Tuesday, 9 October 2007

Homeopathic dissent

In a spare moment, I was looking up the famous controversy involving Nature, Jacques Benveniste, and basophil degranulation. This was an experiment, reported in Nature, that purported to show that there could be a 'water memory' effect that could provide a mechanism for homeopathy. Essentially, the workers found that a substance diluted such that there should have been no molecules of it remaining still had a biological effect. There was naturally a lot of skepticism surrounding this paper, and Nature only published it on condition that they could send a team to Benveniste's lab to verify the results. The team found a number of statistical and methodological flaws in the study, and concluded that the results were erroneous. A useful summary of the controversy can be found here. Since then, a number of groups have failed to replicate the results (for example this one).

I came across a very interesting site belonging to George Vithoulkas (8 canards on the quackometer). It seems that not all homeopaths greeted the Benveniste study with unalloyed joy. Vithoulkas pointed out that the results of the study were the opposite to what would be expected from homeopathic theory. Apart from the idea that the 'potency' of a remedy is increased as it is diluted, the other unproven foundation of homeopathy is the 'law of similars'. This states that 'like cures like'; a substance that causes symptoms when taken in large amounts will cure the same symptoms when taken in homeopathic concentrations. According to this, if antibodies cause basophil degranulation in normal concentrations, the same antibodies should prevent it in homeopathic concentrations, the opposite to what Benveniste's team claimed.

Vithoulkas concludes that the 'memory of water' argument is a red herring, and has done nothing but damage the credibility of homeopathy. Given the recent fiasco surrounding the Homeopathy special issue on water memory, he clearly has a point. Even so, Vithoulkas isn't really engaging with the evidence. He just knows that the Benveniste research must have been wrong because it violated one of the (unproven) principles of homeopathy. What I find fascinating and brilliant about this is that plenty of homeopaths are happy to defend Benveniste's work, no matter the flaws, because it seems to support one of the basic tenets of homeopathy. For example, here's Dana Ullman on the study. In doing so, they miss that it completely undermines one of the other tenets.

7 comments:

woodchopper said...

Good point, and one which I shall try to bring up in any future discussions with Homeopaths.

Paul Wilson said...

Cheers!

I think it's interesting that there are arguments within homeopathy, but none of them seem to involve any critical appraisal of evidence. You'd have thought that, faced with disagreements, people would try to marshal the evidence, but we only seem to get appeals to Hahnemann or other dubious sources of authority.

PhD scientist said...

Well, as ever, that is because homeopathy is a "belief system" (I used to say "religion", but some people said this would just earn the homeopaths sympathy).

Like all belief systems, you can get fierce arguments between different strands of believer about whose dogma is more "pure" or more true to the spirit of the original nutjob, I mean founder.

Dr Aust said...

Top work finding the full version of the Maddox & Co report eviscerating M. Le Dr Benveniste et al., Paul. Had been looking for it recently without success.

The credulity, and lack of a degree of scepticism mandatory in a scientist, that is highlighted in the Nature report is still utterly typical of Alt Med publications - hence the sense of "parallel universe" that prevails when you read them. The deeply bonkers "Mellow rats in pyramids" study in eCAM springs to mind.

Mojo said...

"This states that 'like cures like'; a substance that causes symptoms when taken in large amounts will cure the same symptoms when taken in homeopathic concentrations. According to this, if antibodies cause basophil degranulation in normal concentrations, the same antibodies should prevent it in homeopathic concentrations, the opposite to what Benveniste's team claimed."

I'm not sure that all homoeopaths would agree on this. I've seen it claimed that homoeopathic remedies work by stimulating the existing symptoms, which are part of the body's healing process. If this were the case, then in order to help the healing process the dilute remedies would need to cause the same symptoms as the crude substance.

GEORGE VITHOULKAS said...

Dear Sir, I do not insult anybody
(even with 20 canards of quackmeter)

Best regards,
George Vithoulkas
Alternative Nobel Prize, 1996
Director, International Academy of Classical Homeopathy, Greece
Prof. University of the Aegean, Greece
Prof. Kiev Medical Academy
Hon. Professor Moscow Medical Academy (Department Restorative Medicine)
Collaborating Professor Basque Medical University
Address: Alonissos 37005, Greece
Tel: 0030 24240 65142 / 65190
Fax: 0030 24240 65147
E-mail: george@vithoulkas.com
Website: www.vithoulkas.com
www.syros.aegean.gr/homeopathy

Paul Wilson said...

Hm.

I'm sorry if you feel insulted, as that's certainly not my intention. Still, I don't see what is insulting about the post. Perhaps you could point out the part that you aren't happy with?