A canna’ change the laws of physics

Scotty, The Naked Time, stardate 1704.3, Episode 7

Homeopathy and the memory of water: going round in circles

Posted by apgaylard on October 12, 2007

 Next in my series on the “Memory of Water” a paper that contains the silliest piece of “reasoning” I have ever seen published (more later).  Basically it’s a fine example of Begging The Question.

This has not been submitted to Homeopathy; I thought that I’d already pushed my luck with sending in two contributions. 

Weingärtner, O. “The nature of the active ingredient in ultramolecular dilutions” Homeopathy, Volume 96, Issue 3, July 2007, Pages 220-226.

An Exercise In Circular Reasoning

This “paper” is deeply flawed.  It is based on the unsupported premise that there is an “active ingredient” in homeopathic “ultramolecular dilutions“.  To advance this view the author is prepared to sacrifice the laws of physics, in his own words:  “…When I started basic research on homeopathy more than 20 years ago I endeavoured to describe homeopathic potencies according to the laws of physics as far as possible.”  There are two key points here.  First he set out to “describe homeopathic potencies “. Here is where begging the question makes its entry.  He has assumed that there is something here to describe.  Second we have the giveaway: “as far as possible“.  In other words, if physics cannot support his pre-existing belief then it is to be discarded.  In doing so the author does not follow the falsificationist approach that characterises good contemporary science.  In fact it could be argued on these grounds alone that what is presented here is not science. 

Commenting on the development of his ideas he states: “…This soon led me to the hypothesis of a field being responsible for the homeopathic phenomenon  …” Again, that there is a phenomenon is assumed and then an “explanation” is sought.  Having made this decision and assuming that some sort of field is responsible he continues:  “… because of the ability of living organisms to react in a specific way on electromagnetic signals. I concluded that the mechanism of homeopathic effects must be similar to resonances between electromagnetic waves  …”   This just does not follow and is incredibly woolly.  Doubtless subjecting an organism to an electromagnetic (EM) signal can, depending on the energy invloved, elicit specific responses  (what kind of EM signal the author does not say.  Could it be: sunlight, microwaves, infrared, radio waves?).  Anyway, here’s one example of an EM radiation eliciting a specific response from an organism: my typically pale skin darkens when exposed over a suitable period of time to an EM signal containing radiation with wavelengths between 280 nm and 400 nm.  It’s known as a sun tan!  This just illustrates the wooliness of the authors thoughts.  However, there is no connection between these measurable and well understood phenomena and any putative homeopathic mechanism.  There is no reason why they “must be similar“.  (Quite why resonances between EM waves would suggest themselves to the author is a further mystery.)  Again, the author is seeking to justify what he already believes.

This is couched as a hypothesis, but this is just an abuse of the term.  There is no attempt to test it; no hint that he is prepared to be critical of his own hypothesis.  He is really just talking about what he believes.

His handling of data that does not support his views is illuminating.  He states: “…The results of the series of experiments that were carried out with a variety of standard physical-chemical methods were disappointing. Almost none of the experiments could reproduce results reported in specialist literature, and for no experimental arrangement could the results be forecast.”  This description leaves open a large number of questions.  For instance, what was the author trying to reproduce?  Is this the specialist homeopathic literature or reputable scientific literature?  Negative results may disappoint an investigator on a personal level, but they do allow hypotheses to be falsified. What were they? What did they fail to show?

The author moves on to some more detailed descriptions of NMR measurements.  He states: “… the totality of experiments with nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) showed a clear tendency in favour of a difference between potencies and their solvent in the water- and OH-portions of the ethanol-water-molecule  …”  This, of course, is not the same as showing differences between potencies; absolutely essential if homeopathy is to be justified.  It is referring to an analytical difference between the test solutions as a group and a reference.  Interestingly the abstract from reference 4 states: “… Statistical analysis was applied to succeed in discriminating solutions from their solvents beyond the 10-12 level of dilution. No clear explanation emerged, but post-experiment chemical analysis revealed high amounts (6 ppm) of released silica from the glass material used, with excess in silica-lactose samples, and lower amounts of trace paramagnetic contaminants in highly diluted silica-lactose samples, which could provide a clue.”  This indicates that the effects reported are most likely due to contamination.  To be objective the author should have reported this, even if he disagreed.  A proper scientific paper would have discussed this potential explanation, if only to show why the investigator takes a different view.  The implication from the way this paper is cited is that the investigations are in line with the authors view when, in fact, it raises an alternative hypothesis.

It is fascinating that the author has some awareness of the failings in his approach:  “…but I realized that looking for effects without having any clue of their significance is hazardous  …” Exactly.  In fact Ioannidis has neatly demonstrated that looking for correlations where the probability of their being a real relationship is low leads to an increased risk of spurious associations. 

The author’s remedy is, however, bizarre: “… Therefore, I started building models for the ‘Therapeutically Active Ingredient’ (TAI) and it soon became clear that models for the TAI have to have holistic character  …” The author is clear that he did not have “.. any clue ..” as to the significance of the effects he was “.. looking for..”  How could he build a model based on unknown effects of unknown significance and then base conclusions on their character?  How can such models be tested, validated or calibrated?

Next we have an unbelievable piece of “reasoning”.  It’s almost too silly for words.  The author introduces a “thought experiment” he calls SBM.  This stands for “Sequential Box Model“.  The claim is that it illustrates “…that the homeopathic phenomenon can be treated within physics with no consideration of the degree of dilution.”  This is a phenomenal claim.  How is this wonder arrived at?  The author “explains” in Appendix A.

A mother tincture is placed in a box (B0).  This is placed in a box “…10 times bigger than B0 and already 9/10th full of solvent… “.  Then it is shaken, according to homeopathic practise.  This is called B1, and the process is repeated until we arrive at some arbitrary box, BN

So far this is a fair description of the homeopathic dilution process.  The author then comments: “… If one attempted to conduct this experiment in reality the procedure would come to an end very soon because of the unrealizable dimensions of the boxes.”  Yes, this illustrates the physical problem with homeopathic dilution. 

Next the amazing statement: “… The higher N grows the less probable is the occurrence of a molecule in a random sample taken out of BN. This means that in BN an additional property has to be present which carries the information of B0. This property has to be non-local.”  The first sentence is, of course true.  The probability of obtaining a molecule of BN in a random sample asymptotes to zero as N increases.  This only means a non-local property is required if there is a pre-existing belief that, whilst not present in a sample, the original solute has passed on some (undefined) information into the solvent.  In other words: assuming that dilution doesn’t matter and homeopathy works – dilution doesn’t matter and homeopathy works!  This is just begging the question.  This is a no-thought experiment of breathtaking superficiality and banality.  To cite it as an illustration that: “… the homeopathic phenomenon can be treated within physics with no consideration of the degree of dilution …” is just plain false.  The argument relies on assuming there is a phenomenon and ignoring physics. 

The paper contains more examples of the let’s assume it true and seek to show how this may be type.  For example:  “…In this context, the existence of a TAI is temporarily assumed as being proven by successful treatment  …” There is nothing temporary about this assumption; it is never revisited.

Then it moves to the paranormal: “…Both procedures, however, suggest mind-matter and matter-mind correlations…” This, of course, is non-science and should never have made its way into a journal purporting to contain science.

By this point we are well into quantum-mechanical straw clutching and “Weak Quantum Theory” (WQT).  The author is bold enough to assert that: “… it was already known that non-local behaviour can occur in non-quantum systems under certain circumstances.”  Of course, no substantiation is provided for this crucial point.  That’s a shame because I’d really like to see some relevant examples.

This type of appropriation of quantum mechanical terms and concepts has been dealt with at length elsewhere

He does point out that “WQT systems are not necessarily quantum systems“.  I would go much further:  WQT systems are not quantum systems at all.  Why would I say that?  One aspect of the weakening (W) is the removal of Planck’s constant, with its annoying consequence of confining quantum physics to small entities or vanishingly small periods of time.  The problem is that it represents the restrictions that exist in the natural world.  Dispensing with it breaks the link between theory and the natural world.  In fact, as Planck’s constant is central to describing the quantisation of energy seen in nature no theory can be justifiably called “quantum” if it is omitted.  So perhaps WQT should more properly be called NQT: Non Quantum Theory?

Its proponents in the homeopathic field generally, present WQT as some sort of metaphor (see, for example here and here).  This, at least, circumvents the problem of the break with nature.  However, for the author: “With WQT, for the first time, special emphasis is placed quantitatively on entanglement as an idea.”  No, as it has removed the constraints of nature it can have no quantitative power to explain nature.  It does not represent nature; rather it codifies how some would like nature to be.

This paper is just an exercise in fallacious reasoning.  The author believes that even after dilution to homeopathic potencies an active ingredient, of some sort, is present and takes his argument from there.  This is just begging the question.

He does not look critically at his own hypotheses and just presents ad-hoc speculation.  Most seriously, he does not explore other highly plausible reasons for his NMR evidence, even though one is suggested in a paper he cites.

This work is merely appropriating scientific language, applying it with no reference to how the natural world is seen to behave and offering it as an explanation.  It has the form and appearance of science with none of the substance.  This is just “Cargo Cult Science

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7 Responses to “Homeopathy and the memory of water: going round in circles”

  1. PalMD said

    Wow. I mean, wow. That was great. If I smoked,I’d want a cigarette. I’ve been waiting for a really good critique from that issue, and there have only been a few, none of which can even touch this one.

  2. apgaylard said

    Thanks PalMD. I think there have been some pretty insightful pieces written on this topic. But most thanks should go to Ben Goldacre for organising the journal club. Without it i’d never have got to see the original papers.

    My favorites have been:

    http://hawk-handsaw.blogspot.com/2007/09/even-more-on-memory-of-water.html

    http://shpalman.livejournal.com/tag/lionel+milgrom

    http://philipball.blogspot.com/2007/08/bad-memory-i-have-just-read-all-papers.html

    http://philipball.blogspot.com/2007/08/here-lies-one-whose-name-was-writ-in.html

    http://philipball.blogspot.com/2007/10/yet-more-memory-of-water-this-months.html

    http://arstechnica.com/articles/culture/the-pseudoscience-behind-homeopathy.ars/1

    http://www.badscience.net/?p=528#comment-17246

    My two other blog posts (a bit more polite as I’m trying to get them published in Homeopathy) have been:

    http://apgaylard.wordpress.com/2007/10/12/homeopathy-and-the-memory-of-water-milgrom-and-the-philosophy-of-science/

    http://apgaylard.wordpress.com/2007/10/12/homeopathy-and-the-memory-of-water-memory-or-invention/

    Thanks for stopping by.

  3. PalMD said

    For some reason, the journal is available full text thru my hospital library, so i was able to print it up and start chewing on it as soon as i found out about it.

  4. This post rocks.

  5. apgaylard said

    Thanks.

  6. pleick said

    It’s a shame you haven’t tried to send this as a letter to Homeopathy. The problems in Otto Weingärtners paper are nicely identified.

    Having already spent too much time with Weak Quantum Theory and the way it is used to “explain” Homeopathy, I’ve summarized an article that I wrote for Skeptiker (in German) about Harald Walachs model of Homeopathy. Lionel Milgroms version may be somewhat different but it still has the same flaws. While I’ve tried to focus on the physics (ab)used by Walach and Milgrom (and also Weingärtner), the philosophical arguments brought forward against their theories are also quite strong. There just isn’t any science behind the rhetoric.

    The letter is reproduced here:

    http://www.badscience.net/?p=528#comment-17246

  7. apgaylard said

    Thanks. I’ve read your letter. It’s an excellent analysis. I thought about sending this one in to Homeopathy; but I’ve already got two submissions with them. I’d be surprised if they published both; astounded if they would give me room for three comments. If one of the others gets bounced, I’ll send this in.

    Thank you for stopping by.

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