniste was talking for the first time about his discovery that water has a ‘memory’ of compounds that were once dissolved in it — which might explain how homeopathy works. His findings provoked irrationally strong reactions from scientists, and I was struck by how badly he was treated”

One thing I have to make clear is that I am not advocating homeopathy, parapsychology or any of the “radical” or “unorthodox” research mentioned in this post. I remain to be convinced of the potential of homeopathy, and I highly doubt that I will be an advocate for parapsychology any time soon. Putting aside these reservations, Josephson does make one very important point though. It appears that many members of the scientific community lack open-mindedness to consider various alternative medicines.

Personally, I am convinced of the benefits of remedial massage, meditation and acupuncture. My back has never felt stronger, my body more relaxed and my mind clearer. I also don’t feel comfortable with people being critical of the various forms of alternative medicine, without having experienced the benefits for themselves. Perhaps it’s a case of Western science not yet being able to provide a biochemical explanation for each treatments mechanism of action. Montagnier, Benveniste and colleagues have attempted to provide such “Western” explanations for the mechanisms of action of homeopathic remedies. I’m not convinced…yet. What about you?

2 Responses to “Dropping the H-bomb, naturally.”

  1. Oliver Whitton says:

    It’s not so much a matter of not “having experienced the benefits for themselves” which is a notoriously bad way of judging the efficacy of a medical treatment, it’s that double blind scientific studies have never shown any effect from any alternative medicine that is distinguishable from the placebo effect. To horribly mangle Tim Minchin, alternative medicine that has evidence for it is called medicine. The alternative tag flags those treatements for which no evidence exists of its ability to cure anything.

    Secondly, if water does have the ability to retain a sort of structural memory of molecules that have been present in it, does it somehow ‘know’ not to retain the structures of all the salt, dirt, sewage, chemicals and dead animal material that has passed through it and only retain the structure of the snake venom or cinchona bark that has been planted in their by the homeopath?

    Finally, the principle that like cures like has no real basis in reality. Modern medicines that have a much higher success rate than placebos do not follow this strange idea and it hasn’t been shown to have any effect.

    Homeopathy not only has no evidence to support its effectiveness, it violates areas of science that are well understood and proven to be good approximations of reality. If large, double blind, scientific experiments show that it is effective, then I and others will sit up and listen. Until then, homeopathy and all other alternative medicines should be viewed as no better than sugar pills.

  2. jkvz says:

    Interesting subject – I’m also of the firm belief that natural medicine and remedies can help, even if it is just a placebo effect.

    However my suggestion for your next blog post would be shorter sentences; some passages were a little hard to follow.

    The beginning with the story was good 🙂