Is Homeopathy completely barking, or is something strange actually happening?
For some reason, a lot of people seem to get very worked up about homeopathy. They make comments like ‘if it’s only water, we can throw it in the sea and make everyone well!’ or ‘it’s just a placebo, you’re all being fooled!’ or ‘it’s quackery and should be banned!’ or ‘burn them! Burn them all and their test tubes and little boxes with ground up plants! Burn them!
Perhaps I’m getting a little exaggerated on that last one but you get the idea. The interesting thing is that for many people, homeopathy does seem to work. Now, it is certainly possible that the improvements in their health may be down the placebo effect. In other words, that the psychological effect of them taking a medicine has cured them rather than the medicine itself. There's certainly a lot of evidence that the placebo effect does work, even to quite extreme levels. For example, there is a famous story in the medical literature about a man in the U.S.A. in the 1920's who was told by his doctor that he had a malignant and inoperable tumour. The doctor explained to the poor man that he had only six months to live. The patient got on with his life, tidied up his affairs, made his will and six months later, he died. The only problem was that when the doctor's performed an autopsy, they found that his tumour was benign. The man had died because he believed he would die. Such a sobering tale shows the powers of the placebo effect, but homeopathy cannot be explained purely as a placebo effect. For example, there is a lot of evidence that vets have used homeopathic remedies on livestock with success. It’s hard to imagine cows getting better through the placebo effect. But if homeopathy's positive effects are not psychological, how are they coming about?
A sensible first step would be to understand the rules and theory of homeopathy. With that under our belts, we can then start to investigate how those procedures and theories might fit with what we do know about the functioning of our bodies.
The principle of homeopathy is as follows: Someone’s got hives (for example). To cure them, you find a plant extract that also
produces hives in people. In other words, you use the same
agent that causes the problem as a way to cure it. That’s why it’s called homeopathy which means ‘cure by the same’. The first step is to dissolve that extract in some water. You then give it a vigorous shake. You then take a small portion of that water (say, a tenth) and add some more water to that diluted sample. You give it another vigorous shake and repeat the whole process about ten or twenty times. Once you’ve done all that, you’ve got your remedy.
On hearing this, many people would sensibly say; ‘what a stupid idea! All you’ve got is water!’ This is perfectly true. There’s no clear reason why giving someone some water would help cure them but
I don't think we can give up and dismiss homeopathy quite yet. There is evidence that something is
happening. To give up now would be lazy and negative (Obviously, if this article goes on for ten pages and gets nowhere, we can definitely give up at that point; there’s only so many hours in the day). Let's look at the topic a little more with the help of a Nobel Prize winner.
Carrying a signal
In 2009, Luc Montagnier
, a Nobel prize winning scientist, discovered a very strange effect in a series of experiments
he conducted. He took some cells that were infected with a bacterium, all sloshing about in some water. He then filtered that watery solution of cells and bacterium through a grid of tiny holes. Because of the size of the holes (they were around twenty nanometres in size), the water could get through to the other side but the bacterium and cells could not. Montagnier therefore knew he’d only get water coming out of the other side of the filter, as nothing else could get through.
What he found strange was that if he poured this 'hole filtered water' into another container that had healthy cells and let those cells grow and multiply, they’d also
behave as if they'd been infected. It seemed, according to what he observed, that the filtered water had been altered by the bacterium to the point where it was
also able to affect the cells, just as the bacterium had done. The water had somehow ‘remembered’ something about the bacterium that enabled it to affect healthy cells too.
Montagnier was intrigued. How could this happen? When he analysed the filtered water, he discovered something; if the filtered water was diluted and agitated in a certain way, it gave off electromagnetic radiation
. He wondered; was this how the water had mimicked the effect of the bacterium on the cells? Keep in mind that the emission of electromagnetic radiation is not an unusual thing. E/M waves are around us all the time. Light is electromagnetic radiation, along with microwaves and radio waves. All of us give off electromagnetic radiation all the time. In fact, any hot body gives off radiation. But the thing is, water doesn’t usually give off EM radiation when you shake it. What, he wondered, was going on? Was this electromagnetic strange effect a result of the shaking or was it specifically because that water had been exposed to the bacterium?
To try and answer this, Montagnier tested water that had been exposed to sterile cells (ones that weren’t infected) and then the water was diluted/shaken. In other words, he was carrying out this particular test to see if the fact that the bacteria weren't active would make a difference. Montagnier records the results and found that this batch of water didn’t
give off electromagnetic radiation. It looked as if only the water that had been exposed to the bacterium and then diluted/shaken would give off E/M radiation
. Somehow, the bacterium was irradiating the water, which then stored this electromagnetic radiation.
The plot thickened. Montagnier wondered if the bacterium’s ability to produce EM radiation was how it harmed the cells
. He and his colleagues tested a whole series of biological agents. They found that the ones that caused disease were
invariably ones that produced electromagnetic radiation. Bacterium that didn't produce the radiation were benign, including, for example, bacteria in our gut.
Montagnier wasn't satisfied with this fascinating development. He wanted to know what living material was required to create this effect. Did the whole bacteria have to be present or was the effect was being created by just one component of the bacteria? To answer this, he carried out some more experiments that involved chopping up the bacterium. He even went as far as chopping up the lengths of genetic code in the bacteria. Through a process of elimination he realised the following process must be happening: Sections of DNA or RNA from disease causing bacterium or viruses produce electromagnetic radiation. When these sections of genetic code are mixed with water, the water forms nanoscale structures that will themselves produce detectable electromagnetic radiation if diluted/shaken to a sufficient level.
All that was needed to create this strange effect were chunks of DNA. Montagnier also discovered that freezing the water or heating it to 70% stopped the effect occurring. In addition, if a flask of the EM radiation-producing-water was placed alongside another flask of water that wasn’t producing electromagnetic radiation, the EM effect wore off.
But how on Earth can water form large nanoscale structures, hundreds of atoms in size? Water is a very simple molecule, H2
O, consisting of one atom of oxygen and two atoms of hydrogen and so it might be easy to think that its behaviour would be simple. In fact, this is far from true. For example, since water is just an atom of oxygen connected to two atoms of hydrogen, it should really be a gas at room temperature. But, as we know, it stubbornly stays in liquid form. The reason for this is that the hydrogen atoms of each H2
O molecule form weak bonds with other water molecules, known as hydrogen bonds
. By doing this, the water becomes a much larger, weakly bonded molecule.
Water’s weird behaviour doesn't end there. For example, it is densest as a liquid at 4°C and then gets steadily less
dense as it is chilled to freezing. This very odd; normally, any liquid or gas gets denser as it’s cooled, simply because its molecules are wobbling around less and less as they cool down, thereby giving up more space. This anomalous behaviour of water intrigued one scientific team; physicists Anders Nilsson at Stanford University, California, and Lars Pettersson of Stockholm University, Sweden. They came up with a theory
to explain this behaviour. They said that water was forming relatively large structures within its liquid state at around 4°C and below. This was why it became less
dense as it cooled further. If their research is correct, it would make the whole ‘water forming big structures’ idea more believable. But what about the whole electromagnetic radiation business?
On to the next section...
Communication with light
We’re roughly at the half way mark now so let’s have a recap. We started with the question ‘how does homeopathy work?’ After some logical reasoning, we realised that several things would need to happen:
1) The water would have to be altered by the herbal extract.
2) The water would have to somehow retain that alteration.
3) That retained alteration would need to spread through the water as it was shaken and diluted.
4) Once the prepared water entered the body, its stored property must somehow heal the body's injured cells.
Thanks to Mr Montagnier, we've discovered that water can ‘remember’ by forming nanoscale structures around RNA from bacterium. It then absorbs the radiation the 'bad' DNA gives off. If these structures of water are shaken amongst more water, they also
give off EM radiation, altering the water around to create more structures. Pretty soon, the water is free of the actual original toxic agent, but filled with these nanoscale structures of water. Nice. We then found that water can form large structures, thanks to research by a different group of scientists. This is why water behaves in such an odd way. So far so good.
We are though left with one huge whopper of a question; ‘why would biological systems be interested in tiny bursts of electromagnetic radiation?’
To answer that, let’s have a think about what goes on in cells. Each cell is an enormous place if you’re the size of a water molecule. A cell is around ten micrometres in size. That’s about one hundred thousand times bigger than an atom. At that kind of scale, a cell is like a city. In the centre of this city is a massive library building - the cell nucleus. This contains the DNA or deoxyribonucleic acid, the molecule that stores information on what happens in the cell. DNA is made up of four different molecules - Adenine, Thymine, Guanine, Cytosine - paired together and then strung together in various permutations in a long chain. This chain or ladder is very long. The largest lump of human DNA or chromosome is two hundred and forty seven million
base pairs long. Describing DNA as a molecule is like describing St Pancras Station as a special sort of brick. The name doesn’t really do it justice.
The DNA in every cell nucleus contains many sections called genes. These genes tell agents in the cell to carry out tasks such as making proteins. Proteins are huge molecules, not as big as DNA chromosomes but still pretty big, over several thousand atoms in size. The cell is also a very busy place, just like a city. Around one hundred thousand chemical reactions take place in a cell every second. The big question is, how does all this work? There are around one hundred trillion
cells in a human body. All those reactions in all those cells have got to be right nearly all the time or things can go badly wrong. A cell not operating properly can die or release toxins or not die and divide uncontrollably, creating a tumor. The current scientific view is that all this activity occurs entirely through chemical reactions. But if this was the case, how on earth does the body keep functioning, or even forming properly in the first place? How would a foetus know where to put its liver cells or muscles cells etc if everything is only done through chemical reactions in cells? Currently, microbiologists don’t know.
There is though a simple and elegant answer to this problem. If DNA was able to send light signals, all these problems could be solved. Cells could communication with each other and thereby know what cells should form where. Instead of forming a line of chemical reactions to get something to happen remotely, with all the problems and delays that would cause, they could just fire a signal directly.
If this is how cells manage themselves and each other, then those electromagnetic signals between the DNA would be critically important. If something stopped those signals or scrambled or emitted its own disruptive signals, chaos would ensue. Any agent that carried out such disruption in the body would be cancerous and toxic.
But is that what’s going on? Are our bodies really awash with electromagnetic signals as our cells’ DNA fire out EM radiation, controlling and guiding the biological functions of our bodies? Is there evidence that alteration of these signals or the introduction of new signals causes havoc? Has someone researched this? Fortunately, someone has.
Cities of light
In 1970, a brilliant graduate student at the University of Marburg - Fritz Albert Popp - was studying benzo[a]pyrene, an organic molecule that was a lethal carcinogen. If you were to let benzo[a]pyrene into your body, you were in for big trouble. What Popp found odd was that a slightly different molecule, benzo[e]pyrene, wasn’t harmful to the body at all. If the body’s functioning was all about chemical reactions, he wondered, why were these two organic molecules, so similar in their structure, so completely different in their effects?
Popp investigated these two molecules and found something that benzo[a]pyrene, the nasty form, did something that benzo[e]pyrene, the nice form, didn’t. If you shone 380 nanometre ultraviolet light at benzo[a]pyrene, it would absorb that light and then re-emit it at a different frequency. This gave him a strange puzzle. Why would a molecule’s ability to absorb 380nm EM radiation and send it out again at a different frequency make it so harmful to living cells?
He found an answer. Cells are designed to repair themselves if they’re bombarded with ultraviolet light. They can repair themselves from almost complete destruction if they receive a weak signal of light of a particular wavelength. This is called the ‘photo-repair’ effect. The ideal frequency of light for photo repair is 380 nanometres, the exact same frequency of light that the carcinogen benzo[a]pyrene was so good at scrambling. Putting those two facts together, it seemed that benzo[a]pyrene was carcinogenic because of its special ability to scramble a crucial cell repair signal.
Popp was fascinated by this. If cells were controlling their activities by sending electromagnetic radiation - effectively light signals - it opened up an entirely new understanding of biology. These city-like cells weren’t just functioning by their citizens bumping into each other and performing chemical reactions, which sounds slightly risqué, but were instead operating by beaming a mass of light signals from their DNA library and the RNA fragments carried around the cell. Cells were alive with light.
Popp’s only problem was, how was he going to study these signals? They seemed to be produced by the cells themselves and so they couldn’t be very bright. It would be a nightmare to try and detect them against a normal mass of background light. Fortunately, with help from a graduate student, Popp was able to set up a detector that could pick up extremely faint light signals. Using this detector, they found some impressive evidence. Based on their research, they were able to establish that DNA did emit particular frequencies of light. These emissions weren’t a jumble of vague frequencies but very coherent signals at particular frequencies, almost like a set of lasers, each producing very coherent, very particular beams. Popp also found that if the DNA was unwound using an agent like ethidium bromide, it would produce even more intense bursts of light, indicating that the DNA somehow stored light energy.
Popp realised that if every cell gave out light then the whole human body must be giving off light. To test this, he constructed an extremely dark room, one in which virtually no light could enter. With this, he began his studies of light emission from the human body. He found that people did produce faint amounts of light. These light emissions followed cycles of 7, 14, 32, 80 and 270 days. He also found that the light of a person’s right hand would be identical to the left; they were synched. Buoyed on by this, Popp investigated whether the light emitted by people changed when they were ill. It turned out it did. He found that cancer patients didn’t have the same clear rhythms as healthy subjects. They had also lost the synchronisation of light emission from corresponding parts of their bodies. In addition, the coherence of the light given off by their bodies was worse than healthy subjects. It was as though their light patterns were falling apart.
By comparison, Popp found that Multiple Sclerosis patients had an excess of light. This excess of light also occurred with stressed subjects. Popp even tested food and found, for example, that battery eggs produced less coherent light than free range eggs. The same was true of other unhealthy foods compared to healthy ones. It seemed that health of any biological organism was synonymous with focussed, coherent light emissions by that organism’s DNA.
Looking through what he had found, Popp wondered if you could heal someone with cancer by re-balancing their DNA light signals. If you stimulated the cancerous area to emit light signals similar to those emitted by healthy tissue, would that cure the cancer? He tested this idea on cancerous cells. He first examined the official anti-cancer medicines. Did they re-balance the light emissions? It turns out they didn’t. In some cases, they made them even worse. Popp turned to other medicines, including herbal remedies. After much work, he found that mistletoe did trigger cancerous cells to start signalling like healthy cells.
It was time to test the theory on a patient. He asked a woman suffering from breast and vaginal cancer to take part in his study. She willingly agreed. He tested the mistletoe on samples of her cancers and found one mistletoe remedy did stimulate her cancer cells to emit the same signals emitted by her healthy tissues. With the agreement of her doctor, the woman switched from her existing cancer treatment and began taking the mistletoe remedy. After a year, her cancer was gone.
It's a very interesting topic. Hopefully, in the future, the scientific and medical establishment will study electromagnetism in the body and its effect on health and the functioning of our bodies. There is also the critical issue that mainstream science still believes in Materialism; the idea that only physical things exist. The fact that this belief still exists is a little bizarre after Quantum Physics showed that reality isn't physical at all at its most fundamental level, but there you go. If you're interested in the possible consequences if this belief isn't true, do please read The Influence Idea
. [Updated Dec 2015] Addendum: Ben Goldacre's article on Homeopathy A kind of magic
Several people have talked to me in response to my article ‘A simple guide to how homeopathy might work’. Of them, most have been referring to Ben Goldacre’s book ‘Bad Science’ or his blog page, in particular the following article A kind of magic
. I was interested to see what Mr Goldacre said on the subject of homeopathy. I knew that he thought homeopathy was no more than delusion, quackery and the placebo effect but I did want to find out what arguments he used to come to that conclusion.
Unfortunately, after reading the article, I felt he used invalid methods to support his view. Although he did stress the importance of scientific research in establishing whether or not an actual physical mechanism is taking place - something I fully agree with - much of his article revolved around two key approaches.
Firstly, Goldacre made use of the limited knowledge and woolly arguments of supporters of homeopathy to add weight to the view that homeopathy has no physical basis. This approach doesn’t make sense. The fact that someone has a completely erroneous view of how a physical event works doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. For example, someone might think that the sun rises every morning because an enormous invisible rubber band pulls it up into the sky. The fact that this idea is patently untrue doesn’t mean we should dismiss the sun rising every morning as the deluded imaginings of 'giant invisible rubber band believers'.
A second key method that Goldacre uses for dismissing homeopathy is through the results of meta-studies.
A meta-study (from the Greek ‘meta’ meaning with
) consists of gathering together a number of trials who have similar content. The results of those trials are then combined to produce an overall result. The idea of a meta-study is to lessen the effect of anomalies in individual trials. One trial might show some impressive positive effect but after studying fifty of them, it becomes clear that the first trial’s results were an anomaly and can be ignored.
On the face of it, this sounds like a good idea. The only problem is that a meta-study isn’t actually scientific research
. It is the statistical correlation of results from a varied set of scientific trials. Because it isn’t actual research and it is manipulating the results of different trials, it can easily produce a result that is heavily distorted. For example, here are three hypothetical trials that tested the benefits of cycling:Trial 1:
One hundred overweight people were asked to ride a bike for two miles every day for fifty days. At the end of the trial, most of the subjects said they felt much healthier and the majority, when they measured their weight, reported that they had a healthier weight.Trial 2:
One hundred overweight people were asked to ride a bike for one mile every month for one hundred months. The subjects were given a full clinical health assessment before and after the trial. At the end of the trial, it was found that their health showed no visible signs of improvement.Trial 3:
One hundred overweight people were asked to ride a bike for one hundred miles non-stop in the Namibian Desert without food or water. The subjects were given a full clinical health assessment before and after the trial. At the end of the trial, it was found that no one's health had improved, most subjects' health had significantly worsened and fourteen of them had died.
A year after these studies occur, health professionals decide to assess the health benefits of cycling. To avoid individual anomalies, they decide to do a meta-study. By doing this, they won't be swayed by anomalous results. They decide to only accept studies of at least one hundred subjects, studies that consisted of at least one hundred miles of cycling and only studies where the health measurements were done by professionals - a sensible and thorough approach. As a result, they reject Trial 1 - because the health measurements were made by the subjects - but accept both Trial 2 and Trial 3, both of whom meet all the criteria. After analysis, the meta-study concluded:
‘cycling has no visible health benefits and can cause significant health problems. Extensive cycling also carries a high mortality rate.’
Its recommendation was simple:
‘ban cycling, it’s worse than fighting in Afghanistan’.
As we can see, their conclusions made sense, they didn't distort the evidence in the trials they chose, but they still came to a ridiculous conclusion. Although this example may be extreme, it does show the inherent dangers of a meta-study. I haven’t even mentioned the possibility of bias
from those who are putting together the meta-study. Researchers who gather material for a meta-study have the freedom to choose which studies to accept. This ability to select or reject individual trials gives the organisers of the meta-study a huge opportunity to distort the study's results before they even start doing the meta-analysis.
Rather than do a meta-study of trials, I think it would be better to ask ourselves the question ‘why do some trials give a positive results and others give no result or even a negative result?’ Mainstream science believes in Objectivity
, the idea that all phenomenon occur without any influence from our mental states. This may not be true, particularly with homeopathy. For more information on that, do please read The Influence Idea
. Goldacre uses the fact that results of homeopathy experiments are patchy as a way to dismiss it as a phenomena, but that is only based on the belief of Objectivity. He's using an assumption that has no basis in evidence. Ironic, isn't it?
p.s. This article was originally written way back in 2010 (I think) and it's now 2015 but I think it's still all valid.