Friday, August 25, 2006

The Master of Trickery challenges homeopathy

"Scientists are human beings. Like anyone else, they can fool themselves"
James Randi
` At the BBC Horizons web page, I've found something which is a lot less clinical than the previous criticisms of homeopathy that I've posted: A famous expert of hoaxes and magic tricks, James Randi, challenges homeopathy in the article, 'Homeopathy: The Test - programme summary'.
` And what's the deal with his challenge? Well, here's the story on that - it's kinda funny:
It started in 1964 when, during a heated radio debate, a parapsychologist challenged Randi to put his money where his mouth is. Randi replied by offering $10,000 of his own money and the Paranormal Challenge was born.
Since then, the prize fund has grown through donations and pledges by fellow sceptics to reach a total of more than $1m. To apply for the prize you just need to fill in a form on Randi's website.
So far, there have been applications from practitioners of therapeutic touch, dowsers and psychic readers. One recent application was from a 10-year-old Russian girl who claimed to be able to see using mental perception. When her mother blindfolded her she went on to successfully read out cards held up in front of her face. But when Randi applied the blindfolding, carefully making sure that there was no gap between the blindfold and her unusually concave nose, her mental perception deserted her. Needless to say, she failed the test.
` No matter what, he's never been able to find anything that didn't already have an easier explanation and/or was blatantly false.
Sceptic James Randi is so convinced that homeopathy will not work, that he has offered $1m to anyone who can provide convincing evidence of its effects. For the first time in the programme's history, Horizon conducts its own scientific experiment, to try and win his money. If they succeed, they will not only be $1m richer - they will also force scientists to rethink some of their fundamental beliefs.
` Sounds like a sweet deal. So, has anyone ever succeeded?
In 1988, Jacques Benveniste was studying how allergies affected the body. He focussed on a type of blood cell known as a basophil, which activates when it comes into contact with a substance you're allergic to.
As part of his research, Benveniste experimented with very dilute solutions. To his surprise, his research showed that even when the allergic substance was diluted down to homeopathic quantities, it could still trigger a reaction in the basophils. Was this the scientific proof that homeopathic medicines could have a measurable effect on the body?

In an attempt to explain his results, Benveniste suggested a startling new theory. He proposed that water had the power to 'remember' substances that had been dissolved in it. This startling new idea would force scientists to rethink many fundamental ideas about how liquids behave.
Unsurprisingly, the scientific community greeted this idea with scepticism. The then editor of Nature, Sir John Maddox, agreed to publish Benveniste's paper - but on one condition. Benveniste must open his laboratory to a team of independent referees, who would evaluate his techniques.

When Maddox named his team, he took everyone by surprise. Included on the team was a man who was not a professional scientist: magician and paranormal investigator James Randi.
Randi and the team watched Benveniste's team repeat the experiment. They went to extraordinary lengths to ensure that none of the scientists involved knew which samples were the homeopathic solutions, and which ones were the controls - even taping the sample codes to the ceiling for the duration of the experiment. This time, Benveniste's results were inconclusive, and the scientific community remained unconvinced by Benveniste's memory of water theory.

Since the Benveniste case, more scientists have claimed to see measurable effects of homeopathic medicines. In one of the most convincing tests to date, Dr. David Reilly conducted clinical trials on patients suffering from hay fever. Using hundreds of patients, Reilly was able to show a noticeable improvement in patients taking a homeopathic remedy over those in the control group. Tests on different allergies produced similar results. Yet the scientific community called these results into question because they could not explain how the homeopathic medicines could have worked.
Then Professor Madeleine Ennis attended a conference in which a French researcher claimed to be able to show that water had a memory. Ennis was unimpressed - so the researcher challenged her to try the experiment for herself. When she did so, she was astonished to find that her results agreed.

Although many researchers now offered proof that the effects of homeopathy can be measured, none have yet applied for James Randi's million dollar prize. For the first time in the programme's history, Horizon decided to conduct their own scientific experiment.
The programme gathered a team of scientists from among the most respected institutes in the country. The Vice-President of the Royal Society, Professor John Enderby oversaw the experiment, and James Randi flew in from the United States to watch.
As with Benveniste's original experiment, Randi insisted that strict precautions be taken to ensure that none of the experimenters knew whether they were dealing with homeopathic solutions, or with pure water.
Two independent scientists performed tests to see whether their samples produced a biological effect. Only when the experiment was over was it revealed which samples were real.
To Randi's relief, the experiment was a total failure. The scientists were no better at deciding which samples were homeopathic than pure chance would have been.
` I'm guessing that Randi was relieved because complete failures are much more definite than inconclusive tests:
Jacques Benveniste claimed he could explain homeopathy in the eighties. What happened to him?
Jacques Benveniste published a controversial paper on homeopathy in Nature in 1988. He implied that water had properties that meant that it 'remembered' what chemicals it had been in contact with. This results of this paper have since been called into question.
Following this incident, Benveniste lost his funding from the French government. However, he has continued his research with a small team and still stands by his original results.
His new research takes the concept of the memory of water a step further. He now claims to be able to record a signal stored in the water and turn it into a computer file, which can be emailed around the world. This emailed file can be played back into a sample of pure water, which then takes on the properties of the original substance.
These claims have met with even greater scepticism than his original results and have earned him an unprecedented second IgNobel prize.
` Indeed, homeopathic research in general - as I've already made clear - isn't the greatest, and saying that it definitely works is what people concerned with the truth consider as jumping to conclusions.
Many people claim that homeopathy works simply because people believe it will. This is known as the placebo effect.
A major part of the placebo effect is the hope and peace-of-mind that you get from doing something you think will be beneficial. This requires the knowledge that the treatment is supposed to help you. Therefore the placebo effect should only work in humans old enough to know what a medicine is.
However, homeopathy is also believed to work on animals and babies. Could the placebo effect also explain this?
The apparent effect of a placebo could also be due to other interventions that occur at the same time - changes in diet for instance, or just increased care and attention. There could also be a degree of wishful thinking on behalf of the human observer - believing an animal or baby that received the treatment has improved more than it has because of unconscious bias. [Just as Lou believes that the remedy I have been given has worked.] There might also be an indirect placebo effect - the treatment makes a carer feel more relaxed and this is picked up by an animal or baby.
Because of these possibilities, research (even on animals and babies) can only be convincing if it is 'double blind' and placebo controlled. This means that the researcher mustn't know which subjects have received the test treatment and which have received the placebo.

There have been over 200 trials published that have examined the effectiveness of homeopathic medicines. The majority of these have found some positive effect of homeopathy. However, in such a comparison you have to take into account publication bias: a positive study is more likely to get published than a negative study. Opinions differ as to whether analysing all these studies together is useful and whether the overall evidence comes out significantly in favour of homeopathy.
The critics point to the lack of strong repetitions of studies. For instance David Reilly's work on allergy is often regarded as the best clinical evidence for homeopathy. However, in a recent attempt to investigate the same condition the results came out negative. Dr Reilly believes this is down to differences in the experimental method. Until a result can be reliably replicated in favour of homeopathy in independent laboratories the scientific community will remain sceptical.
` Indeed. In order for something to 'make it' in the medical world, you need lots of definite positive results. After 200 years, homeopathy has not yet acheived this. Will it ever? That doesn't seem too likely, but I'm sure they won't stop trying.


jon said...

homeopathy is a constitutional medicine. it can be used to treat symptoms but is not reliabe, especially since most symptoms are a manifestation of a deeper problem. each person has a medicine perfect for them and it takes a skilled practitioner to know what it is. it takes an irrational way of understanding the world to be able to understand this medicine. the problem is people are trying to use homeopathy in an allopathic way. of course it doesn't work

Galtron said...

Well, thank you for clearing that up, Jon!!

Noci, how about replacing Lou's remedy again? We already know it works for him, so if you take it away and he doesn't react any differently again, we'll know for sure it's not effective!
You know... just to double-check!

S E E Quine said...

` I think that perhaps another test may be in order, as I'm not really satisfied with the first one.

Galtron said...

Mua ha ha!