Sunday 20 April 2008

Homeopathy and wikipedia

Homeopathy-related articles on Wikipedia have been subject to probation for some time, because of edit wars between pro-homeopathy and anti-homeopathy contributors. The situation has become such a shambles that Wikipedia has opened an arbitration case on all its homeopathy-related pages. As a result of his editing behaviour, Dana Ullman has managed to get himself banned from editing any homeopathy-related pages for a period of three months.

The arbitration page is long and parts of it are somewhat tedious, but it is interesting in that it demonstrates some of the problems science has in presenting evidence to laypeople in a clear way. The literature on homeopathy is complex, consisting of a mixture of poorly conducted studies that show some (at best equivocal) evidence that homeopathy might work, and well-designed studies that show homeopathy has no effect. (A meta-analysis by Shang et al. that was published in the Lancet elegantly showed that the largest and least biased studies showed the least effect for homeopathy). It is then easy for advocates of homeopathy to emphasise the apparently positive studies, and claim that sceptics of homeopathy do not consider all the evidence. In other words, advocates of homeopathy take the studies at face value; they don't look at the studies and analyse them to see how they were conducted and whether the results make sense.

Because there are some people who think homeopathy works, and there are some peer-reviewed journals of homeopathy and other 'alternative' therapies that superficially appear to be scientific, it is possible to claim that there is some scientific controversy about the effectiveness of homeopathy. As Wikipedia is based around the idea of neutral point of view (NPOV), it seems superficially sensible to present a 'balanced' view whereby evidence for and against homeopathy is described. But, crucially, this is not a balanced view; it gives undue weight to poorly conducted studies. Looking at the evidence as a whole shows that homeopathy is nothing more than a placebo. Quite apart from that, it contains ideas (e.g. that the 'potency' of a remedy increases the more it is diluted) that are in conflict with well established science. A neutral point of view is surely that homeopathy is extremely implausible and that there is no evidence that it works.

This sort of thing is not just a problem for Wikipedia. There is a general problem of spurious 'balance' in scientific reporting. Another clear example is the BBC linking to anti-vaccine websites in stories about vaccines. Science is a notoriously complicated business, but there are times when the scientific evidence is clear, when it is evaluated properly. The challenge is to show that this is the case, without coming across as some kind of monolithic establishment that wishes to crush all dissent.

Saturday 19 April 2008

More water-related nonsense from Rustum Roy

Regular readers will remember a recent paper involving Rustum Roy, a materials science professor at Penn State, that purported to show that you could use UV-VIS and Raman spectroscopy to distinguish different homeopathic remedies. Given that the homeopathic remedies were at a 30c 'potency' (that is, a dilution factor of 1x10^60, a one followed by sixty zeroes), the chance of any molecules of the active ingredient remaining are vanishingly small, and this seemed an extremely unlikely claim. Sure enough, on looking at the paper, it's riddled with basic errors, including duplicated graphs, and doesn't support the conclusions of the authors. A group of sceptical scientists, including me, wrote a letter to the journal's editor about the paper. The authors offered a totally inadequate response that failed to address any of the serious problems with the paper.

Fortunately, Roy has not been discouraged by this setback. He is now involved in an experiment that attempts to show that we can change the structure of water with our minds. There are some truly astounding statements by Roy here.

Structured water is found in the cytoplasm of healthy tissues and it is characterized by having a high solubility for body minerals. It is also found in healing waters. This appears to be the structure shared by very different healing waters from some healing spas to silver aquasols used worldwide.

Structured waters have been produced using various forms of energy, such as light, sound, heat, pressure and radiation.

In our proposed experiment, we aim to examine whether we can structure water with intention alone. We’ll be monitoring any change against control using analytical tools such as spectroscopy.

As far as I can tell, there is no evidence that 'healing waters' actually do any healing, and there is no evidence that different structures of water have different biological effects. But why worry about that? Why not set up a badly designed experiment anyway?

What Roy is proposing to do is get a beaker of water, and collect a Raman spectrum of it. Raman spectroscopy is a technique that can identify vibrational and rotational modes in a system. It can be used to detect changes in chemical bonding, which is what Roy will be looking for. Then people all over the world are going to concentrate on changing the Raman spectrum of the beaker of water. Roy will then collect a new Raman spectrum, and compare it to the old one. This is going to happen on April 26th.

The main problem I can see with this is that the experiment is totally uncontrolled. A beaker of water sitting around is going to dissolve gases and incorporate dust, particulates, skin cells and so on from the atmosphere surrounding it. It might also lose some of the dissolved gases in it to the atmosphere through time. Roy is apparently making no attempt to control for this at all.

Roy's previous work doesn't exactly give cause for confidence. The paper in Homeopathy claims to show differences in Raman spectra between homeopathic remedies. Essentially, all the paper does is present graphs, state that they look different, and leave it at that. There is no attempt to understand why the graphs might be different, or assign peaks to distinct vibrational/rotational modes, or show that the differences between the spectra are statistically significant, or anything.

I think I can confidently predict that the second spectrum will look subtly different from the first, and Roy will declare that we can change water structure with the power of our minds alone. The experiment will be totally worthless, but that won't stop people citing it for years to come as cast-iron evidence for telekinesis.

Monday 7 April 2008

You've got to laugh

I still tend to buy to the Observer on a Sunday, even though it's not very good (but the competition isn't up to much either). There's usually something to make me laugh, though. This week, I laughed like a drain at this story, about psychics, spiritualists and mediums being subject to the new European Consumer Protection Regulations. Apparently:

Promises to raise the dead, secure good fortune or heal through the laying on of hands are all at risk of legal action from disgruntled customers. Spiritualists say they will be forced to issue disclaimers, such as 'this is a scientific experiment, the results of which cannot be guaranteed'.

This really is pure comedy gold. I'm fairly sure that most of these 'scientific experiments' are going to fall short of the standards you would normally expect. For example, you would want to see adequate controls and blinding. I wonder if you could sue someone for describing something as a 'scientific experiment' when it is clearly no such thing?

Previously there was something called the Fraudulent Mediums Act (1951), which protected mediums against litigation, unless it could be proven that they acted with dishonest intent. As long as you genuinely believed the rubbish you were talking, you were in the clear. This is not an approach we would accept if, say, we were buying a used car. If Honest Pete's Motors told you "Sorry about that, guv, but I genuinely believed that there was nothing wrong with the gearbox on that Austin Allegro", you would not be happy. So why should spiritualists get away with it? According to the story:

Carole McEntee-Taylor, a spiritualist healer in Essex, said having to stand up and describe the invoking of spirits as an 'experiment' was forcing spiritualists to 'lie and deny our beliefs'. She added: 'No other religion has to do that'.

Perhaps if you have genuinely held religious beliefs, you shouldn't be attempting to make money out of them?