John Riddell spends a lot of time in the pub. Ask his wife. Often, over a pint or two, some bloke or blokess spouts forth some new age dogma which naturally requires correction.. Now a seasoned debater, he this month begins a regular series sharing his collection of responses honed to the mental capabilities of your average bar-room intellectual.

HAVE YOU ever been at a party and someone who knows you are a skeptic says “All right, what about such and such?” It’s always after you’ve just finished a bottle of Chardonnay, and your reasoning powers leave a lot to be desired. If you tried to lucidly explain why their favourite superstition is a load of doggy doo, they would get bored after the first sentence. What you need is a good one-liner.

One of my pet hates at the moment is homeopathy. The next time someone offers you a homeopathic remedy to help dilate your cervix, say “No thanks, I like my drugs to have some active ingredient in them.”

Or simply ask “What concentration is it?”

Why ask this? Well a lot of people don’t realise that homeopathic remedies are made by diluting some horribly toxic substance like syphilitic pus until there is none of it left. If you are diluting with water, all you end up with is water. If you are diluting with lactose, you end up with a pill made from lactose.

Good homeopaths are too smart to put the concentration of the active ingredient in grams per litre. After all, “Active ingredient = 0.0000 g/l” might give the game away. Instead they use units that nobody understands. They don’t say they are diluting the active ingredient, Homeopaths talk about potentising. On the label you might see something like “Potency = 30X” or “Potency = 20C”.

30X and 20C are common homeopathic dilutions. The X and the C are Roman numerals, as in X =10 and C = 100. 30X means a 1 to 10 dilution repeated 30 times. 20C means a 1 to 100 dilution repeated 20 times.

In case you don’t realise, this is very dilute. 30X is the equivalent of 1 part in 1030 (that is, 1 part in 1,000,000, 000,000,000,000,000,000,000, 000). Now if a 200ml glass of water has 6.691024molecules of H2O (that is, 6,690, 000,000,000,000,000,000,000).

This means you will get one molecule of active ingredient in every 149,427 glasses of 30X homeopathic remedy. Of course, 20C is even worse. To get one molecule of active ingredient you would have to drink 1,494,271,958,000,000 glasses of remedy. If you have trouble comprehending this number, look at it this way. If you drank one glass every second you would get one molecule of active ingredient about every 47 million years.

Hopefully these numbers put homeopathic dilutions into perspective. Homeopaths claim that the water somehow remembers the active ingredient. and passes this memory on to your body, effecting a cure. I wonder what else it remembers. Imagine two water molecules at a party. “Do you remember the time we were in that raindrop that landed on Cleopatra?”

Actually, there was a French trial in 1988 (funded by a homeopathic company) that claimed to have found evidence for water with a memory, but they only got the “right” results when a particular research technician was looking down the microscope.

Why do so many people think that homeopathy works? For the same reason that people thought the Earth was flat. Things that appear obviously true, often are not.

You don’t need water with memory to explain people’s belief in homeopathy. The three main reasons are the placebo effect, the experimenter effect, and “Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc”.

The Placebo effect is reasonably well known but perhaps underestimated. A person who believes they are being treated will recover faster than someone who doesn’t think they are being treated, even if the treatment is worthless.

“Ah”, says the homeopath,”but what about when you treat small babies or animals?”

That’s what we call the Experimenter effect. The experimenter’s expectations affect his interpretation of the progress of the patient.

Scientists use a “Double Blind” to prevent either of these effects influencing their results. The patient is “blind” as they do not know if they are receiving the treatment or the control. The experimenter effect is eliminated by not allowing the person who interprets the progress of the patients to know who had the treatment and who had the placebo. The experimenter is therefore “blind.”

“Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc” is Latin for “After this, therefore because of this.”

Everyone who uses homeopathy has a tale of “I was really sick with (insert the disease of your choice), I went to the homeopath. He gave me some stuff and I got better.”

Just last week I went to the doctor with what I was sure was a broken leg. (A cow had tried to lie on me.) The doctor looked at the x-ray and told me to go home. It might be a bruised bone but it will get better by itself. 24 hours later I was feeling much better. No medicine, no physio, nothing.

Now I could have gone to a homeopath and got a super bone fixing remedy. It would have been natural to have concluded my recovery was because of the remedy. It would also have been wrong.

Why do the scientists at the big drug companies go to the trouble of these expensive controlled trials, when they could just take the drug home and try it out on the kids?

Last time I looked there had been 25 carefully controlled double blind trials looking at homeopathy and none of them had detected any pharmacological effect. There are of course many trials that have detected benefit, but these same trials have all been criticised for poor methodology. Their experimental methods didn’t eliminate the placebo or experimenter effects.

Homeopathic remedies work well if you’re not sick to begin with or if you were getting better anyway. If I’m sick I go to the Doctor.

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