Tag Archives: Alternative medicine

The Math of Homeopathy and Why It Almost Assuredly Can’t Work

A recent story from Calgary, Alberta has surfaced about mother Tamara Lovett, whose son was diagnosed with a strep infection in 2013, then sadly, subsequently died. The reason this case has made news, is because Tamara opted to treat her son with homeopathic remedies instead of the treatments doctors suggested. As a result, she’s facing prosecution for child endangerment.

The legal implications are a little difficult in their own right, because it’s not that Tamara didn’t try to get treatment for her son, it’s that she chose an option that has never passed scientific scrutiny for the treatment of strep infections. But I’ll leave the legal ramifications for another time, this writing is only about the science.

Tamara and Ryan Lovett
Tamara and Ryan Lovett

A CDC study shows that a severe strep infection has an 80% survival rate, which isn’t great—one out of every five people die. Early detection and treatment are imperative if it is to be easily treatable and survivable. So to be fair, her son may not have survived even if she had chosen the treatment recommended by doctors.

If you’re not completely familiar with homeopathy, click here for an in-depth article from Science Based Medicine (SBM), it’s a great detailed explanation from highly qualified people to assess the treatment. I’m particularly interested in elaborating on the math and physics that are somewhat touched on in the article, because I believe it explains why it not only doesn’t work, it almost assuredly can’t.

I say most assuredly, because in science, there are simply no absolutes—it is possible. I also leave myself this out, because my claim is not falsifiable, leaving the burden of proof with the people claiming it does work, not those of us who are skeptical of it.

Image showing strep throat infection

Before I go into homeopathy, I first want to address some confusion regarding what it is. In a handful of social media discussions, people equated homeopathy with natural remedies like oils, herbs, and plant extracts, or alternative treatments like acupuncture, chiropractic, and massage. Those are not homeopathy, so let’s address the others so you can compare them somewhat knowledgeably.

Oils, herbs, and plant extracts are used in medicine all the time, and are often quite helpful—such as putting aloe vera on a sunburn for instance. They’ve been tested, their effectiveness is often well understood. As this article in Positive Health Wellness points out, there are many other natural alternatives as well.

Doctors may even recommend them from time to time to patients, but it’s important to understand that these are usually for things you would not necessarily see a doctor for in the first place, like a simple stomach ache, or other minor ailments.

Treatments like acupuncture, chiropractic, and massage, are also known to have some benefits, but not quite in the way you might imagine. What they do, is provide immediate pain relief, largely due to human contact, a premise explained here and/or via the placebo effect.

What they haven’t been shown to accomplish however, is improving any underlying medical conditions like an infectious disease, arthritis, or other physical abnormalities—something some of these practitioners claim can be done, despite almost every reputable controlled study showing otherwise.

If you have a genuine life-or-death condition, I cannot stress enough to consult a doctor with an actual doctorate degree in medicine, not an alternative treatment “doctor” who is just a practitioner wrongfully using the term doctor, to fool you into a belief of credibility.

Image result for acupuncture
Acupuncture – Click picture for link to NIH In-Depth Analysis on Acupuncture © BananaStock

On a personal note; you’ll notice that I say “alternative treatments” versus “alternative medicine.” This is because to me, there is no such thing, in a literary sense, as “alternative medicine.” There is only medicine—things that actually improve someone’s condition, and there’s everything else that doesn’t. If such an alternative treatment actually passes the rigors of controlled clinical trials with successful results, then they’re not alternative medicine, they’re just medicine.

The important premise I want to elaborate on from the SBM article cited above is where they explain the dilutions used to make a homeopathic medicine. They cited that it’s between 1:1006 at its strongest dilution, and 1:10030 at its weakest. This doesn’t appear that significant at first, but the math behind this dosage will hopefully illustrate why it ultimately has no mechanism to work, unless everything we know about chemistry is wrong. So let’s dig right in.

Imagine you have a regular strength Tylenol, which contains 325 mg of acetaminophen. That pill will have some other fillers in it for various reasons, as explained here. But according to a source in the pharmaceutical community, 35% drug to 65% filler is a pretty fair ratio you might expect on any given drug. I don’t have a scale to weigh the whole pill, but if you do, you can easily do the math and find out for yourself by subtracting 325 mg from the total weight of the pill. I reached out to Tylenol to get an exact number, they were kind enough to respond, but advised it was proprietary information. At 35% to 65%, that is a 1:1.86 ratio of active ingredient to non active fillers.tylenol1 tylenol2 tylenol3 tylenol4

Homeopathy however, starts as a 1:100 solution which is then cut between 6 to 30 times, depending on their particular diagnoses.

Like a typical doctor, they would ask a series of questions to help diagnose the condition, but unlike a typical doctor, many of the questions they ask seem entirely medically irrelevant, such as:

Let’s first address what 1:1006 or 1:10030 even means. For every 1 mg of the active ingredient, they mix it with 100 mg of filler (the inactive ingredient), which results in a 1:100 ratio. From there, they then take that 1:100 solution, extract 1 mg of that, mix it with another 100 mg of filler, which is now a 1:10,000 solution (100 x 100 = 10,000). This can also be written as 1:1002. Their formula calls for at least 1:1006, so that means the above procedure is repeated four more times, or up to 28 more times for the 1:10030 dosage.

Since you saw the first cut took 1:100 from 1:10,000 (basically added two more zeros), if it’s done four more times, eight more zeros are added, for a ratio of 1:1,000,000,000,000. Yes, 1 in 1 trillion. And that’s the most concentrated or strongest dilution. We all know one trillion is a pretty big number, but let me put that into perspective.

Earth’s diameter is approximately 7,917.5 miles or 501,652,800 inches. So that means, that if the pill were the size of Earth, the active ingredient would be the size of slightly under 1/3 of a golf ball, which is 1.68 inches in diameter (1.68 x 1 trillion = 1.68 trillion compared to 500 billion. 3 x 500 billion is 1.5 trillion). And again, that’s the strongest dose.

Now, if we address the 1:10030 dosage, the dilution jumps to 1:100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. I double checked those zeros—60 of them to be exact. I don’t even know if there’s a word for that number, to be honest—it’s almost literally incomprehensible.

If we think of Pluto as a planet (which it isn’t) at the edge of our solar system (also not true), the orbit it makes around the sun (an orbit so big, it hasn’t even completed it once since we discovered Pluto in 1930) would make our solar system approximately 465,631,747,504,000 inches in diameter.

This synthetic perspective view of Pluto, based on the latest high-resolution images to be downlinked from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, shows what you would see if you were approximately 1,100 miles (1,800 kilometers) above Pluto’s equatorial area, looking northeast over the dark, cratered, informally named Cthulhu Regio toward the bright, smooth, expanse of icy plains informally called Sputnik Planum. The entire expanse of terrain seen in this image is 1,100 miles (1,800 kilometers) across. The images were taken as New Horizons flew past Pluto on July 14, 2015, from a distance of 50,000 miles (80,000 kilometers). Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
This synthetic perspective view of Pluto, based on the latest high-resolution images to be downlinked from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, shows what you would see if you were approximately 1,100 miles (1,800 kilometers) above Pluto’s equatorial area, looking northeast over the dark, cratered, informally named Cthulhu Regio toward the bright, smooth, expanse of icy plains informally called Sputnik Planum. The entire expanse of terrain seen in this image is 1,100 miles (1,800 kilometers) across. The images were taken as New Horizons flew past Pluto on July 14, 2015, from a distance of 50,000 miles (80,000 kilometers).
Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Hopefully, the astute of you are starting to realize that our solar system as described above, still isn’t nearly big enough to be used as a metric for the size of a pill that would have 1 inch diameter of active ingredient. Our solar system would have to be 214,761,988,494,225,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 times bigger for that.

While some may be skeptical of “western medicine,” we must accept that people go to the doctor for surgeries and other medical treatments and come out healed every day. To know that, then somehow believe everything they know is wrong, would be unparalleled in ignorance, or an unimaginable string of lucky doctors.

The problem I assume many of you have already come to, is that with a dilution this drastic, the likelihood you’d even get one molecule of the active ingredient is pretty slim. The human body only has about 7,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 atoms in it (27 zeros), as a point of reference.

Practitioners overcome this problem by claiming that the fillers simply having come in contact with the active ingredient creates some sympathetic imitation, called the law of similars. They’re arguing that the molecules of the filler would somehow take on qualities from the active ingredient. But how is that supposed to work?

The active ingredients are molecules. If you break it down to anything smaller, it is no longer that ingredient. For instance, water is a molecule of two hydrogen atoms bonded to one oxygen atom. Remove any one of those atoms, and what remains are two gasses that are nothing like water.

So this notion that somehow the filler changes because it comes in contact with the active ingredient, is the portion that defies everything we know about physics, because if one molecule changes another, that is typically because it gave up an electron to it. But if there’s only 1 molecule of active ingredient to 1 trillion filler molecules, where exactly do those trillions of electrons come from?

It’s also important to understand how medicine works. A molecule of the active ingredient usually binds to a molecule of the virus, bacteria, etc., destroying them in the process, and thus negating their ability to divide and grow.

A pain reliever similarly binds to pain receptors in your body to stop them from sending pain signals to your brain. I’m oversimplifying of course, but how is one molecule of medicine supposed to fight several billion molecules of whatever ails you, or bond to millions of pain receptors? Nevertheless molecules of filler that may or may not have once come in contact of the active ingredient.ecc7d1d27275a4b9cb29cf31ea08780d[1]

If a patients blood work, biopsies, or other tests show improvement, it’s because they either took other medications that do work along with the homeopathic treatment, or their immune system simply did its job with no help from the homeopathic treatment. But it almost assuredly cannot be due to any physical effects homeopathy would have done, because there’s simply no mechanism for the drug to actually do that work.

So I implore everyone; don’t EVER listen to anyone giving you medical advice that involves using homeopathy. It’s immoral and reprehensible advice from those who know better, and from those who don’t, it’s simply woefully misguided ignorance.

No one lacking the credentials the multitude of MD doctors and researchers who’ve tested homeopathy with no positive result have, should be given an ounce of credence with your health—especially when the results can be fatal if the wrong choice is made.

 

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Tolerance: It isn’t always the moral high ground

I must confess, I hate buzzwords. Take “awareness” for example. Every October, we have “Breast Cancer Awareness” month. Is there really anyone in the developed world who isn’t aware of breast cancer? We don’t need awareness, we need money to fund research for a cure.

Awareness is a word that would be appropriate for things like the current Ebola scare where money isn’t necessarily what’s needed; people also need to be aware of how it is contracted, aware of how at risk they are, aware of what it actually is, etc.

Ebola Virus
Ebola Virus

As with many buzz words, “awareness” started off being used appropriately, then turned into a bastardized version of itself as people started applying it to every cause of the week. It’s not unlike the word “liberal,” which has a meaning quite the opposite of the ideology that drives most people today who describe themselves as such.

The buzzword I want to discuss however, which seems to be common in the current lexicon, is “tolerance.” The concept being that to each their own, live and let live, etc. This ideology is the core of libertarianism.

Democrats may claim to be the ones who are most tolerant of gays wanting to marry for example, but even our president was against it at the time of his election; libertarians were for it all along.  The Libertarian Party is the true party of tolerance, and always has been. It is refreshing to see that sentiment is permeating through to the other two parties though, liberty is a principle that is near and dear to us all, thankfully. Some just take longer than others to champion it for those who are different from them.Don't Tread On Me

I’ve outlined many times that issues are generally broken up into two categories: subjective and factual. The problem with “tolerance” is that much like “awareness” people often want to apply it in places where it doesn’t belong.

Would you tolerate someone who argues that two plus two is five or that the sun revolves around the Earth? We all have a right to our opinions, but no one has a right to their own “facts.” Facts stand on their own, despite whatever opinion someone may have; this is important to understand when dealing with the idea of being tolerant.

Whether it be gay rights, music preferences, or taste in cuisine, it is not uncommon to see people who are wrongfully intolerant of those choices by insulting them or demeaning them for such choices. Disrespecting someone or infringing on their rights because they disagree with you on such matters is always going to be an immoral practice.

The problem arises when people expect you to be tolerant on matters of fact. Since I’m quite opinionated, it’s not uncommon for me to lash out at people who I deem to be misrepresenting the truth. The difference between myself and someone who is intolerant, is I do so with people who make claims which aren’t supported by the evidence. Especially when they feel the need to disrespect me for not agreeing with them.

When I rightfully tell these people they are wrong, such as my last post about people who promote alternative medicine, I was not being intolerant, I’m protecting others from their lies (or non-facts if I give them credit for just being ignorant versus malicious). But I’m also making it clear I am not one to accept false information as fact. This distinction has a very fine line though.539838_10150934532972695_942140407_n-560x700[1]

Veganism and vegetarianism are perfect examples. There are two reasons to choose this dietary lifestyle. Some do so because they don’t want to be part of a group who exploits animals. This is a matter of opinion, and no one should rightfully disrespect them for taking that position. It’s a perfect example of when you should be tolerant.

But, if a vegan/vegetarian makes a claim that they have done so for health reasons, that is a claim of biological fact and should be scrutinized. Many studies have been done on the health effects of veganism, and it consistently has the opposite effect, depending on which aspect of health you’re focusing on. ScienceBasedMedicine.org has done a good job of gathering much of this information here. So choosing this lifestyle for that reason is not a call for tolerance, but for skepticism instead.

I’m not promoting the idea of taking that lifestyle away from a vegan/vegetarian, they have the right to choose so for whatever reason they’ve decided. But I won’t tolerate them encouraging others to choose that lifestyle for health reasons with no evidence to support that claim. They are essentially giving medical advice without a medical degree or any scientific evidence supporting them. Since the facts often don’t support their argument, it would be immoral for me to let such falsehoods go unchallenged.

The purpose of promoting tolerance is about the morality of judging someone based on their beliefs, not tolerating them spreading potentially harmful lies and/or misinformation. As P.C. Hodgell wrote in Seeker’s Mask, “That which can be destroyed by the truth, should be.”

This brings me to my “friends” on the left, because this principle applies to politics just the same. I strive to be tolerant of someone who prefers socialism, acknowledging that it’s OK for them to want a system where we collectively work towards a common good and pool our resources accordingly; all being managed by a benevolent governing body.Statism-c-c[1]

But they rarely give us liberty-minded folks the same deference. They argue socialism works, blatantly disregarding the historical evidence of socialism. But more importantly, they vote in people who force socialism onto me.

If I force liberty onto them, they would have the freedom to enter into their own oppressive sanctuary if they chose to. But if they force socialism onto me, I don’t have the option to be free. Clearly, I am not the intolerant one.

 

 

Alternative Medicine: The Grand, Ignorant And Immoral Oxymoron

There can be no doubt, many people suffer from iatrophobia ​—a fear of doctors. Being poked with needles, recommended for surgeries, or placed on never-ending drug regiments can make people want to curl up in a ball somewhere and hide forever.

As a result of this somewhat understandable fear, people often look to alternative medicine for the answers to their problems. Whether it be practices like chiropractic, homeopathic, holistic, acupuncture—the list is mind numbing.doctor_needle2[1]

So first, let’s look at the definition of the word medicine.

med·i·cine
ˈmedəsən/
noun
noun: medicine; plural noun: medicines
  1. the science or practice of the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of disease (in technical use often taken to exclude surgery).
  2. a compound or preparation used for the treatment or prevention of disease, especially a drug or drugs taken by mouth.

When discussing the idea of alternative medicine, it should first be understood that there is essentially no such thing as alternative medicine.

  • There is medicine: practices or compounds that treat a medical condition or disease.
  • There is non-medicine: practices or compounds that  do not treat a disease or medical condition.

There is no middle ground here, the item in question either works, or it doesn’t work. The level of effectiveness may very, but there has to be a noted effect, above the margin of error or the placebo effect, or it cannot be considered medicine.medicine[1]

For hundreds of years, scientists have laid out the path to determine which is which. It’s called a clinical trial, an extension of the scientific method. While the concept goes back thousands of years, in the last century, the process is now pretty consistent and highly effective.

In a fictional example, I will create a drug called Libertol (I had to throw a little politics in this thing), and I will have invented it to treat a disease called oppressionitis.

Assuming I’m a drug company, I’m going to be biased to confirm that the millions of dollars I spent developing Libertol actually yielded a functional, and thus marketable product. Since that bias could either unintentionally skew my results, or raise concerns I might purposefully have skewed the results, I would find an independent party to test Libertol in order to rule out any actual or perceived biases I might have.

The independent testing facility would start by looking for a number of people with oppresionitis, and ask them if they’d be willing to submit to a study on a new drug to treat this horrible disease. For the sake of argument, let’s say we get 500 people to be our guinea pigs.

Clinical Study Map. Click for more info
Clinical Study Map. Click for more info

Why 500? Because “anecdotal evidence isn’t evidence.” (Great science maxim #1, there will be more) But what do scientists mean by that?

Imagine you flip a coin once, and it lands heads up. Would you then assume that every time you flip a coin, it will land heads up because of that one flip? Of course you wouldn’t. That is essentially anecdotal evidence. One, or barely more than one, instance is almost never to be treated as if its results are indicative of what should be expected on a consistent basis. This is also why you are wise to often get a 2nd or even 3rd opinion when seeing doctors.

So maybe you flip the coin ten times? It lands heads seven out of ten due to random chance, which is not only entirely possible, if I’ve done my math right, is likely to happen about 1 out of 8 times (15:125 to be exact). So does that mean a coin is prone to land heads up 70% of the time? Again, of course not. The more times you flip it, the closer it will get to its actual probability of 50:50 as the odds start to balance out.Coin[1]

So when doing a clinical trial, the more people you can test, the more accurate your results will be, and this is why we want 500 people in our above fictional example.

These trials are actually done in phases, with only about 20-80 people at first, if the drug ends up having detrimental side effects, you don’t want it to affect a large number of people, after all. But by the time the study hits phase 3, there will likely be thousands of participants being evaluated. But I’m simplifying the three phases down to one, and the process in general, for the purposes of this article.

Once volunteers are gathered up, half of them will be given the actual drug, the other half will be given a placebo (a non-drug). This placebo is designed to control for the placebo effect, a condition whereby a person will convince themselves a drug works, even if it doesn’t.

The placebo effect will generally not alter things that are purely quantitative, like blood pressure, heart rate, or other measurable conditions, but it can have quite the profound effect on subjective data, such as pain level and other issues the user merely reports on versus being tested with equipment.

The results of the group who took Libertol would then be tested against the people who took the placebo they thought was Libertol, and Bob’s your uncle—you have a result.

If Libertol actually worked, it would show as such by being more effective than the placebo was at treating oppressionitis. Otherwise, the results will come back as “no more effective than a placebo,” and Libertol would be sent to the ineffective drug graveyard in the sky, barring any noted side effects that may be beneficial elsewhere.

Viagra being one of the best examples of this phenomena, was originally designed for blood pressure issues, which it was horrible for, but turned out to be quite the rock star at “pitching tents.”viagra[1]

So the moral here, is that you shouldn’t take medical advice from someone who tried something once and it worked. There are infinite other possibilities to explain why it seemed effective, rather than it actually being effective. Instead, ask your doctor and if you’re a true skeptic, research yourself for clinical trial results.

I was recommended acupuncture by my neurologist for headaches, only to do my research using sites like sciencebasedmedicine.org. Much as I expected, I found that clinical trials showed acupuncture is “no more effective than a placebo.”

People who had actual acupuncture reported similar results, within the margin of error, to people who were treated with fake acupuncture where the needles were purposely misplaced. It has never been shown to be more effective despite its hundreds of years of history. The only “ancient Chinese secret” here, is that it doesn’t work.

Acupuncture
Acupuncture

While we place a lot of trust in doctors, not all of them adhere to the scientific method exclusively, some are flat-out quacks. But if you want medicine versus non-medicine, you should demand as such. So lesson learned, I won’t be seeing that neurologist again.

There are two types of alternative medicine practitioners:
Fraudsters who know they’re taking advantage of you, or
ignorant people who simply don’t know better. But why give your money to either one?

If someone is purposefully deceiving you for a fee, that is a horribly immoral practice where you take someone’s hard-earned money that could be used for something that would help them, and instead sell them something that won’t. If I lived in an anarchistic country, I would want to destroy every one of these sociopaths. They are valueless human beings, in my opinion.

But even if they’re just ignorant and think these practices actually work, they’re still taking your hard-earned money for something that doesn’t. Assuming you don’t have money to burn, why do exactly that?burning-money-e1340332352315[1]

It is true, an argument can be made that if the placebo effect does work for things like pain, giving someone a placebo might make them feel better without introducing foreign chemicals into their body. But it’s still inherently dishonest, and I would hope none of you would willingly pay someone to lie to you.

All health claims are scientific in nature, meaning there are biological processes that are either going to get better, stay the same, or get worse in your body after treatment. So trust in things that have passed the test of the scientific method, and understand that “that which can be destroyed by the evidence, should be.” (Great science maxim #2)

“Extraordinary claims, require extraordinary evidence.” (Great science maxim #3) This is what clinical trials provide beyond any reasonable doubt.

People like Harry Houdini spent their lives trying to debunk such fraudsters. Penn & Teller had a show called Bullshit on Showtime which aired for eight seasons debunking them as well. See an excerpt demonstrating the placebo effect here.

James Randi is famous for purposefully overdosing on homeopathy, taking a “lethal” dose, to show that if such a dose had zero effect, the prescribed amount surely must do nothing.

So if I am a libertarian, why do I care? Shouldn’t people be free to put into their body whatever they want? Absolutely!

While I would never prosecute a non-medicine consumer (I refuse to call it alternative medicine), fraud is a violation of your right to property, specifically, your money, and should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

These people get away with fraud by making non-scientific claims such as saying these things increase your energy or boost your immune system. An actual boosting of your immune system would essentially be an autoimmune disease where you body attacks its own cells. Something you really, REALLY don’t want. But it is effectively immeasurable since there is no number by which your immune system can be rated with, in a manner such as blood pressure or cell count.

I’d like to quickly dispel a couple of these myths by showing you the purpose, methodology and power of skepticism, or critical though, hopefully encouraging you to do your own.

Things like acupuncture, for instance, are said to be practices that are hundreds of years old (as if that is somehow evidence), and that doctors won’t often recommend them because there’s no money to be made. Might I point out that acupuncturists do in fact work for money? Therefore there is actually money to be made—they’re making it. In order to believe this argument, you must do no critical thinking whatsoever. I just dispelled it in one sentence.

People argue we have a cure for cancer, but drug companies are suppressing it to make more money on drugs that only treat cancer, not cure it. This one requires a little more skepticism, but let’s bring up some valuable points to debunk this.

  • Drug companies do make drugs that cure cancer. Chemotherapy and radioactive seeds are but a couple. We simply don’t have one drug that cures all cancer all the time, nor one drug that doesn’t have harmful and potentially fatal side effects as chemotherapy does.
  • This assumption also means that a drug company would have to invest the typically millions of dollars required to develop a drug that works, then shelve it without recouping any of that money as a return on their investment. Why would they develop it in the first place if they don’t want such a return? These conspiracy theorists are arguing how greedy drug companies are, then asserting a claim that they are purposefully throwing money away—an overwhelming contradiction.
  • Then we must also assume that the scientists who went to medical school, usually with the intent of saving lives, many of them specifically dreaming of being “the one” who cures cancer, spent years developing a drug that works. However, once realizing their dream of curing cancer, completely eschewed their ideals and agreed to suppress the drug for money. A theory that’s insulting to every moral medical student who ever slaved away for eight years in college to save your life.
  • Lastly, the above two bullets would both involve more than one person. The drug company has a board of directors, and the labs often have tens or hundreds of people on staff, yet not one of them headed over to CNN or Fox News to blow the whistle?

I could go on and on pointing out the logical fallacies and ignorance of thinking these ways. But hopefully my two examples of how to be a proper skeptic will inspire you to do more critical thinking of your own, instead of buying into these radical conspiracies. The life and the pocketbook you save could be your own.

P.S. I linked to an article debunking acupuncture above. Here is another debunking homeopathy with what is effectively simple, yet astounding math. I promise, it is worth the read. (Click the picture)

539838_10150934532972695_942140407_n-560x700[1]

Also, here’s a great video demo from Twitter’s @ScienceBabe