Monday, 19 May 2014


In addition to creating a new form of pseudomedicine, in order to protect it from reasonable debate, its touts and apologists have devised a whole new set of fallacies, red-herrings and diversionary tactics. In order that we need not describe them in full every time we meet them, some are named for convenience (rather in the same way that "homeopathist" (not itself a neologism) is shorthand for "touts, purveyors and apologists for homeopathy"). Here are some of them.

BrownBagging (aka "Hermann-Courtney Insufficiency"): A bizarre, clueless and complex hotch-potch of Dunning-Kruger compliance, Scopie's Law and its Corrolaries, Willberging (qv) and Poe's Law, occasionally modified by Hanlon's Razor and its variations. 

Bruckering: Finding that you're getting hammered in a debate, so calling for reinforcements and, when your quackdogs arrive, leaving them to carry the can while you skulk off to postures new.

Dullmann Index: An informal assessment of the degree of inappropriate (i.e. all of them!) citations or explanations that attribute a theory of how homeopathy works to quantum physics, nano-pharmacology, and other terms from modern science. The unit of measure of the Dullman Index is the milGrom.

Inane Lewis Manoeuvre: Posting, in an online discussion, a link in which you have posited some personal information, then trying to divert attention away from criticism of homeopathy by accusing anyone who notices it and subsequently comments on it of "snooping" on you.

Jahnigging: Posting huge gish-gallops of links that supposedly support some unscientific notion or fruit-loop conspiracy theory but which, on inspection, do nothing of the sort (which was pointed out the last time they were posted). (Intimately associated with Redding (qv) - in fact, so intimately that you would be forgiven for thinking that they were the same thing.)

Redding: Citing impressive sounding documents (often from international organisations like the WHO) which, on inspection, turn out never to have existed. (e.g. go here and search on "WHO report") (Intimately associated with Jahnigging (qv) - in fact, so intimately that you would be forgiven for thinking that they were the same thing.)

Tactical Janissing: Scattergun gish-galloping of a wide and varied spew of unevidenced bullshit, ranging from ridiculous claims that different sceptics are one person to Jahnigging (qv), all designed to try to hide the fact that the spewer has been spouting a wild hotch-potch of bullshit.
Willberging:  Repeatedly getting caught out bullshitting (mostly because the bullshit is usually so mind-numbingly stupid that you'd have to be two neurones short of a synapse to believe it in the first place, eg here and here), then blithely and shamelessly continuing without a shred of contrition, as if it had never happened.

I suspect there will be more....

Edit: ...and indeed there are:

Venkatosh: Claiming the ability to identify homeopathic "remedies" if, and only if, collusion is possible.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Venus: Stellar Errors — Pseudomedical Misuse of Astronomy (and Logic)

Homeopathy is a pseudoscientific system of medical quackery that claims to work on the principle that if a substance makes a healthy person ill, it will cure a person with that illness. In homeopathic jargon, this is "the law of similars" and is often stated as "like cures like".

Homeopaths compound this illogic by claiming that, if a solution of this pathogenic agent is diluted and "succussed", their jargon word for hitting the vessel that contains the solution against an elastic body (apparently this was originally a leather-bound bible), it somehow becomes more effective. Homeopaths call this process "potentisation". We are invited to believe that a solvent, so dilute that were it larger than the known universe the probability is that it would not contain a single molecule of the original pathogenic agent, has somehow become more "potent". Homeopaths assert that this is due to the substance leaving its "imprint" on the solvent. They misrepresent (e.g here and here) physics to claim that this is due to the "memory of water", conveniently ignoring the evidence that any "memory" that water possesses lasts, at the most, for a few picoseconds. Exactly how the solvent remembers only the homeopath's pathogenic agent and conveniently forgets all the other stuff it's had dissolved in it for millions of years, or the atmospheric gasses that must be come into contact with it during the "potentisation" process is something that, unsurprisingly, is not adequately explained.

One can easily understand the appeal of such claims. Homeopaths usually hawk their remedies in either an aqueous solution of ethanol or on pillules of sucrose. There is an enormous profit to be made in selling aqueous ethanol or sugar for several hundred £, € or $ per kilogram. (See note)

Furthermore, it is now no longer necessary for the homeopath to actually have the original pathogenic substance: it is now possible to buy for £1000 or more, a machine that is claimed to use something akin to radionics to imprint sugar pills with the "vibrational energy" of the desired substance at whatever "potency" the user wishes.
In their quest for new "remedies", and perhaps also for fame in the pseudomedicine community, homeopaths seem to be on the lookout for wackier things to use. One of these has been starlight from Polaris — you couldn't make this up! I was unable to get in touch with the author of that particular example of homeopathic quackery, but have had more luck with an enterprising English homeopath, Chris Wilkinson, who has created another "remedy" using, I kid you not, the Light of Venus. Following the pretentiousness that seems to infest most so-called pseudomedicine (presumably some misguided attempt to create a veneer of academic authenticity) Mr Wilkinson has Latinised the name of his "remedy" to Venus Stella Errans (or "Planet Venus" in plain English). Mr Wilkinson is very active on Twitter, where he valiantly defends his chosen species of pseudomedicine, so I took the opportunity to quiz him about this "remedy".

Mr Wilkinson's description of his experimental process is strangely lacking in any of the detail that would enable his experiment to be replicated. In a Twitter exchange on the 25-27 June 2012, Mr Wilkinson seemed reluctant do divulge much more asserted that this is not necessary on the grounds that "any homeopath who knows about remedy making would have enough info to make something close enough … also the remedy doesn't have to be made again for a very very long time, way after we are dead" and that "there were too many minor variables involved to precisely replicate". So that's alright, then! However, I did manage to elicit some experimental detail:
"The telescope was a reflector, about 18in. The lactose was on the eyepiece."

I asked what part of the eyepiece (Eye lens, field lens, field stop, somewhere else?); Mr Wilkinson replied:
"the bit your eye looks in! No idea what that was called. It was slightly curved? … convex i mean"

In response to a question about how he had exluded other light from the lactose and during the "potentising", Mr Wilkinson responded: "It wasn't "completely" dark of course. Likewise with the initial potentising."

"The perpetrator of the Polaris drivel (above) stated:
The procedure was as follows. Having at my disposal an eight-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain Celestron telescope, I inserted a half-inch diameter clear-glass vial encircled by a cork rim into the eyepiece aperture. For autumn viewing the vial was filled with well water; in the winter, I used vodka, neat, to prevent the fluid freezing. The telescope itself was set up in the middle of a free-standing stone enclosure some three feet high and forty feet in diameter, which was oriented on a north/south axis.
"By means of the finderscope I kept the telescope contered on a chosen star for an interval of one hour. At the end of the viewing period I removed the vial from the telescope and to avoid human contamination placed it in a plastic container filled with sand. "

For a moment, let us suspend our critical senses and incredulity and assume, for the sake of argument, that homeopathy might work and that starlight or sunlight reflected from Venus might work homeopathically. The sunlight that Mr Wilkinson "collected" in his lactose took this route:
  1. Several million years transiting from the core of the Sun to its surface, where it was radiated into space.
  2. Impinged on the visible surface (i.e. atmosphere) of Venus, where about 25% was selectively absorbed and the other 75% reflected into space.
  3. Some of this reflected light then entered Earth's atmosphere; a tiny amount would have been selectively reflected, some selectively absorbed, some selectively scattered and some would heve entered the aperture of Mr Wilkinson's telescope, either directly or as a minuscule part of the scattered light.
  4. This light would then be reflected off the aluminium coating on the primary mirror (double-passing through any quartz overcoat) and again off the aluminised surface of the secondary mirror.
  5. It would then pass through layers of optical coatings on the eyepiece and through the several lens elements which, in modern eyepieces are of at least two different types of glass. Each of these would selectively absorbed some of the light, and each optical surface would have reflected some.
  6. It then passes onto the surface of Mr Wilkinson's lactose, where it mixes with the ambient light.
Even if Mr Wilkinson's "remedy" had some effect (and he has not, to the best of my knowledge, published, in any scientific journal, any RCTs with evidence of efficacy), he would have no way of knowing whether the effect was due to :
  • Reflection off Venus's atmosphere
  • Reflection off the aluminised mirror surfaces
  • Reflection off any other optical elements
  • Selectivebsorption by the atmosphere or any of the optical elements the light transited
  • Other scattered light from the atmosphere
  • Ambient light that the lactose absorbed from the time of its manufacture, up to and including the process of "potentisation"
In short, the design of this experiment is so poor that it beggars belief! As far as I can tell, there are no controls at all. Applying the homeopathic theory that "more dilute" equates to "more potent", the reflected sunlight from Venus would be amongst the least active of the different "lights" in the solution!

The "Polaris" one is even worse: the experimenter used water from a well! How did it manage to "forget" all the myriads of compounds that are found in any well water and "remember" only the starlight of Polaris?

If this shoddiness and appalling lack of control is typical of the design of homeopathic experiments or in the manufacture of their "remedies" (and I have no evidence to suggest that it is not typical), we should not be surprised at any outome. In my Twitter exchange with Mr Wilkinson, he seemed unconcerned about experimental rigour and much more concerned that I should have experienced homeopaths supervising any subjects I "proved" the "remedy" on ("Can go thru variables at some point, tho thats far less an issue than the proving process")if I decided to make it and test it. (To homeopaths,"proving" is the process by which they decide which "remedies" will treat which symptoms. Again, as far as I can ascertain, it is a shoddy process where experimental rigour is concerned. Although homeopaths try to claim that they are equivalent to clinical trials, they are not randomized, not blinded, highly subjective and prone to expectancy bias. As long as 170 years ago, Oliver Wendell Holmes stated that they are not repeatable and are too vague to be useful.

Note: I do not assert that all, or even most, homeopaths are knowingly committing medical fraud. However, I do assert that they are committing quackery, as defined by Quackwatch:"  Most people think of quackery as promoted by charlatans who deliberately exploit their victims. Actually, most promoters are unwitting victims who share misinformation and personal experiences with others."   I also assert that, most people of integrity who claim efficacy for homeopathy and much other pseudomedicine would not do so if they had a full understanding of the placebo effect which, contrary to what supporters of pseudomedicine try to tell us, also works on animals and children.

Monday, 14 October 2013

What 'What Doctors Don't Tell You' really told you

Last updated 2013 October 17 09:05 UT

The tacky health-scare magazine self-styled "journal", What Doctors Don't Tell You, has been getting a little hot under the collar recently about things that it claims it is reported to have said but didn't really say. It's also been making some rather surprising assertions about other things. Some of these are clearly silly "couldn't be bothered to check"-type errors, others are more than that. You be the judge.

This post will be added to as time and information permits.

The Claim The Reality
McTaggart (said) her journal would accept no advertising - "we have to remain pure" - Not only is approximately a quarter of each issue devoted to advertising (based on June 2013 issue), in February 2013, the Nightingale Collaboration reported that the Advertising Standards Authority had adjudicated against advertising in WDDTY to the tune of 54 CAP-Code breaches. This is in addition to eleven "informally resolved" cases (i.e. the advertising was acknowledged to be in breach of CAP-Codes and was amended voluntarily.)
"...the Nightingale Collaboration, a ragtag group who meet in a pub of the same name..." Errr.. there is no pub called The Nightingale Collaboration.
"...the pharmaceutically backed organization [Simon Singh] fronts, 'Sense About Science'...." Sense About Science is a charity. Its accounts are therefore open to scrutiny.

Less than 5% of its funding comes from companies; none of these is a pharmaceutical company.
WDDTY complained: "The Times stated: we said vitamin C cures HIV."

"Five Live followed up with a television debate about our magazine." Five Live doesn't do TV debates. (Clue: It is a radio station!)
"It's also apparent from the information published in The Times and in all the media following that not one journalist or broadcaster has read one single word we've written, particularly on the homeopathy story, and for very good reason: the article and the magazine containing it in fact have not yet been published." Ummm -- WDDTY published their claims for homeopathy months ago!

And bragged on Facebook about doing so!

(To the Times) 

"You have no idea yet what we're going to write about, so how can you say we're going to write that homeopathy 'cures' cancer?"
Ummm... Maybe they were referring to a claim WDDTY has already made? (See above)

"Just to clarify yet another lie about us: we are not 'pro' or 'anti' vaccine." From WDDTY, June 2013: "The safest interpretation is that the MMR increases the risk of autism by 5 per cent"

"Not one of the newspapers, radio shows or television stations bothered to contact us, even to solicit a comment,,," The Times journalist who reported on the campaign to get the magazine off supermarket shelves sent this email:

And phoned twice:

(Having had no reply from the "Editorial" department, he next tried "Accounts and General Management")

"...the Swiss government decided that there is some proof of homeopathy..." It did nothing of the sort! See Zeno's Blog for what really happened.
"For months, Singh, whose Sense About Science group has the sponsorship of the British Pharmaceutical Association..." If the The British Pharmaceutical Association actually exists and is not just something else made up by McTaggart, it is not a sponsor of Sense About Science.
"[Waitrose] are not one of our stockists" Curious. That's not what the distributor thinks:

"The letter being sent out by the Times to our readers..." The Times is sending out letters to WDDTY readers?
Is WDDTY implying that the Times somehow get hold of the WDDTY subscriber database?
Has anyone ever actually seen one of these letters?

What does become apparent is that WDDTY needs some sort of disclaimer on a lot of what it asserts!

Friday, 2 August 2013

Simple Test for the Efficacy of Homeopathy

Take the "Tetenterre Challenge"

  • Homeopaths claim that their so-called "remedies" are effective. 
  • By definition, something that is effective has an effect. 
  • If something has an effect, that effect can be observed.

This offers a simple double-blind, randomised test for the claims homeopaths make:
  1. An experienced homeopath selects sufficient quantities for a dozen provings of two remedies whose provings show them to have very different, preferably opposite, effects.
  2. This homeopath selects eleven homeopath collaborators.
  3. A researcher, using techniques determined by the homeopath, distributes the pillules of each remedy into a dozen separate identical new vials.
  4. A placebo (physically identical "inert" pillules) are distributed into another dozen identical new vials.
  5. The vials are individually randomly labelled by the researcher with identification numbers.
  6. The researcher records, for each ID number, whether it holds Remedy #1, Remedy #2, or Placebo.
  7. The vials are randomly grouped into threes, each group containing one vial each of Remedy #1, Remedy #2, Placebo.
  8. The homeopath collects a package containing the vials (no contact with the researcher).
  9. The homeopath distributes the groups of vials to his/her homeopath collaborators.
  10. Each homeopath, conducts "provings" of the contents of each vial.
  11. The homeopaths use the results of the provings to identify which vials hold the placebo and which vials hold which of the two known remedies.
  12. The homeopath's identifications are compared with the researcher's records.

Any takers?

(Yes, I know that there are more holes in this than in a decent roquefort, but if homeopaths can't distinguish between "remedies" with this....)

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

The Human Eye: Evolution or Spectacularly Unintelligent Design?

As a visual amateur astronomer, I return time and again to considering the structure and spectral response of the human eye. It soon becomes clear that anyone postulating that it was created by some sort of divine entity must conclude that the divine entity is either spectacularly ignorant about the nature of light and its interaction with matter, or is just a bloody-minded sod that has chosen to endow its pinnacle of creation with substandard eyes. With a bit of thought, it could have done so much better — it's not as if it didn't know how!


Firstly consider the retina:

(Image Source: Public Domain Image from Wikipedia Commons; author: Santiago Ramón y Cajal)

As you can see, the main light receptors (rods & cones) are not situated on the front surface, but behind (in the simple model, above) three other (non-transparent) layers of tissue: The light has to pass through four layers before it is received by the photoreceptors. (If you want a more complex model, it's 9 layers, but that doesn't really make any difference to the argument).

Another consequence of this arrangement is that the nerve fibres are in front of the receptors. This means that they have to pass through the receptor layer, thus creating the Blind Spot. Hmmm -- clever? Nah, not really. Stinks of evolution!

Spectral Response

Now let's consider the response of the different cones to different wavelengths (colours) of light. Human vision has a range of approx 420nm to 680nm. We are trichromats, which means we have 3 types of colour receptor (called "cones"), with peak responses at approximately  430nm, 545nm and 572nm. Why would an intelligent designer create the clumping around 550nm? The usual excuse is that this is where the Sun's peak output is. This is simply incorrect: it is 504nm. Anyway, even if it was correct, we would not need 2/3 of our colour vision receptors to be closely packed around that wavelength.

(Image Source: Public Domain Image from Wikipedia Commons; author: Ben Rudiak-Gould)

So, how could it have done better? The answer is: "Really Easily!" It had lots of practice. After all, in its wisdom, before it created us, this divine entity supposedly also created the birds, the fishes and the insects, many of which are tetrachromats (four kinds of cone) and some are even pentachromats (five kinds). The finch, for example, has its peak colour responses more evenly spaced:

(Image Source: Public Domain Image from Wikipedia Commons; author: Ben Rudiak-Gould)

So, why did this divine entity give us such relatively poor vision, when it could so easily have done better?

Or did our vision just evolve, with inherited characteristics from folivorous and frugivorous mammalian ancestors, for whom an ability to finely discriminate colours in the yellow-green would have conferred an evolutionary advantage?

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Freedom of Choice and Pseudomedicine

As the demand for evidence-based medicine gathers grows, especially in the NHS where many so-called Complementary and Alternative Medicines (CAM) are being re-examined for efficacy, the CAM proponents are increasingly declaring that their particular "health modalities" should be available on the NHS as a matter of "freedom of medical choice". It is reasonable to ask what the implications of this are.

Freedom of choice is a laudable thing, provided that it is informed and responsible. Choosing something about which we know nothing is potentially as stupid as choosing to walk across a motorway -- and it can have similar consequences. The tragic example of Penelope Dingle is a case in point, but she is only the tip of a huge iceberg of harm caused directly or indirectly by pseudomedicine. As in Ms Dingle's case, she was not directly killed by homeopathy (clearly, that which has no pharmacological effect can, by definition, have no adverse pharmacological effect), but because reliance on ineffectual pseudomedicine caused her to reject conventional interventions that would have prolonged her life and which may have cured her.

I should be clear that I am not claiming that conventional medicine never gets it wrong or that it is squeaky-clean in its methodology. It isn't; there have been some appalling errors and frauds. However, using that as a reason to use something of unknown or unproven efficacy is about as illogical as using a fatal motorway pile-up as a reason to leave the car at home and choose to skate-board in the middle lane instead! The blogger Guy Chapman puts it rather more eloquently: "Problems with medicine validate homeopathy in precisely the same way that plane crashes validate magic carpets."

Making an uninformed choice for yourself is one thing. It is another to make such a choice for those for whose health you bear responsibility. Parents who, for example, make an uninformed -- or, as in the case of MMR vaccine refusal, misinformed -- choice are unwittingly putting the health of their children at risk. This is one reason that it behoves the sceptic community to contest unevidenced claims for pseudomedicine, wherever they occur.

The beneficial claims made for a number of pseudomedical practices effectively boil down to an "argument from tradition", i.e. that they have been used for centuries or millennia. Apart from the inherent illogic of this (as David Colquhoun says of herbal medicine, it is "giving patients an unknown dose of an ill-defined drug, of unknown effectiveness and unknown safety") there is also the question of harm to those species whose body parts are used for pseudomedical practices. The "traditional medicine"-induced demise of the Amur tiger and poaching of rhinoceroses for their horns are both well known and well documented, but this is merely the tip of another iceberg. According to the Smithsonian, other animals that are endangered because their body-parts are used in traditional medicine include water buffalo, the Chinese alligator, the Asian elephant, musk deer, the sun bear, Grevy's zebra, wild banteng, and the hawksbill sea turtle. This is by no means a comprehensive list of animal species that are killed or maimed in order to meet a selfish demand for "freedom of choice in medical modalities".

Some may object that the use of animals for testing conventional medicines is equally cruel. That is a matter of opinion and individual judgement (and a tu quoque fallacy to boot), but the two things are not equivalent. The one is experimenting animals to establish whether there is robust evidence of efficacy for pharmaceutical substances for whose efficacy there is already some evidence. The other is killing and maiming animals to satisfy a demand for a product for whose efficacy there is no robust evidence.

As I write this, it is "Homeopathy Awareness Week", so where does homeopathy fit into this? According to the principles of homeopathy, "Medicines derived from the animal kingdom act energetically and rapidly" and "are especially indicated in potentially fatal crises or acute disorders as well as chronic diseases that have the character of the rapid destruction of organic tissue". Amongst the animals used by homeopaths are the medusae (e.g. jellyfish), various arthropods (insects, arachnids, etc.), and numerous reptiles, including snakes and lizards. There is a recent interest in the use of body-parts of birds, including those of humming birds, ospreys, herring gulls, pea-fowl and protected (in the UK) species such as the peregrine falcon and the golden eagle. Various mammals (or their body parts or secretions thereof) are also included in the homeopathic repertory, including bottlenose dolphin, badgers, beavers, cats, cattle, sheep, musk-deer, horses and skunks. And "testicular extracts of man" (i.e. semen to the rest of us. Please don't ask.).

Whilst we are on the subject of homeopathy awareness, any gay readers might be interested to know that, according to the principles of homeopathy as elucidated by James Tyler Kent, they suffer from "a sexual perversion caused by the miasms" . You would be forgiven for thinking that this is an archaic view that is no longer held in the 21st Century. You would be wrong.

Lastly, on this topic, I would not want to leave you with the false impression that homeopaths all exploit the animal kingdom for their remedies. This is simply not the case. In this Homeopathy Awareness Week it is my duty to give fair balance by ensuring that you are aware that they also use such diverse non-animal things as bacteria that don't actually exist, the light of the planet Venus or the star Polaris, various colours, a thunderstorm, the Berlin Wall, and water (which is dissolved in ethanol and - wait for it - water!). They have even outdone ordinary physics and managed to isolate a magnetic monopole for this gem.

So, please be aware and make informed decisions on your "choice of health-care modalities".

Monday, 17 December 2012

Coins, Astrology, Pseudomedicine and Gun Control

You can try this at home!

I have just tossed a coin ten times. I got three heads and seven tails. Should I assume that this coin has a probability of 0.7 for tails and 0.3 for heads? Let's see.

That sample of ten times was one of a hundred such samples that I recorded when tossing the same coin 1000 times. Taken as a whole, I had 503 heads and 497 tails, giving a probability (to two significant figures) of 0.50 for each possible outcome. What should I assume now? That the other 900 trials were flawed, or that my penny has a statistically equal probability of heads or tails?

I suggest that reasonable people will assume that the cherry-picked ten times was a normal statistical "blip" and that the coin is, in fact, "fair".

Apologists for pseudomedicine, which include the present Secretary of State for Health, eschew the same reasoning when it comes to clinical trials. They focus on the equivalent of the trial that gave seven tails and proclaim that "some trials show that homoeopathy [or antidepressants, or some other pseudomedicine] works better than placebo".  Somehow they refuse to acknowledge that it is the totality of trials -- the thousand coin-tosses -- that must be taken into account, not just the few subsets that show a balance in favour of their pet species of pseudomedicine.

Similarly, those who subscribe to belief systems like astrology systematically ignore the many trials that demonstrate that, as a predictive or descriptive tool, it is no better than random chance and, instead, focus on those whose statistical-blip outcomes favoured the belief system.

So why do  so many otherwise intelligent people seem reluctant to apply the same reasoning to beliefs like astrology or the efficacy of pseudomedicine as they effortlessly do to coins?

The short answer is confirmation bias, probably reinforced by backfire effect. The unfortunate consequence is that those of us who are open to rational argument are unlikely to ever be able to convince those that are not.

Unfortunately, this also feeds into things like arguments for gun control, so it is unlikely that the recent appalling events in Connecticut will do anything other than polarise opinion even further.

And, following this argument to its rational conclusion, why did I even bother even to write this blog post?

I would be delighted to be shown to be wrong.