Science writer Michael Brooks has been cropping up all over the place recently (or at least all over places I pay attention to) seemingly on the promotion circuit for his recent (2008) book on scientific mysteries ’13 things that don’t make sense’. I’ve actually read several of his articles in the past without noticing he was the author but I first came across him personally about a week ago in an interview for the ‘skeptiko’ podcast- an unfortunately titled anti-science and pro-paranormal/pseudo-science- show hosted by one Alex Tsakiris.
Alex’s guest’s tend to be proponents of various paranormal or pseudoscientific silliness however there is the occasional skeptic or mainstream researcher thrown into the mix, so Brooks’ appearance on Skeptiko was no real indication of where on the spectrum of silliness to serious he lies. His interview was. And it isn’t good news.
Brooks’ is clearly not ill educated and indeed anytime he is mentioned it is always remarked that he possesses a PhD in ‘Quantum Physics’ (anyone know from where?) and has worked as a consultant and writer for new scientist. Despite coming from such an impressive background the interview made it clear that he has some rather strange ideas about how science should operate and is also extremely adept at entirely misinterpreting or at least misrepresenting the scientific ‘controversies’ he writes about. During this interview he discussed a variety of ‘controversies’/’anomalies’ but although there were significant issues with most of his portrayals the one I want to focus on here was his presentation of the controversy surrounding homeopathy.
Homeopathy is a popular system of alternative medicine that was developed in the Victorian era and is based on the theory that healing can be achieved by consuming minute amounts of super diluted substances which in larger doses would create effects similiar to the symptoms you want to treat. So for instance, if you have too much energy and take a homeopathic sleeping pill you could very well be given an EXTREMELY dilute caffeine pill. Now when I say EXTREMELY dilute I should point out that the capitals are there for a reason and what I actually mean is super duper, unbelievably, bat shit crazy dilut- dilution to the point where science says no molecules of caffeine are left in the pill (or the liquid) you consume.
This dilution is achieved by making a solution that is 99 per cent water and 1 per cent caffeine, shaking and banging the solution vigorously, extracting 1 per cent from that mixed up solution and adding it to the same amount of water as before, shaking and banging the solution vigorously, extracting another 1 per cent of the new solution and repeating the procedure from 30 up to 200 times. The result of this process is that homeopathic solutions are indistinguishable from normal water and generally contain not even one particle of the active ingredient that is supposed to provide the effect.
Modern homeopaths tend to get round this by suggesting that water has some property unknown to science whereby it can ‘memorise’ things it has previously been in contact with. This explanation might seem satisfying until you consider that what they are actually suggesting is that water must have ‘selective memory’ whereby it remembers the active ingredient the homeopaths want and forgets all the other crap, including human digestive systems, that it previously has been in contact with.
Despite being based on a discredited Victorian theory- homeopathy remains irrepresibly popular especially in Europe and the UK in particular- where many use homeopathic treatments but are completely unaware of the silliness of the theory underlying the treatments. As a result of it’s popularity many clinical trials have been carried out in homeopathy and as one would expect the results from the trials indicate that homeopathic treatments are no more effective than placebo treatments (fake treatments with no healing properties) which they are usually chemically identical to. There are some badly designed trials that show an effect but in the better controlled studies such effects disappear which indicates that the observed effects are artefacts of how the trials were carried out.
Anyway, after hundreds of trials homeopathic treatments still have no convincing evidence for their effectiveness and no plausible method by how they could cause an effect (aside of course from the placebo effect) and into this situation comes Michael Brooks arguing that homeopathy is one of the thirteen greatest scientific controversies of our time. How he arrived at this conclusion was as follows:
– Madeleine Ennis, a pharmacologist researcher at Queens university in Belfast published papers in 1999 and 2001 based on the results of a set of trials which purported to show that super dilute solutions of histamine affected cells in the same way that a normal histamine control solution did. The conclusion of the paper was that the research teams couldn’t account for their results and urged that they be repeated.
That’s it as far as Brooks reports. The controversy is based on these two papers which reveal an anomalous result published 4 years before he published his ’13 things article’. Now these two papers could, if you were feeling very generous, be called a legitimate scientific mystery IF that was the end of the story… but it isn’t.
Ennis’ research (as even a quick look on wikipedia reveals) was repeated one year later by a group of high profile scientists in trials organised and financed by the British television programme Horizon. James Randi, a famous magician and skeptic, also oversaw the trial protocols to make sure there was no chance of accidental error and offered up a 1 million prize if the results turned out to be the same as Ennis’ research. The result? As you would expect when proper controls where applied strictly the effect went away.
Brooks has no excuse for not being aware of this replication since it was highly publicised and took place in 2002 yet it is not mentioned in his original 2005 article and as far as I can tell it is not addressed in his book.
**UPDATE 22/03/09: When browsing through the popular science section in Foyles today I came across Brooks’ book and had a quick read through the homeopathy section to see if he went into anymore detail and it seems he does. He not only mentioned the failed replication from Horizon but also another failed replication by a Swiss group from Bern. So I have to confess to being a bit hasty in assuming his book would follow his article. With that said however he does only mention them in one or two paragraphs and quite nicely sidesteps the main implications of these failed replications by highlighting that Ennis ‘distanced’ herself from the Horizon experiments due to flaws she recognised in the trial design (which he doesn’t elaborate on) and by discussing how Homeopaths would likely misinterpret a single line from the Bern replication about patient choice being a significant factor for results. I find neither of these compelling reasons to ignore that Ennis’ results have never been replicated by independent follow ups.**
Since his appearence on Skeptiko I’ve also heard him interviewed on ‘Science Weekly’ for the Guardian and tracked down an older interview from back when the book came out for the Amateur Scientist podcast. He avoided addressing homeopathy in the Guardian interview and in the Amateur Scientist podcast he tended to dodge all questions about homeopathy by changing the topic to the mysteries of the placebo effect (which is another of the 13 controversies he identifies). In none of them did he address the fact that the research he cites as being the main source of the homeopathy ‘controversy’ failed independent replication a year later. I was hoping that after the predictably silly interview on Skeptiko a serious science interview might take him to task on the point but it looks like I’ll have to keep on hoping.
The most depressing aspect of this whole affair however is that Brooks’ article is apparently one of the most popular articles to ever appear on new scientist. So undoubtedly the factoid that homeopathy was proven to work by researchers in 2001 will be popping up around the internet and in dinner conversations for years to come… great!
Here’s some links if you want to have a look at this in more detail: