Homeopathic neptunium, or “Much Ado About Placebo”
A guest post by Rob Hinkley.
Homeopathic neptunium chloride, or “neptunium muriaticum” as the homeopaths’ alternative naming scheme calls it, can be bought from Helios pharmacy. Like any good homeopathic remedy it has been “proved”*, and The Homeopathic Proving Of Neptunium Muriaticum is available for download as a smart looking PDF. It starts encouragingly with the authors telling us they made every effort to be rigorous and achieve scientific validity:
We, therefore, chose to use the remarkably complete and detailed method given by J. Sherr to study the remedy which is the subject of this proving. As we are required to observe the criteria which give this type of study scientific validity, in particular the double blind principle and the use of placebo along with the active product, we also thought it desirable to try, insofar as possible, to attain a degree of compatibility with tests used by the pharmaceutical industry. Perhaps this type of approach will make it possible to bridge the gap between these two seemingly irreconcilable worlds.
So far so good. 20 people were recruited, of whom 5 took placebo pills and 15 a homeopathic preparation of neptunium chloride. 5 of them received a “7C” dilution which would still contain molecules of the active ingredient. The authors devote sections 1, 2 and 3 of the proving to telling us correctly that neptunium is an artificial radioactive metal closely related to plutonium and of unknown toxicity. We can only hope they’d closely thought through the implications – and had an ethical review conducted – of dispensing it to 5 test subjects who hadn’t been told what they were being given. They don’t tell us they did this, but we can hope.
Oddly for an effort to be rigorous and achieve scientific validity we then have 3 whole pages telling us about the mythological and astrological properties of Neptune. This is relevant because neptunium, the element being rigorously tested, was named after the planet Neptune, which in turn was named after the ancient god. And how better to determine the medical effects a radioactive metal is likely to have on patients than Greek and Roman myths and the duration of the Age of Pisces? I assure you I am not making this up.
The bulk of the document of course consists of the symptoms reported by the participants (or some of them, more on that later). Every itch, pain, odd dream or noteworthy bout of gas which together somehow enable homeopaths to decide which afflictions this remedy can treat. After the authors pull this data together they conclude:
As was the case with Plutonium, Neptunium seems to be a faithful homeopathic reflection of the mythological god and of the astrological symbol.
Which seems, to be charitable… odd. Any association between neptunium and the mythological / astrological Neptune is solely down to an accident of what name the element was given. If instead of calling it “neptunium” the chemists had named if “venusium” after the planet Venus it would have had totally different mythical and astrological associations. If it had instead been named “newtonium” in honour of Isaac Newton it would lack any such association. If by some calamity it had been named “formbium” after George Formby it might have some lamentable pop culture associations with banjos and cheeky-chappy music hall comedy. Regardless, it would be the same thing, with the same effects on people.
The Placebo Question
I said that the experiences of only some of the participants are given in detail. The people who took the placebo, well… I’ll let the authors explain from page 14:
Our first surprise on reading the proving notebooks was to note that not only did most of the people receiving placebo manifest symptoms, but also that these symptoms were similar to those experienced by the provers who received the active product. Admittedly, overall they manifested with less intensity and were less richly detailed, especially as regards the mental sphere. In addition, they appeared almost immediately after the doses were taken and had a tendency to disappear more quickly. However, the fact remains that the provers who received the placebo unquestionably expressed the proving symptoms of the remedy …
One might almost consider this consistent with the placebo and active pills being the same, and that both had no real effect. But the authors are made of stronger stuff and give no hint that this thought ever crossed their minds. Instead they suggest that the effect of the active pills somehow leaked out of their bottles, travelled through the intervening space and the walls of the placebos’ containers and somehow imbued the placebo with whatever property the active pills have. Really. Taking up where we left them before:
… consequently, a question arises concerning the transmission of information from a dose tube imbued with an active substance to another that does not contain the active substance. In the absence of an answer, we will simply relate the facts: following a double error with packaging and shipping, the laboratory that manufactured the remedies placed the 120 doses in the same package, without separating the placebo from the active product. In addition, an error in the address on the package caused it to be sent back to the shipper before finally being sent to the recipient. Thus, the placebo doses and those containing the active product were in contact with one another for upwards of ten days. Aware of the error that had already been made, we did not try to store them separately before sending them onto the provers, which meant they were in contact with one another for another week.
Hats off. To explain an apparent failure of one kind of magic they have hypothesised a whole new kind of magic and set William of Ockham spinning in his grave. But why are the experiences of the placebo-takers not included in the report? Again, I’ll let the authors explain:
However, in the interests of scientific rigor, we did not include in the following list the symptoms experienced by the provers who received placebo.
Right. Because excluding all the details of one of the surprising observations you made is almost the definition of “scientific rigour”.
This claimed ability of homeopathic remedies to somehow transmit themselves through space into their neighbours could have implications beyond the placebos having the same effect as the real homeopathic neptunium pills. Some homeopathic pharmacies sell travel or first aid kits in which several remedies are close together. Homeopathic remedies are also often stored close to one another on pharmacy shelves. If they can reach out and alter their neighbours then the possibility of cross-contamination arises. Will the Nux Vom interfere with the Nat Mur which in turn is infusing its homeopathy rays into a nearby Belladonna? This could cause chaos.
I will leave the last words to the authors, describing the people likely to derive most benefit from the medicine tested in this rigorous and scientifically valid study:
Neptunium muriaticum will be particularly suitable for persons who evade reality and take refuge in illusion
* That’s “proved” in the homeopaths’ alternative naming scheme, which does not mean that anything’s actually been proved in the normally accepted sense of the word.
Rob Hinkley writes software for a living and sometimes looks at pseudoscience for fun and a sinking feeling of sick despair. He very occaisonally posts stuff at semiskimmed dot net.