Tuesday, 23 February 2010


The Science and Technology select committee (a group of MPs) has just published a report into the efficacy of homeopathic treatment, suggesting it shouldn't be provided on the NHS, and that products with no active ingredients shouldn't be regulated by the Medical and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency. I think this is really good, because it makes so much sense.

I quote:
'By providing homeopathy on the NHS and allowing MHRA licensing of products which subsequently appear on pharmacy shelves, the Government runs the risk of endorsing homeopathy as an efficacious system of medicine. To maintain patient trust, choice and safety, the Government should not endorse the use of placebo treatments, including homeopathy. Homeopathy should not be funded on the NHS and the MHRA should stop licensing homeopathic products.'

Media coverage of this report seems to be trying to present a 'balanced' viewpoint. Much as has happened in the climate science 'debate' in the media, cranks and quacks are given as big a platform as the credible science is, because the newsmakers chicken out of making any judgements.
For example the BBC's article is titled "NHS money 'wasted' on homeopathic remedies." Rather than the more sensible "WTF! do our taxes really get spent on magic water?" The woman even explains how it 'works' - not mentioning placebo at all...

This kind of stuff gets right under my skin and makes me squirm with incredulity.

Here's how it doesn't work

The title of this post is Avogadro's number. It is massive, as you notice. It is how many atoms of carbon there are in exactly 12g of carbon. But let's say you diluted it. Say it wasn't carbon, say it was arsenic- the well known deadly poison.
If I had 602214179000000000000000 atoms of arsenic (this would weigh 74.92 g, in case you were wondering), and I diluted it 1 in 10 in water, I now have a solution of 602214179000000000000000 atoms of arsenic. I can't be bothered to work out what the volume of this would be, but let's say it's a litre. I dilute my arsenic again, taking out 100ml and adding to that 900ml water. I now have a litre with 60221417900000000000000 arsenic atoms in. Let's say I do this thirty times in all.

602214179000000000000000= Avogadro's number

 How many arsenic atoms are in my litre now? Fuck all. There is a very, very small chance of there being even 1 atom of arsenic in my litre. This is what homeopaths try and sell as medicine. They call it a 30c preperation. You're only supposed to take a few drops. They also think it's 'stronger' if you dilute it ten times again. It's all bollocks, but the NHS spends £4m on it a year. Oh, I nearly forgot, they bang on the bottle to make the water 'remembers' the arsenic that was in it.

 Naturally, these remedies have never been proven to be better than placeboes- plain sugar pills. Sure, placebos can benefit people, but doctor's aren't supposed to lie to patients to make them better. Even if you go through the ethical minefield and come out thinking they should give placeboes (and I would disagree) there are easier, cheaper ways. When my grandfather, a pharmacist, gave placeboes to addicts, he just made up some plain pills in his shop. He didn't need to buy pills with specially treated water dropped onto them.

 There are loads of lame excuses for why this disproven treatment is still being used (you can read them in the report if you're as much of a geek as me), but it's nice to see MPs seeing through them. I really hope the government sees sense.

 You might wanna read Bad Science, or David Colquhoun's equally good science site, about this topic. They've always got good stuff. 

Or here's a big campaign against the bollocks.

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