I can feel it in my water

Today I have two water related news stories I would like to talk about.

I stumbled upon this story on CNN in which Nicole Kidman claims to have fallen pregnant because she was swimming in a waterfall near the town of Kununurra in the Australian outback. I assume she means the pool at the base of the waterfall, and not the waterfall itself.

Nicole and six other women who were in the middle of the Australian outback while filming a movie all happened to fall pregnant within that space of time. It must have been the waterfall and not the sex they were having while stuck in a tiny town in the middle of the nowhere.

How would a waterfall improve your fertility anyway, Nicole? I think that what she has done here is she has confused correlation with causation. Just because you all swam in the same pool, does not mean that you are all pregnant because you swam in the pool. How many women swam in the pool and did not fall pregnant? And don’t only count the lesbians for that answer, okay?

The second case I have read about today is that of the Maun Homeopathy Project. This offensive initiative was founded by Hilary Fairclough and Philippa Brewster in 2002. The aim of the MHP is to offer homeopathic treatment to people infected with HIV/AIDS, victims of rape and “people suffering from trauma, grief and stigma”.

Homeopathy is not medicine and any attempt to portray it as such is dangerous. Homeopathy was invented by Dr. Samuel Hahnemann and is based on the fallacious principle “Similia similibus curentur” (let likes be cured by likes).

Hahnemann came upon this idea while working as a language teacher and translator. He had heard that the bark of a Peruvian tree, the cinchona, was effective in treating malaria due to it’s astringency. Hahnemann claimed that other astringent substances were not effective against malaria and set out to test why cinchona bark was. As he could not conduct a clinical trial, he had to test the substance on himself. He claimed that the drug produced malaria like symptoms in him (shaking chills, high fever, sweating, fatigue, headache, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, dry cough, muscle or joint pain and back ache.) It’s a pity he did not suffer malaria’s most infamous symptom; Death.

Hahnemann concluded that cinchona would provoke similar symptoms in any healthy individual. From this non-exhaustive, not double-blind clinical trial he came upon the following healing principle; “that which can produce a set of symptoms in a healthy individual, can treat a sick individual who is manifesting a similar set of symptoms.”

That’s it. That is how homeopathy was born.

Interestingly, Hahnemann’s reaction to the cinchona bark does not differ much from the symptoms of quinine allergy. Quinine is a drug which is given as treatment for malaria and it is present in the cinchona bark. For a detailed essay on this aspect of Hahnemann’s self-assessment please read this short page. One cannot help but wonder what would have happened had he not been allergic to quinine. We would surely have been spared the travesty that is homeopathy.

Furthermore, homeopathic “remedies” are diluted to such a degree that the homeopaths themselves cannot distinguish between a vial of water and a “remedy”. In a famous trial carried out by Jacques Benveniste and James Randi, Randi proved through rigorous, double-blind protocols that Benveniste’s team could not score more than 50% (which is no better then the probability of random chance) when trying to distinguish between water and homeopathic remedies. The results of this trial were published in the journal Nature in 1988 (the year in which the study was conducted).

What this means is that the people of the MHP are dispensing woo woo science at its most dangerous. The danger is not the temporary relief offered to the people who seek the homeopathic treatment. The true danger is that one day one of these people may decide to stop taking their anti-retroviral medication because he may believe that the homeopathic rubbish will cure him of AIDS. That will be a very frightening day indeed.

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10 responses to “I can feel it in my water

  1. I’m still waiting for someone to ask a homeopath if he uses only _new_ water, freshly synthesized from reagent-grade hydrogen and oxygen, and carefully protected from airborne contamination. After all, water from any natural source will have “memory” of all manner of toxic shit, from blowfish venom to nuclear waste, not to mention the countless megatons of _literal_ shit that have been dumped into the ocean.

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  5. Yeah, that quote from Benveniste is so ridiculous!
    Guess he forgot to engage his brain before operating his mouth!

  6. Great article, it will go into my growing library of the reasons why homoeopathy fails (I have a family member who has been known to use these over-priced sugar pills).

    I would also recommend (to other interested visitors) to take a look at MoonFlake’s posts on the subject.
    http://moonflake.wordpress.com/2008/03/29/an-introduction-to-homeopathy-part-i/
    http://moonflake.wordpress.com/2008/04/21/an-introduction-to-homeopathy-part-2/

    I’d love to hear more about the Benveniste story. I watched a google video about the whole thing a few months ago and that sparked an old memory. Some time in 2004/2005, a work colleague at the time was chatting to me about homoeopathy and a book that I can’t remember the title of or the author. In the book the author was criticising the “fraudulent” way that homoeopathy’s greatest success (verified by many independent labs around the world -LOL) was swept under the carpet. It went on for paragraphs about how a magician was let in to the testing procedures and would often do tricks, he could have switched things and caused the test to fail. The author also said that the other independent observer (presumably Maddox – I can’t remember any of the names) was a physicist and also had no training in homoeopathy. I had no proof at the time to counter any of homoeopathy’s claims but I did talk at length with the colleague that the chapter did not explain how the process worked at all, it was mostly concerned with discrediting the testers but didn’t put forth anything other than opinion on the people involved using very emotive language. I wish I knew the term “Ad Hominem” in those days. Also the false dichotomy, come to think of it. Maybe I should see if I can get in contact with that former colleague again. 🙂

    Also, Benveniste is a loon; on the Water Memory page at Wikipedia it has a quote from his Nature article which reads “It’s like agitating a car key in the river, going miles downstream, extracting a few drops of water, and then starting one’s car with the water.” He thinks that is a sensible analogy?!?

    FYI: some more calculations on the ridiculously remote chance of getting one molecule were made by Anacoluthon64 at the SA Skeptics forum …
    http://forum.skeptic.za.org/junk-science-and-alternative-medicine/homeopathy-suicide-attempt/
    and again here…
    http://forum.skeptic.za.org/junk-science-and-alternative-medicine/homeopathic-remedies-for-jet-lag/

  7. Haha, yeah, that is a great way to learn, especially as skeptics are prone to provide that sort of education! 🙂

    I’d certainly enjoy a larger, more detailed piece on the whole Benveniste story. I tried to get access to the relevant Nature papers the other day, by the way, but institutional access (what I have via UKZN’s servers) only go back to 1997.

    Now that you mention it, yeah, I remember Randi discussing the story on SGU. It was a very nice illustration of scientists knowing their limits and benefiting from a collaboration with magicians (“conjurers” in Randi’s preferred terminology).

  8. Thanks Micheal, I knew I was leaving out a lot of the details. I heard a great interview with Randi on “The Skeptics Guide to the Universe” where he also went into a lot of detail. I was actually planning on writing an expansion on the matter, and I will be sure to include far more detail.

    I appreciate the nitpicking, that’s how I learn.

  9. Has anyone actually done the maths on some of the homeopathic products we can buy here in SA? I have a few pages of scribbled notes to compute both the dilution step at which all active ingredients cease to be present, as well as the volumes that would be required to have just one molecule present. Usually, these require containers about the size of the solar system, and in some cases, several orders of magnitude bigger.

    The sad thing is that the numbers are mostly useless to convince someone off the street that they’re buying 50ml pure water for R100. The thing that really upsets me, is when I explain this to someone who passed university first level chemistry, and they just shrug and claim that it “seems to work for me/my kids, and science can’t explain everything”. One of these days…

  10. Great post, thanks! (I especially liked the link to the piece on Hahnemann’s allergy. Priceless).

    Nitpicking: you leave out some important details about the Benveniste story. Benveniste published an article in Nature, but the editor, John Maddox, attached a disclaimer and imposed the condition that a team be sent to scrutinize Benveniste’s methods. The team (Randi, Maddox and Walter Stewart) then visited his lab and discovered the experimental procedures were not double-blinded and, when proper controls were put in place, Benveniste’s claims didn’t hold up. The team then published a critique in a subsequent edition of Nature…

    (Btw, Randi has discussed these events a couple of times on his podcast, “The Amazing Show”).

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