Thursday, 15 May 2014

Venus: Stellar Errors — Pseudomedical Misuse of Astronomy (and Logic)

Homeopathy is a pseudoscientific system of medical quackery that claims to work on the principle that if a substance makes a healthy person ill, it will cure a person with that illness. In homeopathic jargon, this is "the law of similars" and is often stated as "like cures like".

Homeopaths compound this illogic by claiming that, if a solution of this pathogenic agent is diluted and "succussed", their jargon word for hitting the vessel that contains the solution against an elastic body (apparently this was originally a leather-bound bible), it somehow becomes more effective. Homeopaths call this process "potentisation". We are invited to believe that a solvent, so dilute that were it larger than the known universe the probability is that it would not contain a single molecule of the original pathogenic agent, has somehow become more "potent". Homeopaths assert that this is due to the substance leaving its "imprint" on the solvent. They misrepresent (e.g here and here) physics to claim that this is due to the "memory of water", conveniently ignoring the evidence that any "memory" that water possesses lasts, at the most, for a few picoseconds. Exactly how the solvent remembers only the homeopath's pathogenic agent and conveniently forgets all the other stuff it's had dissolved in it for millions of years, or the atmospheric gasses that must be come into contact with it during the "potentisation" process is something that, unsurprisingly, is not adequately explained.

One can easily understand the appeal of such claims. Homeopaths usually hawk their remedies in either an aqueous solution of ethanol or on pillules of sucrose. There is an enormous profit to be made in selling aqueous ethanol or sugar for several hundred £, € or $ per kilogram. (See note)

Furthermore, it is now no longer necessary for the homeopath to actually have the original pathogenic substance: it is now possible to buy for £1000 or more, a machine that is claimed to use something akin to radionics to imprint sugar pills with the "vibrational energy" of the desired substance at whatever "potency" the user wishes.
In their quest for new "remedies", and perhaps also for fame in the pseudomedicine community, homeopaths seem to be on the lookout for wackier things to use. One of these has been starlight from Polaris — you couldn't make this up! I was unable to get in touch with the author of that particular example of homeopathic quackery, but have had more luck with an enterprising English homeopath, Chris Wilkinson, who has created another "remedy" using, I kid you not, the Light of Venus. Following the pretentiousness that seems to infest most so-called pseudomedicine (presumably some misguided attempt to create a veneer of academic authenticity) Mr Wilkinson has Latinised the name of his "remedy" to Venus Stella Errans (or "Planet Venus" in plain English). Mr Wilkinson is very active on Twitter, where he valiantly defends his chosen species of pseudomedicine, so I took the opportunity to quiz him about this "remedy".

Mr Wilkinson's description of his experimental process is strangely lacking in any of the detail that would enable his experiment to be replicated. In a Twitter exchange on the 25-27 June 2012, Mr Wilkinson seemed reluctant do divulge much more asserted that this is not necessary on the grounds that "any homeopath who knows about remedy making would have enough info to make something close enough … also the remedy doesn't have to be made again for a very very long time, way after we are dead" and that "there were too many minor variables involved to precisely replicate". So that's alright, then! However, I did manage to elicit some experimental detail:
"The telescope was a reflector, about 18in. The lactose was on the eyepiece."

I asked what part of the eyepiece (Eye lens, field lens, field stop, somewhere else?); Mr Wilkinson replied:
"the bit your eye looks in! No idea what that was called. It was slightly curved? … convex i mean"

In response to a question about how he had exluded other light from the lactose and during the "potentising", Mr Wilkinson responded: "It wasn't "completely" dark of course. Likewise with the initial potentising."

"The perpetrator of the Polaris drivel (above) stated:
The procedure was as follows. Having at my disposal an eight-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain Celestron telescope, I inserted a half-inch diameter clear-glass vial encircled by a cork rim into the eyepiece aperture. For autumn viewing the vial was filled with well water; in the winter, I used vodka, neat, to prevent the fluid freezing. The telescope itself was set up in the middle of a free-standing stone enclosure some three feet high and forty feet in diameter, which was oriented on a north/south axis.
"By means of the finderscope I kept the telescope contered on a chosen star for an interval of one hour. At the end of the viewing period I removed the vial from the telescope and to avoid human contamination placed it in a plastic container filled with sand. "

For a moment, let us suspend our critical senses and incredulity and assume, for the sake of argument, that homeopathy might work and that starlight or sunlight reflected from Venus might work homeopathically. The sunlight that Mr Wilkinson "collected" in his lactose took this route:
  1. Several million years transiting from the core of the Sun to its surface, where it was radiated into space.
  2. Impinged on the visible surface (i.e. atmosphere) of Venus, where about 25% was selectively absorbed and the other 75% reflected into space.
  3. Some of this reflected light then entered Earth's atmosphere; a tiny amount would have been selectively reflected, some selectively absorbed, some selectively scattered and some would heve entered the aperture of Mr Wilkinson's telescope, either directly or as a minuscule part of the scattered light.
  4. This light would then be reflected off the aluminium coating on the primary mirror (double-passing through any quartz overcoat) and again off the aluminised surface of the secondary mirror.
  5. It would then pass through layers of optical coatings on the eyepiece and through the several lens elements which, in modern eyepieces are of at least two different types of glass. Each of these would selectively absorbed some of the light, and each optical surface would have reflected some.
  6. It then passes onto the surface of Mr Wilkinson's lactose, where it mixes with the ambient light.
Even if Mr Wilkinson's "remedy" had some effect (and he has not, to the best of my knowledge, published, in any scientific journal, any RCTs with evidence of efficacy), he would have no way of knowing whether the effect was due to :
  • Reflection off Venus's atmosphere
  • Reflection off the aluminised mirror surfaces
  • Reflection off any other optical elements
  • Selectivebsorption by the atmosphere or any of the optical elements the light transited
  • Other scattered light from the atmosphere
  • Ambient light that the lactose absorbed from the time of its manufacture, up to and including the process of "potentisation"
In short, the design of this experiment is so poor that it beggars belief! As far as I can tell, there are no controls at all. Applying the homeopathic theory that "more dilute" equates to "more potent", the reflected sunlight from Venus would be amongst the least active of the different "lights" in the solution!

The "Polaris" one is even worse: the experimenter used water from a well! How did it manage to "forget" all the myriads of compounds that are found in any well water and "remember" only the starlight of Polaris?

If this shoddiness and appalling lack of control is typical of the design of homeopathic experiments or in the manufacture of their "remedies" (and I have no evidence to suggest that it is not typical), we should not be surprised at any outome. In my Twitter exchange with Mr Wilkinson, he seemed unconcerned about experimental rigour and much more concerned that I should have experienced homeopaths supervising any subjects I "proved" the "remedy" on ("Can go thru variables at some point, tho thats far less an issue than the proving process")if I decided to make it and test it. (To homeopaths,"proving" is the process by which they decide which "remedies" will treat which symptoms. Again, as far as I can ascertain, it is a shoddy process where experimental rigour is concerned. Although homeopaths try to claim that they are equivalent to clinical trials, they are not randomized, not blinded, highly subjective and prone to expectancy bias. As long as 170 years ago, Oliver Wendell Holmes stated that they are not repeatable and are too vague to be useful.

Note: I do not assert that all, or even most, homeopaths are knowingly committing medical fraud. However, I do assert that they are committing quackery, as defined by Quackwatch:"  Most people think of quackery as promoted by charlatans who deliberately exploit their victims. Actually, most promoters are unwitting victims who share misinformation and personal experiences with others."   I also assert that, most people of integrity who claim efficacy for homeopathy and much other pseudomedicine would not do so if they had a full understanding of the placebo effect which, contrary to what supporters of pseudomedicine try to tell us, also works on animals and children.

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