Posts Tagged ‘homeopathy’

“There’s Probably No God. Now Stop Worrying and Enjoy Your Life.”

December 2, 2010 2 comments

That’s what was postered on the side of buses in Toronto, Calgary and Montreal last year. And they are planning to do it again.

The Centre for Inquiry (CFI) is launching a campaign which would see similar ads on the sides of buses in Toronto starting in January, pending final approval from the Toronto Transit Commission. This  year’s campaign is “Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence”, and compares the belief in God and Allah to the belief in Bigfoot and Tarot reading.

Photo From Centre for Inquiry

The campaign’s website says:

Why is belief in Big Foot dismissed as delusional while belief in Allah and Christ is respected and revered? All of these claims are equally extraordinary and demand critical examination

Assuming they get approval to run the ads in Toronto, the CFI hopes to move the campaign into other major Canadian cities. 

Justin Trottier, national executive director of the Centre for Inquiry said about the campaign
I’d love it if everyone saw the ads and know the point of the campaign is to emphasize not the kind of knee-jerk debunking to anything suspicious but that we’re interested in a genuine debate, a conversation about so-called extraordinary claims. We’re not here to mock people who believe in these claims
But of course, there is mixed reaction from both the religious and atheist communities. Many religious leaders felt that the ads were designed to ridicule people’s faith. Others felt that their beliefs can stand atop the belief in Bigfoot, so a discussion on the topic would be welcome.
Some in the scientific and atheist communities felt that the ads were too confrontational, and that this was not the proper way to elicit a discussion on these topics.
My opinion is that extraordinary claims certainly do require extraordinary evidence. Bigfoot, psychics and the like all need proof before we can accept them as facts. But religion is built on faith; the belief without proof. I maintain my right to believe in a God or not, just as the rest of the world should. Challenging those beliefs on a bus is not a proper forum for this discussion.
Furthermore, if people want to worship a God I do not believe in, it is not my place to challenge them about it. They have as much right to believe as I have not to believe. However, if religion starts to influence government policy, then it definitely becomes fair game to argue the proper place of religion in politics. Thankfully, this is not as big a problem in Canada as it is in the USA.
I’d love to hear what  you guys think about this issue, so please take a second and answer this poll below, or leave a comment.

“Natural” Does Not Mean “Better”

November 18, 2010 10 comments

At least, not always.

But that’s what purveyors of Natural Health Products (NHPs) say. Synthetic is bad. Natural is good.

Unfortunately, things are not that simple. Some things that occur naturally on Earth are very good for you. But some of them are very bad.

Some things that are synthetic are very good for you. But some of them are very bad.

And some things, natural and synthetic, do nothing at all.

Along with the Green revolution came the Natural Health revolution. We’ve begun to hear more and more about how many chemicals permeate through our food chain, how many pills we take and how many food additives we eat.

As a corollary, we have begun to see Natural Health and Food stores cropping up on street corners. Supermarkets have "all organic" sections. Pharmacies have a whole aisle dedicated to herbal supplements.

Whole Foods Market in Redwood, California. Via Wikipedia

Companies respond to customer demand. Customers have begun demanding natural and "organic" foods. So companies have committed resources acknowledging this demand.

But are these products as good as the companies say? Do the hippies down at the natural food store know, without a doubt, that taking certain supplements will boost your immune system, or help prevent cancer, or increase your energy level? Or are they simply reading the label and regurgitating it to their customers?

It is a question that has gotten some international attention recently. Most notably perhaps, is the company POM Wonderful, which has

…been banned from endorsing any product without competent and reliable scientific information to back up the claim. [The Globe and Mail]

POM Wonderful has shown up in the news a couple of times this year. In March, POM was one of 17 companies given a warning letter from the Food and Drug Administration for making misleading statements about their POM Juice and POMx pills.

In the case of POM pomegranate juice, the agency said that the company’s Web site, which is listed on its bottles, carried misleading claims that the juice could prevent or cure diseases like hypertension, diabetes and cancer.Such claims are not allowed on food products and would require that the juice be treated, in regulatory terms, as a drug, according to the letter sent to the company. [The New York Times]

In September of 2010, the Federal Trade Commission released a statement concerning the advertisements of POM. David Vladeck, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection said

When a company touts scientific research in its advertising, the research must squarely support the claims made.  Contrary to POM Wonderful’s advertising, the available scientific information does not prove that POM Juice or POMx effectively treats or prevents these illnesses.

POM disputes the FTC’s claims, and has filed suit against them. This battle will go on for a while.

But this situation raises a big question: how are NHPs regulated? How are the health benefits they claim to provide substantiated? Let’s investigate…

Perhaps unsurprisingly, NHPs are not regulated in the same way as drugs. Up until the 1990’s, Canada did not have a non-drug supplement regulation framework in place. Products were either drugs or they were food products.

After several years in development, the Natural Health Product Regulations (NHPR) were put into effect on January 1, 2004. So what products fall under these regulations?

Products that fall within these Regulations include herbal remedies, homeopathic medicines, vitamins, minerals, traditional medicines, probiotics, amino acids and essential fatty acids. In addition, many everyday consumer products, such as certain toothpastes, antiperspirants, shampoos, facial products and mouthwashes are also classified as NHPs in Canada because of their medicinal ingredients and intended uses. [Health Canada Website] (emphasis mine)

I emphasize ‘homeopathic medicines’ because I am not a big fan of homeopathy and I am thoroughly disgusted that Canada allows such products to be sold.

So the NHPR does require that these products meet certain standards of safety and efficacy. Unfortunately, these standards are set extremely low.

In the case of homeopathic medicines, for example, Health Canada will accept references to the Homeopathic Pharmacopeia or Homeopathic Materia Medica. These documents are essentially a collection of anecdotal evidence, and have no scientific basis.

For other NHPs, Health Canada will accept "references to a traditional use". This means that if a product has been used for over 50 years to treat a certain ailment, it is deemed "effective" by Health Canada standards. No scientific evidence or medical studies are necessary in this case. If sufficient documentation is not available to prove that a product has been used for 50 years, the word of "three or more herbalists or aboriginal elders may serve as the source of information".

What pops into my mind in this case is bloodletting, which was used for well over 50 years and, by these standards, it would have sufficient evidence to prove its efficacy.

The topic of efficacy becomes the primary issue here. I would never take a prescription medication, or even an over-the-counter medication, without knowing that it has been sufficiently tested. Why then, do we take NHPs without demanding the same high standards of testing?

It seems as though we should. Looking at Health Canada’s Advisories, Warnings and Recalls for the Public – 2009, we see that more than half of the warnings were issued for NHPs.

Natural, it seems, does not mean better.

It is a very polarizing issue. A post written by Barry Green on Ottawa Skeptics a couple of years ago summarizes the position of the two sides extremely well.

When skeptics look at NHPs, they see a broad spectrum of products ranging from those proven effective under certain circumstances (vitamins) to those with possible pharmacological properties yet unproven (naturopathy) to those which are the very essence of quackery (homeopathy).  Skeptics see efficacy regulations as necessary to prevent wasting healthcare spending on nonsense and to protect the public from fraud and the dangerous distraction of ineffective treatments.

When CAM advocates look at NHPs, they see a rich pharmacopoeia of natural remedies whose curative powers, tapped through ancient wisdom, can be experienced firsthand without the need for scientific sanction, the dangers of "allopathic" medicine or the enrichment of "Big Pharma."  NHP supporters see efficacy regulations as unethical restriction and unnecessary expense.

My personal opinion is that NHPs should be required to undergo a higher standard of efficacy and safety testing. I don’t think all NHPs are bad. However I do feel that any product which is intended to alter the function of your body, even if the intent is to improve function, should be rigorously tested.

This will not go over well. It was announced recently in the European Union that all herbal supplements must be classified as either food or drugs by April 2011. This puts the supplements under the same guidelines of testing as pharmaceutical drugs. However, many NHP proponents see this as a big problem, since many small-time manufacturers of NHPs will not be able to afford to get the regulatory approval and be driven out of business.

This seems a bit hypocritical to me. If you are so concerned about the health of people, don’t you want to guarantee that what you are selling them is not only safe, but also that it truly is making them healthier?

Another big problem is that the current system of regulation makes it far too easy for peddlers of pseudoscience and quackery to make a profit off the general public, whose choices about products and treatments for maintaining a healthy lifestyle have gotten much more complicated in recent years. The recent acai berry scam comes to mind, not to mention the large number of sham diet drugs on the market today. All of these products were able to flourish because of the lack of strong regulation on NHPs.

So sometimes "natural" is better. Sometimes it’s not. But in order to be sure the products need to be tested. We can’t take tradition, word of mouth, or anecdotes as evidence anymore. We need something more concrete. Because after all, we are all trying to be healthy. So let’s do the legwork and find the best way to make that happen.

Homeopathy “Tricks You” Into Feeling Better? *Facepalm*

November 17, 2010 1 comment

Homeopathy is a form of Complementary and Alternative Medicine which has been largely discredited by the medical community. At its core, it is the belief that by diluting a substance to extremely small amounts, often until none of the active ingredient remains in the final product, makes the remedy more potent.

It makes no sense, and it doesn’t work. Yet because of tradition and some unfortunate legislation in 1938 in the United States, Homeopathy is still around.

A study was published earlier this week in the journal Rheumatology. Some news outlets are saying that the outcome shows that homeopathy “tricks you” into feeling better. This made me feel like poor Captain Picard here.

The study examined 5 groups of patients suffering from Rheumatoid arthritis. It split these participants into 5 groups:

  1. Those that received consultation and individualized treatment from a Homeopath
  2. Those that received consultation and complex treatment from a Homeopath (complex treatment is giving the patient a group of standard homeopathic remedies which are not tailored specifically to the patient).
  3. Those that received consultation from a Homeopath but given a placebo.
  4. Those that received no consolation and given complex treatment.
  5. Those that received no consolation and given a placebo.

The groups were blinded as to whether they received a placebo or a real treatment, but obviously you couldn’t blind them to whether or not they received a consultation.

I won’t go into all the data analysis or statistics, but the results eventually state that there was no difference between the placebo treatment and homeopathic treatment, which is not surprising.

However, the authors go on to assert that there was a significant difference between those that received a consultation and those that didn’t, and that this is evidence for the efficacy of homeopathy.

From the Telegraph:

Dr Sarah Brien, the study’s lead author, said that while previous research had suggested homeopathy could help patients with rheumatoid arthritis, the study provided the first scientific evidence to show such benefits were “specifically due to its unique consultation process”.

There are a few problems with this. The first is that the study is fairly small, therefore the power of their results is not high enough to make any broad stroke conclusions about the efficacy of homeopathy.

Second, the group which received a consultation was not adequately compared to anything. Comparing a homeopathic consultation to no consultation, and then claiming that homeopathy made these people feel better is not a sound conclusion. The authors should have compared the group receiving a homeopathic consultation to a group which received some other form of personal consultation or experience, like speaking with a medical doctor or hell, even a motivational speaker!

Steven Novella gives a good explanation on Science-Based Medicine about the Hawthorne effect which can have a significant impact on a study. Having the personal experience of speakin to a person may make for a better patient outcome, but it certainly does not prove any efficacy of homeopathy itself.

The Adventure of Links: Nov. 1, 2010

November 1, 2010 2 comments

In this weeks Adventure of Links, we have accidental condom inhalation, water on Mars, a Star Trek cat fight, and a time traveller in an old silent movie. Happy reading!


Accidental condom inhalation during fellatio: A Love Story Case Study

Homeopathic teething tables have been recalled. Apparently, they hadn’t diluted the poison enough so that it was useless, like most homeopathic remedies.

Are health drinks as good as they claim? The answer will not surprise you.

Unregulated Naturopaths putting lives at risk.


The Physics of how a wet dog shakes (with video).

Pumpkins pulverized, in the name of science of course.

NASA Mars rover finds evidence of subsurface water, while it was stuck!

The Laws of Physics explained, in comic form.


Star Trek Cat Fight. Yes, it’s as awesome as it sounds.

“Our Differences make us interesting, not enemies.” The Rally to Restore Sanity was held this past weekend.

10 useful things you can do with your body after you’re dead. Being a zombie is not on the list.

This weeks “You needed a study to know that?!?”: Bullying Widespread in Schools.

A neurological explanation of why the new Gap logo sucked.

Smart people drink more. Science says so.


Is there a time traveller in a 1928 Charlie Chaplain film? I’m not sure, but I am pretty sure it was a slow news day that day.

Canadian man claims the government stole his meteorite which contained alien organisms. The RCMP (the Mounties) say there is no evidence to support his claim.

Scientists find “proof” of psychic abilities. Note: if you have to put “proof” in quotation marks, it’s probably not true.

Women Get Scammed $85000 by “Psychic”

October 28, 2010 2 comments

The headline read Women: We Were Scammed By a Psychic.

I thought to myself, ‘This will be funny!’

But as I read, it turned out to be quite a sad story, and unfortunately one that will probably be repeated.

The Coles notes version of the story is that two women went to see a psychic named Patricia Johns to help them with their relationship problems. The psychic proceeded to prey on their vulnerabilities, and eventually scored roughly $85 000 from these two women.

One woman wanted to improve her marriage, while the other asked for help with her best friend. Said one of the women (who asked to remain anonymous),

I’m devastated over what she has done to me…She has just ruined my life.

The psychic used a different approach with each woman. On the first she used “smooth-talk”, but on the second she used something darker. From the WLFI article,

She did not say anything that was sweet-sounding,” said the second woman. “She had you in such fear – for your life, of things that she said people were doing to you. You are already in a weird state of mind when you have a great loss.”

The psychic used scare tactics to keep these women coming in for more sessions. $100 sessions became $400 sessions, and in one instance, the psychic even got one of the victims to buy her a Rolex. How? Well she told the victim that because her problems occurred at a certain time and place, she had to buy a special time piece and throw it into the river to break the curse on her marriage.

The psychic went with the victim to the jewellery store, picked out a $26 000 Rolex, and the victim paid for it. Later, when they went to the river,

The woman said she caught a glimpse of a watch being thrown into the river, but admitted she had no idea if it was a Rolex.

It’s easy to look at this story and say “Oh, these women are stupid” or “They should have known better”. They are probably saying that to themselves right now. But there is a bigger picture here.

When people are desperate, they will try anything. One of the victims in this story was desperate to save her marriage. Can we really blame her for wanting to try anything?

Lets remember that these psychics are very good at what they do. They know how to prey on people’s emotions. They can convince you that they have predicted something about your life, when really they have been guessing the entire time. (Read up on cold-reading to see how they do this).

This rings true of alternative medicine as well. We can’t blame people for going to Homeopaths or faith healers, because they are simply so desperate that they are willing to try and/or pay anything to help themselves.

The culprits are the purveyors of woo. The psychics, palm readers, faith healers etc, who make a living preying on the vulnerabilities and desperation of people like the women in this story.

If you want to go to a psychic for entertainment, for a laugh, that’s fine. But remember that they have no powers, no special abilities. All they have is just a knack for performance.

“In the course of a successful reading, the psychic may provide most of the words, but it is the client that provides most of the meaning and all of the significance.” –Ian Rowland (2000: 60)

My 100th Post!

September 25, 2010 2 comments

I realize that if we humans had evolved 8 or 12 fingers instead of 10, then perhaps this particular post wouldn’t hold as much meaning. But since we do live in a base-10 world, happy 100th post!

Its been only a few short months since I started this blog, and I am quite proud of how it has progressed. I can only hope that you have enjoyed reading it as much as I have enjoyed writing it.

I got the idea of starting a blog when I moved from Ontario to Alberta after finishing my M.Sc. degree. I got a “real” job out here in oil country, but found that I was missing some of the intellectual stimulation of being in school and doing research.

That being said, I was not about to head back to the lab just yet. Instead, I thought it would be a good idea to branch out and start exploring new topics; topics that were currently making it into the news.

Unfortunately, what I found in the news was not always “science”. Alternative medicine, UFOs, psychics, and *emphatic groan* anti-vaccinationists were what I kept reading about.

And so I discovered the skeptical movement. A large collection of scientists and bloggers (often both) who shared my viewpoint on “science” in the media. We all decided that we wanted to do something to change it, and this new thing called the “interweb” has given us the ability to do so.

So what does the future hold for ‘A Quantum of Knowledge’?

Well I will be trying to do more blogging on current research papers and making them accessible to the general reader. What I’ve also found is that some of my most popular posts are when I explain the “Physics Of” everyday things, as well things you hear about in the news (like solar cells, Vuvuzelas, or that girl getting hit with the watermelon). So expect to see a whole bunch of posts explaining the physics of everything from hair dryers (why DO they always trip the circuit breakers?) to the new James Webb Telescope.

You can also expect me to start writing a bit more about myself and what I actually do out here in good ol’ Calgary. Some of the most interesting posts from the blogs I read are those about the author’s everyday lives, so expect to see more of that here.

Finally, I’d like to say thanks to you, my readers! I’ve gotten a great deal of satisfaction from watching my readership grow and reading all of your comments. Keep reading, keep commenting, and if you really like a particular post,  maybe you could help me promote it by using the ‘Share’ buttons down at the bottom of the page.

You can also follow me on Twitter, where I send out my thoughts and interesting science links as they happen.

P.S. If you have any ideas or physics related questions you’d like to have answered, please feel free to email them to . I’m always looking for topics to write about so I’d love to hear from you guys!

Why Homeopathy is Stupid and Dangerous

July 13, 2010 2 comments

There are a lot of quacks out there. People will do, say or sell anything for a buck. And unfortunately, the field of “medical therapies” has long been victim to such quackery.

Homeopathy is one of the more prolific of these pseudosciences. It operates on a principle that by diluting a remedy in water, you can make it more effective. In fact, homeopaths claim that the remedy gets more effective in smaller concentrations. This is what homeopaths call the “Law of Infinitesmals”.

Now common sense should already be telling you that this is bogus. But lets do some history, and then science will blast apart homeopathy.

From xkcd

In the late 1700s a German physician named Samuel Hahnemann (1755-1843) developed the underlying theories of homeopathy. He believed that symptoms of disease could be cured by administering small amounts of substances that would cause the same symptoms in healthy people. This is called the “Law of Similars”. He further believed that chronic diseases were caused by the presence of evil miasmas or spirits in the body.

Samuel Hahnemann (1755-1843)

So, homeopaths have a text called the Homeopathic Pharmacopeia. Within, you will find over a thousand homeopathic “remedies”. Which remedy, and in what concentration, to use on a certain patient is evidently at the discretion of the practitioner. Basically this means you could see two different homeopaths and receive two different treatments for the same illness. Hmmm…..

To show you how dumb this stuff is, consider the following:

A “remedy” called Oscillococcinum is prepared by diluting freeze dried duck heart and liver. The dilution is supposed to be what homeopaths call 200C, which means the concentration is 1 part in 100200

For the non-scientific, this number is a 1 followed by 400 zeros. That this small concentration could have any effect at all is mind boggling.

In fact, the laws of chemistry state that there is a limit to how far one can dilute a solution (about 1 part in 10012, which is far greater than that of Oscillococcinum). Hahnenmann was aware of this, but proposed that by vigorously shaking the solution the water will retain a kind of “memory” or “essence” of the active ingredient. Thus, even if none of the active ingredient remains in the water, the water will somehow “remember” it was there and give the same effect.

Homeopathy has never been shown to do anything greater than a placebo effect. There are many studies and reviews looking at the scientific evidence. One such review noted that:

Homeopathy has been the subject of at least 12 scientific reviews, including meta-analytic studies, published since the mid-1980s….[And] the findings are remarkably consistent:….homeopathic “remedies” are not effective.

In addition, at a meeting of the British Medical Association’s junior doctors in May 2010, Dr. Tom Dolphin, deputy chairman, said:

Homeopathy is witchcraft. It is a disgrace that nestling between the National Hospital for Neurology and Great Ormond Street there is a National Hospital for Homeopathy which is paid for by the [National Health Service]. (emphasis mine)

In should be noted that there has been a small smattering of studies suggesting a statistically significant effect of homeopathy over a placebo. However, these studies have never been shown to be reproducible and are heavily criticized for their poor scientific methodologies. Homeopathy proponents will tout these studies proudly; but a simple bit of research, or even just reading the papers will show the weaknesses in any of these studies.

So why do people continue to believe in this stuff? Well there are a couple of reasons.

The first is that when Hahnemann began developing homeopathy, treatments such as bloodletting were ubiquitous. Bloodletting, if you didn’t already know, is extremely dangerous and ineffective as a medical treatment.

So when someone arrived on the scene offering medical “remedies” which don’t involve opening people’s veins, and sometimes even make the patient feel better (the placebo effect) it garnered a lot of attention.

Secondly, the placebo effect can be significant. And word of mouth is a powerful force. So when one person says they feel better after seeing a homeopath, people start to listen. In fact, studies have shown that people are more likely to listen to a friend than read the scientific evidence.

This is dangerous.

Touting the placebo effect as a medical treatment is wrong and terrible. It causes people to choose pseudoscientific treatments over science-based medical treatment, which can lead to disastrous results and even death.

Furthermore, it leads to unscientific thinking. Once we start believing in homeopathy, whats next? Faith healing? Aliens listening to our thoughts? Its a very slippery slope and it needs to be stopped.

Thirdly, some insurance companies cover homeopathic treatments and some governments cover it in their public health plan. So we are all footing the bill in our insurance premiums or taxes for a therapy that simply does not work.

So my final words? Homeopathy sucks. It doesn’t work. It steals money from sick people who believe they are being treated for their illness. It takes advantage on the hopes of sick people to make a profit, and it is disgusting.