A canna’ change the laws of physics

Scotty, The Naked Time, stardate 1704.3, Episode 7

Homeopathic hubris and bird flu

Posted by apgaylard on March 7, 2009

black_rubber_pirate_duckPeople convincing themselves to use so-called complementary or alternative treatments often use the rationalisation: “what harm can it do”.  On face value this can seem reasonable: homeopaths commonly dilute their alleged therapeutic ingredients to the point where it’s vanishingly unlikely that there is any ‘medicine’ left in the ‘medicine’.  Other examples come to mind: aromatherapy, for instance, just exposes users to nice smells and reflexology is a harmless foot rub. 

So is it possible for an essentially inert intervention to do harm?  The fusion of homeopathy, quack technology and delusional beliefs advocated by Richard Kenchington RSHom illustrate the potential for harm even in the absence of a real physical effect. 

Kenchington was, at the time he promoted the views discussed here, Managing Director of Crossgates Farm Homeopathics and Managing Director of Global Energies; as well as a recent Director of the Society of Homeopaths and a homeopathic practitioner.  His panacea is a development of a classic quack machine: the e-Lybra.  Working with Global Bioenergetics, he has apparently integrated its use with another improbable device, a so-called ‘bio-emitter‘. 

So, where is the danger? A lecture by Kenchington is available on-line as a video (note: this lecture appears to date from 2005, but the video was only posted three months ago).  The quackery density is so high that I’m going to narrow my focus to a particularly egregious example.  A real risk of harm is evident in Kenchington’s false claims that this system can protect chicken farms against Avian Influenza (AI) – commonly known as bird flu. 

Here’s part of what he had to say; after 6min 12sec he makes this astounding claim:

“[...] one of the more recent things is avian flu, which is hitting all the headlines at the moment. And we have just installed one system on a very large chicken farm in order to solely to protect for avian flu.” 

(the emphasis is, of course, mine – as is the transcription.  With all the transcriptions in this piece, there’s always a chance that I’ve made some errors.  But you can always check the video.)

Later (16min 12sec) he describes an installation of the, “Avian flu protection system”: 

“[...] over a radius of a couple of miles, it’s quite a large farm one and a half million birds [...] the remedies [...] are being transmitted to protect all the living creatures from the avian flu so its built into their immune system now the key so that they can reject the virus but also there’s remedies in there to try and knock the virus on the head as well [...]” 

Setting aside the quackery for a moment, this farm is more than quite large: it’s enormous.  

Reproduced under the terms of the Click-Use Licence.  ©Crown Copyright. Reproduced by permission of Ordnance Survey®.

Reproduced under the terms of the Click-Use Licence. ©Crown Copyright. Reproduced by permission of Ordnance Survey®.

In the UK if you keep more than 50 chickens you have to register with the government.  This was brought in as a precaution against AI.  As a consequence, reliable official statistics are available for the density of the chicken population across the UK.  In 2006 the UK’s maximum chicken density was 3348 birds per square kilometre (see the bottom of the legend in the figure opposite).  

The farm as described (or at least the protected zone containing the poultry) has a 2 mile radius, giving it an area of 12.6 square miles; or 32.5 square kilometres.  If it houses 1.5 million birds, that is a density of 46 087 birds per square kilometre, more than thirteen times the maximum chicken density recorded anywhere in the UK during 2006. 

For comparison, in 2006 the BBC reported on plans for “the UK’s largest egg farm”: 300 000 birds.  From the video it would seem that the farm discussed is an egg, rather than meat, producing farm. 

Though there are apparantly plans for 900 000 bird farm in the Forest of Dean which would be, according to local press coverage, “one of Britain’s largest chicken farms”. 

Maybe the farm covers a larger area than claimed?  Perhaps the official statistics missed a massive chicken farm? Or is it that the claim is exaggerated? 

Anyway, the stunning thing here is that Kenchington and his colleagues have deployed an, “Avian flu protection system” onto a (perhaps) sizable chicken farm which is based on pure quackery. 

The e-Lybra is just one of a group of quack devices for which nonsense claims are made.   Kenchington claims that the machine derived from the work of Galen Hieronymus.  Claims for Hieronymus originating such ‘devices’ mostly rely on a famous promoter of pseudoscience, the late John Wood Campbell, Jr. a talented science fiction writer and magazine editor.  Perhaps this is not the most reliable source. 

The notorious Life Technology (purveyors of the allegedly fraudulent ”Tesla Shield” and the Atlantean Power CrystalTM scam) has a comedic history, complete with an (inevitable) quantum mechanical explanation. 

Kenchington credits Hugh Lovel with the bio-emitter (or, “field emitter”) idea, “bringing Radionics onto the farm”.  Lovel appears to be a market gardener, “alternative farming methods guru” and author who is, “knowledgeable in radionics, dowsing and several other alternative energies.” 

Whatever Lovel might claim, quack devices similar to this one generally just measure Galvanic skin response.  This is just measuring the changes in electrical conductivity of the skin.  Although many claims have been made for this phenomenon (it is exploited by lie detectors and the Scientologist’s E-Meter, for instance) , one thing is clear: the devices use and measure ordinary electrical energy. 

The e-Lybra is no different in this respect: it seems to have an ordinary electrical power supply and be made of ordinary electrical components.  It can be controlled by an ordinary PC.  Even Kenchington claims that its signal can be transmitted along ordinary wires or broadcast as a very ordinary electromagnetic signal (the Salmon device uses a sub 1W signal!). 

So why should anyone expect an extraordinary effect?  All we have here are implausible claims being made for a well understood technology.

Many alternative practitioners claim that the ‘energies’ they talk about are metaphors for something else.  Not Kenchington though, you can’t transmit a metaphor down a wire or broadcast it with a 1W transmitter! 

Kenchington appears wedded to the idea that a real (rather than alternative) energy is being transmitted to astonishing effect.  Describing a shot of a chicken shed through a lens covered with spots that look like condensation, he says [14mins 20sec] it’s: 

 “[...] not condensation on the lens; but they are sort of weak globe things that have got a structure in them. And we associate that with sort of good quality healing environments I guess.”

Although he sounds a bit vague, it’s clear that he is claiming to be able to photograph a real physical effect of his ‘energy re-balancing’ device. 

Kenchington also describes the use of this machine to fabricate homeopathic remedies.  At a stroke, he has removed the need for any ingredients at all.  The claim is essentially that ordinary electrical signals (or transmissions) can replicate the alledged effect of the ingredient on a solvent.  This seems similar to the claims deriving from the work of Jacques Benveniste about being able to ‘phone up some water and tell it what remedy to be; so-called “digital biology“. 

Given the forgoing, it is not surprising that Kenchington offers not one scrap of serious evidence to support his wild claims.  He makes assertions and shows pictures of healthy chickens: that’s it. 

The problem is not that he may believe this nonsense, but that he is promoting it for protecting poultry flocks from a very serious disease; one that has the potential to kill people. 

As the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) point out

Avian Influenza (AI)/Bird flu is a contagious (spreads by contact) disease of animals caused by influenza A viruses. Avian influenza viruses are normally only found in birds, but may infect pigs and have been known to infect sea mammals, mink, horses and other mammals. On rare occasions some types of avian influenza viruses have infected humans, but usually without involving human to human spread. “

And concerning the H5N1 strain

“The current outbreaks of highly pathogenic avian influenza, which began in south-east Asia in mid-2003, some of the largest and most severe on record. Never before in the history of this disease have so many countries been simultaneously affected. The disease and attempts to halt its spread have resulted in the death or destruction of an estimated 150 million birds. The H5N1 virus is now considered endemic (regularly found) in many parts of Indonesia and Vietnam and in some parts of Cambodia, China, and Thailand. Establishing control of this disease in poultry is expected to take several years. 

H5N1 is predominantly a disease in birds. However, the widespread persistence of H5N1 in poultry populations poses two main risks for human health. 

The first is the small risk of direct infection when the virus passes from poultry to humans and causes severe disease. Of the very few avian influenza viruses that have infected humans, the current H5N1 virus has caused the largest number of cases of severe disease and death, although the disease has been self-limiting. Unlike normal seasonal influenza, where infection causes only mild respiratory symptoms in most people, the disease caused by H5N1 follows an unusually aggressive clinical course, with rapid deterioration and high fatality. Primary viral pneumonia and multi-organ failure are common. In the present outbreak, 62 out of the 122 people known to have been infected with the virus have died. These figures contrast with the 12,000 annual ‘normal flu’ fatalities within the UK per annum and with the 400, 000 to 1.4 million worldwide. Unusually, most cases of H5N1 infection in humans have occurred in previously healthy children and young adults rather than the elderly or immunologically challenged. It is not known how many unreported mild or sub-clinical infections of humans with the H5N1 virus have occurred.

At the moment the virus does not appear to be able to spread readily between humans. However, a second risk, of even greater concern, is that the virus – if given enough opportunities – may change, by reassortment with human influenza viruses or by some other mechanism, into a form that is highly infectious for humans and spreads easily from person to person. Such a change could mark the start of a global outbreak (a pandemic).”

(Emphasis mine.  See here and here for factsheets)

If a poultry farm, particularly a large one, was lulled into a sense of false security by this spurious “protection system” – letting bio-security measures slip, for instance – the consequences could be grave.  This is where the potential for harm lies.  The claims made for the machine are unjustified, homeopathic remedies are inert (even those derived from substances) but hubris can kill.

He even knows his approach doesn’t work.  He has seen it with his own eyes.  Talking about a chicken farm with what he says is endemic salmonella and e-coli he relates: 

“[...] we started a trial there.  And It was one of those results you didn’t want to know actually because the birds started dying as soon as they went onto the homeopathic remedies [..] they had (stopped taking) stopped giving them the antibiotics and it was the antibiotics that were just keeping them alive ‘cus they were so sick (they could) you took the antibiotic away and they fell over [...]“

(Note: from January 1st 2009 no eggs can be sold for human consumption from flocks with salmonella unless they have been heat-treated.)

This shows a massive overconfidence in his quackery – which is worrying.  Neither is it very kind to the chickens to withhold a treatment known to be highly effective and give them this ineffective intervention instead. 

There is also a hint of distancing himself from the failure: “we” started a trial, “they” stopped giving the antibiotics. 

If what he claims is true, Kenchington is playing with fire.  DEFRA currently list eight AI outbreaks in the UK since 2006.  By installing this quackery on even one chicken farm he is increasing the risk from Avian Influenza to both poultry and people. 

In the words of the event’s credulous chairman, “Doesn’t it give you some scope for thought – eh?”  It surely does.  It makes me wonder just where Kenchington might be on Bob Park‘s road from foolishness to fraud. 

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Graham White for alerting me to this dangerous nonsense and supplying some interesting references. 

Further Reading

The Scotsman carries a credulous article claiming that this ‘technology’ could save vanishing bee populations.  The comments section features some rational interventions (See Tweedmouth, Allo V Psycho and Homer, for example). 

There are some more promotional videos available.  As an antidote here is a ‘quacksafe search’ for E-Lybra.

Edits

8th March 2009. Note added to make clear that the videoed lecture seems to date from 2005; although it was only posted three months ago. Discussion of chicken farm size adjusted to reflect when Kenchington’s claims appear to have been made.

[BPSDB]

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6 Responses to “Homeopathic hubris and bird flu”

  1. alanhenness said

    and it only costs £10,908.90 – this includes postage, training & 3 years hardware and software support…

  2. zeno27 said

    Now I’ve managed to watch Kenchington’s video (and just about survived), who thinks he knows the device is crap and who thinks he really does believe that it can cure all ailments?

  3. apgaylard said

    alanhenness It’s not exactly a bargin is it? A lot of money for little old rope. However, if you can use it to ‘make’ homeopathic ‘remedies’ which you can sell on it might not be a bad little earner. One you’ve bought the machine material and running costs will be very low. It does save the bother of buying all the weird and wonderful ingredients homeopaths claim to use.

    zeno27 The video takes some watching. The others I’ve linked to under “Further Reading” (should be “watching”?) are even harder to get through. I wouldn’t like to comment on Kenchington’s motivation but he presents good evidence of failure: his remedies are not as good as antibiotics. To borrow from Bob Park (again) he’s somewhere on the road from foolishness to fraud. I’d like to think that he’s closer to the starting point than the destination.

    Thanks both for your comments.

  4. pleick said

    This looks eerily similar to an Austrian device that Ulrich Berger blogged about at http://www.scienceblogs.de/kritisch-gedacht/2009/02/holopathie.php. You can find out all about holopathy here: http://www.quintsysteme.com/Produkte.1032.0.html (in german, though).

    The failed trial is included, too. For an M.D.-thesis, a pilot RCT study (with only 21 patients) was done, which clearly showed (within the limits of the small group) that the thing worked no better than a placebo. The inventors of the device, however, managed to interpret the results their way, stating that “in the verum group, significant improvements were observed.” They did not mention that similar improvements were also found in the placebo group. I did, courtesy of the manufacturers, get my hands on the thesis… and was not particularly impressed: http://www.scienceblogs.de/kritisch-gedacht/2009/03/daten-und-fakten-zur-holopathie-ein-gastbeitrag-von-philippe-leick.php
    Reading the thesis revealed a classic case of an author going out of her way to avoid the conclusion that the data inexorably leads to, which is that the study had a clear “no-specific-effect” outcome.

  5. apgaylard said

    Pleick:Very interesting; Steven Barrett (Quackwatch) lumps this machine in with “Electroacupuncture according to Voll” (EAV) devices. You are right, they all seem very similar.

    The promoting of ‘therapeutic’ devices on the basis of small preliminary trials, often uncontrolled (or inadequately controlled) is a recurring theme I’ve seen in looking at phototherapy devices like the Bioptron and others.

    Thanks, as ever, for an interesting comment.

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