My favourite… Homeopathic remedy

April 17, 2010

Celebrating the end of WHAW.
(world Homeopathy awareness week, of course)

You may not be aware of it, but we have just survived world homeopathy awareness week (WHAW), the amazing non-event that was marked by ever-so-slightly elevated levels of pro-homeo spam on twitter, and a plethora of pithy science blogs that carefully pointed out that there was no evidence that homeopathy works, or indeed, how it might conceivably work. This was topped off by a Dilbert cartoon that handily lampooned both homeopathy and astrology.


Homeopaths might want take note of the current plight of UK chiropractors – who this week, finally folded in their attempts to sue Simon Singh for libel. In suing Simon Singh, the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) stuck their collective heads above the parapet of public ignorance/apathy, and were struck down by a combination of artillery fire from organisations like Index on Censorship, English Pen and the “Keep libel laws out of science” campaign, and some precision snipping from science/skeptical bloggers such as Zeno and Simon Perry. As a result of all this:

  1. the libel laws look set to change,
  2. the BCA lost,
  3. the BCA will be paying a proportion Simon Singh’s costs.
  4. ~25% of all chiropractors are currently under investigation for making unsubstantiated claims on their websites

Given this, one would hope that other “unreality enthusiasts” (© Dr_Aust_PhD) might keep their heads down for a while – but oh no. Not the homeopaths. Despite the 1023 campaign drawing attention to homeopathy, and STFC report into homeopathy concluding that homeopathy is not deserving of NHS funding, the homeopaths continue to draw attention to themselves – by having an “awareness week”.

Of all the “remedies” that homeopaths use1, from the light of Venus, to fragments of the Berlin wall, Natrum Mur has to be one of the most ridiculous, from a scientific point of view. According to this webpage, Natrum Mur is used for:

Homeopaths give this remedy for emotional problems, such as anxiety and depression, that are caused by suppressed grief and other emotions.

Natrum mur. is also used to treat conditions with a watery discharge, such as colds, and phlegm or profuse, clear mucus. Complaints that are generally worse with heat and that are often brought on by stuffy heat or exposure to hot sun are helped by this remedy. These include: migraines with zigzag lines in front of the eyes; eyestrain with aching eyes; headaches that come on after menstruation; and cold sores.

It is also good for mouth problems, for example, gingivitis (inflamed gums), dry, cracked lips, mouth ulcers, and bad breath (halitosis).

Skin complaints, for example, warts, dry cuticles, hangnails, boils, and painful acne are helped by Natrum mur. It is also effective for goiter; anemia; indigestion; constipation with dry, hard stools; bleeding anal fissures; backache; and delayed urine flow.

In women, Natrum mur. is given for absent menstruation induced by shock or grief; irregular menstruation; and a general feeling of being unwell both before and after menstruation. It is also good for a dry or sore vagina, vaginal discharge, and vaginismus (vaginal pain during sexual intercourse).

When ill, people who need this remedy are chilly but dislike heat.

Clearly a highly potent remedy with a wide range of clinical applications. *cough*

But what, I hear you ask, is was in Natrum Mur? It is some exotic herb, a distillation of fermented sheep eyes? No.

It’s table salt. Sodium chloride. The same stuff you put on your chips. The main flavouring in “ready salted” crisps. Salt.

Incidentally, the first crystal structure ever determined was NaCl, which earned Sir W.H. Bragg and his son Sir W.L. Bragg the Nobel prize for physics in 1915.

Salt is an important part of our diet, but problems generally stem from having too much of the stuff. The food standard agency recommend that an adult eat no more that 6g of salt per day. Aficionados of Avogadro’s constant will be able to tell you that this is 6/(22.99+35.453) X 6×1023 = 6.15×1022 molecules of salt – which is “some” salt.

More than “some” salt may cause you problems – hypertension, cardiovascular disease, renal stones, osteoporosis, stomach cancer to name but a few. Now, given that homeopaths follow the law of similars, which states that “like cures like,” one might expect these diseases/pathologies would be the same that homeopaths might claim to cure with Natrum Mur. Curiously, these are all absent from the list.

Salt is also used to balance electrolytes in saline solutions for fluid replacement, and washing wounds with salt water has an antiseptic effect (killing bacteria by “osmotic shock“).

But then we all contain “some” salt  – according to Wikipedia (yes, I know!) the human body has about 0.15% by mass of both chlorine and sodium – this will all be present as sodium and chloride ions. However, if you could extract all this as sodium chloride from an average 70kg person, you’d end up with about 150g of salt.

So, given that we contain ~150g of salt, and we consume/excrete 6g of salt per day, how is adding the memory of salt going to make a blind bit of difference to “anxiety and depression”, “migraines with zigzag lines in front of the eyes” etc?

My favourite homeopathic remedy is Natrum Mur – because for me, it really drives home the inane, reality-deprived nature of homeopathy.

1 – of course, homeopathic remedies above a potency of 12C don’t actually contain anything.


So here’s an idea…

February 22, 2010

A rational/skeptic sidewiki project?

I recently discovered Sidewiki, an offering from Google which allows you to read and write wiki-like contributions that can be made to pretty much any webpage out there. It works by adding a toolbar to Internet explorer or Firefox.

Everytime you visit a webpage with a sidewiki entry a little blue “»” appears on the left hand side of your browser and you can drag it out and and read what people have written, or contribute your own entry to a webpage.

Such as this:

From XtalDave

Now – if every skeptic was to take a couple of minutes to very simply address every quack claim on the internet, maybe with a nice link to a relevant peer reviewed pubication, or at least a blog post with references within, we’d have a nice record of objections to particular claims, so when others come accross a link to them in the future, the effort to determine potential flaws in a webpage/study would be reduced.


Let me know what you think about this (comments below) – if people are generally supportive, some sort of web hub to organise efforts might be useful.



February 18, 2010

A paper being touted as proof for homeopathy, by homeopaths, doesn’t really look like it does anything of the sort…

This paper, regarding silicates in succussed homeopathic solutions, is being touted as proof for a homeopathic effect, particularly by US former-Homeopath and prolific Homeopathy advocate, Dana Ullman. (Screengrab in case of deletion)

Enzyme stabilization by glass-derived silicates may explain #homeopathy mechanism. #ten23

Obviously, it does nothing of the sort, and in fact, it just provides another potential source of false-positive in trials involving homeopathic remedies.

The paper suggests that the act of succussion (striking a homeopathic remedy against a leather-backed object) during production knocks silicates from the glass into the solution. The paper continues “silicates and other solutes are present at micromolar levels in all glass-exposed solutions, whether pharmaceutical or homeopathic in nature.”

In a nutshell, the paper does the following:

  • They conduct a series of tests with acetylcholine esterase to assay for enzyme stabilisation (enzyme activity after incubation for 24hours in various silicate containing solutions, succussed and un-succussed controls). Without delving into too much detail, the assays are fairly bog-standard endpoint assays conducted with a colourimetic substrate (a substrate analogue that changes colour upon reaction) and assayed for colour change in 96-well format in a standard issue plate reader. All standard biochemistry stuff. I’ve done a couple of plasmin activity assays this week myself using a very similar technique. Fine. They show that succussed solutions have an enhanced stabilsation effect over un-succussed solutions.
  • They also conduct some ICP-OES experiments and show that succussed solutions have ~3mg/ml silicates & boron and sodium present – more than un-succussed solutions.
  • They do some molybdate assays to show that homeopathic remedies (they looked at 30C Arsenicum, 200C Arsenicum and 30C Glutamate) contain a similar level of silicates present.
  • They then show that a 30C water solution has a similar effect on acetylcholine esterase as a 100uM solution of NaOH/Silicates.

The paper concludes “Nonetheless, future in vitro homeopathic experiments will need to take into account the fact that significant levels of dissolved solids exist in glass-exposed solutions, and that these can have functional effects on proteins dissolved therein.

There isn’t an awful lot wrong with the paper, to be honest. It’s the homeopaths interpretation I have issue with.

This is the train of thought, as far as I can tell:

  1. Succussed solutions contain silicates at a concentration on the order of ~100uM. YES.
  2. These silicates have a demonstrable biological effect on certain enzymes in in vitro assays. YES
  3. Therefore silicates in homeopathic solutions are the seat of the efficacy of homeopathic remedies. EH?

Lets ignore the myriad caveats about scaling up from in vitro to in vivo, for just a minute. Oh yes, and the fact that the silicates found in these remedies are unremarkable, and will be found in any solution that has been exposed to glass. Oh, and that the levels of silicates found in homeopathic remedies are WAY below the level of silicates that you might find in a normal diet. As the authors note.

The fact that they are present in all three remedies tested (and the authors suggest, all homeopathic remedies produced in this way), means that silicates cannot POSSIBLY be the source of any sort of efficacy or healing effect

Given that homeopathic remedies, irrespective of the contents of the original tincture, will contain these silicates (and indeed, any solution in a glass container that has been roughly handled), how can they be responsible for the supposed healing effect of say, 30C arnica for bruising, AND for say, 30C belladonna, in whatever the heck 30C belladonna is supposed to cure?

In fact what this paper does do is give another potential explanation for the very minor effects sometimes observed in certain in vitro trials which aren’t properly controlled. Which is clearly what the authors wrote the paper and conducted the experiments to address. They also mention that conventional pharmaceuticals stored in glass would also likely have similar levels of silicates in them.

Really, the authors make it pretty damn clear what it is that they have researched, and it certainly isn’t a potential mechanism for homeopathy, rather the dissolution of silicates from glass vessels into solutions which then has an effect on in vitro assays for a specific enzyme.

I.e – if you are lucky enough to see any in vitro effect from a homeopathic remedy, it isn’t the arsenic that was once in it, IT’S TEH SILLY-CATES, STOOPID!!

Actually, seeing as we’re on silicates, the Biomineral research section of the MRC centre in human nutrition research hypothesise that silicate absorbtion in the gut “result(s) in detrimental responses in susceptible individuals such as those with inflammatory bowel diseases.”

So we should perhaps conclude that homeopathic remedies should be avoided by people with inflammatory bowel disesases, such as Crohn’s disease and Ulcerative Colitis.

The Bowen Technique

January 31, 2010

A little note about a lesser known but equally bonkers form of woo.

I saw a little advert today in my local freebie paper about the “Bowen technique”, apparently being able to help with (amongst other things) Asthma and Migraines. Being an inquisitive sort, I did a bit of digging…

names etc removed to protect the innocent quacks

It looks like a bog standard little ad – note the rather insidious “suitable for all ages from newborn.”

The European College of Bowen Studies provides most of the information below.

From the description, Bowen looks like a very low impact massage-like technique.

However, obviously there is more to it than that:

The technique involves the therapist using fingers or thumbs to move over muscle, ligament tendon and fascia in various parts of the body.

A look at the video shows how very low impact this is – it really looks more like the “laying on of hands” than anything else. Of the 5 peer reviewed pubications about BT, only 4 relate to the efficacy of the technique, and those are all arm-wavey non/poorly-controlled subjective pilot studies from which no reliable conclusions can be drawn.

I was particularly interested in the claim that BT can alleviate asthma symptoms – being mildly asthmatic myself, and having a son who suffers (from time-to-time) with severe asthma attacks.

In the risable “research” section of the website, there is a page about Asthma – it contains an article reprinted from the Times which looks more like an advert than a serious peice of journalism. The major woo is centred around the assertion that “The body knows how not to have asthma, so you just need to find ways to help it not to be triggered to have an asthma response.” Okaaaaaaay.

Tacked on the end of the article is what looks like a bit of legal back-covering:

Bowen practitioners do not claim to cure asthma

Well – good – becuase AFAIK, no-one claims to be able to cure asthma. But:

it can be very effective in managing the condition. Many patients, particularly children, report that they found relief with the technique.

O rly? That looks a little dangerous to me. The back-covering addendum also helpfully states that the National Asthma Campaign advises ” patients to consult their GPs beforehand and always to continue to take their medication”. Which is of course completely contrary to the pro-bowen anecdote/article above.

They finish with a flourish:

It is gaining acceptance, not through a scientific understanding, but because some doctors and physiotherapists find it helps patients

…nice… a quick “appeal to ignorance” caveat and a nice little:

The basic idea of drawing the brain’s attention to a problem then allowing the body to heal itself does not fit in with a conventional view of physiology. It’s likely that working with a kindly, interested therapist will make anyone feel better, but it’s harder to explain the reported emergency asthma treatment and frozen shoulder studies in this way.

Basically… NO, it’s placebo innit.

The article is reckless and dangerous. The addendum probably just about saves it from being actionable under ASA guidlines. Cajoling asthma sufferers to leave steroid inhalers at home, and rely on an unproven “emergency move, which involves pushing your thumb into the soft stomach area” really is very irresponsible. If you have asthma, or have witnessed a full-on asthma attack – it’s really quite scary stuff.

In an asthma attack the most important thing is getting medical attention and getting your airways open again – this is done by steroid inhaler or nebuliser or a dose of oral steroids – not by pushing your thumb into your tummy. The lack of prominence of the real medical evidence in this page looks awfully like a crude attempt to down-play the fact that BT does not work for Asthma, but hey “we’ll take your money off you if you fancy someone miming some sort of intervention.”

Avoid at all costs.

Who do I vote for?

November 20, 2009

What a conumdrum.

There is a general election that must be held by 3rd of June, 2010.

The Conservatives, perhaps feeling a little full of themselves have made a nice little widget:

So there we go. I’ve got ▲▲ that long to decide who to vote for.

At the moment, my thoughts can be summarised as follows (in no particular order):


1) Labour

I am a leftie – so by rights, labour should be my natural choice of party – however – the labour party has recently been anything but leftie. Gordon Brown has become a massive liability. Their handling of the economic crisis is dubious at best, and the poverty gap in the UK is certainly no narrower now than it was at the end of the 90s. Add to this the fact that the unelected Lord Mandelson now commands an awful lot of power in Whitehall again, and worse than that, seems to be misusing it to please his entertainment industry buddies – the labour party are not for me any more. I cannot vote for them with a clear conscious.

2) Conservatives

If Mandelson is the second biggest threat against UK democracy – Rupert Murdoch is the biggest. The Conservatives now schmooze up with him, and it would appear that they will bend over for him. It is suspected that Murdoch will seek to get the Tories to curb the BBCs ability to operate online, thus paving the way for him to force people to pay for his online content (without looking like a total prick – at the moment nobody would pay to see the Times or Sun online, when other free news/porn sources exist). The BBC, despite it’s failings, is a fine example of what the UK can do – as an online news source, IMHO, the BBC website is second-to-none. No way can I vote for the tories if this is the case.

3) Liberal Democrats

Right – lets face it, they are unlikely to get in, so a vote for them is a vote for a hung parliament / piss poor labour opposition. I doubt they’d get as far as Her Maj’s opposition all by themselves. Instinctively, I quite like Nick Clegg – but then I discovered he had signed this Early Day Motion in support of Woo.

4) Others

UKIP/BNP/English Democrats – NO.

Greens  – Pro-Woo, Anti-Science

And that’s probably everyone who’ll be standing in my constituency.


In local terms – I live in the Crewe & Nantwich consituency – so my local bloke (Tory Edward Timpson) is relatively new. So far, in local terms, he’s doing an ok job. The Lib dems are waaaaay back in third, and so it really is a two horse race for the top spot.

Another thing I have to contend with as an (partly publicly funded) academic research scientist, is who is going to cut what in the budget to get the UK economy back on track. This is a little something that the dean of the faculty of life sciences here in Manchester, Prof Martin Humphries, wrote in our faculty newsletter:

To date, the public sector has been shielded from the worst effects of the recession. Unfortunately, this situation cannot continue as the Government has borrowed more than £150B in an attempt to buy the country out of the recession, and before too long they will need to start repaying the loans. There are only really three ways in which this could happen: (a) the economy booms in an unprecedented way, (b) taxes are increased, and (c) public sector spending is cut. The first is almost certain not to happen and the second is unpalatable for both politicians and the public, which leaves the relatively easy win of cuts.
The potential stances of the two main parties on this issue were debated in the news yesterday (17th), and they differed primarily in the depth of the cuts that might be coming. Current speculation is that Labour will cut less deeply and for a prolonged period, while the Conservatives will cut deeply and quickly. Between now and next year’s General Election, the main focus will be on how to target cuts, not whether there should be cuts. We would be comforted if we felt that that the next Government recognised the value of Higher Education, and therefore gave it a high priority for funding, and indeed statements of this kind have been forthcoming. In particular, noises are being made about the need to concentrate research and teaching excellence rather than rely on selectivity. However, HE in general is probably not a vote-winner (excepting our votes of course), and healthcare, primary and secondary education, and other public services probably come higher on most people’s lists. Thus, we need to hope for the best, but be prepared for bad news.

I suspect, that given my upcoming application for public funds to futher my employment/research, my voting will be swayed by who cuts what out of the research council and higher education budgets…

Stay tuned for more details…

(If I had the chance – I’d probably vote for the Pirate Party)