Friday mystery object #65 answer

On Friday I gave you this bit of geology to identify:

I used this because I had it to hand on Thursday afternoon after doing a behind the scenes tour of the Horniman’s store for some of the attendees of TAM London. I also used it so I would have the chance to tell the story behind this innocuous looking, if pretty, bit of stone.

Before I get started on the story I must congratulate Steven D. Garber, PhD on spotting that one of the main components of this is serpentine (the other being calcite) and I have to hand a big dose of kudos to Dave Godfrey who got the answer spot-on when he suggested that this was a sample of  Continue reading

UK homeopathy awareness week

June 14th – 21st 2010 [and 2012] is the UK homeopathy awareness week, so I thought it might be a good idea to try and raise awareness of homeopathy.


Homeopathy is based on the principle of similia similibus curantur (likes are cured by likes). The hypothesis is that symptoms of illness are caused by a derangement of the ‘vital force‘ assumed to be present in a living organism and substances which elicit the same derangement (i.e. symptoms) will rid the body of the illness. This was originally identified in the context of homeopathy by Hahnemann with reference to cinchona bark (source of quinine) and malaria. The previous proposed mechanism of effectiveness of quinine against malaria was its bitterness, but Hahnemann sensibly identified that other bitter substances did not offer the same protection. Instead, after taking cinchona and experiencing a reaction similar to the reaction he associated with malaria, he hypothesised that it was this similarity in symptoms that made cinchona bark effective.

Modern homeopaths still use a similar method to identify their treatments. When in a healthy state they try a preparation and keep a detailed diary of any effects that they feel the treatment has on them. This is called ‘proving’ although what it is supposed to prove is hard to determine since there are no rigorous controls in place and the results are not statistically tested to see if they are anything other than random. Consider the perceived effects of taking peregrine falcon blood for example:

Short statement on peregrine falcons:

The Peregrine Falcon is widely renowned for its incredible speed. Estimates vary, but commonly cited top velocities are in the range of 290-320 km/h (180-200 mph), achieved only during the characteristic swoop (hunting dive)…the Peregrine Falcon is the fastest creature on earth.

Observation during proving:

‘Drove back from the party (had some wine but not so much) quite fast but well, changing speed as necessary. It seemed faster to the others in the car than to me.’

I heartily recommend reading the entire page about the proving of peregrine falcon blood – it is an education into how homeopaths derive their information about the treatments they prescribe (and it is ludicrous to the point of hilarity). Is this really a rigorous approach to testing healthcare products or is this more about symbolism, appeal to the mystical and delusion?

Evidence based medicine occasionally does use elements of  similia similbus curantur such as with inoculation and vaccination – where a small or denatured dose of a disease causing agent is introduced with the intent of stimulating an autoimmune response that will prevent the full blown disease from becoming established should the person come into contact with a large active dose of the pathogen.


Also, many physiologically active compounds have medicinal uses because they act on particular organs and metabolic pathways via a biochemical route that can have apparent similarities to the illness being treated. For example, digoxin is a cardiac glycoside found in foxgloves that decreases heart rate and increases force of heart contraction – fatal in large doses, but useful for treating atrial fibrillation in small doses – so at a very gross level this could be considered ‘like treating (rather than curing) like’. It is also vaguely plausible that a substance which elicits a physiological response which mimics symptoms of an illness that arise as part of the body’s  immune response (such as raising temperature) may have the effect of fighting an infection (although I have not seen any evidence for this).

Hahnemann’s experience with cinchona happened in 1790 when the medical community of the time was still dominated by the miasma theory and humourism of the Middle Ages. Vitalism was a standard of the medical profession at the time, with good health being dependent on balancing the four vital humours. The idea of a biochemical autoimmune system did not take shape until a century later, but when it did it revolutionised the medical field, bringing about treatments with previously unprecedented success (eradication of smallpox anyone?). Hahnemann had no idea about the mechanism by which the body actually heals itself, he also had no idea that malaria was not caused by a miasma, but by a microscopic parasitic protist of the genus Plasmodium.

Plasmodium falciparum – the protozoan that causes malaria

In short Hahnemann was trying to fit his limited observations into a theoretical framework consistent with the body of assumed knowledge available at the time. The same way that scientists have always worked. However, over time the body of knowledge has changed – vitalism has been rejected as evidence has been amassed which demonstrates that all of the functions historically proposed for vital energy are demonstrably biochemical in nature. Disease is now well recognised as being caused by bacteria, viruses, proteins and biochemical abnormalities rather than by derangement of ‘vital energy’. The idea of a vitalistic treatment for a biochemical problem seems rather at odds with the facts, particularly since there is no evidence to suggest that vital energy even exists. Sticking with malaria, we now know that the antimalarial component of cinchona is quinine, which is no longer effective as an antimalarial due to the resistance evolved by Plasmodium – how such immunity might have evolved in response to vital energy is hard to fathom.

Homeopathy also subscribes to the principle that the smaller the dose, the more effective it is at influencing the vital energy – to the point where homeopathic remedies are diluted until they no longer contain even one molecule of their active ingredient. Indeed it would take a ball of water the size of the solar system to contain one molecule of active ingredient in the more ‘potent’ homeopathic remedies – making them even less tangible than the Emperor’s new clothes. Of course this idea of smaller doses having a bigger effect flies in the face of everything that is demonstrated in evidence based medicine, where dose dependent effects increase with increasing dose size, through a therapeutic window until a plateau is reached or there is an overdose.  The Ten23 campaign was all about this misplaced faith in super-dilution.

If homeopaths were able to demonstrate that vital energy exists then homeopathy might have a theoretical leg to stand on, as would chiropractic and a suite of Ayruvedic medicines, but without any evidence for vital energy they remain theoretically unfounded. Interestingly, mainstream medicine was once based on the concept of vital energy, which has only been discarded due to improvements in experimental methods. Vital energy is one of those strange forces in nature that becomes harder to see the harder you look for it – probably because it only exists as a cultural concept that has no relevance in the physical world. This erosion of evidence for vital energy not only leaves homeopathic theory unfounded, but necessarily rejected.

Headstone for 9 month-old girl who died because her parents chose homeopathy over conventional treatments

Theory aside, if there was strong evidence for efficacy of homeopathic remedies then there would be very good reason to question the laws of physics and our current understanding of biology and medicine. However, there is no persuasive evidence for homeopathy’s efficacy. As such it seems bizarre that people still hold on to this outdated and superseded faith-based system of medicine; but then again there are still Flat EarthersFaith healers and people who drink their own pee, so I suppose it’s no great surprise. There are dangers however – if people choose to use homeopathy in place of medicines that have evidence of efficacy, they run the risk of harm or even death – and I think that’s something everyone should be aware of.

Back from extinction

Imagine if you could bring a species back from extinction – what would you choose and why would you choose it? There are so many factors to take into consideration it all becomes a bit bewildering – do you choose something on the basis of how well it would reintegrate with existing ecosystems, how useful it might be, how much novel information we could learn from it, how plausible it would be to actually carry out the resurrection process, or simply how awesome it would be to see something that hasn’t walked the Earth for millions of years?

I recently asked four palaeontologists what species they would choose to resurrect and their responses were presented at a Café Scientifique balloon debate at the Horniman Museum, as part of the International Year of Biodiversity activities in conjunction with the Royal Society (who are celebrating their 350th anniversary!). The result was a very enjoyable evening for all involved and an insight into some of the considerations that should be taken into account when contemplating resurrecting extinct species.

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One lump or two?

One lump or two? 'High potency' homeopathic pillules are nothing but sugar

The 10:23 campaign seems to be stirring up a wasps nest amongst homeopaths – fortunately these wasps have a venom so dilute that they are incapable of doing much more than make an angry buzz. I would feel sorry for them if they weren’t so adamant that their flimsy belief system is capable of treating serious illnesses like type I diabetes, gangrene, appendicitis, AIDS, malaria, etc. (you don’t believe that they make such claims? check out Nancy Malik’s twitter account:

Of course, some homeopaths have taken up the #ten23 hashtag and are fighting a spirited (and sometimes spiritual) battle against the arrayed forces of science, scepticism and general doubt (as is their right). Needless to say their response does tend to rely heavily on bombast, unfounded statements from anecdote and links to videodotes or webpages promoting homeopathy, although seldom to anything resembling rigorous, peer-reviewed scientific studies (the odd basket of carefully picked cherries does turn up). But of course, science is clearly lagging behind – in the words of one homeopath twitterer (@HomHeals):

Homeopathy – Waiting for Science to Catch Up!

This made me chuckle, because it put me in mind of other unfounded beliefs that science has caught up with and subsequently shredded with Ockham’s Razor – like Jack the Ripper in a lab coat.

Approximation of my mental image of science armed with Ockham's Razor, hunting down woo. DISCLAIMER This is in no way meant to represent a threat of physical violence - I abhor such things.

Scary science is gonna get you! DISCLAIMER This is in no way meant to represent a threat of physical violence

But of course, it’s not like that. There is no dichotomy between science and homeopathy. Science is a process whereby evidence is assessed in a systematic, repeatable way and ideas are accepted or rejected on the basis of the outcome, whilst homeopathy is a set of beliefs based on a defining principles established by Samuel Hahnemann 200 year ago. These principles as a set have simply failed to stand up to scientific testing, so homeopathy finds no support from science. This means that for homeopaths to continue doing their thing, they need to reject the principles of the scientific method (i.e. reliance on evidence), rather than change their ideas about homeopathy. In response to the rhetorical question posed by John Maynard Keynes:

When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?

A homeopath would probably respond by saying:

“I ignore the facts – they’re not my facts anyway, they’re facts made up by people who are colluding to besmirch the name of homeopathy and I have anecdotal evidence that is far more convincing than your double-blind, randomised, placebo controlled trial anyway. And your facts are just made up by big pharma, which doesn’t work and it kills people. You’re just a bunch of allopaths who don’t recognise the true faith of homeopathy. So there.”

What is particularly vexing about debate with homeopaths is their inevitable retreat into logical fallacies and long outdated arguments. They make statements about homeopathy being better than allopathy, when allopathy was a phrase coined by Hahnemann 200 years ago for the Hippocratic, Galenic etc. schools of medicine, long since made defunct by Germ Theory in the 1880s and the rise of modern evidence-based medicine, which has been around for less than 40 years.

In effect, modern medicine has successfully overhauled the established medical opinion of Hahnemann’s time by virtue of being more effective. If homeopathy was as effective as homeopaths make out, it’s surprising that it isn’t the method that has been adopted as the best form of treatment available – after all it has been around longer and it’s cheaper to produce because it doesn’t require all that pesky testing. Moreover, it sells in huge amounts – but popularity is not a robust indicator of efficacy by any means, as I’m sure any homeopath could tell you… if they weren’t so obsessed with popularity.

Before this post turns into a huge rant or a serial refutation of the nonsensical arguments used by homeopaths, I will try to make my point. 10:23 is about what is in a ‘high potency’ homeopathic preparation (of 30C or more). These products are marked as having active ingredients, but the dilution of whatever ingredients might have been in the solution at the outset is so great as to go far beyond the Avogadro constant – in short there is less than a single molecule weight of the ingredient in the solution. This solution is then dropped on sugar and allowed to evaporate. So should it be marked as being an active ingredient? It’s rather like a bag of sugar listing Tyrannosaurus rex as one of its ingredients, because there is a possibility that one molecule of water that dried on one grain of sugar was once in contact with a T. rex (see here for a clear summary of the homeopathic process).

Despite the lack of any robust support for efficacy of super-high concentration homeopathic products, the UK’s leading high street pharmacist, Boots, sells these products with the full knowledge that they are not shown to work:

I have no evidence before me to suggest that they are efficacious, and we look very much for the evidence to support that…

(Paul Bennett, Professional Standards Director of Boots speaking at the Science & Technology Committee Homeopathy inquiry 25th Nov 2009 – full transcript here)

This seems wrong. It seems as though a trusted company is betraying people’s trust – falling back on caveat emptor (let the buyer beware) rather than maintaining the standards of what they sell. Imagine if Boots started selling travel sickness pills that contained no active ingredient, just sugar. This would be a placebo and it would be unethical (and probably illegal) for Boots to sell the product. Which may explain why Boots don’t indicate what the homeopathic pillules they sell are for. In effect, they do sell travel sickness pills that contain no active ingredient, just sugar (it’s called Aconite 30C) but they get around the ethical and legal problems using the disclaimer:

Boots Aconite 30c is a homeopathic medicinal product without approved therapeautic indications.

Contains ingredients:

Active Ingredients: 30c Aconitum napellus

Also contains: Sucrose & lactose

(taken from Boots website)

It would be interesting to see if the listed ingredients would actually stand up in a court of law, given the lack of any molecules of Aconitum napellus in the product – it’s rather like an apple pie with no apple.

The 10:23 campaign is intended to make this point in the public eye, to raise awareness of what super high dilution homeopathic pillules actually consist of – nothing but sugar. That’s why I will be taking part in the London leg of the homeopathic overdose at 10:23 this Saturday. Perhaps it will make the point publicly enough to persuade Boots that they shouldn’t be misleading the public by stocking homepathic remedies that are not shown to work and are listed as having active ingredients, yet they contain nothing but sugar.

“One lump or two?” Not for me thanks – I’m cutting down on woo.

Inspiring science

For the sake of clarity, ‘inspiration’ is here defined as: ‘arousal of the mind to special unusual activity or creativity‘.

Inspiration is important; after all, every human cultural advance or achievement is the result of someone being inspired to do something new. I want to explore some of the ways in which people are inspired to undertake scientific investigation, but I also want to consider how the outcomes of science feed back and inspire broader culture.

Charles Darwin provides us with a topical place to start – it’s exactly 150 years since the publication of ‘On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life‘  (later changed to the more snappy ‘On the Origin of Species‘); a book containing an idea inspired by a complex web of circumstances and experiences and which has subsequently inspired a new understanding of our place on this planet.

Darwin himself was inspired by a wide variety of factors: people (family,  friends, mentors, colleagues); books (e.g. White’s “The Natural History of Selborne“, Paley’s “Natural Theology“, Herschel“Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy“, Malthus’ “Essay on the Principle of Population“); cultural institutions (Museums, the Royal Institution, the Linnean Society,  Zoological Gardens); places (Santiago, the Falkland Islands, Quiriquina, the Galapagos, Downe); hobbies (shooting, fishing, insect collecting, gardening, chemistry), and of course his experiences with nature (from earthquakes to earthworms, tropical forests to his Bromley garden). Interestingly he was not inspired by his schooling (neither at Mr Case’s grammar school nor Shrewsbury Grammar School) or University education (both in Edinburgh and Cambridge); for example, Darwin initially dismissed geology as dull based on his experiences at Edinburgh University under the tutelege of Professor Robert Jameson, yet 5 years later under the guidance of Professor Adam Sedgwick he became an avid geologist. Facts alone seldom inspire; it is how they are presented and how they can help us understand and formulate new ideas that can make them inspirational.

I’ve discussed fact-based science before (more than once), with the take-home message that it provides the best method that currently exists for checking what we think is true. Science is all about asking questions and finding ways to answer them by observation of the world around us (preferably in the controlled conditions of an experiment); the initial questions that scientists ask need to be inspired by something and answering that question takes motivation. Of course, absolutely anything might motivate a person to pursue a question, but some things will be more motivational than others.

Necessity is the mother of invention, which is why need will often provide the inspiration and motivation required for science to address a problem. Life and death situations are a prime example of how science has often found its inspiration and motivation – just look at the funding in science and it immediately becomes obvious that health, the military and agriculture are way up there. These things are directly relevant to people’s everyday survival – they are necessities.

However, there is more to science than catering to basic needs – science is about understanding our universe and thereby allowing us to better address the bigger questions that our over complicated human brains enjoy cooking up. Where once we had to make do with simple explanations that didn’t really work (like echoes are spirits shouting back at you, schizophrenics are possessed by demons, rainbows are Gods way of reminding himself not to flood the world again) now we can delve into the causes and reasons for the odd things we witness and we can turn that to our advantage. Understanding the deeper mysteries of the universe requires a lot of imagination, so it’s little wonder that the fringe of science tends to be populated by people who extrapolate beyond the fringe (this is where science fiction is born) or are being pushed back as the fringe expands (which is where homeopaths, psychics and those with a deep-rooted fear of change still linger).

Of course, those extrapolating beyond the fringe of science can help inspire new science and technology, from communicators in Star Trek inspiring mobile phones to lasers taking cues from The Hyperboloid of Engineer Garin (1927). The moon landing shown on TV sets in 1969 was pre-empted in 1902 by Le Voyage dans la lune; Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues under the Sea provided a visionary new concept of what submarines might achieve and spurred advances in the field, and we all know that good old Leonardo Da Vinci was great at letting his imagination wander way beyond the fringes of the science of his time (yet still be informed by his own observations) – who knows the full extent of what Da Vinci has inspired (I’d wager it goes beyond a ropey Dan Brown book).

Of course, each new development in science does more than push back a theoretical fringe; it inspires new ideas that lead to further developments. Science and technology move quickly and are seldom permitted to stagnate – which is good, because stagnation of ideas is what gives rise to dogma and suppression of alternative viewpoints.

For something to be inspirational it needs to open someone’s mind to a previously unknown world of possibilities, a conceptual space ripe for exploration. It needs to spark the imagination – with the possibility that the spark will ignite the interest and enthusiasm needed to fuel the exploration and investigation of the wider universe, of which we are a tiny part.

What is science?

N.B. If you’re after a quick answer then see here, if you want an in-depth outline see here or if you want to know how science works see here– this blog is more concerned with the broader conceptual framework within which science fits.

Knowledge is an interesting concept – how can we really “know” anything? How do we determine truth from untruth? Does knowledge even require what is “known” to be true? I don’t think so – I think it merely needs to appear true.

The human brain looks for explanations – being able to identify cause and effect is a powerful capability, after all, it underpins all human achievement. For example, if our ancestors were unable to identify that seeds grow into plants, we could never have established agriculture (and subsequently civilisation).

There are a variety of ways in which we make links between cause and effect, from straightforward reflexive Pavlovian classical conditioning, through more complex methods of identifying concept-based causation, to the rigourous statistical analysis of double-blind randomised controlled trials of modern biomedical research (which marks our current best attempt at linking cause to effect, whilst minimising the influence of coincidental factors). However, one of the most common ways in which we find explanations is by relating an observed occurance with an observed outcome – we look for a correlation.

Of course, the trouble with correlations is that you will often be spotting a relationship that doesn’t really exist. Factor A might occur at the same time or increase at the same rate as factor B, but it could be due to factors 1,2 and 3. For example, seasonal sales of ice-cream in the UK can be directly correlated with seasonal umbrella sales in Australia – obviously they are not directly related to each other, but they share the factor of seasonality in their respective hemispheres. So a summer in the Northern Hemisphere sees more ice-cream being bought, whilst in the Southern Hemisphere it is winter and people are buying umbrellas to keep off the rain. This is a simple illustration that is intended to be clear, but unfortunately most of the time we find it very difficult to identify what the factors involved in a correlation actually are – but that doesn’t stop us drawing conclusions from what we see, or think we see.

Identifying cause and effect?

Identifying cause and effect?

So what else do we use as a way of acquiring knowledge Continue reading