Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Defending Homeopathy?

Timothy Caulfield published a nice article in The national Post last week where he lambasted naturopathy and homeopathy [Don’t legitimize the witch doctors]. Here's part of what he said ...
Allow me to lay my admittedly love-of-science, rant-tainted cards on the table. In general, the services provided by naturopaths reside either in the realm of commonsense lifestyle advice (get lots of sleep, eat well and stay active) or they have little empirical evidence to support their use. In fact, many naturopathic practices are based on a semi-spiritual theory (the healing power of nature), and have no foundation in science. They reside largely in the realm of pseudoscience.

Am I being too harsh? I recently worked with a University of Alberta colleague on an analysis of the websites for the naturopaths in Alberta and British Columbia. We wanted to get a sense of what is being offered to the public. In Alberta, the number one most commonly advertised service is homeopathy.

Homeopathy has been around for hundreds of years. The basic philosophy behind the practice is the idea of “like cures like.” A homeopathic remedy consists of a natural substance — a bit of herb, root, mineral, you get the idea — that “corresponds” to the ailment you wish to treat. The “active” agent is placed in water and then diluted to the point where it no longer exists in any physical sense.

In fact, practitioners of homeopathy believe that the more diluted a remedy is, the more powerful it is. So, if you subscribe to this particular worldview, ironically, you want your active agents to be not just non-existent, but super non-existent.

The bottom line: For those of us who reside in the material world, where the laws of physics have relevance, a homeopathic remedy is either nothing but water or, if in capsule form, a sugar pill.
There are people who don't live in the material world and they always pop out of the woodwork whenever their favorite superstitions are questioned. In this case, it's a homeopath named Karen Wehrstein who was given space on the newspaper website to respond to Timothy Caulfield [Homeopathy offers hope]. Wehrstein is described as ....
Karen Wehrstein is the executive director of the Canadian Consumers Centre for Homeopathy (homeocentre.ca), an organization formed in 2011 to educate the public about homeopathy and advocate for freedom of choice in health care.
In other words, she's a lobbyist for quackery. She runs the Homeopathy Centre of Muskoka. Here's part of what she has to say ...
Homeopathy’s big stumbling block to acceptance is that its medicines are diluted so much that people outside of the field can’t understand how they can possibly have an effect. There are, however many scientists who do have that expertise. So many, that there is an entire journal devoted to the field, the International Journal of High Dilution Research. And they seem to be getting intriguingly close to providing definitive answers.

Opponents of homeopathy claim that homeopathic medicines are “just plain water” with no medicinal properties. But increasing numbers of scientific findings are making it harder to maintain such as stance. One study has found that solutions prepared in the traditional homeopathic way — through repeated dilutions by mechanical shaking — have properties unlike plain water, with elements of the dissolved material. Another study suggests the solutions have an affect on living cells in vitro. Yet another study shows that solutions can be distinguished from each other, using the right equipment to determine their contents. And emerging research suggests that homeopathic solutions actually contain nanoparticles of the original dissolved material.
Students who have taken my course will recognize this kind of response. Science is so overwhelmingly respected these days that nobody can afford to be on the wrong side of scientific evidence. If you are defending quackery then you only have two choices; either you discredit the evidence against you or you make up scientific evidence to support your position. Most quacks do both. They end up simultaneously disparaging and praising scientists who work in the field.

If you're interested in the scientific truth and why Karen Wehrstein is so very wrong, then you can do no better that read what Diane Sousa has to say on Skeptic North where she takes apart all of Wehrstein's claims [A Response to Karen Wehrstein: Homeopathy Offers Hope but Delivers Only Sweet Nothings].


74 comments :

  1. Like cures like! What, like in vaccinations? What a preposterous idea. Obvious pseudoscience.

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    1. I suppose if you say something really stupid in an ironic way you can't be held responsible for it. Is that your theory? Vaccinations don't cure anything. Now, would you like to defend homeopathy, or is ironic sniping all you can manage?

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    2. The point is that like cures like is the foundation for vaccination and yet here it is treated as ludicrous. Which is it?

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    3. That's not the foundation of the argument leveled against homeopathy here, so your objection is irrelevant and meaningless in this context.

      The issue is with the claim that astronomical levels of dilutions of demonstrably irrelevent ingredients are not only claimed to be effective, but the more diluted the stronger the effect.

      That's the ludicrous part. Stop arguíng against a strawman Luther, I've seen much better from you and this is surprisingly below your normal standards.

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    4. So you accept like cures like is not a ridiculous notion?

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    5. Not intrinsically. Who's making that argument? Hellloooo, reality to Luther Flint... anyone there?

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  2. "Like cures like" is *not* the foundation for vaccination. You are confused. And yes, it's ludicrous. Vaccination isn't a cure; if you have the disease, vaccination won't help. Vaccination is prevention. It isn't even "like vaccinates for like", since nobody injects people with smallpox to vaccinate against smallpox; like vaccinates for something rather different, and injecting people with smallpox tends to kill them.

    Now, would you care to defend the notion of "like cures like"?

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    1. If liked cured like, every disease would instantly cure itself.

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    2. @Harshman
      Okay, so you can quibble about the word cure. Like prevents death from like, if you must. But the point is that vaccination is based on giving similar (ie, like) in order to build a defense against more serious similar/like. And yet because you desperately want nobody to have known anything about anything until about 15 minutes ago you have to quibble about a straightforward description rather than just accept the fact the humans have known stuff, in some form, for quite a long time.

      @Piotr
      If modern medicine worked nobody would die.

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    3. It isn't a quibble. You clearly have no idea what you're talking about. Vaccination is based on getting the immune system to produce particular sorts of antibodies. That isn't anything resembling the "like cures like" that homeopathy is based on. And before anyone knew how it worked, it was just the observation that milkmaids didn't get smallpox. That's what human knew: empirical observation, experimentation, and paying attention to the results. Kind of like science, eh?

      Are you actually trying to defend "like cures like" as a general principle?

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    4. Yes, vaccination is very often treating like with like (in advance). Are you saying that it's not?

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  3. Rapey writes:

    The point is that like cures like is the foundation for vaccination

    How many times do we have to tell you vaccines don't cure anything? You are ludicrous.

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    1. Unclear why you keep addressing yourself at the start of every post. Perhaps it's because that way at some point something you say might turn out to be right.

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  4. Here's what like cures like means: it means that a small amount of stuff like stuff that in large amounts can kill you can help you.

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    1. I couldn't agree more. Indeed, one might argue that "likes cures like" is much closer in spirit to vaccination than Darwin's bollocks was to the modern synthesis bollocks. And yet, because some desperately want Darwin's bollocks to be right they will skip over all the complete bollocks in order retain the partial bollocks that was not quite as straightforward bollocks as the bollocks bollocks. Discuss.

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    2. No, that isn't at all what it means. Do you know *anything* about homeopathy? The claim is that substances that in large doses cause symptoms vaguely similar to a particular disease would in small (i.e. nonexistent) doses cure that disease. Or sometimes it isn't effect but some notion of physical resemblance. Sympathetic magic, in other words.

      Would you like to defend homeopathy, or will you just continue to ignore that question?

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    3. Don't change the topic. The point is that 'like cures like' was ridiculed as nonsense and yet the idea that small doses of things like things that will kill you in big doses can help you is the basis for many forms of vaccination. Like treats/prevents/cures like.

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    4. Rapey: The point is that 'like cures like' was ridiculed as nonsense

      Ridiculed... by rational people who turned out to be right!

      and yet the idea that small doses of things like things that will kill you in big doses can help you

      THAT IS NOT "LIKE CURES LIKE." That operates by a known mechanism-- the immune system-- known for thousands of years before the Hindus invented inoculation.

      Homeopathy operates by no known mechanism.

      We know from experience the effect of giving people pure water: less dehydration. That's the only effect. We know what happens to people WHEN YOU GIVE THEM WATER! It is not mysterious! No need to invoke sympathetic magic.

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    5. Ooooh, big bold capital LeTtErS. How sophisticated an argument is that? All we need now is the impact font and the irrefutability of your argument WiLL BE therE FoR All to SeE.

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    6. You just keep repeating the silly idea that "like cures like" and that vaccination has something to do with it. That isn't an argument. Like doesn't cure like. That's nothing more than sympathetic magic; you know, the idea that rabies can be cured by ingesting the hair of the dog that bit you. Would you care to defend sympathetic magic, or will you just keep insisting that vaccination is "like cures like" when it isn't at all? (I'm betting on option two.)

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    7. I'm pointing out that many types of vaccination work on a principle so similar to like cures like that to ridicule one while acknowledging the other is itself ridiculous. Indeed, the idea of making cures/treatments or preventative treatments from the same/similar stuff as causes the illness is central to a lot of medicine and yet you deny this. For example, you seem to think the idea that snake venom can be used to create a treatment for a bite by that very same venomous snake is sympathetic magic and therefore nonsense. Well, sympathetic magic it may be, but in this case the magic works and is reasonably well understood.

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    8. For example, you seem to think the idea that snake venom can be used to create a treatment for a bite by that very same venomous snake is sympathetic magic and therefore nonsense. Well, sympathetic magic it may be, but in this case the magic works and is reasonably well understood.

      Antivenom is not similar to venom, it does not induce similar symptoms, and it is not diluted venom, or any part of a snake's body. "Like cures like" is a vague motto which you may strain to fit the facts ("well, maybe it doesn't quite cure a disease but it prevents it", "maybe it isn't quite like it, but it's somehow connected"). Homeopathy is pseudoscience not only because it's based on silly principles, but also because it doesn't work. For anything to qualify as a medicine, it has to be significantly more effective than a placebo. Vaccines work in that sense: they immunise you in a way that a dose of distilled water can't, even if you believe, no matter how strongly, that it is a potent vaccine.

      Finally, according to some surveys, the majority of homeopaths are in the anti-vac camp (especially those who've never had any real medical training). It's evident that they do not regard the preventive stimulation of the immune system as an effective treatment. Otherwise they would not recommend their cargo-cult medicines instead. Homeopathic drugs have no measurable effect on your immune system.

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    9. LF:
      For example, you seem to think the idea that snake venom can be used to create a treatment for a bite by that very same venomous snake is sympathetic magic and therefore nonsense.

      It is possible to generate an immune response by giving sublethal doses of a particular venom. The immune system is then primed such that larger doses can be tolerated. But the low doses aren't a 'cure' for the higher doses that have not yet happened.

      More practically, the immune response is triggered in an animal and their antibodies harvested and stored for use on the next unfortunate who sticks their hand in a crevice. Antivenom (as its name might suggest) isn't venom.

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    10. I know how it works, that's why I brought it up as an example of a type of principle you people are denying. There is clear similarity and it's unclear why you feel the need to do down homeopathy for bad reasons as well as good.

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    11. No, it's a rubbish example of the principle. Antivenom is not 'like' venom, so it cannot be an example of 'like curing like'.

      For antivenom (or vaccination) to be comparable to homeopathy, homeopathy itself would have to operate on a principle that exposure to homeopathic remedies in healthy individuals leads to an improved response to the toxins later on, in a form that can even be transferred between individuals, in some cases.

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    12. I never said anti-venom is like venom. I said something more like the way venom is used in the treatment of poisoning by that venom falls into a general category that might be called 'like cures like'. That seems fairly clear and only an extraordinarily uncharitable reading of like cures like could fail to note the very obvious connection.

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    13. Rapey:

      I know how it works

      Bullshit. Rapey contradicts himself one comment later!

      I said something more like the way venom is used in the treatment of poisoning by that venom falls into a general category that might be called 'like cures like'.

      Venom is not used in the treatment of poisoning by that same venom. You do not "know how it works."

      Venom in small doses can be used as a preventive, not a cure, if applied long before a snake bite, not as a treatment used after a snake bite.

      As for anti-venom, it has a different molecular shape and binds to venom, like a lock and key. Lock is not "like" a key.

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    14. Venom is used in the treatment of poisoning by the same venom. Don't you know anything you half-witted cunt?

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    15. And here's how venom is used in that treatment: "Antivenom is created by milking venom from the desired snake, spider or insect. The venom is then diluted and injected into a horse, sheep or goat. The subject animal will undergo an immune response to the venom, producing antibodies against the venom's active molecule which can then be harvested from the animal's blood and used to treat envenomation." Imagine not knowing that. Lol, what a dickhead.

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    16. Words have meanings, and meanings matter. No, venom is not used in treatment of snake bite. Venom is used to aid in manufacturing antivenin, which is the treatment. Drop forges are not used in treating appendicitis, though I imagine they're used in manufacturing surgical instruments, which are. See the difference?

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    17. It's used to make the anti-venom, thus it's used in the treatment. As for your analogy, try again, it's lame. See if you can see why.

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    18. I know, I know: it's lame because if it weren't, it would point out that you're wrong. Was that it?

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    19. It's lame because we don't count tools used to make a treatment as being used in the treatment in the way we count active agents used in the process of making a treatment as being used in the treatment. To argue otherwise is simply deliberate point missing.

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    20. What's the difference between a tool and an active agent? I don't really see one. Of course no analogy is exact, and whatever analogy I could come up with, you could find a difference, however irrelevant, between the two cases. As you did here.

      Let's see. Insulin is used to treat diabetes, and much insulin these days is produced by bacteria. Therefore bacteria are used to treat diabetes. Insulated mRNAs are translated by ribosomes to make insulin. Therefore mRNAs and ribosomes are used to treat diabetes. How's it going so far?

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    21. If you don't see the difference between a tool (such as a cup used to collect snake venom) and an active agent (such as snake venom) then that also is your problem. Perhaps, then, the problem here is your inability to think clearly.

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    22. Still not clear. How is a cup not active but snake venom is? A cup actively contains the venom. The venom is merely a passive antigen to which the source animal's immune system reacts. Or I could have said it the other way. Perhaps you're a vitalist? Is that it?

      I see you simply ignored the other analogies.

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    23. If you don't understand how the role a cup plays and the role snake venom plays differs significantly then that's your problem. Feigning ignorance (or really being that ignorance) does not help your case. And the other analogies are neither here nor there - if you're expecting some hard and fast definition, or some set of necessary and sufficient conditions, that would compel someone to see the differences in such cases then you'll wait a while. Explanations come to an end somewhere and there's no guarantee that any explanation, however detailed, will work - ask any fencepost.

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    24. So what you're saying is that you can't explain the difference and you can't deal with the other analogies either. Have you considered just giving up this whole argument thing? It's not your strong suit. Maybe you're better at flower arrangement or oboe. Never know until you try.

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    25. No, on the contrary, I'm pointing out that I can explain the difference perfectly well, and have explained it perfectly well, but that like all explanations, it cannot compel someone to understand it who is hell bent on misunderstanding it.

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    26. Man: Thank you. (Walks down the hall. Opens door.)

      Angry man: WHADDAYOU WANT?

      Man: Well, Well, I was told outside that...

      Angry man: DON'T GIVE ME THAT, YOU SNOTTY-FACED HEAP OF PARROT DROPPINGS!

      Man: What?

      A: SHUT YOUR FESTERING GOB, YOU TIT! YOUR TYPE MAKES ME PUKE! YOU VACUOUS TOFFEE-NOSED MALODOROUS PERVERT!!!

      M: Yes, but I came here for an argument!!

      A: OH! Oh! I'm sorry! This is abuse!

      M: Oh! Oh I see!

      A: Aha! No, you want room 12A, next door.

      M: Oh...Sorry...

      A: Not at all!

      A: (under his breath) stupid git.

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  5. @Harshman
    Do you think it is possible for any argument against homeopathy to be bad? For example, is this argument good, in your book: 'homeopathy, begins with "h", as does hokum, I rest my case'? Need one embrace homeopathy to reject such an argument?

    And this, I think, is precisely what's wrong with Larry's critical thinking course (if his descriptions are to be believed): it's not about critical thinking at all (it's not about thinking full stop), it's about learning by rote which things are, according to Larry, true and which things are, according to Larry, false.

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    1. Well, Luther Flint obviously has no idea what he is arguing about here. There isn't even any a priori problem with the concept that "like cures like" at least as a conceptual possibility in some restricted number of physiological cases. The problem is that in homeopathic medicine the "like" part has been diluted out of existence and in any case the "like" part originally placed in the water before dilution usually has no reasonable connection to the disease or condition it pretends to cure in the first place. For example the active agent in the flu treatment Oscillococcinum was originally identified as a bacterium believed to be the causitive agent of flu. Not only is it not the causitive agent of Influenza, but a bacterium named Oscillococcus doesn't even seem to exist and in any case the treatment Oscillococcinum is merely extract from duck heart and liver without any pretention that it carries any sort of bacterium at all.
      Coupled with this, it is likely that Luther doesn't understand the principle of vaccination...so enough of that.

      My question: Wherstein offers several possible mechanisms about how homeopathic medicines may work (retention of nanoparticles or something from the original active agent) but what ever happened to the idea that the water retains the memory of being in the presence of the active agent?
      Or is this now considered to be pseudo-pseudoscience in the pseudoscientific field of homeopathy?

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    2. I'm not arguing about the dilution. I'm saying the idea that like cures like should not be used to as a stick to beat homeopathy because it is clear a very similar idea lies behind a lot of modern medicine - vaccination, anti-venom etc. My point being that homeopathy is not bad because, eg, it starts with an "h".

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    3. So, it's not that you're defending homeopathy, and you have no general or outstanding issues with anything said by anyone here, it's just that you felt the need to attack some imaginary interlocutor you dreamt up, who used bad arguments against homeopathy.

      Just curious then, what are you here for? You just like having irrelevant arguments?

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    4. If you are defending quackery then you only have two choices; either you discredit the evidence against you or you make up scientific evidence to support your position.

      There are actually 3 choices, as demonstrated by Luther Flint.

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    5. If you look above you will see many ridiculing the idea that like can cure like. I was testing whether they knew what they were talking about - they didn't. I was testing their critical thinking skills - they had none.

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    6. No Luther, that is a lie.

      Nobody ridiculed "like can cure like".

      In fact the article pointed out that in practice homeopathic solutions have none of the active ingredient in them which for some reason you chose to ignore.

      And a few brave souls tried to correct your abysmally ignorant understanding of the principles behind vaccination, a waste of time in my opinion.

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    7. I understand vaccination soundly enough for the points I am making here. Many vaccinations involving infecting people with milder versions of some thing so they build up antibodies which can tackle the more severe version. A sort of like cures like principle. And if you look above you will see people disputing the idea like can cure like.

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    8. Luther, so you are using a deliberately distorted strawman version of homeopathy and a deliberately distorted strawman version of vaccination as an exercise in critical thinking ?

      I don't think so.

      Whatever you are trying to achieve, and I am being charitable in the sense that you actually know what that is, it has nothing to do with critical thinking, perhaps other than as a counter example.

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    9. Luther: Yes, I think it's possible for an argument against homeopathy to be bad. But the one we're on here isn't, despite your lame attempts to label it so. "Like cures like" is just not true. Yes, I am ridiculing the idea, because it's a) based on a magical principle -- the law of similarity -- that all evidence shows not to exist and b) turns out empirically not to work. Your procrustean attempts to make a couple of real medical procedures fit the supposed principle are transparently nonsensical.

      You are the very last person I would consult in any inquiry into critical thinking.

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    10. I've given several examples of treatments where like cures like that are clear to anyone not intent on taking the most uncharitable interpretation of what that means. The fact that you do want to make such an uncharitable interpretation is your problem.

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    11. Luther: No, you have in fact given no examples of "like cures like". You have in fact given two examples in which antibodies to X defend against X. One involves a cure, and one doesn't, but neither bears any resemblance to "like cures like". I suppose you would defend alchemy by pointing out that alpha and beta decay change uranium to lead. But other people can see that the comparison isn't apt. As here.

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    12. Yes, I have given examples. I have given examples of cases where treatment with something can counteract something that is like it. As I said, if you want to pretend otherwise then that's your problem.

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    13. Luther - next time you encounter someone in toxic shock or snake-bitten, try giving them something that is 'like' what ails 'em. They'll thank you for it. Of course, you'd have to dilute it right out of the medium; maybe a drink of water would indeed help.

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    14. Once Luther clams up, simply repeating previous assertions, it's a good sign that he has no counter to the argument.

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    15. You just keep repeating the claim I have not offered evidence when I have offered evidence, and then explained I have, and then explained how the evidence I offered was evidence of what I claimed. Btw, you appear not to know what "clams up" mean. Maybe a dictionary is order.

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  6. Rapey above is an example of people employing analogical, not analytical, thinking.

    Here is how using analogies should work.

    For an analogy of A to B to be valid, A must share the specific property X of B that causes B to have the claimed characteristic Y (or at least, X must be highly correlated with Y in all instances of B, *AND* X must be highly anti-correlated in all instances of not-B.)

    Rapey's analogy is invalid because:

    A = very dilute water
    B = vaccine with weakened or dismantled viroids

    X = stimulates immune system
    Y = prevents disease by stimulating immune system

    So Rapey is not drawing a good analogy. To invoke a comparison with vaccines, the analogized object, A, *MUST* stimulate the immune system.

    Very dilute water (homeopathic remedy) does not stimulate the immune system. So Rapey's analogy is dead from the get-go.

    Even if the analogy were valid (it's not) the conclusion drawn from it would be "B = homeopathic remedy can prevent disease by stimulating immune system."

    This is totally different from Rapey's claim that homeopathic remedies *CURE* diseases after you get sick.

    Rapey has made two major logic errors, so this is not even analogical thinking used properly.

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    1. What does very dilute water have to do with like cures like? The error of logic you're making is being a complete fucking arsehole. NEXT!

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    2. Hey, Luther. Next time you've got a case of the runs, just take a nice big spoonful of enterotoxigenic E. coli. After all, "like cures like", right?

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    3. Ah, you're making the silly assumption that everything that is like the cause of some ailment always cures it. I might as well object to vaccination because you can't vaccinate against a broken leg by breaking people's legs.

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    4. What does very dilute water have to do with like cures like?

      You. They are related by you, Rapey. You assert that the sympathetic magic of "like cures like" makes it plausible that very dilute water will cure diseases. That is your logic.

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    5. The error of logic you're making is being a complete fucking arsehole.

      That's DR. Fucking Arsehole to you.

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    6. I never said anything like that. Can't you read you sorry sack of shit.

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    7. That's DR. Sorry Sack of Shit to you.

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    8. Ah, you're making the silly assumption that everything that is like the cause of some ailment always cures it.

      No. That's the silly assumption made by homeopathy and its defenders. So I'm glad you hear you admit to defending ideas you find "silly."

      I might as well object to vaccination because you can't vaccinate against a broken leg by breaking people's legs.

      Only if you think it's a good argument to say that because something that isn't vaccination does not work, then vaccination doesn't work either.

      Here's what you're missing: The claim of homeopathy is not "Like sometimes cures like, under very limited and specific circumstances". The claim is "Like always cures like." Have you ever heard a homeopath specify an illness for which the believe their quackery does not work? I haven't. On another discussion group I frequent, we were plagued by a homeopath named Nancy Malik, who is apparently an internet troll of some renown. She claimed that homeopathy even works to cure cancer and acute appendicitis.

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    9. Now you're just opening your mouth and letting any old rubbish pour out. Homeopathy might be the biggest pile of nonsense imaginable, but not because it begins with an "h", and not because it has a core idea that like can cure like.

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    10. Which I didn't say. You love punching those strawmen, don't you, Luther?

      Homeopathy is the biggest pile of nonsense imaginable, in large part because it is based on the core idea "Like always cures like" which is demonstrably false.

      If immunologists claimed that vaccinations cured every single condition known to man, including acute appendicitis, then immunology would also be the biggest pile of nonsense imaginable. And that would be the case despite the fact that the statement "Immunizations can prevent some illnesses" is true.

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    11. It doesn't state like always cures like. It doesn't say, eg, the breaking someone's leg will help a broken leg. So, talking about strawmen...

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    12. And no, if immunologists made a thousand false claims every day it would not mean that vaccination never works. On the contrary, vaccination would work in exactly the manner it works now. I think your black and white thinking is leading you into error.

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  7. Wehrstein mistakenly assumes the main reason that scientifically informed people reject homeopathy is that its theory does not make sense. However, in medicine we often use treatments whose mechanism of action is not known, and at the same time there are often potential treatments that theoretically should be effective, but when tested empirically the are found to be ineffective.

    IOW, if something should work, but it doesn't work, then it doesn't work. And if something shouldn't work, but it does work, then it works.

    Homeopathy, however, is in the unenviable position of being a "treatment" that shouldn't work, and does not work. A double whammy. In fact, the first randomized placebo controlled trial ever documented was conducted on a homeopathic remedy, back in 1835 (Google "Nuremburg salt test"). And it concluded that the homeopathic treatment was no more effective than placebo . Plus ca change.

    Oh, well. At least homeopathy can proudly claim to be the only "treatment" with a 175 year history of proven inefficacy.

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    1. Well, you can add prayer to that and make it 5000 years give or take.

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