“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle” - Often attributed to Plato but likely from Ian McLaren (pseudonym of Reverend John Watson)

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

But seriously folks...

I was watching "Planet Mechanics" (a mildly interesting show that won't save the world but makes more sense than the silly "Discovery Project Earth" series). While reading Dr. Michael Tobis' latest post in his blog "Only In It For The Gold" during a commercial break, I heard, out of the corner of my ear, a commercial for Dr. Frank's Joint and Muscle Pain Relief." The anecdotal claims being made were impressive, so I listened a little more closely and heard the word "homeopathic." Quoting a famous line from the history of my beloved White Sox, "say it ain't so Joe!"

One of my constant sorrows is the susceptibility of the American public (the only public with which I'm familiar) to the most ludicrous pseudoscientific claptrap. But to see such a product advertised on a network representing itself as educational was shocking.

Delving into the website, I perused the producer's explanation of homeopathic cures and of so-called "homeopathic provings" which they take care to explain are "entirely different than the scientific double blind study methods most people are familiar with." I just bet they are. Allow me to quote further from the site: "Homeopathic "provings" are, in essence, the proof that homeopathic scientists and doctors use to demonstrate to themselves that specific homeopathic ingredients work for specific symptoms" (emphasis mine). Nope, I'm not kidding.

The idea, as I understand it, is that you expose healthy subjects to random substances and see what symptoms are caused. Then you take the substance, dilute and agitate the substance in a special procedure ritual called "succussing" to concentrations as low as one trillionth the original (or even lower). This is then used to cure the symptom caused by the substance in its original concentration. You just can't make this stuff up (though Samuel Hahnemann could).

Of course, the practitioners of this lunacy are immersed in conspiracy theories revolving around the iron grip of "big pharma" and "allopaths" (i.e., real doctors) controlling the media, the research institutions, etc. I haven't the patience to debunk this hooey, though such sites as Quackwatch do an excellent job of it. But it pains me to see people encouraged to send money to such charlatans on an educational channel.

Update: In my noodling around to find information on this bunkum, I happened upon this site. I may have to change my template.

Update 2: Looking at their "Our Formula" page, I note that they claim 10 "homeopathic ingredients." Though there seems to be a mathematical error wherein they think 10^-6 is one ten millionth and they claim that all ingredients are diluted "one trillion times or more," it appears as if five of the ingredients are diluted to one millionth of their original concentration and five were diluted to 1 part in 10^30. Hmmm... It looks like the container holds 40ml of "substance." Considering that Avogadro's number (the number of molecules in a mole of the substance) is about 6*10^23 and a mole of water is about 18 cm^3 (or 18ml) and this is mostly water at 1 g/cm^3, there are probably somewhere on the order of 2.2 moles or 1.2*10^24 molecules in a bottle. For the ingredients being diluted to 1 part in 10^30, this means there's about a chance in 800,000 that a molecule of any such ingredient will be found in a bottle. Seriously.


Michael Tobis said...

Alexa Ray Joel, daughter of Billy Joel, attempted suicide by overdose on homeopathic medicine. She survived.

So don't mock. At least one life has been saved by the virtues of homeopathy.

King of the Road said...

Sounds like a good candidate for some sort of "inverse Darwin Award," someone whose mental faculties are so limited that they can't even "remove themselves from the gene pool in a sublimely idiotic fashion."

But a couple of years ago a radio station held a contest that resulted in thedeath of a woman by drinking too much water, so I guess it would be theoretically possible to kill oneself by ingesting homeopathic concoctions.

Would you consider this to be mocking?

Laura Zaillian said...

Planet Mechanics is an English TV programme shown on the National Geographic Channel. The programme was broadcast on Sunday at 7:00pm. Series one has now finished. While proposing some interesting alternative technologies as ecologically friendly, the real environmental impact and actual life span were never verified. An example is the "tree powered car", which, while interestingly using wood as main power, was less efficient (being a dual transformation process wood-gas-mechanical) and produced a larger quantity of CO2 in comparison to standard gasoline (which has more energy/weight). I am a college sophomore with a dual major in Physics and Mathematics @ University of California, Santa Barbara. By the way, i came across these excellent physics flash cards. Its also a great initiative by the FunnelBrain team. Amazing!!

Tom said...

Yes, too much water is dangerous. But wouldn't the homeopathic remedy for dehydration be no water at all?

Michael Tobis said...

Laura, more seriously, a pure biofuel contributes zero to greenhouse gases because the carbon was extracted from the air by the growing plant in the first place, and not from buried fossil sources.

In practice, so much conventional energy is used to refine ethanol from corn that it's unclear whether it did any good at all from the point of view of greenhouse gases.

(On the third hand, however, the argument that having a purely domestic alternative fuel supply is useful for security purposes makes sense.)

There are other issues (land use, competition for the poorest grade of grain hence starving Haitians) but biofuel in principle can be greenhouse neutral, as is the case with muscle power.