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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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May 27, 2009

Homeopathic Merchants Take Your Questions! Well, Sort Of.

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Posted by Derek

I came across this tonight, and had to put up a link. The Guardian newspaper has started a "You Ask, They Answer" feature in its environmental section, and this week a British chain of homeopathic remedies (Neal's Yard) stepped up to the podium. Unfortunately, they weren't prepared for an onslaught of Ben Goldacre fans, who picked up on the opportunity quickly.

About twenty-four hours later, the newspaper had to close down the comments section. The Neal's Yard people had backed out, utterly, refusing to grapple with questions like: "Have you ever been offered a natural remedy that was so obviously without any merit that you refused to bottle it and sell it to your gullible customers, or does pretty much anything go?". But the whole thread is up for your reading pleasure here, even if the ball never does get hit back across the net.

Comments (43) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Snake Oil


1. SRC on May 27, 2009 9:29 PM writes...

Just to take a wild guess, I'd bet over half of the population believes in homeopathy. 52%, to be precise.

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2. chris on May 27, 2009 10:16 PM writes...

Well, there's always the "it's been practiced/used for 100s/1000s of years" line. You know, the wife-beating, bullfighting, slavery sort of defense.

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3. qetzal on May 27, 2009 10:31 PM writes...

Ah, homeopathy.

Did you know that homeopathic companies actually claim to manufacture their products according to GMP? Like this one.

Wouldn't you love to read their process validation reports? Especially the part where they show that their full-scale batches are equivalent to their pilot batches. I'd also really love to see their validated potency methods.

It's like little kids playing dress-up. Except they get paid for it.

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4. CHEMS-R-US on May 28, 2009 12:00 AM writes...

In theory, herbal medicines are supposed to be manufactured according to GMP as of sometime in 2009, so that claim should actually be accurate. A more serious point is that while a drug maker needs to show that its product is (reasonably) safe before it enters the market, for herbal products the burden lies on the FDA to prove that a product is unsafe.
To see the effect that the low entry barrier will have on some of the marketed products, an abstract at the ACS meeting in Salt Lake City (ANYL-86) had this fascinating statement:
"Seventeen herbal dietary supplements, coming from various countries (China, Estonia, France, Germany, India, Sweden, Spain, Syria, Taiwan, USA) and marketed as natural products for the enhancement of sexual function, were analyzed by 2D Diffusion Ordered SpectroscopY (DOSY) 1H NMR. .... Eight formulations contain compounds related to the synthetic PDE-5 inhibitors. Sildenafil, tadalafil, vardenafil, hydroxyhomosildenafil, thiosildenafil and the newly identified adulterant thiomethisosildenafil were detected"
Somehow, you have to ensure that you have repeat customers...

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5. RB Woodweird on May 28, 2009 6:11 AM writes...

My standard response to the whole homeopathy thing is that if water had any kind of memory, the biotech industry would be having to take that into account, you know, because biology is like water based? But billions of dollars spent in cut-throat competition and not one patent claiming art in water memory.

Like the man said, money talks and bullshit walks.

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6. ScepticsBane on May 28, 2009 6:29 AM writes...

Ah more tirades about Homeopathy and water - will these people ever bother to read the research of M. Ennis, a Homeopathy skeptic who set out to disprove water memory in the early 1990's?? Problem is, the experiment succeeded and she published the results asking for repetition. Her experiment, (Inflammation Research vol 53, p181) clearly showed that a substance in which all molecules of the stimulant had been diluted away was still causing a biological effect as though the missing molecules were still there. The experiment was repeated numerous times, even as recently as 2007,2008 with mostly positive results.

A famous BBC Horizon documentary claimed to have repeated her experiment with negative results but, after expending some effort to contact their researcher, Ennis learned that they had done nothing of the sort, that their experimenter had added aluminum chloride, a chemical known to kill the cells under test, thus rendering their widely advertised experiment worthless.

Meanwhile, the colorful and controversial Dr. Rustum Roy, a professor emeritus of materials science, and others, continue to research the possibility that we just might not know all there is to know about "just water". Roy claims to have completed refuted the claims that Homeopathy is "just water" by noting that graphite and diamond have very dissimilar properties, one very soft, the other VERY hard. Yet, ... he says, "It's just Carbon!!". It is structure, not just composition, which determines the properties.

Next the scientism anti-Homeopathy pseudo scientists will excitedly shred that there is not one shred of "evidence", not one "iota", not one highly dilute drop of water's worth that Homeopathy works or ever did beyond "placebo".

Sounds impressive until one goes to the nearest search engine and finds a great number of studies and trials, some of them even double blinded, that show that YES, actually it did work and worked well beyond placebo. A Lancet 2005 meta analysis purported to show that Homeopathy did not work beyond placebo but that sorry excuse for science, complete with missing data which had to be requested from the author, and complete with the widely advertised 110 trials on which it was claimed to be based but which actually were "boiled down", via various exclusionary tactics, to 8 (eight!!) trials which was the basis for the whole sweeping conclusion.

A recent Journal of Clinical Epidemiology article re-examined the Shang meta analysis, exposed its bias and dismissed it as essentially worthless.

So, poor skeptics, we are back to square one - people are using Homeopathy, getting better and often getting cured, and nobody knows why it works.

You can insult the genuine MD's and other health professionals using it, foam at the mouth at the genuine scientists and researchers using it, and even from book burning leagues or mass marches of protest as evidence of your "superior" scientific attitudes.

Or you can wait for the researchers to finish their work, admit the Homeopathic curative effect is real, and await quite possibly a major medical advance - and the special interests, side effect ridden products pharmaceutical drug companies, and University Professors whose turf may be threatened and careers invalidated can be damned.

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7. alig on May 28, 2009 6:41 AM writes...


aluminum chloride reacts violently with water. So unless they were adding solid AlCl3 on top of cells, the chemical no longer existed by the time the solution hit the cells. So since your evidence for falsifying data involves some dubious reporting, I have to call into question all of your "proof".

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8. Nic on May 28, 2009 6:42 AM writes...

ScepticsBane: You're quite right, of course. I've saved a lot of money on beer with homeopathy. All I do is pour half a pint into a bath full of water, and all my friends can get drunk for free. Or maybe homeopathy doesn't work with real drugs?

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9. ScepticsBane on May 28, 2009 7:22 AM writes...


Another "skeptic" who can't use a search engine? - search for Wayne Turnbull (the BBC researcher) and Ennis and you should find the text of emails reporting on the experiment's purported "repetition". Or email Ennis herself as I did. She remains a skeptic of Homeopathy, quite rightly so, but had the courage to publish unexpected results for which no current scientific explanation exists.


1: Lorenz I, Schneider EM, Stolz P, Brack A, Strube J.
Influence of the diluent on the effect of highly diluted histamine on
basophil activation.
Homeopathy. 2003 Jan;92(1):11-8.
PMID: 12587990 [PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]

2: Sainte-Laudy J, Belon P.
Use of four different flow cytometric protocols for the analysis of human
basophil activation. Application to the study of the biological activity of high
dilutions of histamine.
Inflamm Res. 2006 Apr;55 Suppl 1:S23-4. No abstract available.
PMID: 16705375 [PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]

3: Sainte-Laudy J, Boujenaini N, Belon P.
Confirmation of biological effects of high dilutions. Effects of submolecular
concentrations of histamine and 1-, 3- and 4-methylhistamines on human
basophil activation.
Inflamm Res. 2008;57 Suppl 1:S27-8. No abstract available.
PMID: 18345504 [PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]

4: Sainte-Laudy J, Belon P.
Improvement of flow cytometric analysis of basophil activation inhibition by high
histamine dilutions. A novel basophil specific marker: CD 203c.Homeopathy. 2006 Jan;95(1):3-8.
PMID: 16399248 [PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]

More - related research:

2003 Bell I., Lewis D., Brooks A., Lewis S., Schwartz G. Gas Discharge
Visualization Evaluation of Ultramolecular Doses of Homeopathic Medicines Under Blinded, Controlled Conditions. Journal of Alternative
and Complementary Medicine, Volume 9, Number 1, 2003, pp. 25-38.

2004 Belon, P., J. Cumps, M. Ennis, P.F. Mannaioni, M. Roberfroid, J.
Sainte-Laudy, & F.A. Wiegant (2004) “Histamine dilutions modulate basophil activation”, Inflammation Research, 53(5):181-8

Happy reading!

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10. El Selectride on May 28, 2009 7:55 AM writes...

"Are they not answering because... someone's just told them about the Enlightenment and they're having personal crises all over the shop?"

Was by far the best comment on that page.

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11. RB Woodweird on May 28, 2009 8:02 AM writes...

ScepticsBane: Address the issue in my previous post.

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12. Tok on May 28, 2009 8:38 AM writes...

What really bothers me about homeopathic products is they sell them right beside real products, and for the same prices. I once bought some eyedrops in a hurry from a Duane Reade to help some itchy eyes I had. I used it and as soon as I blinked, the itchiness came back. Checking the bottle, I saw in little font on the back "Homeopathic". It even had "active ingredients" that were completely meaningless. I was even more angry that I paid ~$10 for about 20ml of water!

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13. Hap on May 28, 2009 9:42 AM writes...

Doesn't homeopathy bang into the "pharma is evil" attitude? If pharma is willing to make money at any cost, then one would figure that homeopathy (where I take take one dose of a drug and dilute it up to ten, a hundred,... doses of a drug) would be a lead-pipe cinch to be adopted, particularly with drugs where the costs of material is high (T-20, biologics). While it would suck for the drug companies' patients, it would also force the homeopathy supporters to admit either 1) it doesn't work (preserving the "pharma is evil" meme) or 2) it works (but then pharma can't be all evil because they're willing to adopt the "healthier philosophy" of homeopathy). The possibility of watching stupid people's brains explode in real time is just too tempting.

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14. Norepi on May 28, 2009 9:44 AM writes...

But some of the homeopathic remedy nuts are absolutely hilarious. Just for fun, a friend and I once went to one of those homeopathic websites where one can enter in their symptoms, and the computer supposedly spits out which "natural" remedy to use. I had been feeling a bit moody and under the weather, so we entered this into the website. Somehow the algorithm came back and told me I was suffering from "lovesickness" and to take...phosphorus. Does eating the lab's entire supply of P(Ph)3 count?

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15. Hap on May 28, 2009 9:49 AM writes...

Ack. Sorry for the double post. (The first wasn't there when I refreshed.)

Oh, and I would have figured the "well, homeopathy's been practiced for hundreds/thousands of years" to be an argument against it, not for it. I mean, we practiced it when the average lifespan was thirty years and we practice it when the average lifespan is close to eighty years (and probably less when the lifespan is eighty than when it was thirty), so that would seem to imply it has little to do with any of the increase in lifespan. How does that help its credibility, exactly?

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16. Tok on May 28, 2009 9:56 AM writes...

Yeah, we practiced bloodletting for hundreds of years too. I don't see that suggestion in the alternative medicine manual. (I hope there isn't!)

And Hap, don't forget that homeopathy isn't about diluting drugs, they're diluting toxins that would cause the symptoms they're trying to cure if they were taken in any reasonable concentration.

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17. Sceptic on May 28, 2009 9:59 AM writes...


I strongly suspect those studies either don't actually support your argument, or only provide homeopathic levels of support. Have you read the studies, or are they just a list of studies you found via Google?

If I am wrong I will gladly accept enlightenment.


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18. Sceptic on May 28, 2009 10:52 AM writes...


I'm having difficulty getting information on those studies. Two of them don't have abstracts, which is kind of unhelpful, and the other two abstracts don't contain enough information for me to tell whether the results were significant, important, or surprising. If someone has done a study that proves the dilution aspect of homeopathy is possible, then they should make their work accessible.

Perhaps my Google-foo is weak.

Do you have any more details on them?


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19. Sceptic on May 28, 2009 11:46 AM writes...


I can't find much information at all on your studies. My searches keep coming up with people like you quoting the same list you've quoted as being evidence that homeopathy has been validated. It's always just the list though. Has anybody actually read them beyond the title?

Do you have any links to any more information about these studies?


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20. alig on May 28, 2009 11:55 AM writes...


Why didnt you address my issue with your statement: "that their experimenter had added aluminum chloride, a chemical known to kill the cells under test,"? Any chemist will tell you that aluminum chloride reacts violently with water to produce HCl and aluminum oxide, neither of which will kill cells in dilute solution. If you were going to add a chemical to kill cells, aluminum chloride wouldn't be it. So your description of or the BBC documentary itself is wrong. BTW, do you know how we in the drug industry determine potency? We keep diluting the compound until we see no effect. That's how we know compounds at infinite dilution have no effect. I seen this tested ten of thousands of time. Never does a compound keep its effect once its been diluted enough. NEVER.

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21. weirdo on May 28, 2009 12:08 PM writes...


Yes, we've all seen dilution provide no effect. But that is not a true test of homeopathy. You have to shake it just the right way, for the right amount of time, in the right type of vessel, and maybe even chant the proper words and emote the right feelings. Whatever.

Sceptic -- The Ennis paper exists, but "Inflammation Research" is not in every library. A link to the paper won't work because you'd need to subscribe (at least no link I've tried). I don't have a copy, and "scepticsbane" probably doesn't have a copy, either. But the paper definitely exists, and the abstract at least is consistent with what is described above.

So, if we as scientists are going to argue with pseudoscience, let's at least do it scientifically. Dose-response curves don't refute the tenets of homeopathy, so let's not suggest that they do. The Ennis paper exists, so somebody with good library access could track it down, plus all the papers that reference it, and provide refutation to "scepticsbane".

Yeah, I could do it, too, but there are too many baseball games on tonight.

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22. Hap on May 28, 2009 12:14 PM writes...

But aren't the toxins in my body? You could dilute them some, but attempts to dilute them enough to prevent their effects isn't likely to do me any good. Any time my life ends up looking like a Law and Order episode is not likely to mean good things for me. If the toxins aren't in my body, but in the drugs I take for the disease, then shouldn't people who can't afford those drugs not have any of these diseases (because they don't get the drugs that cause them)? Of course, "why did I have the disease before I took the drug?" might be another question. Did I just have a disease that has exactly the same symptoms but isn't caused by the drug, and then got another disease with the same symptoms but caused by the drug after I began taking it? I'm so confused.

My intellectual defense system for drug and supplement ads instantly goes to red alert when I hear "toxins" or "cleansing" therein.

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23. Anonymous on May 28, 2009 12:24 PM writes...


I'm sure the papers exist. Those with an abstract appear to say something like what ScepticBane says they say, but without more details who knows. I certainly don't and I don't think ScepticBane does either.

I agree with you on the dose response curve stuff. I suspect that's mainly important for people who ignore the magical thinking side of homeopathy and are testing it as if it was talking about a conventional scientific concept of molecules being diluted.

One of the problems though with testing homeopathy as it is practiced is that there is a quite a bit of variability in how it is practiced and what counts as homeopathy. Who says what is homeopathy? People market products as being homeopathic that have active amounts of active ingredients by putting the ingredients in homeopathic notation.

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24. partial agonist on May 28, 2009 12:33 PM writes...

It's amazing how these people make a buck, and would be amusing except that they prey upon sick people expecting to be cured.

It's bad enough when I read the bottle of shampoo that my wife picked up and it claims to "energize your scalp with the powerful moisturizing molecules straight from Mother Nature" and I follow that up with conditioner that is "chemical free" (oops, I need that MSDS on a vaccuum!).

In that case I'm just washing my hair and maybe I need to make sure my wife just bought those brands because of a good sale. If similar types of claims made me not go to a doctor for something serious, and pay out the nose in doing so, that is marketing that we as a society should not stand for.

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25. SRC on May 28, 2009 1:11 PM writes...

Roy claims to have completed refuted the claims that Homeopathy is "just water" by noting that graphite and diamond have very dissimilar properties, one very soft, the other VERY hard. Yet, ... he says, "It's just Carbon!!". It is structure, not just composition, which determines the properties.

This is quite possibly the stupidest argument I have ever read. But I’ve written down the clincher sentence about structure determining properties. I was always a bit unclear on that point.

For my part, I think homeopathy is sheer genius. Selling water to nitwits for top dollar – you can’t beat the cost of goods.

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26. Tok on May 28, 2009 1:25 PM writes...

I think you may have misunderstood me, I wasn't saying these treatments work by diluting toxins, I'm saying they don't even start with real drugs when they begin the dilutions. Thus, there's really no way they could work.

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27. sceptic on May 28, 2009 1:40 PM writes...


To play devils advocate for a moment, what your really saying is that there is no 'allopathic' way that homeopathy could be working, which I think most homeopaths would probably agree with.

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28. ScepticsBane on May 28, 2009 2:12 PM writes...

Gentlemen und Ladies:

My source on the purported repetition of Ennis' experiment by the BBC documentary was Ennis' own words, which can be read here (see link below) along with her various other comments regarding various other inadequacies of the BBC programme.

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29. Sceptic on May 28, 2009 3:16 PM writes...


Thanks for the link. I agree it confirms that Ennis makes the criticisms of Horizon that you say she says.

What I'd really like to see though is details of Ennis's research. Her research has to be free from obvious flaws before the validity of any rebuttal becomes important.

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30. Sceptic on May 28, 2009 4:10 PM writes...

The second study in the list (Sainte-Laudy J, Belon P.) isn't testing homeopathy. High dilutions sure, but it is allopathy at high dilution. Also their is no succussing in the dilution process.

Since I can't access the study I'm relying on the following link for the above:

The poster kind of lays into their methodology, but the fact that it isn't a study of homeopathy seems kind of important.

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31. sceptic on May 28, 2009 4:15 PM writes...

Damn speed reading and then posting. I withdraw the claim about it being allopathy at high dilution, but there is no succession, hence no homeopathy.

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32. trode on May 28, 2009 5:11 PM writes...

While you are right that anhydrous aluminium chloride reacts violently with water, the hydrated form, sometimes called aluminum chlorhydrate and of indeterminate composition, is probably what was ment. Aluminum chlorhydrate is what you get from adding aqueous aluminum hydroxide to hydrochloric acid - and for that reason is often called "aluminum chloride"

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33. Skepticat on May 28, 2009 5:40 PM writes...

I love how you have a snake oil category. I am so stealing that idea.

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34. Chris on May 28, 2009 9:39 PM writes...


I've got the paper from Inflammation Research. Email me if you want it: kl_uw_ec(at) (sans the underscores).

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35. Cyan on May 28, 2009 10:35 PM writes...

The Ennis paper referenced by ScepticsBane is immediately preceded by a freely available mini-lit-review that touches on the protocol and conclusions of the Ennis paper. You can find it at the journal website or by following this link.

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36. Anonymus on May 29, 2009 8:19 AM writes...

I have often seen Doctors here in Germany prescribing homeopathy medicines to babys. i wonder how this ´placebo´ works for babys who have no idea what they are taking in.

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37. sceptic on May 29, 2009 8:49 AM writes...

Thanks to Chris, I'll mail you for that paper shortly.

As for Anonymous, do you seriously think that homeopathy 'working' for babies and animals is a killer argument. Regression to the mean needs to be dicounted before you even have to start worrying about accounting for placebo. Has it been? Assuming it has been, by what criteria are we judging that little Timmy is feeling better? Might it be that somebody else is making a subjective judgement that could be influenced by their positive expectations? The main thing for me though is regression to the mean.

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38. Curt on May 30, 2009 3:02 PM writes...

Just a small note: some people here are debating about ALUMINIUM CHLORIDE
- but if you look in the comment of Ennis quoted allready above
you will find it was AMMONIUM CHLORIDE. -
Just to finish this controversy.

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39. Jonadab the Unsightly One on June 1, 2009 6:14 AM writes...

A mixture of 5% broccoli juice and 95% mercury contains some nutritional value, but you still shouldn't drink it.

Several of the arguments that the homeopathy and natural remedy people use contain claims that have actual merit or truth to them.

They claim that a lot of people who take synthetic drugs suffer from side-effects of the drugs, and that's true, as far as it goes. Anyone in the pharmaceutical industry is aware of this fact, no doubt.

They claim that synthetic drugs are dangerous and can kill you, which is also true, as any doctor can tell you. (It's equally true of any natural herbal supplements that have any merit at all, which they don't typically admit, but still, the basic claim is true. But the basic claim is true: next time you talk to your doctor, tell him that one of your prescription drugs is working so well, you want to take ten times as much. See what he says.)

They claim that natural remedies have been used for thousands of years, which they have. Sometimes they even claim that (certain) natural remedies have been scientifically shown to have merit, a claim that is also true.

So, you know, if there's 5% broccoli juice in there, it must be healthy. Drink up!

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40. Moebius on June 3, 2009 7:53 AM writes...

We have a pretty famous journalist here who approaches most subjects with a lot of humor. He has a backgroud in biochemistry and a couple of years ago, he tried to do a homeopathic suicide (eating a large bowl of homeopathic pills). The only thing he experienced was a sugar rush ! It was pretty funny...

But I guess it only proves homeopathic pills are really safe !

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41. Dana Ullman on June 5, 2009 10:07 AM writes...

As much as I appreciate the input from SkepticsBane, he mistakenly referred to the BBC's experiment using "aluminum chloride." They used "ammonium chloride."

To see various bodies of information that VERIFY the "JUNK SCIENCE" of the BBC's "experiment" (as well as that of ABC's 20/20 show), go to:

Anyone (!) who refers to the BBC's test as real is simply embarrassing him/herself and proving his/her ignorance. It really is that simple.

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42. Dana H. on June 15, 2009 8:02 AM writes...

Here's an excerpt from Dana Ullman's site allegedly debunking the debunkers:

'Stossel asserted on air that the "6C" potency of a homeopathic medicine is equivalent to one drop in 50 swimming pools, that the 12C potency is like one drop in the entire Atlantic Ocean, and that the 16C potency is like one drop in a million earths. In actual fact, the total amount of water used to make a 6C potency is around six test tubes (or around 6 ounces of water). A 12C potency requires around 12 ounces of water. Because 20/20 had a London hospital make up the 16C of Histamine, they knew that this pharmaceutical process only required less than a quart of water (16 test tubes worth!). 20/20 seemingly and incorrectly assumed that each dilution required "exponential" (100-fold) increases the size, when, in fact, it only required repeated dilutions in a small test tube.'

I was happy to run across such an unscientific, innumerate statement so quickly because it saves me the effort of reading the rest of the site. (Hint for the perplexed: to achieve dilution equivalent to 1 drop in the Atlantic Ocean, you don't actually require the volume of the Atlantic Ocean. Recursive dilutions in small test tubes will do the trick.)

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43. ScepticsBane on July 22, 2009 10:20 AM writes...

Thanks Dana and alig, you are quite correct, I was wrongly referring to "aluminum chloride" instead of "Ammonium chloride".


Regarding your comment,that:
"Any chemist will tell you that aluminum chloride reacts violently with water to produce HCl and aluminum oxide, neither of which will kill cells in dilute solution. If you were going to add a chemical to kill cells, aluminum chloride wouldn't be it. So your description of or the BBC documentary itself is wrong. BTW, do you know how we in the drug industry determine potency? We keep diluting the compound until we see no effect. That's how we know compounds at infinite dilution have no effect. I seen this tested ten of thousands of time. Never does a compound keep its effect once its been diluted enough. NEVER."

Ennis' experiment, and others who have repeated it clearly ARE indicative of biological effect
caused by a high dilution solution. Your failure to provide an explanation, and your repetition that it NEVER has an effect from your own personal observation "ten of thousands" of times is meaningless in the light of her work. That the explanation may involve sub molecular structures, clustering of molecules or other recently discovered effects that go contrary to your 1930's ball and stick mental models of chemistry is not my concern.

Regarding aluminum chloride, it was (is?) at one time added to the water supply in some cities, in small amounts, to soften the water. Needless to say, the healthiness of that idea might be questioned. A quick search of "aluminum chorlide" water treatment and "toxicity" may expand your horizons beyond the limitations of your personal experience.

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