In a previous post I have explained why I do not believe homeopathy works. To demonstrate how fair and objective I am =), I thought I would write about the so called “Belfast homeopathy results” (see citation below). These results have become famous because they show that a substance which once contained histamine-like molecules, but which have been diluted so much that there is almost not a single molecule left, still works like histamine. In essence this means that pure water can produce the same effects that histamine produces. Furthermore, the study has been replicated three times. Ennis, the investigator (see picture), seems to be just as puzzled as I am about this. If the experiment was indeed sound in all respects, then the findings are truly revolutionary.So why am I not convinced?
Before saying why I am not yet convinced I want to emphasise that I do not think there is any bogus here. I believe Ennis (unlike many others who do similar studies) is a serious researchers, and that her results should not be ignored. The reason I do not buy it is that it contradicts so much of what we know, or think we know. If there is something to the basic laws of physics and chemistry that we have found and that our society is based upon, then the conclusions drawn from Ennis study cannot be right. I see it as much more plausible that there is some methodological flaw in the experiments. I mean, is it more likely that in spite of everything we know, our world is not really made of atoms. Or is it more likely that one researcher has a flaw in the experimental design? I will go for the second option, but I suppose I could be wrong.
My scepticism is further reinforced by the fact that many previous studies testing homeopathic substances have returned negative results. In fact, as a general rule, the better the experiment, the smaller the probability of positive results. You can read about a follow up experiment that was done to check the validity of Ennis results here. Here Horizon magazine took upon the challenge and tried to replicate Ennis results. They even had the chance of getting a one million dollar award from James Randi foundation, should they succeed. The experiment failed.
“MADELEINE Ennis, a pharmacologist at Queen's University, Belfast, was the scourge of homeopathy. She railed against its claims that a chemical remedy could be diluted to the point where a sample was unlikely to contain a single molecule of anything but water, and yet still have a healing effect. Until, that is, she set out to prove once and for all that homeopathy was bunkum.
In her most recent paper, Ennis describes how her team looked at the effects of ultra-dilute solutions of histamine on human white blood cells involved in inflammation. These "basophils" release histamine when the cells are under attack. Once released, the histamine stops them releasing any more. The study, replicated in four different labs, found that homeopathic solutions - so dilute that they probably didn't contain a single histamine molecule - worked just like histamine. Ennis might not be happy with the homeopaths' claims, but she admits that an effect cannot be ruled out.
So how could it happen? Homeopaths prepare their remedies by dissolving things like charcoal, deadly nightshade or spider venom in ethanol, and then diluting this "mother tincture" in water again and again. No matter what the level of dilution, homeopaths claim, the original remedy leaves some kind of imprint on the water molecules. Thus, however dilute the solution becomes, it is still imbued with the properties of the remedy.
You can understand why Ennis remains sceptical. And it remains true that no homeopathic remedy has ever been shown to work in a large randomised placebo-controlled clinical trial. But the Belfast study (Inflammation Research, vol 53, p 181) suggests that something is going on. "We are," Ennis says in her paper, "unable to explain our findings and are reporting them to encourage others to investigate this phenomenon." If the results turn out to be real, she says, the implications are profound: we may have to rewrite physics and chemistry.”
From issue 2491 of New Scientist magazine, 19 March 2005, page 30
End of citation