Homeopathy and the memory of water: Milgrom and the philosophy of science
Posted by apgaylard on October 12, 2007
The journal Homeopathy has published a special issue on the memory of water. The contents have been discussed quite widely (see Philip Ball‘s contributions, for example). An important aspect of this has been the journal club set up by Ben Goldacre at Bad Science. This has enabled a lot of well informed analysis from people who may not have been able to access the original papers otherwise. I would like to record my thanks to Ben for arranging this opportunity to get access to these papers and providing a forum for discussion. Thanks are also due to Peter Fisher (Editor) and the publishers, Elsevier, for giving their permission for the journal club. It is brave to be open to criticism and an indispensable aspect of scientific discourse. It stands in stark contrast to recent actions taken by the Society of Homeopaths.
Thanks to the journal club I have been able to have a go at critiquing a number of the papers. As a result I have submitted a couple of letters to the editor of the journal. Over the next few posts I’ll make these available on this blog and add some reflections. I’ll also report on my success, or otherwise, at having my observations published in Homeopathy.
Physics remains my main scientific interest and this has coloured my choice of papers. For me, homeopathy becomes really interesting when it places itself in the domain of real physical effects and mechanisms. When it does this it must conform to the massively successful description of nature that is contemporary physics. Am I arguing that physics is complete and flawless? No. What I am saying is that physics encapsulates a large, coherent, successful but finite body of knowledge. By asserting that water can “remember” what has been dissolved in it, even when it is no longer there, Homeopathy has stepped into the domain of what is known and must therefore be judged against it.
The first paper I read makes a wild application of certain aspects of quantum theory to “explain” homeopathy and why it cannot be tested. All that I will say on that aspect of the paper is that by removing the key experimental observation that quantum physics applies only to processes with very small dimensions, as expressed by Planck’s constant, it has parted company with what I’ll loosely call reality and no longer has the power to explain processes in nature. [For a detailed analysis of the quantum mechanical content of this paper, and other similar work, the blog by shpalman is excellent.]
The paper awoke memories of undergraduate lectures on the nature and philosophy of science. As you can see the author asserts that the philosophy of science is to blame for the lack of regard in which homeopathy is held by most scientists. A philosophical picture is developed to explain this blindness. His contention is that scientists are so constrained by a prescriptive “method” that they cannot accept the contrarian observations, the black swans of homeopathy. As my letter points out, the author did this by picking a simplistic (and discredited) philosophical model and defining this as science. This stands as a fine example of the classic “straw man” fallacy.
Straw Men and Black Swans: The Philosophy of Contemporary Science
From the perspective of an ordinary practicing scientist, Milgrom  represents the logical structure of science in a way that does not promote an accurate understanding of modern science. I would have expected that a paper from a senior researcher, who claims to have sought advice on philosophy, published in a peer-reviewed journal might have actually addressed the philosophy of science in a meaningful way.
Rather, the philosophical discussion takes aim at a “straw man” not real science. It criticises what it calls “science’s primarily inductive logical structure“. The example provided (white/black swans) is actually a common illustration of “naïve (or classical) inductivism” (see, for example, ). This philosophical approach had its limitations exposed a long time ago. No serious contemporary scientist would accept naïve inductivism as a realistic model for scientific endeavour. Therefore it is not science’s primary logical structure, as Milgrom contends.
The concept of falsification, originally formulated by Karl Popper , would make a more realistic candidate for modern science’s primary logical structure. The “swan” example can be used to contrast these two approaches. Simply put, to “prove” the hypothesis that all swans are white the naïve inductivist has the impossible task of observing all swans through all time; however the observation of a single black swan would falsify this hypothesis. The move away from inductivism was driven, in large part, by Popper’s massively influential text “The Logic of Scientific Discovery” . This work is actually referenced in the paper [Reference 14(a)], but as what seems to be an implied example of the Post-Modernist attack on logical positivism (Popper, of course, was not a Post-Modernist, but defined himself as a Critical Rationalist).
The author’s apparent awareness of Popper’s work makes it very peculiar that he continues to attack the “straw man” of naïve inductivism, rather than engaging with the more relevant (and stronger) falsificationist position generally aspired to in modern science. (For example, as part of my education as a scientist over 20 years ago, I was made to study Popper as part of my physics degree. This, naturally, included an exposé of inductivism along with subsequent criticisms of the falsificationalist approach. I believe it was a second year topic.) Of course, this more realistic position makes a more difficult, but by no means unassailable, target (See, for example, ).
Similarly, when the author outlines his view of the unwillingness of scientists to reconcile themselves to new observations that do not fit into current theoretical models he neglects to mention the seminal analysis of this issue by Thomas Kuhn . It is from this work that we get the notion of “Paradigms” in science and “Paradigm Shift“. Whether the author would agree with the analysis or not (and it does have notable critics among scientists), it is of such importance in context of the debate he frames that to omit it is a serious flaw. (This was, again, part of my undergraduate training as a physicist.)
More recent philosophical positions that do not figure in this assault on the “straw man” of naïve inductivism include the work of Imre Lakatos , who proposed that the object of evaluation should be whole “research programmes” rather than individual hypotheses, and Paul Feyerabend [7,8] who objected to any single prescriptive scientific method. It is not my contention that these approaches are complete or flawless descriptions of modern science, but that they are so influential that a discussion of the philosophy of contemporary science is incomplete without them. By extension, any critique of science that ignores the major philosophical analyses of science is fatally flawed.
The author then states: “Consequently, positive results from even the highest standard scientific trials are rejected by those who will not accept homeopathy’s claim that remedies diluted out of molecular existence might have any effect. For black swans, read homeopathy.” This is an odd assertion. First, the author goes to some lengths to challenge the suitability of what would generally be considered to be “the highest standard scientific trials” (double blind RCT‘s) for assessing homeopathic interventions. If the outcomes of such trails are just being ignored this would seem to be unnecessary. Second, this very strong assertion is not backed up by any references. Finally, as previously discussed, the real scientists actually look for “black swans“.
3. Popper, K. (1959) “The Logic of Scientific Discovery“, Basic Books, New York
5. Kuhn, T. S. (1962) “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions“, University of Chicago Press.
6. Lakatos, I. (1978). “The Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes: Philosophical Papers Volume 1“., Cambridge University Press.
7. Feyerabend, P. (1975) “Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge“, Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press.
8. Feyerabend, P. (1979) “Science in a Free Society“, Routledge.
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