How a Homeopath tried to understand the science behind Homeopathy

At Café Scientifique, last night, I heard Dr. Stephen Cartwright speak on ‘Homeopathy – Dispelling myths and establishing facts’. I had never been to one of these CafeSci evenings, but going from the description, I was hoping there will be many who will be interested in hard scientific facts and theories. Even then, I took a print of the Sense about Homeopathy poster published by Sense about Science, just in case anyone might be interested in knowing more about it later. But within the first few minutes of the talk, I knew I would not need it.

Dr. Stephen Cartwright, is a molecular biologist who, with support from private donations, started researching homeopathy in 2009. Prior to that he trained and setup his own business as a homeopath in Oxford in 1988. Last night, he began his talk with a story about how he first got into homeopathy, and that is when I neatly folded my Sense about Homeopathy poster and put it in my bag.

In 1984, he visited a homeopath, out of curiosity. After talking to the homeopath, he was prescribed some pills which he happily took; only to develop symptoms of sinus within 24 hours. That intrigued him and he took up the study of homeopathy.

‘After 20 years of practising homeopathy, I really wanted to understand the chemistry behind these remedies and that’s why I have put a lot of thought and came up with some experiments to gain some insight. He continued, ‘I will have to delve into some chemistry, please forgive the jargon.’ He goes onto explain his experiments. ‘It is well known’, he says, ‘that homeopathic potencies are affected by sunlight and magnets’ and thus of all the analytical techniques that man has invented to understand the chemistry of atoms he could only use was visible light spectroscopy.

Some definitions before we proceed; succussion means vigorous shaking of a diluted homeopathic preparation in order to activate the medicinal substance; potency is the dilution factor and in homeopathy, a solution that is more dilute has a higher potency.

Panacea? (Image: The Guardian)

Process: In a special cuvette, he mixes a drop of his potencies with 90% ethanol and measures absorption against a control. Control that he uses is non-succussed water, because homeopaths accept that water that has not been methodically shaken does not have any homeopathic remedy in it. The potencies which could be of various dilutions contain a poly substituted phenol. ‘More details cannot be divulged as it is a patentable finding’, he says.

Observations: With an increase in potency (increase in dilution) he sees increase in the absorbance. Different remedies give different absolute absorbance but same trend. The trend is not linear and because he hasn’t done enough experiments he is unable to calculate the trend. Also, a similar trend is observed with an increase in the succussion of a particular potency used. ‘Quite strange’, he admits.

Additional experiments: ‘Why’, he thought, ‘is it that all homeopathic remedies are made in ethanol?’ He did the same tests with 30 different alcohols instead of the potency and found that the trend was found to be exactly same in case 2,4-pentane diol. What does that mean? Now he goes a step further on his claims and makes another theory to explain this phenomenon, ‘2,4 pentane diol is like two ethanol molecules back to back, thus the potencies might be in some way ordering the ethanol molecules to arrange themselves to form something like 2,4-pentane diol.’

Wow! A Nobel Prize deserving discovery, why hasn’t he published it? Oh wait, there is a problem.

Problem: Results are not reproducible because too many factors affect his experiments, factors like time of the day, place in the lab, how many times was the potency shaken, etc. He also observed that when very rarely he has managed to have all the factors in control, he found that on somedays he got the result and on somedays he did not. So how to explain another strange pheonomenon? Of course, another theory. He hypothesises that there is an oscillation in the potency. On somedays it shows effects and on somedays it does not.

On clinical trials he says, ‘These oscillations are the reason why clinical trials fail. Homeopathic remedies behave in strange ways and these clinical trials don’t take that into consideration. Obviously, the results will never be as predicted.’

On expiry date he says, ‘Homeopathic remedies have no expiry date. On occasions, I have found 20 year old medicines are as active as one’s made today.’

Alternative medicine (Image: Chicagoland Homeopathy)

On future scope he says, ‘Homeopathy has been here for over 200 years. 40% of all prescriptions in India are homeopathic prescriptions. There is huge market for homeopathy but because it behaves in these strange ways we need new assays to test these remedies. The demand for these assays is urgent and the inventor will make a lot of money.’

At the end he quotes Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who he claims based the character of Sherlock Holmes on a homeopath, “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”

Enough of the talk, let’s move on to question answers. I’ll enlist the ones I remember.

Q: When you went to the homeopath in 1984, what problem did you have?

A: Nothing, I was quite healthy. Huh? Then why were you prescribed pills? Oh that! You see in talking to him for over an hour, I realised there were so many things that were wrong with me.

Q: What are your thoughts about the claim that water has memory?

A: Perhaps, I don’t know, there has to be some way to explain this strange phenomenon. May be it is true.

Q: Were the oscillations random or regular like a sinusoidal wave?

A: As far as I know, they were regular. Doesn’t that mean that you can then time clinical trials on the days you know the remedy will have a cure!!

Q: Considering that the potency is shaken in 90% ethanol and your claim that with more shaking you observe more absorbance. Is it possible that ethanol is simply dissolving glass or some impurities that are present in glass?

A: I am not aware of it. We take care that the glass used is clean. Of course you do. Did we doubt that? We were talking about dissolving glass or the impurities that get embedded in glass during the manufacturing process.

Q: If homeopathy is so widely used, why hasn’t homeopathy come up with new potencies?

A: Of course we have, you will be able to find potencies of tetracyclines. But te

tracyclines are compounds made to combat disease. Making potencies that way is against the homeopathic principles, right? Homeopaths make potencies of things that cause the disease, right? Oh yes, we make potencies of tetracyclines to combat the side-effects produce by this drug.

Q: This room has many chemists today, including myself and we would to know if you would be willing to share your spectral data with us to let us analyse them?

A: Yes, I’d be willing to that. I am happy to collaborate. Surely, it will be better if you do this before you face the peer-review process.

Q: You have said that you have not published any of this research. But clearly these results have use for homeopaths, have you shared the information with them yet?

A: Not yet. I believe in coming up with a working hypothesis before I do that.

Q: Have you presented your results at a conference?

A: No I do not have money to do that. It is very difficult to find funding because of the fickle nature of the results I’ve obtained. But I will some day. That’s why I give talks at places like these. I came here hoping to be asked intelligent questions, of which there were none, so that I am able to hone my skills of defending my case of homeopathy.

It surprised me that in the many questions asked, no one ever brought the placebo effect into the conversation. It may be because even without that weapon he wasn’t able to come up with convincing answers for the audience. The last question he was asked is the best conclusion I could have asked for to conclude my blog post.

Q for the audience: Will people who have changed their minds about homeopathy after today’s talk, for the better or worse, please raise their hands?

3 out of about 30 raise their hands. The old man who asked this question says, ‘There, Dr. Cartwright, that was a predictable and I dare say, reproducible result.’

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About Akshat Rathi

Science and Technology Journalist
This entry was posted in Chemistry, Sense about Science and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to How a Homeopath tried to understand the science behind Homeopathy

  1. Pingback: Simon Singh WIN! « Purely a figment of your imagination

  2. noodlemaz says:

    Thank you!
    I like this ‘no intelligent questions’ comment. Look forward to seeing these papers of his, should they ever materialise, and what comes of collaborations! Were details actually exchanged – do you think he’ll get in touch??

    • akshatrathi294 says:

      I think if he does not get in touch, I am sure chemists from Oxford will do. But frankly, all that might not hold much water because he did not seem to have a handle on the scientific method. I don’t know if he has kept a good enough record of what he has measured. It might just be as dodgy as his talk.

  3. xtaldave says:

    Nice post. Thanks for going along to this and blogging it for those of us outside Oxford :)

    A quick note – this is where his some of his effects might be coming from – he uses unsuccessed water as a control.

    Succussion dislodges silicates and borates from the glass vial in which the remedies are made. This is a published, known effect – which he clearly doesn’t know about:

    “Q. Considering that the potency is shaken in 90% ethanol and your claim that with more shaking you observe more absorbance. Is it possible that ethanol is simply dissolving glass or some impurities that are present in glass?

    A: I am not aware of it. We take care that the glass used is clean. Of course you do. Did we doubt that? We were talking about dissolving glass or the impurities that get embedded in glass during the manufacturing process.”

    **SHAMELESS BLOG PIMP**
    http://xtaldave.wordpress.com/2010/02/18/its-teh-silly-cates-stoopid/

    • akshatrathi294 says:

      Thanks for the link. It makes sense. It was published so recently, he should know about it really. Considering it was published in a journal called HOMEOPATHY!

  4. Pingback: How a Homeopath tried to understand the science behind Homeopathy … | Glass Science Material Geek

  5. batarista says:

    ” Problem: Results are not reproducible because too many factors affect his experiments, factors like time of the day, place in the lab, how many times was the potency shaken, etc. He also observed that when very rarely he has managed to have all the factors in control, he found that on somedays he got the result and on somedays he did not. So how to explain another strange pheonomenon? Of course, another theory. He hypothesises that there is an oscillation in the potency. On somedays it shows effects and on somedays it does not.

    On clinical trials he says, ‘These oscillations are the reason why clinical trials fail. Homeopathic remedies behave in strange ways and these clinical trials don’t take that into consideration. Obviously, the results will never be as predicted.’ ”

    If it is indeed difficult to reliably reproduce the results, as described above, it’s curious that homeopaths rarely report such problems. This observation would be consistent with the hypothesis that he is just ‘measuring’ noise, rather than any actual homeopathic effect.

    Thanks for blogging on this event :>)

  6. akshatrathi294 says:

    Noise it must be. I hope he reads this.

  7. Skepticat says:

    I very much appreciate your writing this excellent post, which I have linked to from my own, not least because you’ve saved me the bother of transcribing my notes from the same presentation he gave at a conference I attended.

    Nice job.

    http://www.skepticat.org/2010/04/homeopathy-conference-2010/

  8. Nancy Malik says:

    Real is scientific homeopathy. Evidence-based modern homeopathy medicine for everyone

  9. Skepticat says:

    LOL!

    Be careful what you wish for akshatrathi. Nancy trolled this forum so bad she was given her own section on it. She posted hundreds of worthless links to quack websites before she was finally banned.

    http://www.thinkhumanism.com/phpBB3/viewforum.php?f=63

  10. sanjay says:

    I visited a homeopathic lady doctor who had opened a clinic in her home itself.

    Mrs. Shubhangi Bute, B.H.M.S., C.G.O.,
    Near Railway gate no. 120,
    Manish nagar,
    Nagpur – 440015

    I was surprised to find a young girl assisting the lady doctor with her work in her clinic. She is still assisting the lady doctor.

    When I entered the room, I found there was no privacy at all to talk to her about my problems. The door was open with only a curtain to cover the entrance. The two windows were open, one of them was for air cooler while the other was open for her husband to keep an eye on her from their drawing room. The lady doctor sat near the door which was closed from inside and provided entrance to the rooms inside the house. Her sitting position was next to this door, while the patient sat near the door. Thus in case her husband wanted to listen to what the patients were saying he could easily listen to it, because he is at home during the working hours of the clinic i.e. 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.. He works in K.D.K college nagpur during morning hours.

    The lady doctor never touches the patients to check their pulse while other doctors in her profession are found doing so, without hesitation and on purpose. This lady doctor happens to be a Brahmin, so may be her religion doesn’t permit touching the people of lower caste.

    When her husband found that the number of male patients attending the clinic is increasing he sent his daughter to keep an eye on his wife. So now the lady doctor and her daughter who is studying in fourth standard both listen to the patients’ problems. A patient finds it awkward to talk to the doctor in presence of her daughter, but does not complain about it. A patient fears that the lady doctor may get annoyed and give him a medicine which may harm his health in the long run.

    The lady doctor tries to justify the presence of her daughter in the so called cabin by treating her as her assistant. However when her daughter whispers in this lady’s ear and she laughs like hell, then it is natural for a patient to feel ashamed of having spoken about his problem.

    I thought that doctors were supposed to be the noble people to whom a patient can tell all his problems without any hesitation to get himself cured of his illness. But when these mother and daughter make a laughing stock of the patient’s problem I really wonder how come a doctor can compromise the privacy of his patient for the sake of educating her child or whatever may be the reason. Is it actually permitted in medical profession in India.

    In case it was improper for a doctor to compromise the privacy of the patient for the sake of educating her child studying in fourth standard and any action can be taken against such doctor.

    I feel that the doctors are at least expected to keep the secrets of their patients and not share them with anybody. I also guess there is some law about keeping the privacy of the information provided by the patient to the doctor. In this case the doctor is sharing the information with her daughter who will further share it with her friends and ultimately the neighbors will know the patient’s secret and that may ruin his life. The doctor is hence putting the life of the patient at risk. Is she empowered to do so? I feel she deserves some kind of punishment for not practicing this and hence I provide you the address :

  11. abrarajomials says:

    Just want to say what a great blog you got here!
    I’ve been around for quite a lot of time, but finally decided to show my appreciation of your work!

    Thumbs up, and keep it going!

    Cheers
    Christian

  12. Nancy Malik says:

    Evidence of homeopathy is undeniably positive and consistent. It’s a human evidence of experience, gathered from a real-world observation in a real-world setting (not in an ideal artificial laboratory) giving real-world solutions.

  13. Pingback: Choose a Better Belief System | Contemplation

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