Saturday, August 11, 2007

Responses To "Richard Dawkins Going After Faith Healers"

I mentioned earlier the BBC 2-part series by Richard Dawkins where he goes after the faith healers and other pseudosciences. The post certainly has attracted some comments when I highlighted it on PhysicsForums website. It appears that the quacks are coming out of the woodwork and already attacking not only the program, but also Dawkins in particular, such as this "astrologer" for The Observer.

I think one should pay very close attention to the nature of the objection here. This is because many people will be persuaded by such a thing. Now keep in mind that we are talking about the validity of something, and in this case, the validity of homeopathy, astrology, faith healers, etc. You cannot argue for the validity of these things simply by using flowery sentences, catchy phrase, or even quoting others. The validity of something MUST be based on valid experimental evidence. That writer offered not even a glimpse of one. At best that he could do was trying to argue about the placebo effect.

Few things arouse the indignation of science's hard hats like non-conventional approaches to healing. Homeopathy and acupuncture are particularly repellent since they work through mechanisms unknown to the laws of physics. Homeopathy's supposed cures are, according to Dawkins, merely the result of the placebo effect. 'It's our own minds that cure the pain,' he concludes. How that explains why animals respond to homeopathy isn't confronted.

The placebo effect is real enough, as any GP knows, but common sense and a wealth of personal testimony attest that there are other processes at work in treatments like homeopathy. For scientism, however, personal experience is not admissible. Everything must be subject to randomised, controlled double-blind trials, just like medical drugs - 'drugs that work' as Dawkins insists.

There are two things not quite right here. First, it is insufficient to simply spew something to the effect that such things works for "animals" without citing appropriate sources and whether such a thing has been independently verified. If it has, then it should be published in Nature or Science, because it would have been an astounding result. Or maybe this is another one of those papers in which the single-to-noise ratio is large enough that one would only believe such a result when looking at the data with "loving eyes"?

But the 2nd laughable part is that the write practically ADMITS that it could easily be the placebo effect. It means that homeopathy is then a lie with its claim of the reason for why it should work (i.e. water has memory, etc.), when in reality, it is only the placebo effect at work!

One needs to know that the placebo effect cannot be count on. More often than not, it doesn't work. If it does, we would be curing everything by giving people sugar pills! However, and this is what separate scientists from non-scientists, this write has almost no clue on what is involved when we make claims about something.

In science, when we say A causes B, we have to clearly explain the mechanism that leads us from A to B. If I say that lowering the temperature of a metal below some temperature will cause it to become a superconductor, I will have to explain the mechanism that causes this, i.e. how did "lower the temperature" results in "superconductivity". I simply cannot just say that I lower the temperature and it becomes a superconductor and leave it at that!

The same with medical drugs. There is already an intensive biochemistry study on what the medication actually does to various body chemistry. In other words, we know the mechanism at the chemistry level on how the medication react with whatever it is it is trying to battle. However, since the human body is complex, and it can vary from person to person, the medication must still undergo clinical tests to make sure (i) it works (ii) it has no or side effects that can be handled and (iii) it doesn't cause other reactions.

Now compare to homeopathy. It's starting point already is shaky, where by water has a memory of what it was, so even the multiple dilution of chemicals will still retain its effects in that water. Now, ignore the fact that how water can be assigned a human trait of having a "memory", or how a memory is defined in the first place is never clearly explained. Unlike medicine that is based on a solid foundation of biochemistry, the starting point for homeopathy is based on unverified claims. It based on something that has never been shown to be valid. So you might as well base it on invisible angels, because it has the same degree of certainty.

Thus, when you use that starting point to make further claims of actual medical/biological effects, it becomes crackpottery. There is no clear and acceptable mechanism on how one causes the others. This assume that it did cause something, because that something is still debatable. Even after years and years of such claims by those who practice homeopathy, we are still at the stage trying to establish that such effects actually exists. This is one of the criteria for voodoo science by Bob Park.

So in this misguided article, the writer not only was unable to show any experimental evidence to support his argument, he also was unable to argue for the mechanism for whatever it is he is supporting and in fact, admitted defeat by using the placebo effect as the main reason for the apparent "effectiveness" of homeopathy. The public should not be misinformed and misguided by such writing that really has zero content as far as arguing for the validity of something. Simply saying it works means nothing.


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