Archive for February, 2011

The illogic of Homeopathy – Part 2

February 25, 2011 Leave a comment

This is a continuation of my earlier post about Homeopathy. In the first part, we saw how Homeopathy was based on extreme dilutions, and so cannot work. But what about reasonable dilutions like the minimum 1x (1:10), they surely can have some effect right? Also, not all homeopaths use the water-has-memory logic (although many implicitly trust it when they prescribe high potency medicines). These homeopaths understand the problem of dilutions and hence stick to very low potencies. But do those medicines work?

Like cures like
To understand whether medicines at low potencies work, we need to see how those medicines are arrived at. But before that a slight digression on how Homeopathy looks at diseases. Homeopathy does not recognise conventional diseases. They look at only collections of symptoms. If you have a certain set of symptoms, say head ache, fever and cold, you are given a particular medicine. But suppose you have only fever and headache, you are given a different medicines. In fact the symptoms considered include even what kind of dreams you get. Look at this page, which specifies that for opium, Children will dream of “cats, dogs and black forms”. Thus conventional diseases are not recognised. Homeopaths, of course, talk of malaria, jaundice etc, but theoretically, it is only the group of symptoms they are referring to.

Now coming back from the digression. Once they decide on the symptoms, say, the symptoms that you experience when you consume opium, the medicine given to you is the same substance. Opium. Suppose, you have insomnia, they give you a medicine derived from coffee. The “logic” is that since coffee causes insomnia it will also cure it. This is how the remedies are decided upon.

That might sound strange, and it is indeed strange. I am no medical expert, but suppose I have high cholesterol levels in my body leading to many problems, should I take in more cholesterol rich items?? If I have diabetes, and so the symptoms I have is because of high sugar levels in my body, should I keep injecting more sugar into my blood stream? How can such a principle work? It would have been comic, if not for the fact that the consequences could be serious.

But on this point, there have been a few people who have come back to me saying, that even vaccinations work on this principle. I also know that snake bites are cured from medicines prepared from snake venom. On the face of it, it seems that vaccinations and Homeopathy have the same rationale. But it only seems so. It isn’t true. So let us learn a little bit about how vaccines work.

Our human body, through ages of evolution, acquired a lot of immunity. Natural selection would have weeded out individuals who did not have enough immunity to see the body through to its stage in life when it can reproduce and leave offspring. Thus, we have some extent of immunity to diseases in our own body. But of course, neither is the immunity exhaustive, nor is it perfect. As we develop more immunity, the disease causing agents too, develop more devious weapons, because natural selection acts also on them to ensure that only those who are effective against our immunity, survive.

Vaccinations try to use the inbuilt immunity we have. And this is how it does it. Assume that a particular infectious agent could produce a disease in our body, say a bacteria or a virus. Our body might have some immunity to it, and will be able to withstand this infection up to a certain level. But suppose, there is an overdose of infection, then our inbuilt immunity might not help, or it might act too late. The overdose could be of any kind. As an example, the infectious agent might act faster than our immunity can respond, by reproducing too quickly.

So in such cases, what our body needs is time to produce the proper reaction to combat the infection. Vaccines are usually preventive. What vaccination does is, it introduces the same infectious agent into the body, but after weakening it or killing it. In some cases, vaccines are just dead infectious agents, but our body starts reacting to it as if there has been an infection and since the agents are anyway dead, it can take its time to produce the immunity response, which might mean producing the necessary substances in our body that will fight the agent. Thus, at a later time, when an actual live infection takes place, it is already ready with the response, and thus is able to win the fight against the agent. This is how vaccines work. There are variations of this. In some cases, the vaccine contains not a dead agent, but a very weak live agent* (Attenuated vaccine). This works better in cases where the immune system does not respond to dead agents. So vaccines prevent diseases from happening. Some vaccines are useful even after the infection has happened. In those cases, along with the vaccine, an extra substance is added which makes the body respond faster than usual to the infection. Thus again, the infectious agent can be handled successfully. But in all these cases, we must have an immunity in our body, which the vaccine works upon.

In case of anti snake venom medicines, what is done is even more interesting, though it is the same principle. Our bodies do not have immunity for all sorts of attacks. And for many snakes, we don’t have any response of our own. But some animals other than us might be resistant to snake bites. Once such animals have been identified, the very same venom, but highly diluted, is introduced into those other animals like horses, which might have immunity for some species of snakes. The response that the horse’s body gives, in terms of the immunogens it produces, is extracted and introduced in our body. This is as if we are borrowing immunity from other animals.

Thus in both the above cases, an in-built immunity, which is the result of evolution, is exploited. And these are mostly preventive, and in some cases, if done within a specific time after the infection has happened, they will work.

Difference between vaccinations and Homeopathy
There is a sea of difference between the principle of Homeopathy and Vaccinations. Vaccines use immunity that is already present in us (or at least in other animals). They do not assume that we have immunity for everything. Each vaccine is tested. Many fail. Some succeed. Those that succeed are brought out and used. Homeopathy blindly assumes that whatever causes the symptoms cures it. This is just a generalisation without any evidence to back it up. And that leads to ridiculous claims like coffee cures insomnia. Just because one of the birds is black, we cannot deduce that all birds are black and thereafter just blindly trust that maxim even when you see parrots, pigeons and doves.

This is the important difference. How can we make a general assumption that “Like cures like”, without any basis? Vaccination does not make that assumption. In Vaccines, it is not as if every infectious agent is introduced into us. Modern medicine realises, that there are agents like snake venom for which we dont have immunity, and so uses some other technique for it. It also knows that many diseases, like canver and AIDS, cannot be cured this way at all, and try to use entirely different mechanisms. But Homeopathy does not take all these variations into consideration. If you are bitten by a snake, Homeopathy will straight away give you a “medicine” extracted from snake venom which will only worsen the situation, that is if it has any effect considering that the dilution normally used in such circumstances would mean what eventually goes into the victim is only water or sugar pills.

Research done to see if Homeopathy is effective have failed as is admitted by this Homeopathy website itself. They try to justify it saying, that the Homeopaths have to use trial and error and so trials might not give positive results. But if trials don’t yield positive results, why should it be respected any more than, say, believing that black magic will cure me of my disease. As long as there is no evidence, Homeopathy should be put on par with black-magic and voodoo.

It is extremely important, I cant stress this enough, to know that Homeopathy does not work. Many claim that Homeopathy does not have side effects and so, even if it does not work, it is at least harmless. Harmless it is, in a very narrow sense, since what you take in will not have any medicine at all, thanks to the immense dilutions and hence there is nothing to cause even any effect, forget side effects. But what if people avoid conventional medication because they trust Homeopathy even for serious diseases. Imagine somebody depends on Homeopathy for her diabetes and does not take any other medication. Is Homeopathy really harmless to her?? It is dangerous. In the special case of Diabetes, Homeopathy can possibly do some harm too. All homeopathic medicine usually come in sugar pills. The medicinal solution is shaken in a bottle with these pills. These sugar pills are given to patients. For a diabetic, this could be indeed harmful, though it might not amount to much, since the pills are very small. Also think of cases where a snake bite victim rushes to a Homeopath. If the snake is poisonous, then the victim is doomed. (Though since many snakes are non-poisonous, the Homeopath will think that it is because of her medicine, that the victim was saved**)

As mentioned before, I have nice, warm and nostalgic memories regarding Homeopathy, and when I think of my family who trust it, I do occasionally think that it would be nice if it really worked. But what I wish to be true, cannot have any bearing on whether it is really true. Truth can be ascertained only by evidence, and Homeopathy does not have any. Stay away from it.

* These attenuated vaccines are interesting. Here the live agents are grown in large numbers in the lab. In these labs, there is no need for them to compete. Thus they lose their virulence. Natural selection chooses them out in favour of different requirements need to grow in the lab. These weakened agents are then used. Sometimes, these agents are grown in another host animal, where again, different conditions will exist and hence when they are introduced back into humans, they are not as effective. Evolution is omnipresent, so to say. It exists wherever living organisms are involved.

** Look at this hilarious anecdote on the Internet. The Homeopath gives some medicine (200 C, remember the 10^320 universes in the previous post?) for a snake bite victim and then reduces it to 30C and claims that it was because of her medicine that the victim was cured. And how does she decide that the snake was poisonous? Simple. A week later there is a news item in the media about a rattle snake, an this she sends to the “victim” as if suggesting that the medicine saved her from a rattle snake bite. “Elementary”, the homeopath might say, but  self-delusion, is what I would call it.


The illogic of Homeopathy – Part 1

February 23, 2011 3 comments

Homeopathy is hugely popular in India and from what I hear, there are other countries too, like the UK, where this is widely trusted. My grandfather was a self-learned Homeopath and so I have been brought up in a family which trusted Homeopathy completely. But to my complete surprise, I learnt a few years back that Homeopathy doesn’t work. Its efficacy is just another myth like many others. I was shocked to learn that Homeopathy is no medicine at all. In this 2-part post, I want to briefly explain why Homeopathy is not medicine, why it cannot work and also look at why it is important to realise this and act accordingly.

Let me make one thing clear upfront. Since I have been a staunch believer of Homeopathy till a few years ago, there is no reason for anybody to suspsect me of having any bias. If there is any bias at all, It would be on the side of establishing that Homeopathy works. After all, who would want to face up to the fact that what he/she believed for close to 25 years, is wrong.

First let us see why Homeopathy cannot and will not work by looking at the basics of Homeopathy. Homeopathy works on two important principles taken from a homeopathy website.

1. Like cures like – This statement means that Homeopathy works on the principle that the very substance that causes the set of symptoms that is being seen in the patient, will help in curing it too.

2. Extremeley high dilutions – The substance, “remedy”, identified using the first principle, has to be diluted immensely, and then given as medicine to the patient, and this will act as a cure for the symptoms.

High Dilutions
Let me start with the second point of high dilutions as this is the one that shook me, and completely distanced me from Homeopathy. If you have heard about Homeopathic medicines, the dosage of the medicines is represented using a number followed by x or c. Something like, “Kali Mur 30x”, “Natrum Phos 10c”. “Kali Mur” and “Natrum Phos” are medicine names. 30x and 10c are, what are called, potencies. The higher these numbers, the stronger the medicine is supposed to be.

X and C, are the roman numerals, that represent the numbers 10 and 100 respsectively. Now take the medicine Kali carb. This is prepared from Potassium carbonate. When they want a dosage of 1x of Kali Carb, they need to mix 1 gram of this compound Potassium Carbonate in 9 grams of water. That is, the ratio of the theraupetic substance to water is 1:10. Similary for dosage of 1c, they need to mix 1 gram of the substance in 99 grams of water. The ratio is 1:100.

So far so good. Moving ahead, if you want 2x, what you need to do is to take 1 gram of the 1x solution, which is already in the ratio of 1:10, and then mix it again with 9 more grams of water. Thus the already diluted 1x solution with a ratio of 1:10, is again diluted with 9 more grams of water. Now you have a 2x solution where the ratio is 1:100. So, a 2x potency is same as 1c. In a dosage of 2c potency, the medical substance to water ratio is 1:10,000 (1:100*100).

Do you already see why the system is all messed up? Normally, if you want higher dosage of a medicine, higher concentrations are given. But in Homeopathy, the more diluted the substance is, the more effective it is supposed to be. If this does not surprise you, try this. Just imagine, what your reaction would be if I told you that the less sugar you put in your milk, the more sweet the milk will be. You would be right to call up a mental hospital and have me admitted there. But that is precisely what homeopathy says, and so many people believe it.

The dilutions problem does not end there just with that. The dilution is taken to ridiculous extremes. Continuing with our dilutions let us look at the decreasing ratios. Oops! I shouuld say, increasing potencies.

1c = 2x = 1:100
2c = 4x = 1:100*100 = 1:10,000
3c = 6x = 1:100*100*100 = 1:1000,000
4c = 8x = 1:100*100*100*100 = 1:100,000,000
5c = 10x = 1:100*100*100*100*100 = 1:10,000,000,000

As wikipedia notes, 4C, is the allowable concentration of arsenic in drinking water in the U.S. Now, if arsenic cannot do any harm at such concentrations how would these medicines have effect? I myself remember my grand father giving me 30x frequently, which is 15c. To get that concentration, you need to take all the water in the oceans of the Earth and mix 1 thousandth of a milli gram of the medicine in it. Then take the medicine, and that is it, you will be cured. Looking back at it, I dont know whether to laugh or cry.

I should laugh, I guess, the way somebody has done here in this hliarious video below.

There is an even more illuminating fact in the wikipedia article.

A popular homeopathic treatment for the flu is a 200C dilution of duck liver, marketed under the name Oscillococcinum. As there are only about 10^80 atoms in the entire observable universe, a dilution of one molecule in the observable universe would be about 40C. Oscillococcinum would thus require 10^320 more universes to simply have one molecule in the final substance. The high dilutions characteristically used are often considered to be the most controversial and implausible aspect of homeopathy.

10^320 universes. That is 100000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000 universes. It is more than obvious that none of the medicines at such concentrations will have any atom of the original therapeutic substance in it. If the medicine does not have the original substance at all, how the hell is it supposed to work.

The homeopaths of course, try to justify this. They say that water retains memory of the atoms it came in contact with. That is, if the water, at some time during the medicine preparation process, came in contact with the medical substance, it “remembers” it. Now they enter complete fantasy territory. This reminds me of Richard Dawkins saying the following in a famous talk (although in a completely different context).

Every time you drink a glass of water, you are probably imbibing at least one atom that passed through the bladder of Aristotle. A tantalisingly surprising result, but it follows by Huxley-style organized common sense from Wolpert’s observation that “there are many more molecules in a glass of water than there are glasses of water in the sea”.

Going by the water-molecules-have-memory logic, each atom of the homeopathic medicine, will have memories of Aristotle’s urine, among so many things, and in all probability will have the memory of all the other homeopathic remedies too. How then will you distinguish one remedy from another?

I think I will stop there, as the madness is getting out of hand. I hope there is no need to say anything more on the implausibility of homeopathic medicines working. I remember listening once to James Randi on Homeopathy. He started his talk with this joke. The joke itself might take some time to sink in as it is very subtle. It goes like this. It has been reported that a person died of an overdose of a homeopathic remedy. He forgot to take his medicine the previous night.

In the next part, I will talk about the other basic principle of “Like cures Like” and see why that too does not have any basis.

Why I will not participate in the Isha Yoga Program

February 11, 2011 3 comments

Yesterday, there was an introduction to an Isha Yoga program at my work place. I got a mail in the morning itself. Since the project I was working on was in a lean phase, and having completed what little work I had, I thought I will walk in. Let me state upfront that I look at all kinds of “spiritual” programs with suspicion and consider most of them to be, at best as harmless fluff. But I just wanted to find out what it is that they say. And with such an idea, I went in. Not wanting to be inaccurate, and not wanting to forget anything, I took a pen and a writing pad. This is a gist of what happened, and my thoughts on it.

The program is called “Inner Engineering”. One representative from Isha Yoga foundation anchored the 45 minute introductory session. The crux of what he wanted to convey was “You are not giving enough attention to your inner self. That shows from the fact that you are usually stressed. This program will help you handle stress better”.

The session started with a video clip. In this there was a voice of a foreigner, as seen from his accent, describing Mr.Jaggi Vasudev as a “Realised Master” and a “Mystic Yogi”. I understood neither of those terms. This was followed by a video of Mr.Jaggi Vasudev talking to a large audience. His talk was on the irony of how he sees a lack of happiness everywhere, though everybody claims that whatever they are doing, they are doing it to keep them happy. He also compared the happiness of a 5 year old with a 35 year old, and said that happiness only goes down with one’s age, and wondered why people are not happy like a 5 year old.

That struck me as odd. I can surely do with more happiness than I have, as would every other human being, including Mr.Jaggi Vasudev himself. But my point is this. I have always looked at childhood happiness, as the bliss that comes out of ignorance. So there is really no point in asking why we are not as happy now as we were at age 5. It is because we are less ignorant now. Given an option, I would rather be the 30 that I am today, than the 5 that I was then (ignoring, for the moment, the number of years left to live in either case).

The clip ended with the voice saying that the program is “scientifically structured” and is an “invitation to the divine”. Then the representative, who called himself a full-time volunteer with Isha Yoga, took over. He pointed out that our physical body is affected by mental stress and it takes the form of muscles becoming rigid because acidic impurities are released to the muscles when one is mentally stressed. He also said that stress releases more sugar into one’s blood. These could be true. But he was trying to establish this since he wanted to convince the audience that “mental” events can have “physical” side effects. This, I thought, is well known. There is nothing surprising here. It probably is surprising to people who think that mind and body are two separate things (as I have heard “spiritual leaders” frequently say). Science has always said that mind-body dualism is wrong and that, whatever we call as mind (some people even say soul), is very much physical and is part of the brain. So there was nothing new there.

Then he said, that if we participate in this program, we can see immediate benefits like not having to sleep (rest) for long hours. But what was more surprising was that he claimed that his program would cure a host of diseases including Asthma, Diabetes, Sinusitis and Hypertension. Even before I could recover from these startling claims, he went on to say Diabetes is not genetic.

The video clip shown in the beginning also had some individuals saying that they had benefitted greatly from the program. One of them was a doctor, who said she stopped taking medication for Hypertension, after following the program for 4 months. She also went on to say that her logical mind does not see how it happened.

The representative then concluded that equanimity is Yoga. And that one should be like Krishna of Mahabharatha, who, as the story goes, is always calm and smiling, as everybody else in the story is having some problem or the other. He implied that it is such equanimity that could be achieved through the program.

I am guessing here, that all that the program probably does is to generally make people look at their daily problems in perspective. This is combined with a little bit of stretching exercises. By daily problems, I mean the small ones like an argument with your spouse, an issue at work etc. The big problems, like losing a dear one, cannot be wished away so easily. But the daily problems can indeed be handled better by looking at them in perspective. It is not always easy, but it is possible, without any “spiritual” guidance of an “Enlightened Master”.

What could be better to put things in perspective than to look at the amount of suffering some section of humanity endures every day. The poverty that a majority of people in India lives in. The violence that some nations of Africa experience. Is that not enough to know that our problems are small and that we should not sweat the little stuff. That should at the very least prevent us from lingering long on those small problems.

Another way to get perspective is to look at the night sky, to realise that the stars you see are so far away that what you are seeing is how they were hundreds of years ago. In some cases, thousands. Can you fathom the kind of distances they are? If not that, what about the fact that every kind of thing the table, the computer, the food you eat, the water you drink, the mountains you trek, the buses you travel in, the bones that make you are all basically protons neutrons and electrons arranged differently? What about the fact that every living organism that exists today, a virus, a snail, a mosquito, a seahorse, a whale, a bacteria, an owl, a tomato plant, your pet dog, a chicken: everything is literally your relative, a distant cousin. Is it not mind-blowing to realise that you and the potato you had for dinner share a common ancestor ages ago? In all these unimaginable scales of time and distance, we are an insignificant speck. And our problems, are even more insignificant.

I realise that everyone has their own way of getting uplifted, and some probably get it from the Isha yoga program. But if the foundation wants to claim they can cure diseases like Diabetes, they should back it up with some evidence. When the representative said that Diabetes is not genetic, he probably wanted to say that genes alone do not determine whether a person becomes a diabetic or not, which is true, since the kind of life he has lead too plays a part. But the way he said, it looked as if he wanted to say that everybody has an equal chance of getting Diabetes, which is untrue.

But even ignoring the “genetic” argument, how can he claim that the program can cure Asthma and Diabetes? Has the foundation done research on it? The only way they want to convince us is by showing a few individuals (part of the video clip). Strange!! As any doctor should know, medicines and cures cannot be decided by anecdotes. There must be hard data based on systematic research backing it up. If they indeed can cure Diabetes or Asthma, they only need to make their research known and Nobel prizes will come calling.

I think the problem with these programs is that there is some amount of exercise involved (in the form of yoga), which will have some amount of health benefits (which can go to the extent of even reducing blood sugar the next morning), though not enough to cure diseases. This is mixed with a good dose of meditation (now, what is that??) and mantra chanting or spiritual discourse. Having spent time at a silent place, you probably would feeling better after the program. Add to that the placebo effect of “thinking” that you have indeed been subject to some significant transformation. But the same effect can be had by doing your own exercise and spending some time in the library. There is no need to invoke words like spiritual and divine.

There might be many good programs run by the foundation which helps the community at large, as I can see from their website, and what I read in the newspapers. Some of the tree planting work done is also impressive. I don’t deny that and this post is not about that. I dont even doubt the intention of the organization or the representative. But what I want to say is this. Humanity has moved forward with painstaking work in Science. If the average life expectancy of humans has gone up in the modern age, much of the credit goes to medicinal research. Till the time medical claims, like that of Isha Foundation, are verified by research, I would much rather spend my weekends looking at the night sky, watching a movie or spending time with family and ask my mom, who is a diabetic, to continue her regular walking. All of these are stress busting, and most importantly, none claim they can cure diseases. I will leave that work to the medical research community and my doctor.

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February 2, 2011 Leave a comment

Look at the picture below from the website of Cleveland museum of Natural History.

Source: Website of Cleveland museum of Natural History

Do you realize what it is? And what they are? You realize what “they” refers to, don’t you? I am referring to the two gaping holes. My wife was reminded of vessels.

It is a skull and the positioning of the holes is a giveaway. Those are indeed eyes. Can you imagine what a creature like that would look like? Here it is. Given below is a picture of the animal from Wikipedia.

Tarsier - Source: Wikipedia

They are Tarsiers. What makes them so endearing is the size of their eyes.  Though I have seen their pictures before, what brought them back to my attention is the book I am reading:  “The ancestor’s tale” by Richard Dawkins.

Tarsiers are nocturnal, which is, they are active at night. That explains their large eyes, since during the night, there is very little light, and hence they want to take in as much of it as possible.

The reason why many organisms were driven to a nightly lifestyle, is because at one stage, dinosaurs dominated the earth, and not many animals could be active in the day, unless they wanted to become a prey of the Dinosaurs. Hence many chose a nocturnal lifestyle. Of course, once Dinosaurs became extinct, the opportunity was quickly exploited by many animals by re-occupying the day time niches.

But there is another fact that Dawkins explains about the eyes of Tarsiers. If big eyes are so beneficial at night, why dont many animals have large eyes. That is because other animals have a simple but beautiful innovation, which helps them manage with small eyes. When you shine a torch at the eyes of some animals like the cat, you can see them really bright at night. Given below is a picture of an aye-aye, a close relative of the Tarsiers, taken at night showing its bright eyes.

Aye-aye - A picture from wikipedia. (Picture by Tom_Junek)

That is because, some animals have a reflective surface just behind the retina. The purpose of this reflector, called Tapetum Lucidum, is that at night, when the very little light available passes through the retina, hits the reflector, which forces it to turn back and pass through the retina again. This provides the retina two opportunities to sense the same light, thereby improving their vision.

But the Tarsiers, for some reason, have not evolved this, but instead, chose the strategy of bigger eyes. That is how evolution works. Any strategy, as long as it works, will do.

Categories: Uncategorized