links for 2007-09-13


Software developer by day, scale model builder and wargamer by night.

Posted in Bad Science, Makes You Think
25 comments on “links for 2007-09-13
  1. suzi says:

    Re: Homeopathy – have you seen the Bad Science blog has started a Homeopathy Journal Club, discussing the scientific literature around this? Summary of comments so far is here:

  2. ibbo says:

    Question… just out of interest: If we rank (By potential for harm or just simply by dishonesty) all the cases we can think of where pseudo-science is used to try and hock a product or idea then where would “Memory of water” be? Top? Top 5? Top 10? Top 100? I’m guessing not even that high up. So… what exactly is it that we gain from this specific analysis apart from a sense of our own superiority? I mean why not have a pop at the carbon offsetting people or something like that? Yeah, these guys are a bunch of nut-jobs sure, but at the end of the day, whats the particular attribute that singles this community out? Or is just that it’s such an easy target?

  3. Richard@Home says:

    Dawkins’ particular beef with Homeopathy is that it claims to be and is marketed as a medicine. Yet it hasn’t gone through the rigorous testing and trials that say penicillin or aspirin or any other real medicine has to go through (by law) before it can be sold to the public.

    Anyone can set themselves up as a Homeopathy practitioner. There are no checks and balances. Sure, you can probably get a ‘Certificate of Homeopathy’ or similar, but you don’t need it and you won’t be punished if you practice without one.

    People are making astonishing claims about the effectiveness of Homeopathy without backing them up with any real data.

    There is also the very real danger that someone will stop taking their traditional medicine once the placebo effect of Homeopathy starts to kick in.

  4. Ibbo says:

    But isn’t that largely true of most (all) alternative therapies? Or perhaps more interestingly, how do therapies such as aromatherapy, acupuncture / acupressure / TCM / herbal remedies / etc get some kind of approval (And whats the nature of that approval in real terms). I’m particularly interested in what analytic a-priori proof (Since that seems to be the only category of truth you are willing to accept) exists to make acupuncture legitimate (by law) acceptable where homeopathy fails? Or is it just a matter of certification? If thats the case, why confuse that issue with scientific legitimacy? If that is the case, then you’re trying to say it’s not legitimate science because it doesn’t have a certification process? An invalid argument worthy of any pseudo-science.

  5. ibbo says:

    There must be an answer? of some kind? I mean for you both personally? It’s not that I believe either… I’d just like to understand the basis of your faith in dawkns over yourselves,

  6. Richard@Home says:

    Quick reply. I class acupuncture in the same vein as homeopathy. I’ll dig out a video of James Randi talking on the Google campus who has some interesting points on acupuncture…

    “you’re trying to say it’s not legitimate science because it doesn’t have a certification process?”

    No, not having a certification process is a symptom of it not being legitimate science.

  7. ibbo says:

    Ok.. I started out here by asking “Why pick on these guys as an example of pseudo-science when there are so many more harmful examples out there?”

    Then I implied I thought it was just because they are an easy target, and because the specific community we are dealing with on the bad science blog have a need to “Be Right” which is as deep rooted as a religious faith in god (And I believe is often just as destructive).

    We’ve gone round a cycle of -> Because it can harm people -> and now we’re back to it’s not legitimate science. So I’ll explain why I asked “why pick on these guys”:

    Take the recent bad-science blog entry about fake accupuncture working as well as real accupuncture…..

    OK… The posting directly acknowledged that stress in our modern lives is a contributing factor to chronic back pain. Now, I don’t really understand medicine other than as a consumer, and I don’t really understand much about quantum physics, and whilst I have a minor knowledge and experience of meridians, it’s only because I’ve been hit in those places and it fooking hurts… but I *do* know this:

    I happen to like physical contact

    My first thought within a few seconds of reading the bad-science accupuncture article was this: The article suggested that accupuncture was only a placebo effect because the fake 33% reported the same improvements as the real 33%. BUT.. the “Fake” group were turning up to a person *they* believed to be qualified, and *they* believed has their best interests at heart. They will then have proceeded to lie on a couch for thirty minutes or more, having someone, they believe has their best interests at heart TOUCH them. Even worse.. I can imagine that the *Fake* practitioners were doing much more in terms of trying to appear to be gentle healers (Soft touching, etc) than the real practitioners. Either way, the fake 33% were getting a very real physical experience, which for me would almost certainly release endorphins, promote relaxation, and generally chill me out. Might it be that for chronic stress induced back pain, gentle touching is as good a treatment as accupuncture? I’m not saying it’s correct, but it’s an proposition that IMNSHO is better supported by the evidence presented than the given conclusion accupuncture is placebo. Of course we’ve managed to talk about all this without actually defining “accupuncture”.

    So my beef with all this is simple: Bad-Science has given this argument:

    Accupuncture is a placebo because the 33% of the group who had fake accupuncture got the same results as the 33% who had the real thing. Therefore accupuncture is bunkum.

    Like all good science, the facts of the experiment raise more questions than they answer. My problem is that the threads of the data are then simply bundled up in an “accupuncture is bunkum” conclusion that is, quite simply, BAD SCIENCE. I can forgive the accupuncture people for not being able to give a detailed scientific explanation for whats going on, they consider themselves to be healers, not scientists. And, *Shock, Horror* people do get relief from them. I cannot forgive the people who simply pick and choose from the facts on offer to support their argument and try and legitimise this by calling it “Science”, simply because they want their world view to be more right than someone else.

    Back on topic 😉 It’s not science, it’s my dad’s bigger than your dad schoolyard nonsense. Yes, people can get hurt, and yes, Homeopathy should absolutely be regulated so that people never suggest replacing the current best standard medical practice. However, on the flip side, some people must find some relief, even if it is only a placebo effect does that invalidate Homeopathy it to the extent that we need to tarnish the whole community with the “Bad Science” brush?

    Fuck I strongly dislike the homeopathy community, but not as much as I dislike the suppression of free speech and expression of content on the basis of “It not being scientific”. I don’t think it’s at all wrong to look for deterministic / scientific explanations for these things, but if you’re a scientist, and you’re conclusions are of the form

    “You’re full of shit and I’m right”

    instead of

    “I wasn’t able to find any evidence for X, assumptions a,b and c need to be tested, currently my only explanation for the observed effect is that homeopathy is a placebo”

    then everything you say is suspect to me and every word you say is like a turd falling into my coffee.


  8. ibbo says:

    For some reason the blog software snipped my – With apologies to the late great Bill Hicks –

  9. Richard@Home says:

    “Why pick on these guys as an example of pseudo-science when there are so many more harmful examples out there?”

    I should have answered this better initially. I’m picking on Homeopathy purely because my attention was drawn to it and I did a bit of background reading/watching. No doubt I’ll be picking on something else shortly too 😉

    And yes, homeopathy IS an easy target. That’s why I’m so flabbergasted that anyone would fall for this snake oil.

    I don’t agree with Bad Science’s conclusion because I agree further experimentation should be undertaken to test and verify/invalidate the result. That IS the scientific method after all.

    “I wasn’t able to find any evidence for X, assumptions a,b and c need to be tested, currently my only explanation for the observed effect is that homeopathy is a placebo”

    100% with you on that one.

    However, on the flip side, some people must find some relief, even if it is only a placebo effect does that invalidate Homeopathy it to the extent that we need to tarnish the whole community with the “Bad Science” brush?

    It *is* bad science. They use psuedo-scientific terminology to sound credible. How much do you think they would sell if they sold it labelled as ‘Magic water that can cure your spots’. Yes, I know *someone* would still buy it 😦

    IMHO we *realy* need to do more research on the placebo effect. The human organism has had 10,000’s of years of evolution to develop a very effective mechanism to heal itself.

  10. ibbo says:

    Hehe.. cheers for the normative answer… and yep

    “IMHO we *realy* need to do more research on the placebo effect. The human organism has had 10,000’s of years of evolution to develop a very effective mechanism to heal itself.”


    There is a word issue here. Placebo: “a substance having no pharmacological effect but given merely to satisfy a patient who supposes it to be a medicine.”. The issue is that the definition is undecidable – the non pharmacological effect is left undefined. If you’re suggesting (I think you are) a placebo *can* have an effect, just an indirect one allowing the body to act in some unforseen way, then thats left wonderfully undefined by (the best) definition I can find. And the implication that a placebo can’t is inferred (As in inference) as a premise by the preceding bad science arguments.

    From my perspective there is an issue here with aggressively disproving an *explanation* of these “alternative therapies” rather than aggressively trying to understand the mechanisms by which some effect is or is not achieved. Specifically, trying to disprove by extension an effect by disproving an explanation. Indeed, you’ve maybe hit the nail on the head.. science should try to explain the results observed (Or the (placebo) reason individuals perceive an effect for which there is no evidence), not attack the effect because a proposed explanation is a bit hand-wavey (OK, I was being kind to the nutters)

    I *feel* that the blog entries posted want to disprove the explanations because they “need” these pseudo-scientific explanations to be wrong rather than starting from a perspective of extending our understanding of the world. I guess it’s about words.. is any science *bad*? well.. yes… if the conclusions drawn are deliberately misleading or ignore specific data, otherwise it’s just “incorrect”? How many readers would get? I’m sure there are people in the homeopathy community who want to mislead people. They can be found in all walks of life, police, science, theology, etc, etc. But on the whole, I rather suspect the people involved in homeopathy just want to help people, and even if just via a placebo effect, do help sometimes. We need to help those people too, by giving them a deeper understanding of the way these things affect peoples lives. Calling them “wrong” isn’t going to lead to a better future for any of us. The *bad science* people on the other hand, seem to want to employ every underhand argumentative method they can invoke to prove they’re right and that their targets are “wrong” and it’s a feeling I repeatedly get in some of these postings.

    I guess this is the root of my real discomfort. When a scientific viewpoint is presented with absolute certainty I always get a bit belligerent because I feel it’s anathema to the genuine scientific ethos.

    It sorta comes back to what I was saying about why people choose to call themselves “Atheist”. If you don’t believe there’s any evidence for god, and yet you have a basic understanding of human nature and science, then whats the reason in choosing that label, if not to set yourself apart? Why not say, I appreciate your perspective, I just don’t see it, but if you ever come up with good enough evidence, my mind can be changed. I guess this is my basis as “Agnostic” rather than atheist. It’s not about being defined by what I don’t believe, but what I do believe, that only asking yourself honest questions and being willing to see the answers no matter what, can lead to any kind of genuine understanding. Not that I’d ever quote tony robins: “Life is about the quality of the questions you ask”.

    Where’s this going? Guys? why not blog the real research under these bad science blogs? present the evidence if it supports or denies you’re personal beliefs, but for fucks sake, don’t support someone else emotionally bullying a weaker opponent with emotive words in the name of science just to make themselves feel good. I promise the real “science” will be right if it makes you feel good or not. If it’s “good” science, it doesn’t add emotional or non-intentional content regardless of you’re position. It’s correct or it’s incorrect today. All truths are provisional until discovery of the next fact.

    Basic truth: The more you know the less you understand. FFS I have a piddling computer science degree, how can I get this and the “bad science” crew with their rigorous training so “fundamentally” (I choose the word specifically) get it wrong?

    Sorry fella.. I’m doing exactly the thing I’m suggesting shouldn’t happen and being emotive about something that should be a matter of fact, especially in the light of your normative posting that we’re basically on the same page.

    To quote one of my greatest teachers, Jean-Luc “how can an act that is evil lead to a greater good”. Although to be honest, I’m really thinking I modeled my self far too much on Picard and nowhere near enough on kirk 😉

    See you at the beer festival!


  11. ibbo says:

    Again, the blog snipped my angle bracket text… After “Basic truth” I wrote <syntetic-apriori>.

  12. Richard@Home says:

    My real problem with homeopathy and the rest is that they try to label it ‘scientific’ when it quite blatantly isn’t.

    I’d be much happier if they said, ‘hey! it works! dunno why!’ but they don’t. They use their psuedo scientific reasoning and phrases to try sound like they know how it works. ‘Memory of Water’? Ahh, come on, even with the best will in the world there’s bugger all evidence to support that theory yet the whole things hangs off it. It’s what ‘sells’ it to the uneducated.

    What they are doing is undermining the value of the scientific approach with unsupported claims, and that is wrong.

    Fine, its the placebo effect. I bet in the end it’s a scientist who works out how that particular mechanism works and finds a shortcut to make it happen in the body without having to resort to fairies, magic dust or the waving of hands.

    I’d love for the world to have magic, but it doesn’t.

    What I do see however, is a bunch of charlatans who are taking advantage of the placebo effect (without adding to the research necessary to understand it) or psychology to make a crap load of money out of the gullible.

    Sure, they’ve managed to con some ‘nice’ people into believing it and supporting their claims with anecdotal evidence, and, do you know, that to me makes it an even worse crime.

    How much more effective would those ‘nice’ people have been in helping people with some scientific / medical / psychological training?

  13. ibbo says:

    Ok.. Different approach…..

    Can you right now, without reference (Given that you are offering your support to the counter arguments) give me a brief overview of spin 1/4 in quantum mechanics?

  14. Richard@Home says:

    Nope, but then again I haven’t looked into quantum mechanics (apart from a cursory glance).

  15. ibbo says:


    Ok.. Many of the explanations given in the homeopathy “peer-reviewed journal” that started all this used QM as a basis for trying to explain “Memory of water”. Then these explanations were refuted by the bad-science responses from a number of sources. I have a very superficial lay-person knowledge of QM and the arguments presented were well beyond me, particularly when it came to the ways people were describing the effect of the micro on the macro.

    So.. given that this is the dialectic process in full swing, on what basis are you calling a whole group of people “A bunch of charlatans”?

  16. Richard@Home says:

    To late to answer that one tonight… I’ll post tomorrow 🙂

  17. Richard@Home says:

    Ok, here goes. I don’t know QM, but I DO know logic 😉

    Homeopathic ‘remedies’ are measured is strengths. 1x is 1/10 component in 9/10 water. A 2x is 1/10 of a 1x in 9/10 water, 3x is 1/10 of a 2x in 9/10 water, etc…

    Statistically speaking, the 30x solution much prized in homeopathic circles has long since past the point of having any molecules of the original component.

    It has a better chance of containing a molecule of t-rex urine or, pretty much a molecule of anything it’s come into contact with, ever.

    Now, the super homeopathic ‘remedies’ go all the way up to 1000x solution. It’s been estimated that for there to 1 molecule remaining in a solution that dilute, the body of water would have to be a sphere as large as the known solar system.

    Memory or not, there’s nothing there to remember. And if it did remember, why doesn’t it remember all the other stuff its come in contact with?

    Maybe its because of the magic shaking? Apparently it doesn’t work if you just mix it up a bit, you have to shake it 10 times foward, 10 times side to side and 10 times up and down at each dilution. They even have machines to do this for them on an industrial scale.

    Stop me when you think this is getting too silly 😉

  18. Ibbo says:

    Nope, but as I said, I’m not arguing that there is a real effect. I don’t believe there’s anything to this. I also believe they’re a bunch of un-immaginative so-and-sos for jumping on such a self evident aspect of QM, since I recon I could come up with a far more persuative model for some kind of buffered memory involving the 6 non spatial dimensions of string theory to account for “Memory of last-thing-exposed-to” or some such (To answer yor remembering everyting question)

    No, I started out asking why pick on these guys. Not is the science real. I’m in complete agreement that the science doesn’t stack up. Thats not what I’m getting at, you need to try to understand more (As in more than just the standard reductive science).

    Modern science has given us many tools for looking at the world, not all of them are based on taking something apart into it’s component parts , quantities and other components.

    Looking at the system of health-care in the UK, we may choose to broadly stick at the top level “Medicine” and “Alternative Medicine”. Now, I’m guessing I don’t have to explain the reason for this distinction.

    If you go around the web and search for “Homeopathy worked for me”… You’ll find a number of independent sites (BBC for example) whe people recount stories of how standard medicine has failed them, and homeopathy (/Others) helped them. Often these stories start with I went to my GP n times and nothing worked. Why? Well I’ll stick my neck out and say there was an effect (Excema, back pain, etc), generated by a cause (Stress). Doctors generally have a hard time dealing with this. What happens? For a while, -some of the people- looking for treatment in the “Medicine” part of the system look elsewhere and transfer to the “Alternative Medicine” pool. where, not surprisingly, the thing which needed treatment gets treated. That person probably just needed to have their illusions massaged a little bit in order to take themselves out of the discomfort of our modern lives. The cost burden on the NHS is reduced (Current NHS waiting times to see a councillor being > 18 months, so even if the GP recognises whats going on, what choice would he make) because those patients who can afford to pay for alternative medicine do so, and often (Do the google search) do find some relief. I *Absolutely* do not believe these people stop going to their GP for other reasons.

    The NHS is staffed by very serious, dedicated *Scientists* and professionals, whom I trust implicitly.. in many ways, but specifically in this case: If homeopathy was doing more harm than good, as you suggest, they would have it stamped on faster than you can say “Obtaining money by fraudulent means”. So, why ask “Why pick on these guys”? I don’t believe you understand the quantum arguments well enough to have a direct opinion on them. Which means you’re putting “Faith” in the papers you’ve chosen to believe the conclusions of over the the ones you reject. Which is fine. But the real experts, in the health care system.. they’re the opinions you need to listen to, aren’t they?

    No, My concern here is not the science. You chose to paint a charicature of the average homeopath patient as a poor sap with no intelligence who doesn’t know better, who’s being fleeced for their cash and are taking the quack remedy in place of standard medicine. I don’t see any evidence for that. You also painted a charicature of the average homeopathy practitioner as an evil do-neer-good, which I find hard to justify as well.

    What does all this come down to? When does it become appropriate to broadcast this kind of science? When is it OK to start to forefully tell people what they can and can’t believe in? You’re still a smoker yes? Science tells us all there’s a good chance you’re killing yourself slowly. Why is it that you’re allowed to kill yourself slowly in spite of the science, but you want to deprive other people, WHO MIGHT BE HELPED, of their belief?

    Also, remember everyone is on their path. People will slowly change their perspectives over time, is this kind of exposing of the science the best way. Why, having given up your mystical beliefs under your own steam, is it necessary to try and rip the dellusion from someone else.

    Finally.. Yeap.. bad science needs to be corrected. Does it need to be done on a blog. As far as I know, the scientific review peocess is not a part of the published work. When a peer reviews a paper, they work together to try and make the best paper possible.

    How would you feel if every time you made a mistake in the office your boss announced it to the whole office, and didn’t just list the errors and suggestions, but got involved in a bit of character assasination as well (OK, you’re a special case with your boss ;)). No, I don’t think it’s traditional or appropriate to engange in a peer review process using a blog.

    You said “I wish we lived in a world where there was magic, but there isn’t” well, I wish we lived in a world where people had a world view which is big enough to allow people to develop there understanding of the world at their own rate. Apparently thats not the case either.

  19. Ibbo says:

    Sorry.. what I’m actually saying is I think you’re using science to justify a political position. and I think thats wrong.

  20. Ibbo says:

    Sorry.. just realised that in my haste to get back to the question I originally asked, it might have looked like I wasn’t responding to the specific point you raised. and I wouldn’t want to be acused of changing the goal. So just to clear that up… In response to “I don’t do QM, but I do do logic”..

    the problem here is that this all began with a proposed explanation for how homeopathy works at the quantum level. The homeopathy community were explicitly trying to work around the issues you describe by proposing a theory that doesn’t work at the molecular level, but at some -waves hands indiscriminately- quantum / energy level. The refutation on molecular grounds is orthogonal to original argument is it not?

    So, given that the molecular concentration argument is invalid here (Well.. apart from the fact that it’s common sense that thats the way it works, but we’re arguing provable science here, not intuition) on what grounds are you calling these people a bunch of charlatans?

  21. Richard@Home says:

    It doesn’t how wavey hand you get. In a nutshell, once you get past about 24 dilutions *there is nothing left of the original concentration* to ‘remember’ anything, even on a quantum level there is nothing left.

    *if* you propose this information can be past on to other molecules in the solution, WHY isn’t all the other stuff in the subsequent water added to the dilution being passed on too?

    To be frank, even if I don’t understand quantum mechanics, the concept that the solution becomes ‘more powerful’ the more dilute it becomes just doesn’t make sense, on any level.

    To be more frank, the concept that ‘like cures like’ doesn’t make any sense either. If you cut off your foot, will cutting off the other foot make the original grow back (an over simplification I know, but I’m trying to illustrate how stupid this sounds).

    In a nutshell, nothing about homoeopathy makes any kind of sense.

    I don’t think you are defending homoeopathy, I think you are defending their right to come up with a cock-n-bull story that explains an observed effect. It fails when tested using the scientific method. The results are not verifiable, they don’t fit a pattern other than an already existing pattern of the placebo effect.

    Quantum is a great get out clause for these snake oil salesmen, and not just homoeopathy. It’s been used to explain from everything from reki to quantum touch engery healing.

    “If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics” (Richard Feynman) gives them all the leeway they need without adding one iota to the established knowledge base.

    It works because of Quantum! /cheer

    THAT is why it’s bad science. And until they can show definitive (ie. better than the success rate of the placebo effect) I will continue to call them out.

    You want to know what really bites? Our company has just got a contract to do a homoeopathy web site. I shall not be supporting its development, even at the risk of loosing my job.

  22. ibbo says:

    ooh now wer’re getting to the heart of the matter. “once you get past about 24 dilutions *there is nothing left of the original concentration* to ‘remember’”

    Please provide details ofwhat experiment you intend to use to disprove this origial quantum hypothisis – by experiment.

    you’ve still not answered my why pick on these people question.

    P.S. hoping to save your job here.

    Love and hugs, e.

  23. Richard@Home says:

    Nahh, no worries.

    I’ll bill them £20,000 for a years support that I’ll only spend a second doing, but the memory of that support will linger on…

    Oh, and I will definitely bill extra for any shaking.

  24. suzi says:

    But isn’t that just the standard model for IT support? 😉

  25. ibbo says:

    Ha.. I wish!

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