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Posts Tagged ‘journal club’

Expect The Unexpected

Posted by apgaylard on February 3, 2008

In science unexpected results occur more often than we might think. These anomalies, the black swans of legend, range from the trivial to the momentous. They can be nails in the coffin of a cherished theory; more grist for the mathematical mill, or just simply errors.

Some are ignored by busy scientists as they pursue more fruitful lines of inquiry, while others are swept under the carpet by the lazy or unethical. In contrast, some are delivered prematurely into the full glare of publicity by those seeking fame and, perhaps, fortune.

So, how seriously should we take the ‘support’ that an unexpected result may appear to give an implausible therapy; like apparantly anomalous properties of water invoked in support of homeopathy, for example?

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Posted in The Memory of Water, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions | Tagged: , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

The Memory of Water: Replies and Answers

Posted by apgaylard on January 17, 2008

While all answers are replies, not all replies are answers.”

Ta’Lon, Babylon 5: Point of No Return, script by J. Michael Straczynski.

The Memory of Water issue of the journal Homeopathy has provoked a number of critical responses, which the journal has now published.  Those authors whose work has been criticised have, quite rightly, responded.  So far, this is healthy: this is how science works.

However, most of the responses could be described by the observation: “not all replies are answers.”  Let’s take the replies to my two letters, for example.

The first is from Lionel Milgrom, the second is by Vybíral and Voráček.

The dangerous swan song of the straw man

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Posted in Logical Fallacies, Philosophy, The Memory of Water | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments »

Water Water Everywhere

Posted by apgaylard on November 14, 2007

The recent special issue of the journal Homeopathy on ‘The Memory of Water’ gave rise to a lot of skeptical comment.  A significant amount of this was facilitated by a Journal Club that Ben Goldacre ran at www.badscience.net, with the permission of the publishers (Elsevier) and editor (Peter Fisher). 

It’s pleasing to be able to report that one of the two ‘letters’ I submitted will be published by Homeopathy in the January issue.  It looks like it will be in good company.  The status of the remaining submission is unclear at the moment, though I am hopeful that it will make it in the end!

[ed.  News just in; the remaining letter will also be published in the January issue.]

It is good to see that Homeopathy and its editor are fostering an open engagement with those of us who were unconvinced, to say the least, by what we read in the special issue.

I am also looking forward to seeing what the authors will have to say for themselves.

Finally, I must admit to being somewhat bemused at the prospect of being published in Homeopathy.  As I work in a fairly obscure field, it probably has the highest impact factor of any journal that I’ve been published in.

Posted in The Memory of Water | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Homeopathy and the memory of water: memory or invention?

Posted by apgaylard on October 12, 2007

Carrying on with tidying up my comments on “The Memory of Water” issue of the journal Homeopathy I come to a paper that I actually looked forward to reading.  Vybíral and Voráček presented some interesting looking measurements on what they termed the autothixotropy of water.

Why was I interested?  A long time ago (final year undergraduate project no less!) I found thixotropic behaviour and hysteresis in samples of used engine oils taken from trains for condition monitoring purposes.  So I was interested to hear of this sort of rheological behaviour in water.

On reading the paper, I had two main concerns.  First, that the authors both assumed and asserted the existence of water “clusters” in the absence of evidence [The “sceptical” paper in the issue by José Teixeira actually says that: “There are no water clusters in pure liquid water, but only density fluctuations.”] Second, that they did not systematically explore what was actually causing this interesting effect.

Quite what water getting more or less “sticky” with time and shear has to do with homeopathy or a memory mechanism, I don’t know.  Anyway, here is the letter I submitted to Homeopathy.

Vybíral, B. and Voráček, P. “Long term structural effects in water: autothixotropy of water and its hysteresis” Homeopathy, Volume 96, Issue 3, July 2007, Pages 183-188.

Going Beyond the Evidence

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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.

Milgrom, L. R., “Conspicuous by its absence: the Memory of Water, macro-entanglement, and the possibility of homeopathy” Homeopathy, Volume 96, Issue 3, July 2007, Pages 209-219.

Straw Men and Black Swans: The Philosophy of Contemporary Science 

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