Monthly Archives: July 2012

A dilution of the facts – part 3

This continues from part 1 and part 2.

We met this afternoon to debrief a little after being treated to a lesson on homeopathy. The students and I sat around a couple of tables and discussed our thoughts, what we learned and how we felt about it. Unfortunately none of the senior students were able to attend so what follows is entirely the thoughts of some year 7 and 8 students.

They noticed two things about they way he presented that stood out to them. The first was how vague his responses were, and how he struggled to find answers. They felt that the vagueness in his answers was possibly a (subconscious?) tactic to avoid criticism. Making very clear and specific claims are easy to target and dissect, whereas comments like “strengthen the being” and so nebulous that it’s hard to find exactly what’s wrong with. Like punching a cloud, the entire statement is airy and difficult to catch.

Almost unanimously the students decided that his struggle to find answers (this wasn’t shown in my transcript but his answers often followed quite a lengthy pause) was due to him not really understanding homeopathy, as least as far as how it real life goes. Obviously this might not have been the case, I’ve been known to pause for a while before thinking of the best way to turn a phrase but there was a definite sense of somebody trying to conjure answers out of thin air.

The second thing the felt about his personality was just how nice and reasonable he seemed. It was their first time meeting somebody of this ilk before and I suspect they were expecting worse. Possibly due to their personal opinions of homeopathy, they were a little surprised at how likeable he was. This led them to understand a little more clearly just how easy it is to be convinced by someone. They considered the difference between going into a busy doctor’s office, having ten minutes worth of time and getting shoved out the door with a prescription in hand and visiting a homeopath, who has the time to sit down with you, get to know and make you feel important.

It’s a sad fact that the overworked nature of doctor’s limits the time and attention they can give to their patients. I guess that is one of the many prices of legitimacy.

A student commented on how important personal charisma is in selling unscientific ideas. He wondered about how many other ideas that have fallen by the wayside due to the lack of personal charm of the salespeople.

A young boy felt that everything the homeopath said made sense, as long as you were willing to make certain assumptions about reality, such as 1 + 1 = 3 . If the laws ‘like cures like’ and ‘dilution makes thing stronger’ were true then homeopathy would be perfectly valid and mostly consistent. He felt that there is possibly a universe out there were homeopathy works, but this wasn’t it.

Funnily enough, one student said that the homeopath did a better job of convincing them that it didn’t work than I ever did! I suppose I should be a little offended at this but I see his point. Maybe I should consider this for the future, instead of breaking down the fallacies and delusions of ufologists, I should just have one come and visit and let them speak freely.

A girl raised the point that mention of the Higgs Boson was so obviously a grasp at the latest and greatest scientific discovery.The kids wanted to know if he would have mentioned it six weeks ago, before it was in the papers. The girl reminded us that he was using it as an example of how there is a lot of stuff out there that we don’t know, then pointed out that we already know that! Scientists are well aware of how much we don’t know, but also aware of how much we do. It’s irrelevant anyway because even if a mysterious particle is one day found that could allow homeopathy to work, simple, controlled experiments have conclusively shown that it doesn’t.

It was very strongly felt that “like cures like” is too vague a concept to be useful. How far does this extend? Should you a shoot a gun-shot victim? It seems like a ridiculous suggestion but there are those who claim that burns should be cured with heat! Given that so many diseases cause similar symptoms and so many substances cause the same, it seems like you could just about cure anything with anything.

One final point was made before the bell went. Our guest referred to scepticism several times, including suggesting that he was a sceptical personal himself. None of my students agreed with this, but an interesting conversation started, only to be cut short by time. I suspect a false dichotomy was made when we argued, was he not a sceptic at all or was merely not a very good one? Could you be a scientifically illiterate sceptic who has been genuinely persuaded by homeopathic “evidence”? This then raised the question about could a sceptic be religious, or think that they’ve seen a ghost?

A discussion to be continued another time…


Filed under McKinnon Secondary Sceptical Society

A dilution of the facts – part 2

This is a continuation from part 1.

After our visiting homeopath spoke his piece the kids were given a chance to ask questions. I had warned them beforehand about being polite, although I needn’t have, these kids are beautiful. I found their questions quite interesting, to be honest. Not the hard-hitting ones that I was expecting but more general questions about how he operates. I queried the students on this afterwards and they explained that they wanted to understand homeopathy from a homeopath’s point of view.

Now, some people might understandably be worried about this. What if they believed his “science”? Well, let me put your worries to rest. These wonderful children wanted to learn as much about homeopathy as possible in order to better defend themselves and others against it.

Know thy enemy, if you will.

So, please excuse them for not pinning him to the wall with their pointed questions. Rather, appreciate their desire to understand him better. This will enable them to see things from other’s points of view more clearly which will only enhance their abilities to educate themselves and others in favour of science, rationalism and scepticism.

Also, please bear in mind that most of these kids are 13 and 14 years old. I think the quality of their questions speak volumes for their maturity and insight.

Anyway, here we go…

So I’ve got two questions. The first one is if you’ve got, homeopathically, if you had one substance that has the exact same symptoms, like a poison substance that has the exact same symptoms as another substance, would that work homeopathically to you know, get rid of the other one?

Ok, ok. As far as I’m concerned the principle is like cures like, not same cures same. So I’m not, if someone’s got a bee sting I don’t give them apis to get rid of it. I give them a substance that I find in here *holds up book*  that is capable of producing symptoms very similar to, so it’s not a matter of that, it’s a matter of that *holds hands up showing that both cases are very close*. What I do is to give, I’m not trying to use the substance to get rid of the problem, I’m trying to use the substance to give the body the back pressure to neutralise the disease itself, rather than to toss it out. Now my understanding is that the body, that the being removes their own disease. I’m trying to strengthen the being to do it. I am not trying to neutralise the disease in itself.

So my second question was if a homeopathic stuff is like a vaccination, then can’t you just give someone, very early in their life, you know, a homeopathic vaccination for everything and then they’ll never get anything?

The main problem of it for me is that I personally want people to get sick. I don’t want them to get so sick that it overwhelms them, I want them to stay strong within their sickness. But as far as I’m concerned healthy sickness strengths you. You know, like I have been pleased for my children to build in strength through sickness. And I am concerned that we nowadays take a lot of measures that are designed to stop sickness from happening and as far as I’m concerned, well from what I see we haven’t ended up with a healthier society. In fact I would worry that we’ve ended up with a sicker society by neutralising out of it sickness.

So you’ve said that it has the same theory as the vaccines do, well vaccines are made to strength your immune system against the sickness. So would say that when you’re giving homeopathic medication it’s like giving their immune system something to strength it while they’re sick?

Certainly I think that you take a homeopathic to strength the immune system. I’m not convinced that what vaccination does is to strengthen the immune system as much as to put in a blocker for a particular disease. And to that extent I get concerned about the way that that happens. I mean yes I want to strengthen the person in the face of their disease but I don’t want to do it by stopping the disease from being able to happen.

When you say “healthy sickness”, is that like if you have a sickness and you let it run its course then your immune system gets stronger and can handle worse diseases?

“Run its course” depends on what it is. At every point of the sickness I want the patient to be stronger rather than weaker in the face of it. But I don’t want to suppress the disease along that process in order that the being can’t get stronger. Just today I got an email from an ex-patient up in northern NSW who tells me that since he was six he’s had particular lesions, herpes lesions in fact. On his face, on his body, his genitals that have always been suppressed. And that now they’re starting to come out in a way that’s scaring him. What should he do? Now of course I don’t want to just let them run wild but I also don’t want to suppress them so that something else has to come out instead.

Do you think the same thing about pain medication?

With pain medication, yes. I mean I certainly don’t want to take the approach to suppress the pain. To just stop the body’s ability to feel the pain. If the problems are still there I would much prefer that the person is experiencing them and having some genuine work done to neutralise what’s causing it. Say it’s a headache and it’s to do with any sort of things within the head or the back of the next or wherever, I am not in favour of someone taking major pain medications really just to switch off the alarm clock. I can understand why someone would, and particularly in some diseases I guess I can even understand why someone does. But no, it’s not the preferable approach as far as I’m concerned.

But sorry but like, what about an anti-inflammatory drug that would as a side-effect would stop the pain because it stops the inflammation?

Yeah, well it depends on what the inflammation is and where it’s coming from. If the inflammation is there because there is a genuine problem with organs or parts of the body I would prefer not to just turn it off. But I’m also very happy for people to take something, particularly by natural means to start to control the inflammation.

This is just building on the last question and it may not seem relevant, let’s say you have a woman going into labour, would you be in favour of an epidural because it stops the pain, which is obviously a lot?

I’m certainly not as worried about it as I am about a whole range of other things because it’s a short-term understandable “problem” that will pass. Right, and so in the short-term I can understand why someone would. If one were to find out that in that epidural were huge poisons that were going to affect mother, baby into the future, yeah I’d have a problem.

You know people say don’t go outside if your hair’s wet cause you’ll get a cold, and if you do get a cold you stay inside in warm conditions? Wouldn’t you, based on like-cures-like, go outside to try cure it?

*long pause* No. I can understand what you’re asking, but no, it’s not saying that if someone’s cold it’ll get better if they’re colder. It is saying that if someone’s got cold symptoms they are capable of taking a substance that itself is capable of causing similar cold symptoms.

Why did you come to this meeting even though you knew that we’d be sceptical against you?

I read a report in the Age by Jewel Topsfield and I wrote to her to express my disagreement with some of what she’d written and she I think forwarded a copy of that to Mr vanLangenberg and this resulted from there. And also I don’t mind, as I say, healthy scepticism. I personally am, I hope, sceptical about a whole range of things until I’ve got good reason to understand them and believe them. Believe comes from a word meaning to fervently wish. Now I’m not wanting us to have therefore belief, I’m wanting us to have understanding.

Can I just ask if you could explain the concept of the dilution and how given back when homeopathy first created by Hanneman there was no understanding of molecules or anything. So the idea that you could dilute something that much and still have it spread out was probably a valid idea. But now that we know about molecules and when something’s diluted down to say, I think you mentioned the 60C mark, when something’s diluted that much there’s basically, basically zero chance that there would be single molecule of the original substance left.

Oh totally zero. It’s the equivalent of having one drop in all the oceans of the earth.

Exactly, so I’ve sort of got two questions. One is how then does the original substance have any bearing on the water at all, and two, if that’s the case how to you take into account every single that’s ever been diluted into that water in the first place, like water running through the ocean and sewerage pipes. What happens with that?

In terms of the second one you do use as pure water as you possibly can. You are wanting to use distilled water to make it but I agree, it certainly does have those sorts of questions.

In terms of the first one, I certainly can’t say I know that it has that sort of power, but when provings, these things *holds up book* are done on substances there are two ways these are normally done. One is by direct poisonings, the other is by taking frequent doses of the dilution. And if one takes frequent enough doses, I mean you have to in fact be careful with patients who… they won’t poison themselves with them, but if they take substances too often, you know you give it to them three a day for a week and they take twenty a day for a month or something, they will come out with the symptoms expressed in the material.

And how would that be possible though when what they’re taking is at that point essentially water?

Only vibrationally.

So how does that work?

I certainly can’t say in how. I think that this Higgs Boson is starting to make us wonder. You know? There is something there that is giving, or that is behind the materiality of this. That we certainly haven’t been able to, or still aren’t able to measure. That is now suggesting that there is reality.

You keep bringing up the Higgs Boson, from what I understand that’s a quantum physics term. In that case, quantum physics we know deals with things smaller than atoms and the way that you distinguish one atom from another is that atoms have different numbers of protons and neutrons. If you’re dealing with things smaller than atoms, at that point how do you distinguish between different substances? Like for example, if you have maybe arsenic versus some other element and you take something smaller than an atom from those elements, wouldn’t that thing that’s smaller than an atom have to be indistinguishable? Because the only thing that makes them different, the differences occur on an atomic level and sub-atomic level. You’re dealing with identical things.

Ok look, the only reason… I don’t understand the Higgs Boson. I mean, it’s so new and it’s… the only reason I bring it up at all is because it appears to me that it might be starting to give us understanding that at that sub-atomic level there might be… we might be getting to… I was going to say particles but it’s not particles, it’s pre-particle. That give particles their meaning in their form. You know, that’s what we’re looking for when we’re dealing with dilutions as stupid as homeopathy. Because incidentally it doesn’t stop at 30C, as Mr V. suggested. One of the very common potencies is 200C which 1 part of the substance to 1 with 400 zeroes part of water. And M, 1000. Which is one part of the substance to 1 with 2000 zeroes. And the theory, I tend not to use the 200 or the M, but the theory of homeopathy would suggest that substances get stronger rather than weaker as you go up that scale.

Could you explain some cases that you might be able to use as, not prove, but evidence that makes you think this theory works?

Thousands. I mean, chamomile. Chamomilla. Hot, irritable, thirsty, wants to be carried. Babies who are teething. Any mother who had a baby who is hot, irritable, thirsty and wants to be carried and has used homeopathy and used chamomile, would testify. Pulsatilla, wind anemone. Another homeopathic substance. Mild, gentle, tearful, not thirsty. The way some other young children react to sickness, even teething etcetera. And what pulsatilla tends to do is strengthen them in the face of it. Someone mentioned arsenic before. Arsenicum patients are fastidious, to the point of *slaps forehead* driving you nuts if you’re around them. You know, everything has to be absolutely in line, in the right sized heaps etcetera etcetera etcetera. And they have burning pains and a whole range of other symptoms which are in here *refers to book* but the arsenicum will strengthen them in the face of it. I tend to be a sulphur. I’m a grot. You know, like my house, stuff is everywhere. The exact opposite of the arsenicum. When I finish preparing a lecture, doing things, papers all over the place, you know? If anyone looked into my bedroom there’s be clothes all over the place. Quite the opposite of arsenicum. Now look that’s just though four examples in thousands, that you can come up with.

How much would you dilute the substances you were talking about for teething babies?

Normally to what’s called the 12C which is that same 1 to 99 twelve times. Because at that point you’ve gone beyond the point of molecular structure.

The bell rang in the middle of this answer and after thanking him for his time, the kids headed off to class. Unfortunately there were quite a few questions left unanswered, due to time. He agreed to answer these via email and I will post those answers as soon as they arrive.

I spoke with one student during the week who mentioned how reasonable and nice the homeopath came across as. He said that he now understood exactly how people could fall for alternative medicine. I think that lesson alone made this experience worthwhile.

I am very proud of how my students handled themselves and the quality of their questioning. There were a few claims made by the homeopath that went unchallenged, some due to running out of time and some that simply weren’t noticed. However we are meeting again this Monday and will be going over everything with a fine-toothed comb.

Thanks for reading all of this so far, I appreciate that a lot of it was hard to get through! Part 3 will come soon and I will share my student’s thoughts and comments with you all.

Update – part 3!


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A dilution of the facts – part 1

Some time ago an article was written in The Age newspaper about my sceptical society. As a result of that I received an email from a homeopath requesting an audience with me and my kids. My first thought was “absolutely not”. Why on Earth would I allow such a charlatan to come into my school and try to convert my students into scientific illiterates? I was not alone in thinking this, with a few other sceptical peers feeling the same way.

After a few months I changed my mind following a conversation with two people. Firstly, Eran Segev, president of the Australian Skeptics. Secondly, my father.

Eran’s point was a simple one. I need to start exposing my students to pseudoscience to give them experience in questioning and critical thinking. And what pseudoscience is easier to debunk, said Eran, than homeopathy?

Point taken.

My father’s advice was a little more… fatherly. He made me realise that there comes a point where you have to let your children go off into the world and trust that you’ve taught them well. This was my opportunity to bring some of the outside world into the classroom and hope that my kids had learned their lessons.

So, on Monday afternoon my phone vibrated in my pocket as I received the automated SMS telling me that the homeopath had signed in at the kiosk in the school lobby. I went to find him, said hello and shook his hand. An older gentleman, with a nice smile and pleasant demeanour. Not at all the fire-breathing monster I had been expecting!

I walked him through the school to the meeting room where a group of kids were already waiting. They took their seats while the homeopath (who I am choosing not to name) sat at the front of the room and waited to be introduced.

(Incidentally, anybody not familiar with what homeopathy is should watch this fantastic video of James Randi explaining it all: James Randi explains homeopathy)

What followed was… I don’t really know. He spoke of himself as a sceptic and a scientist. Two things that I would have not have associated with homeopathy. His claims of being scientific seemed to have something to do with his previous studies in sociology and commerce. A few of the students laughed when he referred to being a sceptic, because they are well aware of what sceptics feel about homeopathy. I believe that he considers himself a sceptic because he carefully considers the evidence in all areas. He just happens to not understand what the evidence means.

What follows is the first part of his presentation. I have transcribed his talk as well I could, removing any “ums”, “ahs” and repeated words. This post will stop before any questions were asked by the students as it’s fairly long.

Look, I get the impression that the best way for us to do it is for me to just introduce things first off and then throw it across to you to ask anything you want to ask and the subject matter is homeopathy. Have you ever heard of or seen, done anything with homeopathy? Neither had I when I first came across it. I was in fact a lecturer in sociology at the University of NSW when I had my first child, and the whole question of health care, I was at that stage doing a diploma of naturopathy. And the whole question of my son’s health came up. One night at one of my lecturers, it was a herbal medicine lecture, the teacher whose name was Dorothy Hall, who was a big name in naturopathy in those days said look ,”tomorrow night or the next night there will be a lecture in homeopathy by a guy called Alan Jones who owned a bookshop.” And I’d never heard the word. This was 1973, I’d never ever, ever heard the word ‘homeopathy’ so I thought “Why not? I’ll go.”

And so I went along, sceptical. *laughter* Enormously sceptical, just because I’d never heard of it. I drove home that night crying my eyes out. Which was a bit strange. Because I’d come to this as what I saw as a scientist. I mean, that’s what sociology is all about. I’d also done before that a commerce degree. I loved and loved science and from my point of view I couldn’t take on anything that didn’t fit within scientific principles. Scientific principles means that it’s got clear principles, that it’s testable and that they’re replicable. You can do them again and test them again. And this was all of a sudden in that whole area of natural health giving me something that had very clear principles that were testable and that were replicable. Very clear principles, really there are just three. Homeopathy is based on three very clear principles.

The first is, which is what homeopathy means. Would anyone have a stab at what homeopathy means? Homeo pathos. ‘Homeo’ means similar, like in homogenised milk. Pathos means suffering. And so the whole principle of homeopathy is that of similar suffering. Which means that would give a substance because it’s capable of causing the problems that they’ve got. Now in very simple terms you could see that in terms of, if they’ve got lesions that are all blown up and burning and stinging and etcetera etcetera, that look like a bee sting you could well give a substance called apis. A homeopathic substance called apis. Which is made from bee sting. Or if they’re feeling beaten and bruised all over, you could well use a substance called, there’s a herb called leopard’s bane, which in homeopathy is called arnica. Which if you are take material doses of, will make you feel beaten and bruised all over. That’s the whole principle. I mean in some cases it’s like the bee sting, that you don’t have to take it, it just happens when you experience it. In some cases in order to find out what the substance is capable of doing you have to basically poison yourself with it. Well not yourself, but someone has. That’s the book *holds up very tattered book, which I believe to be the Materia Medica*, sorry it’s such a worn copy of but it’s gone through 40 years of children and a similar number of students.

That’s simply the book of poisonings. Nothing else but a book of poisoning. It lists what every substance is capable of causing in a healthy person and then that principle of like cures like suggests that that same substance is capable of curing, neutralising, strengthening the person.

And that is, that’s the major, central theme of homeopathy, that like cures like. That what will cause something is capable of curing something. It’s the same principle, incidentally as vaccination. Which also uses in that case the disease, in order to work on the disease. And it uses it in large amounts and it mixes it with all other substances. That’s the problem that a homeopath would have with it, but the principle is the same. There are many, many orthodox medical drugs that are used in that same sort of way.

The second principle of homeopathy is the law of the single remedy. Which means that you take one substance at a time. That we can easily in here *referring to the book* see what one substance is capable of causing and what another substance is capable of causing. But to say that you can put those two together and say that it will cause both of those two things together isn’t necessarily the case.

There are some in there *referring to book again*, one is called hepar sulphuris calcareum  where in fact two substances have been joined together and they have been “proved”, taken until you get the poisoning symptoms together. And that comes out as a completely different remedy that’s called in there, hepar sulph. So that’s the second principle. Like cures like and single remedy.

The third one is the one that causes most of the contention. Because it’s the one called the law of the minimum dose. Which means that, and it’s probably the one that will cause the majority of the questions from your side too, it means that you’re taking minimum, if not minimal, if not to the stupid point of too tiny doses of a substance. I mean the way that you make a homeopathic remedy is to take one part of the substance and mix it with … well you can in fact mix it with nine parts, or ninety-nine, I tend to deal in the 99 ones … 99 parts of water.

And that is then what you call succussed *starts pounding his fist into his other hand* that is where you smash it against a hard object to release the one part into the 99. In fact if it wasn’t soluble in water there’s amount method with a mortar and pestle where you can grind it up until it is soluble in water. But  let’s assume you’re dealing with soluble substance. One part of that mix you mix it with 99 parts of water and you thump it together. Then you take one part of that mix and you thump it together. Then you take that basically to any dilution. I tend to use it normally at what’s called the 30th dilution. Which is 1 part of the substance to one with 60 zeroes of water. Which I understand is nuts, by anything that we understand. Except until you start coming across, and it’s been a boon in many ways for homeopaths, this Hans boson *I pointed out here that is called the Higgs boson* that’s come up in the last weeks. Which is saying there is another particle, there is another unmeasurable particle that gives thing form. I mean the Hubble telescope has been pushing in that direction too and is starting to provide some sort of basis, some sort of support that says, “Hey wait on, there is something beyond what we know of.”

And we do have to  keep our minds open. We do have to be sceptical, is the word. I personally love the notion of scepticism. I think that healthy scepticism, and I use the word healthy which means that it, yes it’s healthy, it’s keeping our minds open until we have good reason to accept or reject. I mean I find a group such as this an interesting one because I taught homeopathy at Southern Cross university up in northern New South Wales for about 15 years and the only reason that I started to teach it there, in the degree of naturopathy was because the degree started and in fact it went the other way, the students went on strike. They said “we’re not coming back until we have homeopathy. We will not be here unless we’ve got homeopathy within the degree.” At which stage they found me, cause I’d been teaching, I’d been lecturing in sociology like I mentioned, and asked me if I’d come along. Now that was scepticism almost from another end of naturopathy without homeopathy. Scepticism is fascinating in this game, you go into many countries of Europe, go to Switzerland and there is absolutely no question that homeopathy is clearly included in the national health scheme. You come to Australia and there is a lot of work going on to try and scrub it from the national health scheme. So it’s dependant in so many terms on what country you’re in and where you’ve learnt it from.

Now with all that I’m saying that isn’t to say that there aren’t aspects, approaches to homeopathy that I too find absolute rubbish. Absolute rubbish. I don’t think that they are testable. I don’t think they are replicable. I think they’re, well they’re made up. And too many of the more modern approaches of homeopathy are of that sort, from my sight. The ones that I see, like you look at Hippocrates, Paracelsus, Aristotle, Galileo, all of those ancient figures espoused at some time, something that approached the notion of like curing like. And even though homeopathy hadn’t come up yet, similar approaches were being used across the board. As I say nowadays I think you’ll find that there are a lot of people of “homeopath” say and do things that personally I think are rubbish.

So look, I’m therefore going to stop at that point so that you can ask as many questions as you want, basically.

So, there you go. This is what we sat through, politely, waiting for our chance to ask questions. There are so many things in what he said that could be pulled apart. Claiming that things get stronger the more you dilute them and that like cures like. Claiming to be scientific yet totally ignoring any actual science. Using the fact that some students wanted to learn homeopathy as evidence for its merit. His most egregious crime would have to be commandeering the Higgs boson! Like so many others have cited quantum mechanics as justification for why their particular brand of magic, our homeopath had grabbed onto the latest and most mysterious scientific discovery.

The Higgs boson proves that we don’t know everything therefore how can you doubt anything!?

What nonsense.

Anyway, stay tuned for when I post the questions asked and the “answers” given. You might laugh, you might cry. Never forget though, that he and others like him are responsible for the health of many people. People who should be seeking legitimate medical help are going to homeopaths and being given magic water instead of medicine.



Update – Part 2!


Filed under McKinnon Secondary Sceptical Society