Sep 16 2010
Recent the following question appeared in my Topic Suggestion thread:
hi dr novella,
though a little past the time of your debate with homeopaths at the University of Connecticut Health Center: A Debate: Homeopathy – Quackery Or A Key To The Future of Medicine? (2007), i’m wondering why in your response to the actual debate on your blog you respond in the comments section to a post:
“The bottom line is that homeopathy is a tangle of magical thinking, every element of which lacks a theoretical or empirical basis.”
i’m unsure how you can make this statement when Dr. Rustom Roy disproved one of your main arguments, that homeopathic medicines are merely placebos, showed evidence that the structure and thus function of water can be changed for extended periods of time. this evidence presented refutes that the remedies are merely water, the inert substance that we all think it is. your quote above entirely ignores and contradicts the evidence that was shown to you.
this would be an interesting topic of discussion.
I also recently learned that Rustom Roy died on August 26th, just a few weeks ago at the age of 86. Roy was one of those enigmatic scientists who, on the one hand, had a conventional career as a material scientist. But he also harbored a strong belief in the supernatural and pursued those longings in parallel to material science. Those interests most notably crossed in his claim that water has memory and this can be an explanation for homeopathic effects.
During my one encounter with Roy at the UCONN debate referenced above, at one point Roy declared that the “materialist paradigm is dead.” Clearly he wished it to be so, but in my opinion reports of the death of materialism are premature. Roy’s evidence, at least that he was offering at the time, was John of God.
This is a side issue – but John of God is a self-styled healer in Brazil who has been thoroughly exposed by Joe Nickell and others. He uses a combination of old carnie tricks and faith-healing revival techniques to ply his trade. I found it very enlightening that Roy was completely taken in by a fairly unremarkable charlatan, and thought that sufficient evidence to overturn the materialist paradigm.
This was also not an isolated lapse. Roy founded the Friends of Health, dedicated to promoting a spiritual “holistic” approach to “healing”. Clearly this was a deeply held spiritual belief for Roy, and it is unfortunate that he allowed his religious beliefs to taint his science.
There are many reasons why homeopathy is pure pseudoscience. First, it was invented rather than discovered – Hahnemann developed his principles of homeopathy from anecdote and superstition, without any chain of scientific research, evidence or reasoning.
Homeopathy’s three laws are also made-up superstition, and two hundred years of subsequent scientific advance has born this out. Scientific knowledge builds on itself, and when someone discovers a fundamental property of nature that leads to further discoveries and a deepening understanding. Homeopathy led to nothing. The law of similars is the notion that “like cures like” – that a small dose of a substance will cure whatever symptoms it causes in a high dose. This, however, is not based upon anything in biology or chemistry. It is often falsely compared to the responses to vaccines, but this is not an apt analogy.
The law of infinitessimals, the notion that substance become more potent when diluted, violates the law of mass action and everything we know about chemistry. Also, many homeopathic remedies are diluted past the point where even a single molecule of original substance is likely to be left behind. Hahnemann believed that the water retained the magical “essence” of the substance (homeopathy is a vitalistic belief system), and this also lead to the more recent attempts to explain homeopathy in terms of water memory, which I will discuss further below.
In addition to the basic principles of homeopathy being superstitious and contradicted by modern science, the clinical evidence also shows that homeopathic remedies do not work. There have been hundreds of clinical studies of homeopathy, and taken as a whole this vast literature shows that homeopathic remedies are indistinguishable from placebos.
This is not even a scientific controversy – the evidence is overwhelming – homeopathy cannot work and does not work. Only ideology, wishful thinking, and scientific illiteracy keeps it alive.
Modern defenders have desperately tried to justify homeopathy with scientific-sounding explanations, but they have failed miserably. The results are often hilarious (at least to those who have the slightest familiarity with actual science). One such attempt is the notion that water is capable of having memory – that it can physically remember the chemical properties of substances that have been diluted in it.
The notion of water memory was first raised by French homeopath Jacques Benveniste in 1988. He was not studying the water structure itself, just trying to demonstrate that water can retain the memory of antibodies or other substances diluted in it. His research, however, has been completely discredited – among the many flaws in his methods, his lab was cherry picking data, using improper statistics, and recounting data points that did not fit their desired results.
Roy, however, was referring to later research which he believed showed that water molecules are like bricks – they can be used to build structures that contain greater complexity and information than the bricks themselves. Specifically, that water molecules could encode in their structure the chemical properties of what was diluted in them.
However, the evidence does not support this claim. What has been demonstrated is that water molecules do form transient bonds with other water molecules, creating a larger ultrastructure – but these water structures are extremely short-lived. They are not permanent.
In fact, research shows that water molecules very efficiently distribute energy from these bonds, making them extremely ephemeral. One such research paper concludes:
Our results highlight the efficiency of energy redistribution within the hydrogen-bonded network, and that liquid water essentially loses the memory of persistent correlations in its structure within 50 fs.
That’s 50 femotoseconds, or 50 quadrillionths (10^-15) of a second. Contrary to Roy’s claims – water does not hold memory. In fact it is characterized by being extremely efficient at not holding a memory. Scientists can argue about whether or not under certain conditions water can display ultrastructure lingering for longer than femtoseconds – but they are arguing over fractions of a second.
There is no evidence that water can retain these structures for a biologically meaningful amount of time. It is amazing that Roy and others so enthusiastically extrapolated from the claim (itself probably bogus) that water can hold structures slightly longer than previously believed to the notion that this can explain the biological effectiveness of homeopathy. Let’s take a close look at the non-trivial steps they glossed over.
If this kind of water memory is an explanation for homeopathy, then these structures would have to survive not only in a sample of water, but through the physical mixing of that water with other water. In fact, they would have to transfer their structure, like a template, to surrounding water molecules. This would need to be reliably repeatable over many dilutions. Then these structures would have to survive transfer to a sugar pill (often homeopathic remedies are prepared by a drop of the water being place onto a sugar pill.
These water structures would then have to be transferred to the sugar molecules, because before long the water will evaporate. This pill will then sit on a shelf for days, months, or years finally to be consumed by the gullible. She sugar pill will be broken down in the stomach, the sugar molecules digested, absorbed into the blood stream, and then distributed through the blood to the tissues of the body.
Presumably – whatever molecules are retaining this alleged ultrastructure are sticking together throughout this process, and finding their way to the target organ where they are able to have their chemical/biological effect.
“Absurd” does not even begin to cover the leaps of logic that are being committed here. In short, invoking water memory as an explanation for homeopathic effects just adds more layers of magical thinking to the notion of homeopathy, it does not offer a plausible explanation (even if water memory were true, which it isn’t.)
Chemical bonds (some chemical bonds) are strong enough to survive this process intact and make it through the body to the target tissue where they can bind to receptors or undergo their chemical reactions. Even most chemicals, however, cannot make it through this biological gauntlet with their chemical activity intact – which is why the bioavailability of many potential drugs is too low for them to be useful as oral agents. They are simply broken down by the digestive process. The ephemeral bonds of this alleged water memory, in other words – if this fiction of water memory even existed, would have a bioavailability of zero.
Rustom Roy had a respectable career as a materials scientist, but likely his name would be unknown to the public were it not for his side interest in magical healing and homeopathy, which is certain to eclipse his more conventional career. His claim that water memory provides a scientific explanation for the action of homeopathic preparations is pure pseudoscience. It does not hold up to a review of the published scientific evidence, or even just thinking through how such water memory could exert a biological effect.
Homeopathy, as the water memory claims demonstrate, has become nothing but a desperate enterprise of piling pseudoscience on top of pseudoscience.
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