Disasters in science #6

Agreement from your friends and having your own journal still aren’t quite the same thing as evidence…

… and they didn’t have the awesome @RealPeerReview back then.


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Energy!

Science has a concept called energy, which includes electrical energy, chemical energy, kinetic energy, and other (interconvertible) forms. Energy can be measured, and obeys laws like E =  and E = ½mv2.

Then you have the “energy” involved in “energy medicine.” It does not correspond to energy in the scientific sense, cannot be measured or detected, and obeys no scientific laws. It is obviously not the same as the energy that scientists talk about. Why, one might even think it does not exist


Homeopathy

Homeopathy is an alternative medicine based, in large part, on extremely dilute solutions of illness-producing agents. For example, diluted coffee is used to treat insomnia.

Given the levels of dilution used, and the fact that 18 grams of water (about one tablespoon) contains about 6 × 1023 molecules, this means that homeopathic medicines generally contain zero molecules of the active ingredient – that is, they are generally plain water. The 10:23 anti-homeopathy campaign is based on that idea:

Last year, the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) completed a review of the effectiveness of homeopathy, concluding that there are no health conditions for which there is reliable evidence that homeopathy is effective because no good-quality, well-designed studies with enough participants for a meaningful result reported either that homeopathy caused greater health improvements than placebo, or caused health improvements equal to those of another treatment.

See also a blog post by the report chair here, or listen to this interview with Edzard Ernst, former Professor of Complementary Medicine at Exeter. XKCD makes an economic argument about effectiveness:


The dose makes the poison

Some time ago, someone pointed me at a “natural health” site which expressed shock that “Big Pharma” was putting “toxic copper” into baby formula. Those poor babies! Now the copper was there, all right, but only because copper is an essential mineral. Indeed, copper is present in human breast milk, at a concentration of about 0.36 milligrams per litre, and inadequate copper intake has terrible consequences, especially in premature babies. The copper was necessary. The key idea here, which the diagram below is intended to capture, is sola dosis facit venenum (“the dose makes the poison”).

Many essential vitamins and minerals, like copper, transition from a “no effect” dose (blue) to a beneficial dose (green) to a toxic dose (red). In the upper three bars of the diagram, the black dot indicates the recommended daily intake (which we should ingest), and the white bar marks the recommended upper limit, which we should not exceed (disclaimer: this diagram may contain inadvertent errors; please take your medical advice from official sources).

Something similar happens with medicines, like paracetamol (acetaminophen). Small amounts do nothing for your headache; in adults, one or two tablets (0.5–1 gram) safely ease mild pain; but exceeding the dosage indicated on the packet can cause liver failure and death.


Paracetamol tablets (photo: Mateus Hidalgo)

For toxic heavy metals like mercury, cadmium, lead, or silver, there is no beneficial level – the transition is from a “no effect” dose (blue) to progressively greater harm, up to and including death. In the lower four bars of the diagram, the white dot indicates the daily intake of the average person (which generally seems to have no observable effect), and the white bar marks the recommended upper limit.

When people are exposed to levels above the white bar, health authorities start to get worried. For example, shark meat can contain 1 mg of mercury per kg or more. Australian authorities recommend that if shark meat is eaten by pregnant women or children, it should be limited to 1 serve per fortnight (with no other fish eaten that fortnight). But even there, it is the dose that makes the poison.


Not the periodic table

Google recently celebrated the birthday of Dmitri Mendeleev, father of the periodic table. That reminded me of the periodic table above (by “ham549”). No, the elements are not Earth, Air, Water, and Fire.

Some people still seem to think they are, however. Pre-scientific forms of medicine, such as Ayurveda, are still based on the elements being Earth, Air, Water, and Fire. A number of more modern forms of alternative medicine also take this ancient system as a basis. And what about splitting the beer atom?


Pseudoscience: Essential oils


Four essential oils: tarragon, apricot seed, lemon, and mandarin

One of my favourite laboratory exercises from my undergraduate chemistry days was extracting an essential oil by steam distillation, and then analysing it using infrared spectroscopy and other methods. Knowing something about essential oils, I was rather surprised to read this on the Internet recently:

“Bruce Tanio, of Tainio Technology and head of the Department of Agriculture at Eastern Washington University, has developed a Calibrated Frequency Monitor (CFM) that has been used to measure the frequencies of essential oils and their effect on human frequencies when applied to the body. Therapeutic Grade Essential Oils begin at 52 and go as high as 320 MHz. For example: Rose 320 MHz, Helichrysum 181 MHz, Frankincense 147 MHz, Ravensara 134 MHz, Lavender 118 MHz, Myrrh 105 MHz, German Camomile 105 MHz, Juniper 98 MHz, Sandalwood 96 MHz, Angelica 85 MHz, Peppermint 78 MHz.”

“A healthy body, from head to foot, typically has a frequency ranging from 62 to 78 MHz, while disease begins at 58MHz. During some testing with frequency and the frequency of essential oils it was measured that: Holding a cup of coffee dropped one man’s frequency from 66 MHz to 58 MHz in just 3 seconds. It took three days for his frequency to return to normal. Another man drank the coffee and his frequency dropped from 66 MHz to 52 MHz. After inhaling the pure therapeutic grade essential oil, his frequency returned to 66 MHz in just 21 seconds.”

“In another case: A man’s frequency dropped from 65 MHz to 48 MHz when he simply held a cigarette. When he smoked the cigarette, his frequency dropped to 42 MHz, the same frequency as cancer. Other studies show that: Negative thoughts lower our frequency on average 12 MHz. Positive thoughts raises our frequency on average 10 MHz.”

 
The oldest versions of these claims on the Internet seem to date from around the year 2000, and appear to have been systematically recopied and elaborated since then. They are generally associated with the false claim that essential oils can cure a range of diseases such as cancer and Ebola, which of course they can not (in fact, used inappropriately, essential oils can be quite dangerous).

All the stuff about frequencies is of course complete nonsense – human bodies and essential oils do not in fact have characteristic frequencies, nor do they broadcast radio waves in the VHF (30–300 MHz) band, nor is there any association between frequency and disease (individual chemical bonds within molecules have characteristic frequencies, in the infrared or visible-light range, but that is not what is being discussed here). Scientific words are being used here in a nonsensical way, in an attempt to give credibility to the associated medical claims. The link to Eastern Washington University is being used in the same way. In fact, Eastern Washington University does not even have a Department of Agriculture (so that the late Bruce Tanio could not have headed it), nor is the company founded by Tanio mentioned on the university’s web site at all. But yet, inexplicably, people seem to believe this stuff. Why?