Various Lies

Friday, July 30, 2010

Can we agree to disagree

I just received a tweet from a friend that really caught me by surprise. I had re-tweeted something by Andy Lewis, AKA Le Canard Noir, of Quackometer. I don't know the back story behind Andy's tweet, but I gather it was in response to a pro-homeopath. He linked to this article which shows the lengths some homeopaths have gone to to hide their work in Kenya. People are dying because they are being encouraged to take homeopathic "remedies" and prophylactics for malaria. And needless-to-say, people are dying because they are eschewing medical interventions that work, for water, which doesn't.

My friend tweeted, "@Tideliar Tidy, would you stop liking me if I told you I use supplements, homeopathy, and energy work?"

And this really took me by surprise. I know my friend is a practitioner of some form of "energy healing", but I'll admit I don't know the ins and outs of her work. However, she is has a wonderful relationship with her clients, and has performed a lot of her services for free when she felt people needed her and couldn't pay. And I know her and her family have gone through hard financial times. She is not a gold-digger by any stretch of the imagination. She truly believes in what she practices and because I have no evidence to suggest that she has hurt anyone, or encouraged anyone to use her services when they desperately need to go to a medical doctor I haven't really considered her beliefs to have an impact on our friendship.

I replied, "@[redacted] of course not! I'd (I will?) talk to you about them but I see no reason to let different beliefs harm friendship!" and then, "GF is a spiritualist who believes in energy. Id be worried if anyone eschewed modern medicine in a crisis though."

I think this gets to the heart of the matter for me. I am not a strident enforcer of my worldview, unless suitably provoked. I have had some long and deep conversations with my girlfriend about her beliefs and I'll admit they sometimes degenerate into "tiffs", because we disagree on some fundamental issues. It doesn't help her that I have a strict and long standing scientific background. I might only be a biologist, but I read books on Quantum Mechanics for fun, so debating me on the nature of energy and matter is not going to be easy. But, GF believes in her karma, and likes to burn smudges of white oak (or something pungent) to clear her aura, and I have no problem with that. I'm an agnostic who still prays like a Catholic because it works for me as a form of ritualised meditation.

I know for fact, that with homeopathy, There's Nothing In it. It relies on water having some kind of magical memory, and I stopped believing in magical things a long time ago. To make a homeopathic solution you serially dilute (succuss is the homeopathic term) something until there is literally not even one molecule of active ingredient left there (and I disagree with the nature of homeopathic on like-treats-like like, too, but that's a different matter right now). Homeopaths say that the water somehow retains a memory of what was once there and this is so powerful that it works as a medical intervention. But water can't have a memory of the substance that was once dissolved in it.

The only way water could store something would be as a pattern of the hydrogen bonds that form between molecules of H2O. However, these bonds are not only very weak, they are very transient - if they weren't water wouldn't be the wet and runny stuff we need it to be. I think it was the eminent pharmacologist and scientific hero of mine David Colquhoun who measured the break-and-reformation rate of hydrogen bonds between molecules in room temperature liquid water to be on the order of 9 ns. That's 9 nanoseconds. That's 0.000000009 seconds. You break and reform new hydrogen bonds in the blink of eye. In fact, in the time takes you to blink your eye a water molecule has made and broken and remade 33,333,333 new bonds. If water has a memory, it has a very short memory.

I know these things because I am a scientist and a critical thinker (and a terrible mathematician...if there are mistakes above please let me know in the comments and I'll fix the math). Homeopathy never made sense to me, so i looked into it and found it lacking in critical honesty. That's why I don't "believe" in it; because it is scientifically unsound. But I guarantee you, if someone could do a fair and balanced clinical trial and show me a significantly positive effect over a drug intervention i'd be all over that shit like...insert metaphor of choice. As a clinical scientist I'd be virtually honor bound to go investigate further.

I say all that to try and stop the "well you have an agenda" arguments. The only agenda I have is to find the truth in how things work. And then to use the best practices to help fix people who are broken. Now, one of the things we know helps people is the placebo effect. And I know it works on me too. If my allergies are playing up, I'll pop an anti-histamine. I stop sneezing immediately even though I know there is no feasible way for the medicine to have had an immediate effect!

So, if you have a cold, or are feeling run down and you find a homeopathic remedy works for you. Well, it's your dollar to burn. I'd suggest a glass of Florida Orange Juice and a good night's sleep. If you find your thoughts are confused and you're having trouble sleeping, feel free to align your shakras, and cleanse your aura. Personally, I go to the gym and spar. Hard.

As long as you promise me that if you get sick...really sick, you'll use the accumulated knowledge and experience of hundreds of years of modern and clinical medicine. You're my friend and I don't want to see you hurt or dead. And you promise me that you'll vaccinate your child and keep your own boosters up to date. We all have to share this place, and we might not all get on, but we can do our best to find some common ground.

And as long as you don't mind me pestering you with science from time to time I reckon we can still be friends.


Karen said...

Like you said, I think most of it is the placebo effect. But there is nothing wrong with that. Sometimes rituals and/or objects make us feel better just because we are doing SOMETHING. I agree that in the case of a serious illness, modern medicine is with no question the only way to go.

Unbalanced Reaction said...

I can't understand people who belief in stuff like this. It falls into the same category as parents who don't believe in vaccinating their children. Unlike you, I just can't maintain friendships with people who follow such garbage.

Dr Becca, PhD said...

Tideliar, this post is just excellent.

Anonymous said...

If water held memory, we'd all be drinking Einstein's wee wee.

tideliar said...

Thanks for the comments.

@UB: I don't think it is in the same category of Vax denial. It would be if you chose to go without serious medical treatment for a life threatening illness. But if echincacea or a homeopathic remedy makes you feel that your cold is getting better then more power to ya. Like I said, it's your dollar to burn.

Cynnie said...

i believe in the power of excedrin.

i survived the 70's without a drug habit only to be totally addicted to freaking excedrin now
im so lame .

but really cures everything