February 2, 2001

Hungary Scores, a Guest Commentary on Homeopathy, Well-Waxed Ears, and More Geometry!

It’s been five years since a suitable candidate for my annual prize to Hungarian students has been found, and now in 2001, we have three! This prize is given via the science magazine Természet Világa, and will be awarded to all three winners by Dr. Gyula Bencze, of the Research Institute for Particle and Nuclear Physics, in Budapest. On these pages, as soon as I have all the data, I’ll publish the student reports, and I assure you they are very interesting indeed! Shown here are the two who won in 1992, the first year the prize was awarded. This is a 1999 photo, taken at the JREF when the guys visited us in Florida.

The winners are Ádám Scheuring — for analyzing a claim that the human soul weighs 72mg (?), to the team of Sándor Békási and Miklós Tallián — for a definitive ESP test series, and to Péter Raffai — who carried off a great UFO hoax. Congratulations!

For the first time we present a guest contribution here, this one written by a medical academic who has asked us not to use his name. I think that it is an excellent summation of what homeopathy is, and was written as a letter to The London Times in response to HRH Prince Charles’ comments supporting the use of homeopathy in the British medical community. This strange "healing art" has been in use by the royal family for many, many, generations. The original document contained copious references, which I have edited out, and I have inserted my own comments at places where needed, and in one place where the doctor has erred, and I have added a few explanatory bits - all those additions having been already communicated to him.

Medicine has come a long way. In centuries past, doctors could do little more than sit at the bedside and watch people die. But cures are not the final destination. We are now at the advent of a century of prediction and prevention of disease. Is it not paradoxical that people promote the idea of putting more money into "alternative," unconventional, healthcare, at a time when both medicine and pharmacology are at the peak of their effectiveness? Should mysticism be allowed a new lease of life in matters of health?

Over the years, a considerable effort has been made to validate the healing nature of unorthodox therapies. Here is an example:

In 1986, The Lancet [official journal of the British Medical Association] published the results of a double-blind trial of homeopathic pollens 30 C. . . .

COMMENT: The term "30 C" refers to the most popular degree of dilution employed in preparing homeopathic mixtures. In this case it means that one measure by weight of pollen has been mixed with the number of measures of water represented by the box shown here. This is equivalent to taking one grain of salt and mixing it into the amount of water that would fill ten thousand billion spheres the diameter of our solar system. Those figures are correct, startling as they are! Continuing:

. . . In this case, it appeared that a significant reduction in the symptoms of the homeopathic group, compared with placebo, was shown. However, a second examination of the protocol [by Dr. Henri Broch, prominent French author and skeptic] revealed that the first group had resorted to antihistamines. The same year, another placebo-controlled study, intended to establish the real efficacy of homeopathy using Opium 15 C and of Raphanus 5 C, showed that the remedies were effective only in terms of unverifiable signs. No significant differences were observed between the homeopathic group, a placebo group, and patients who were given nothing at all.

This was not the first backlash against homeopathy. There was, for example, a large-scale but abortive attempt to give credibility to Hahnemann´s theories [Samuel Hahnemann was the originator of homeopathy] in 1930's Germany. Opening the international congress of the Homeopathic Society in the name of the Führer on 8 August 1937, Rudolf Hess offered the following stout defense on the creed:

"The new Germany considers it politically necessary to proceed in the verification of all phenomena whatsoever. However, certain physicians have not hesitated to attack and reject not only new therapies but also others whose origins go back to a distant past - as is today the case with homeopathy — without even making the effort to subject these therapies to serious examination. For this reason, I have taken under my protection the XII International Congress of Homeopathy in Berlin, to express the interest of the National Socialist State in all modes of therapies that are useful to the people´s health."

As a result of this high-grade intervention, it would appear, a well-known homeopath, Dr. Fritz Donner (assisted by a pharmacologist and an internist), was ordered to come up with the necessary proof. However, his findings were not published, and they were withheld from the medical community for many years. It was only in 1969 that a translation of the Donner report appeared in a French magazine, and the results were never published in Germany.

Dr. Henri Broch, who was responsible for the report coming to light, cites, among other things, two letters from Fritz Donner to, respectively, E. Unseld, president of the German Association of Homeopathic Physicians, and H. Schöler, editor-in-chief of the Allgemeine homöopathische Zeitung [General Homeopathic Journal]. These confirm that all of Donner´s findings were negative, and that he came under pressure to suppress the results of his research. As Donner himself stated (translated from the French): "One cannot inform homeopaths about the real nature of homeopathy, nor can one publish it in a homeopathic journal. In the best homeopathic tradition, anyone can come up with the most glaring absurdities and they will be published; in contrast, the fundamentals of an important remedy for diphtheria will never be published, and the researcher who works on these sources will be threatened with immediate dismissal."

The Donner Report speaks for itself, although its author confesses "I avoided to the maximum mentioning in my report anything that could have been too fatal to homeopathy."

Homeopathy´s supporters contend that this "alternative" approach can do what drugs cannot: supply a sense of confidence and self-worth, the benefit of which will be felt long after "allopaths" [a derogatory term applied by the homeopaths to orthodox doctors] have thrown in the towel, making it far easier for patients to return to normal life. Yet critical analysis of the theory keeps drawing a blank.

Much-cited is a study published in The Lancet in 1997, "Are the clinical effects of homeopathy placebo effects? A meta-analysis of placebo-controlled trials." This appeared to identify a positive effect of homeopathic treatments compared with placebo. Was this, at last, the validation of homeopathy? An extensive Belgian review of the most recent publications on homeopathy, including that meta-analysis in The Lancet, revealed serious weaknesses in all of the studies. In October 1998 a prominent research group representing the deans of Belgium´s faculties of Medicine and members of the Royal Academies of Medicine, concluded in a report to the national government that its analysis of the international literature on placebo-controlled trials of homeopathic products did not show any clear superiority of the homeopathic treatments over placebo. Studies subject to minimal quality requirements were regarded as either negative or positive but burdened with methodological biases that ruled out any definitive conclusions. In addition, a number of positive results could not be confirmed by independent teams — a major factor in the objective evaluation of science in general and of medicine in particular. The review published in The Lancet, while it followed a rigorous methodology, did not permit a conclusion either, as it did not respect the principle of pathological and treatment homogeneity that is essential for meta-analysis.

In his 1994 "Position Paper on Homeopathy," Dr. William T. Jarvis, professor of preventive medicine at Loma Linda University and president of the U.S. National Council Against Health Fraud (NCAHF) wrote:

"Homeopathy was devised by the German physician Samuel Hahnemann (1755-1843) as a reaction to practices based upon the ancient humoral theory which he labeled ‘allopathy.’ This term has been misapplied to regular medicine ever since. The cardinal principles of homeopathy include that: (1) most diseases are caused by an infectious disorder called the psora (itch), (2) life is a spiritual force (vitalism) which directs the body's healing, (3) remedies can be discerned by noting the symptoms that substances produce in overdose (proving), and applying them to conditions with similar symptoms in highly diluted doses (Law of Similia), (4) remedies become more effective with greater dilution (Law of Infinitesimals) and become more diluted when containers are tapped on the heel of the hand or a leather pad (potentizing).

"Homeopathy's principles have been refuted by the basic sciences of chemistry, physics, pharmacology, and pathology. Homeopathy meets the dictionary definitions of a sect and a cult — the characteristics of which prevent advances that would change Hahnemann's original principles. Most homeopathic studies are of poor methodological quality, and are subject to bias. Homeopathic product labels do not provide sufficient information to judge their dosages. Although homeopathic remedies are generally thought to be non-toxic due to their high dilutions, some preparations have proved harmful. The ostensible value of homeopathic products can be more than a placebo effect because some products have contained effective amounts of standard medications or have been adulterated. The marketing of homeopathic products and services fits the definition of quackery established by a United States House of Representatives committee which investigated the problem (i.e., the promotion of ‘medical schemes or remedies known to be false, or which are unproven, for a profit’). The United States Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act lists the Homeopathic Pharmacopeia of the United States as a recognized compendium, but this status was due to political influence, not scientific merit. The FDA has not required homeopathic products to meet the efficacy requirements applied to all other drugs, creating an unacceptable double standard for drug marketing. The Federal Trade Commission has not taken action against homeopathic product advertising, although it clearly does not meet the standards of truthful advertising generally applied to drugs. Postal authorities have not prosecuted mail-order product promoters that make unproven claims for mail fraud. Three states have established homeopathic licensing boards. Some of these have been administered by medical mavericks with a history of difficulties with former medical licensing boards."

Proponents of alternative healing methods have used all sorts of techniques to win what they feel is well-deserved scientific credibility for their discipline. Some of them have tried to do double-blind studies of homeopathy's effectiveness, with varying degrees of success. Most have relied on patient testimonials. But, for the most part, they have done this by making what they do seem scientific by using scientistic jargon to explain it.

One of the classic examples of this was the "molecular memory of water" experiments investigated by the journal Nature in 1988. Basically, a French laboratory sought to investigate if water might somehow "remember" compounds which were mixed into it and then diluted out. This might, of course, provide a "scientific" basis for the "Law of Succussion," which as some scientists point out, leads to scientific absurdity, since as one put it, "the most effective remedy might be to take a drop of the stuff and then mix it into Lake Erie."

This particular lab, whose work was sponsored by French homeopaths [actually, the Boiron Pharmaceutical Company, the leading producer of homeopathic products], claimed that the experiments were a success: that even after no molecules of the original substance were present, water would act as if the substance's properties were still active. When other labs failed to replicate this result, the experiment attracted the attention of CSICOP (the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal). CSICOP basically "broke" into the lab, accused the experimenters of fraud, and then had Nature write a piece discrediting this avenue of research. It was very reminiscent of the later "Cold Fusion" episode. Homeopaths tried to make their practice seem more scientific, and only succeeded in drawing down the wrath of the "science police," CSICOP.

COMMENT: This section of the report needs correction. The French laboratory, INSERM, the French national health authority, did not just "seek to investigate if water might somehow ‘remember’ compounds which were mixed into it and then diluted out." They set out to make an actual series of "in vitro" tests of an anti-IgE (antibody) agent on human blood. Their results were published in Nature magazine with the provision that the editor, Sir John Maddox, could send in a team of investigators to see a typical series of the anti-IgE tests being carried out at the lab. It is true that other independent labs subsequently failed to duplicate this result, but the statement that "this experiment attracted the attention of CSICOP (the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal," is not true. CSICOP was not at all involved in the matter. Nor had other labs failed to replicate the INSERM tests until well after the investigation was made and published in Nature magazine, and the failure-to-replicate was published as their final article on the subject. Immediately following the first Nature article, I was called into the investigation along with an NIH official, by John Maddox. We went to the lab at the invitation of Dr. Jacques Benveniste, the director, in accordance with the agreement he had with Nature. To say that CSICOP "had Nature write a piece discrediting this avenue of research," is quite incorrect. Nature is not subject to instructions from CSICOP, and the "discrediting" piece appeared after our team showed that our properly-blinded tests showed no positive results. CSICOP had nothing to do with writing that article, and certainly did not have Nature publish it. The article was written by the three investigators, of which I was one. Another subsequent article published in Nature showed a failure to replicate by a prominent independent lab.

These days healthcare entrepreneurs come and go, many of them amassing fortunes before they leave the theater of pseudoscience. There are more than 1,300 entries on the ever-changing list of therapies offered by these self-proclaimed gurus, ranging from "absent healing" and "aromatherapy" to "healing love" and "healtheology," "Mahikaro" and "Marma Science," "network spinal analysis," "psionic medicine," "radiesthesia" [diagnosis by waving a pendulum, a form of dowsing], "rebirthing," "vibrational medicine," "Zen," "Alexander Technique," and many more.

The medical community should voice concern by insisting that alternative therapies cannot be allowed a free ride, substituting assertions, speculation, and testimonials, for sound clinical evidence, and following a rationale that violates fundamental scientific laws. While it is easy to sympathize with theories of disease prevention and treatment, we must beware of having our interests dictated by dogmatic faith in alternative practices that have sought to undermine conventional medicine.

Thank you, doctor. I hope that other readers who would like to give us a guest appearance, will get in touch.

Certainly, such subjects as the one we next discuss are not prime concerns for the JREF. However, I will describe here a test we did of a very popular health fad known as "ear-candling." We did this in order to demonstrate clearly to students how a simple claim can be observed, a proper test can be designed and carried out, and a valid conclusion can be reached. Please bear with this somewhat bizarre procedure.

Ear-candling is a process which is said to extract ear-wax (cerumen). A long (25cm/10") tapered, tube of wax-saturated cloth (see illustration) is inserted through a hole in a protective piece of paper, and set alight. It is claimed that the flame heats the air in the tube to soften the ear-wax, and creates a suction effect on the ear canal that draws the ear-wax into the tube. Such a process is not, at first glance, too unlikely to ignore. In fact, there is rather wide acceptance of this idea, and health-food and "alternative/complimentary medicine" vendors get a whopping $8.75 for a pair of these "candles." We at JREF, inspired and financed by our good friend Jack Latona, launched into an investigation of this boon to clearer hearing.

Andrew Harter took over the design and implementation of the test. A student of his volunteered to be the subject. The results are shown here. The candle stubs have been cut open and spread to examine the inner surfaces. First, look at specimen E1. This came from the first of three candles burned in the one ear. There is a quantity of very fine beige-colored dust/ash that has formed a fragile, porous structure not unlike cigarette ash in consistency but somewhat lighter in weight and strength. Specimen E2 is very similar. But E3 has a decided difference; at the places indicated by the X pointers, we found very serious gobs of a sticky, waxy, dark brown substance. To all of us, this certainly resembled ear-wax! At points indicated by the Y pointers, we saw very slight, somewhat lighter-colored, traces of a waxy deposit. Hmmm!

Had the experiment gone just this far, we might have concluded that there is merit in the ear-candling procedure. But Andrew was intent on conducting control tests, too. By that, we mean doing the same test without the ear being involved. He placed a candle, properly seated in the paper shield, over a glass with some water in it. The candle burned down just as before, but as you will see on specimen A, no deposit of any kind was produced, no beige-colored "ash," nor any brown waxy substance. But now I will reveal to you a fact that may provide you with an important clue: the candles were impregnated with bees-wax, not candle-wax nor paraffin wax! (British readers, note: in the USA we use the word "paraffin" to describe a translucent white wax, while you use that word for what we call "kerosene." Isn’t cultural exchange wonderful?)

Bees-wax varies in color from amber to brownish. When charred, it turns quite dark brown, the color of the globules we found at position X in our illustration. But what about specimen B? Well, that was obtained when Andrew burned another candle over water, but this time inserted the tapered end into the water, sealing it off. The B specimen cannot be differentiated from E3! Now, there is a small deposit indicated by the Y pointers on all specimens except A. We believe that specimen A, having clear access to air drawn in from the bottom by convection, attained complete combustion, and thus consumed all the wax and fabric. Specimen B, cut off from free air access as were the three E specimens, produced gobs of beeswax and some ash. E1 and E2 did not produce wax globules because the "fit" was not as tight; warmed ears can produce a film of naturally-present wax that will provide the seal, and the subject is perhaps more willing to have the tube stuck into his ear further and tighter, and less afraid of getting an ear-canal full of hot bees-wax — not a nice thing to contemplate. Thus the combustion in a sealed-off tube is less efficient, and the brown bees-wax globules are produced.

So, it would appear that a small paper cone and an ordinary hair-dryer would produce the same effect as the traditional ear-candling process. Interesting, I think. We will do more tests of this claim, and report back to you. I think we might treat one volunteer ear to about 30 candlings, and I predict we’ll get enough brown wax that it will be evident the substance did not come from that ear! We can also have a volunteer’s ears completely purged by a professional ear-specialist-doctor, and I predict we’ll still get a lot of brown wax — but not from the ear. We’ll see.....

Puzzle time. Oh boy! Sorry I failed to get a puzzle up last week. The computer crash is almost 100% resolved now, so here's a good puzzle suggested by Dr. Greg Trayling of the Physics Department at the University of Windsor. Consulting Martin Gardner, I was informed that this is an oldie, too, but a difficult one. We went through a lot of paper here on it! And thanks, Greg!

You have a triangle, any triangle. Divide each side into three equal parts, as shown here. Run a line from each vertex to the right-most (or left-most!) divider. Lo! A new triangle in the center! In terms of the original triangle, what's the area of this smaller one....?

Answers, as always, to randi@randi.org, please. And, as always, I cannot answer every response. But I'll announce the earliest correct winner on next week's page.

Early viewers last week saw that I compared Brian Josephson to "Judge Carter," and that should have been "Judge Crater." Our harried webmaster Jeff made the correction.