Watered-down science

by Howard Fienberg
January 3, 2002

Researchers sometimes embellish the importance of their work to get a journalist's attention. But, as the New Scientist demonstrated on 10 November 2001, sometimes they don't need to bother.

New Scientist reported on a team of South Korean chemists who have discovered an interesting effect in the dissolution of molecules. Rather than dissolved molecules spreading 'further and further apart as a solution is diluted', they discovered that some molecules clump together in 'clusters'. Interesting to chemists, but surely of little import for the public? Not so, said New Scientist, claiming that it 'could provide the first scientific insight into how some homeopathic remedies work'.

Homeopathy is based on two 'laws': 'like cures like' and 'less is more'. As originally conceived by the eighteenth-century German physician Samuel Hahnemann, substances that cause particular symptoms in a healthy patient can cure those symptoms in an ill patient. Many of these substances were quite toxic, so he decided to dilute them - and, unsurprisingly, he discovered that the greater the dilution, the lesser the side effects.

When doctors used mostly blood-letting and purging as a way of treating patients, administering water did not look quite so harmful. So Hahnemann was deluded into his second law, 'less is more'. Less, in this case, amounted to a dilution of 10 parts water or even 100 parts water to every one part of the particular substance - repeated anywhere from 30 to 200 times.

New Scientist claimed that the new 'clumping' findings might explain how homeopathic solutions, some diluted 'until no molecules of the remedy remain', could become more potent the more they are diluted. Unfortunately, as physicist Robert Park pointed out in his book Voodoo Science, even at the over-the-counter standard of 30 dilutions (using 10 parts water for every one part of the substance), 'you would have to drink 7874 gallons of the solution to expect to get just one molecule of the medicine'.

Hahnemann was presumably unaware that his recommended 200 dilutions (using 100 parts water per one part of the substance) 'were beyond the dilution limit of the entire visible universe'. The resulting homeopathic remedy is, in effect, ordinary water.

According to New Scientist, in homeopathic solutions diluted less than the Hahnemann standard, the dilution might actually increase the size of the diluted particles to the point of biological activity. But the newly discovered clumping effect demonstrates that some substances reorganise after dilution into clusters, not that they increase in size. As consumer advocate Dr. Stephen Barrett notes, the number of molecules of the active ingredient would approach zero during dilution, whether or not the remaining molecules clump together (1).

And what's homeopathy got to do with it anyway? As Dr. Kurt Geckeler, one of the authors of the study, told Dr. Barrett, 'the word homeopathy is not mentioned in the original paper and the study itself has nothing to do with it.… It was a laboratory study - everything beyond that is speculation at this point'.

Howard Fienberg is senior research analyst with the non-profit non-partisan think-tank the Statistical Assessment Service (STATS), in Washington, DC.

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