Tuesday, September 22, 2009

FLU Nonsense in the Georgia Straight

Generally speaking I find homeopathy to be utterly laughable. It is such a ridiculous therapy that it absolutely baffles me that anyone buys into it. It makes me mad that people scam money and endanger people's health with it, but I usually find it so absurd that I just can't wade into the fray. But when they join ranks with the anti-vaccination crowd (which they often do) –they've crossed onto my team's side of the warm-up ice, fisticuffs will ensue. (Vancouver is un-beaten in the NHL pre-season, I can't help myself.)
If by some chance you are reading your first skeptical blog about homeopathy, here's the short version:
You are sick with ailment 'X'. Let's say that it causes insomnia and gives you a bad rash. You decide to go to a homeopath for treatment. She takes stock of your symptoms and determines treatments for them. The substances she chooses to treat with are selected according to the homeopathic 'law of similars' wherein 'like cures like.' In other words the effect of the substance used would be similar to the symptom and could be used to expel the disease. How would it do that? Why with it's vital force of course! But wait! There's more...
Based on your insomnia, the homeopath selects caffeine of course, and for your rash - poison ivy, and creates for you a pair of preparations to cure your malady.
"But wait!" You ask, being a sensible person, "Can't I just have a cup of coffee – as ludicrous as it sounds for curing insomnia? And poison Ivy? Uh... I'm supposed to drink that?"
"Don't worry." Your homeopath mollifies you. And she goes on to explain how she'll be preparing your cure.
First she'll take the caffeine and dilute it by a factor of 100. Then she'll succuss it. "You'll what?"
"I'll smack it 10 times with a leather saddle." By now your spidey-senses ought to be tingling.
Okay, to be fair, modern homeopaths have generally quit with the smacking it an arbitrary number of times with a saddle. Can you blame them? That's just ridiculous. No, today they shake it an arbitrary number of times along each axis – left to right, back to forth and up to down. That makes far more sense now.... doesn't it?
And then she takes a portion of that solution and dilutes it by a factor of 100 again, and succusses it again. And then she does it all again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. Thirty times. Each dilution by 100 is symbolized by the letter 'C' the Roman numeral for 100 – hence this dilution (the standard homeopathic dilution) is identified as 30C. Mathematically this will work out to 1060 – or 1 part of the original substance and 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 parts water. If you took one molecule of the original substance and dropped it in all the water on earth (assuming that water was perfectly purified) it would still be trillions of times stronger than the solution your homeopath just made for you.
Now those numbers are obviously really fucking big. So big that it's hilarious to even really try to conceive it in your head. And that alone may make you want to question the validity of my refutation. I understand the instinct. But the reality is that you don't even have to go that far. There is a well established law of chemistry known as Avogadro's Number which simply put determines the number of molecules in a given volume. Using the hard facts of how the universe works you can – if you have the mad math skillz – work out that at approximately 12C the dilution would statistically speaking have a single molecule of the original substance in it.
So, now you must be asking yourself, how the fuck is something that, by all reason, doesn't have any of the dubious curative compound in it at all, supposed to help me? Well, the short answer is that it won't. But you won't get that answer from a homeopath. Their response will be that the (it burns my fingers just to type it) 'according to Jacques Benveniste, water maintains a memory of the substance.' To which you'd be perfectly justified in responding "what the fuck!?! Give me my money back you quack!"
And that's before you start considering the repercussions of the thought that if water has memory doesn't that mean it remembers the shit dumped into it by everything that has ever lived? What exactly does T-Rex shit cure? Massive bites wounds possibly? Or, the equally implausible notion that (Oh gawd! The burning!) that a remedy that is more diluted is more effective. Seriously, classic homeopaths actually believe that. ....Seriously.
This past week Georgia Straight magazine published an article on homeopathy by Sonya McLeod. It was her second this summer. But in her latest post she skated on my ice – she played the anti-vax card and the H1N1 card.
She dives right into criticism of the scare tactics that the mainstream media has used on the public with regards to the epidemic. For starters, she appears to be – like many people – misunderstanding the term 'epidemic'. There seems to be an assumption that epidemic (and more so 'pandemic') means vast swaths of the populace is dead or dying. That after the fact phrases like 'no-one was unaffected' and 'everyone knew someone who died' or 'entire families wiped-out'. WRONG! Epidemic is not a measure of the severity of the disease, merely of its ability to infect a large number of people in a short period of time. By implying the extreme (and incorrect) definition, she allows herself the opportunity to scoff at the notion of an epidemic – a strategy which is no less reprehensible than the accusation she is making. The media has almost without a doubt made more of H1N1 than it deserves – any sane person would hope so – but it would be equally insane to not prepare for the worst and hope for the best, so apart from possibly front-ending our concerns, what is the problem with the media's characterization? Especially seeing as their characterization has tempered since the spring.
McLeod proudly announces (in what shortly turns into a thinly veiled commercial) that she has no fear of H1N1 or the seasonal flu affecting her daughters as she is a formally trained homeopath "a natural healing art that has been used successfully for the treatment of all types of flus for more than 200 years." So, here's the thing... medicine – real medicine – has been around just as long – longer in fact. Medicine has had the good sense to discard what doesn't work. Homeopathy... well it's just as ridiculous as ever. As to being natural? Go fuck yourself Sonya. There is a common misconception that modern medicine has something 'un-natural' about it. It's a ridiculous idea. What on earth do you mean by 'natural?' I can only guess you mean something that is 'of this earth'... like practically everything in our world that isn't imaginary or magical... like homeopathy! But seriously – let's start defining what 'natural' means before we start to make specious claims and implications about what is and isn't natural.
Ooh! Hey wait a second! Brain-storm! Why don't we start occasionally referring to modern medicine (accurately, I might add) as 'natural medicine.' I bet a doctor could make a killing by promoting her 'modern western medicine' as natural medicine, and when it came down to it no one could argue that she was wrong! Okay, go – do it. Send me my 'natural-pharma-shill' cheque to my PayPal account.
"My kids will not be getting either the swine-flu or the regular flu shot this year." Which is anti-vaxish for: "I will negligently contribute to the undermining of herd-immunity this year and will directly endanger my own progeny."
She declares that if she were to worry about her kids getting the flu that she would give them homeopathic influenzinum. And at this point I must do something I am rarely able to do... I will commend Ms. McLeod for her ability to use Google. So very few of the people whose bullshit I've researched appear to have any facility for Google as they get easily found facts heinously incorrect. But not Ms. McLeod she clearly knows her Google as her structure, and wording of her entire paragraph on influenzinum is lifted (with edits presumably for brevity) almost verbatim from
FLU: Alternative Treatments and Prevention
by Randall Neustaedter.
Here's a Google challenge for you: do a search for "influenzinum" and see how many hits you can find that aren't written by a homeopath (I.E. Someone profiting from it.) or a homeopathic organization (same thing, really). I went 10 pages deep and found one single page (results will change from week to week). That is how seriously science takes influenzinum. When prefaced as "homeopathic" science doesn't even bother, because the jury is in on homeopathy and the science book was thrown at it.
The claim is that influenzinum is a deactivated virus which triggers an immune response. (Which is kinda like what a vaccine does, but don't get suckered by the pretend science.) Let's take that as true. As a homeopathic cure diluted to 30C there wouldn't be a molecule of "deactivated virus" in a quazillion doses, so there goes your active ingredient. But let's say there is an active ingredient – let's just say... as unlikely as it is. So... the homeopath is distributing an unlicensed biological agent to people. Yes. There's a word that gets applied to that. It's a word that is actually a bit extreme to use – especially seeing as we know there is no virus left in the homeopathic remedy – but the word is 'terrorism.' Let me be clear. THIS IS NOT TERRORISM. No one with any sense takes homeopaths seriously. I doubt if influenzinum could even be shown to be a deactivated virus – it's simply part of the homeopathic mythology. Perhaps I could find out for sure if I: a) took homeopaths seriously; or b) had the patience to wade past the pages and pages of evidence-free bullshit you get when you Google it. Point being: homeopathy = NOT terrorism, it's too silly to be terrorism; but if real viruses – even if deactivated – were being distributed, it would be a criminal act of extreme severity.
She goes on to bemoan that "the most frustrating thing about homeopathy is that it is often difficult to decide between one homeopathic remedy and another." Oh, don't worry Sonya, they're all the same.
So I set this post aside just as work interfered in a serious way. It's now three days later and I'm still really too busy to carry on in as much detail as I wished.
Meanwhile, the story has kind of exploded a bit.
I'll quickly summarize, then get on with meeting my deadline:
There were a schwack of comments to the article, predominantly negative.
A number of Canadian skeptics blogged about it:
PharmacistScott noted a few important illuminating facts on the Canadian Skepticism Forum:
And then came the response from the Georgia Straight.
PharmacistScott – who I must say is a endless fount of info on medical subjects – came up with these responses to accusations of "Big Pharma."
Some Canadian Skeptic responded to the response. Which includes this enlightening gem: "I didn't want to point it out at the time of writing [His First post] because I was a little unsure of the veracity of the claim, but it turns out that the author of the article, homeopath Sonya McLeod is indeed the daughter of the the paper's owner, Dan McLeod. (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! = My 30C surprize.)
Which leads us to....
"What can I do?"
You can complain to the BC Press Council.
[EDIT - Added Sept 22 2009, at 12:25ish]
Do NOT complain to the BC Press Council. I just recieved the following response from the Executive Direcotr of the BC Press Council to my complaint: "The Georgia Straight is not a member of the B.C. Press Council and is therefore not subject to its Code of Practice. Sorry, it's something you will have to take up with the editor."
[End EDIT]
Complain about – in increasing order of severity:
  • The borderline, un-credited plagiarism in the article
  • The bankrupt 'in-the-pocket' editorial nepotistic connection between the Straight and Sonya McLeod's company
  • The fact-free reporting
  • The dissemination of dangerous information at a critical time – specifically the promotion of demonstrably useless therapies over efficacious during the H1N1 scare – directly endangering individuals and the public in general by undermining herd-immunity
Okay, I must go work so I can post with leisure as the saga carries on.
Meanwhile, remember – real science is a process, not a process of using real science words.


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  2. Thank you, Kennedy. This is great. Please keep this up to date. It will be interesting to see if there are more articles on the subject in The Straight.

  3. I think complaints to the GS will mostly fall on deaf ears. Maybe writing a piece for The Province or Vancouver Sun could expose the trash that one of their competitors is spouting (I bet newspapers will love it if they can slag on their competition).