A good week? Homeopathy, plus Simon Singh vs BCA


It’s been a good week so far for science.

First, we had the crushing verdict of the Science and Technology Select Committee on homeopathy. In fairly unambiguous terms, their report confirms the vacuum of evidence to support any claims that homeopathy is effective, and recommends that NHS funding should be ceased.

Second, yesterday saw the much anticipated court showdown in the Simon Singh/ British Chiropractic Association libel case, covered by Jack of Kent and Crispian Jago. Although there is yet to be a ruling on the case, my impression from the coverage is that it couldn’t have gone much better for Singh.

Both are heartening. My only reservation is that either was necessary. Why, in 2010, is homeopathy taken seriously enough even to ask the question as to whether it should be funded on the NHS? Its underlying principles are so plainly, obviously and painfully silly that it’s hard to find the words to describe.

Homeopathy is based on two core ideas as summarised by the STSC report;

“like-cures-like” whereby a substance that causes a symptom is used in diluted form to treat the same symptom in illness and “ultra-dilution” whereby the more dilute a substance the more potent it is (this is aided by a specific method of shaking the solutions, termed “succussion”).

The dilution principle is easily tested with some Ribena. Add some more water and see if it tastes stronger. Alternatively you could save the cost of the Ribena by asking a small child whether it’ll taste stronger or weaker.

Or try this one… Water down some (cheap) whisky to half the strength, then again to one quarter, then again and again and again, so it ends up being, say 0.001 percent alcohol or less, take a shot and go out for a drive, being careful not to swerve into the nearest pedestrian.

It flies in the face of any kind of lucid critical thought to believe the whisky will have greater effect when diluted. Shake it however you like, add ice and a cocktail umbrella and do a little dance if needs be, but it won’t change a thing; you’ll be equally wrong before and after. If you are going to base an entire branch of “medicine” on this principle, you need an absolutely fecking spectacular demonstration that it’s true.

Or you can try the experiment in reverse. Drive out to a country pub on a sunny Sunday afternoon and drink a few pints of strong ale. There’s no need to worry about drink driving on the way home, because you have your diluted homeopathic whisky solution conveniently bottled up in the commemorative hip flask you were given on graduation from homeopathic medical school. Like cures like, officer!

Have I misunderstood the theory? I’d honestly like to know why the principles of homeopathy wouldn’t apply to this particular thought experiment.

On the Simon Singh case, I seriously hope that sense prevails when the verdict comes though, so one of our greatest science writers can get back to doing what he does best, and that it leads to much needed reform in Britains libel laws.

——

Following the STSC report, there’s been quite a lot of “balanced” coverage, under the misapprehension that scientific truth lies between two opposing sides of a debate. Nice clip featuring Professor David Colquhoun on BBC news;

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