Your Friday Dose of Woo: It’s not just homeopathy, it’s quantum homeopathy!

While thinking about ways to make the blog better, I wondered if I should emulate some of my colleagues, many of whom have regular features every week, often on Friday. And, since I usually get a little less serious on Fridays anyway (and, because traffic seems to fall off 50% or more anyway regardless of what I post, on the weekends, too), it seemed like a good idea. But I couldn’t think of something that ties together the common themes of this blog, yet maintains a suitably Friday-blogging light-hearted feel to it. And then I came across this article:

L. R. Milgrom (2006). Towards a New Model of the Homeopathic Process Based on Quantum Field Theory. Forsch Komplementärmed 2006;13:174-183.

(Forsch Komplementärmed, apparently, means Research in Complementary Medicine, the journal’s English title.)

Oh, joy! I had my idea: Your Friday Dose of Woo! (And what better way to start off the long 4th of July weekend here in the states than with a bit of woo?) Not only did I have my idea, but I had my first topic. Just a look at the abstract will tell you why:

Quantum theory’s notions of non-locality and entanglement have previously informed attempts to model the therapeutic process. Of these, Weak Quantum Theory (WQT) and Patient- Practitioner-Remedy (PPR) entanglement are developing into mathematically- based models of homeopathy. Objective: The present study attempted to identify fundamental concepts within quantum field theory (QFT) that could be used to broaden the scope of PPR entanglement models, prior to constructing a more rigorous mathematical treatment. Methods: In QFT, particles and forces are considered as fully interacting relativistic quantum matter and force fields, respectively. These interactions are visualized graphically as spacetime Feynman diagrams. Further, these interacting field systems can have ground states with broken symmetry; the so-called Higgs field being responsible for this symmetry breaking. In the new model, patient, practitioner and remedy are imagined as fully interacting quantum-like fields; patients and practitioners in terms of quantum matter-type fields, and remedies and diseases as quantum interaction-type fields. Results: Disease manifestation by the Vital Force (Vf) could be an event similar to spontaneous symmetry breaking in QFT: the curative remedy acting to restore the broken symmetry of the Vf field. Entanglement between patient, practitioner, and remedy might be representable as Feynman-like diagrams. Conclusion: QFT demonstrates that quantum properties can be physical without being observable. Thus, an underlying similarity in discourse could exist between homeopathy and quantum theory which could be useful for modelling the homeopathic process. This preliminary investigation also suggested that key elements of previous quantum models of the homeopathic process, may become unified within this new QFT-type approach.

Wow. I stand in awe.

Where did a chemist who apparently specializes in designing new molecules to be used in photodynamic therapy get such talent at throwing around quantum mechanical terms willy-nilly and applying it to the quackery known as homeopathy? Somehow, reading this, I got the feeling that, even though this particular journal claims to be rigorously peer-reviewed, the reviewers of this particular article were not quantum physicists. Homeopathy, as you recall, is the quackery in which it is claimed that by diluting an active substance to the point where not a single active molecule is likely to be present, somehow imbues the water diluting it with its therapeutic power:

Homeopathic products are made from minerals, botanical substances, and several other sources. If the original substance is soluble, one part is diluted with either nine or ninety-nine parts of distilled water and/or alcohol and shaken vigorously (succussed); if insoluble, it is finely ground and pulverized in similar proportions with powdered lactose (milk sugar). One part of the diluted medicine is then further diluted, and the process is repeated until the desired concentration is reached. Dilutions of 1 to 10 are designated by the Roman numeral X (1X = 1/10, 3X = 1/1,000, 6X = 1/1,000,000). Similarly, dilutions of 1 to 100 are designated by the Roman numeral C (1C = 1/100, 3C = 1/1,000,000, and so on). Most remedies today range from 6X to 30X, but products of 30C or more are marketed.

[…]

Actually, the laws of chemistry state that there is a limit to the dilution that can be made without losing the original substance altogether. This limit, which is related to Avogadro’s number, corresponds to homeopathic potencies of 12C or 24X (1 part in 1024). Hahnemann himself realized that there is virtually no chance that even one molecule of original substance would remain after extreme dilutions. But he believed that the vigorous shaking or pulverizing with each step of dilution leaves behind a “spirit-like” essence — “no longer perceptible to the senses” — which cures by reviving the body’s “vital force.” Modern proponents assert that even when the last molecule is gone, a “memory” of the substance is retained. This notion is unsubstantiated.

So, when well-established laws of chemistry and physics supported by high levels of data and experimentation demonstrate that, barring the supernatural or some new discovery yet to be made that would invalidate many of our presently understood scientific laws and theories, homeopathy has to be a sham, what’s an altie to do? Invoke quantum mechanics, of course! All sorts of strange things are postulated in quantum mechanics, nonintuitive things. I particularly like Dr. Milgrom’s claim that quantum properties can be physical without being observable. Never mind how that quantum theory was derived from physical observations that didn’t fit with the existing theory of the day. Never mind that effects predicted by quantum mechanics can be observed experimentally, effects such as wave-particle duality. Speaking of which, I wonder if he’s worked out the wave function for the practitioner and the patient to use in this “quantum entanglement that he’s talking about. Of course, the fact that quantum entanglement does not violate Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, as information is not transmitted, does make the above explanation sound a bit dubious. For homeopathy to work, some sort of information would have to be transferred to the water or, in the case above, between the practitioner and the patient, perhaps via the water, all of which sounds a lot like magic (which is all homeopathy really is, magical thinking). Besides, quantum entanglement refers to particles, such as photons, and in large numbers of particles, these effects tend to average out. Prometheus explained it well in a piece he did on quantum quackery a while back:

Many of the “quantum promoters” use “entanglement” as an explanation of how everything in the universe is “connected”. This supposedly explains how we can influence objects and “draw energy” from them. This is about as far from real quantum entanglement as it could possibly be.

Quantum entanglement occurs when two particles (usually photons) are emitted from an atom in a singlet (or neutral) state. Because of the conservation laws, the photons (for instance) will have the same polarization [the identical polarizations cancel out because the photons are heading in opposite directions – for a much better explanation, see Victor Stenger’s “The Unconscious Quantum”]. No matter how far they travel, these two photons will have the same polarization – they are considered to be “entangled”.

What entangled photons have to do with “quantum healing” or “remote viewing” or anything of that sort is unclear – and probably imaginary. The basic problem is that the “interesting” quantum effects average out as you get more and more particles together. This is referred to as “decoherence” and explains why we don’t see footballs (“soccer” balls, to those raised in the US) changing into waves during the World Cup.

How appropriate an analogy, given that we’re in the thick of the World Cup competition right now.

In any case, no observable, experimentally verifiable connection between quantum theory and the alleged therapeutic effect of homeopathy has ever been shown. Of course, it doesn’t have to be, does it, if you can get away with the claim that quantum theory somehow provides a mechanism. It’s apparently a possible mechanism for homeopathy that, if we are to believe Dr. Milgrom, might not be “observable” even though it is “physical” (whatever Dr. Milgrom means by that). Even though I hadn’t taken quantum mechanics since Physical Chemistry in college, I recognized a lot of hand-waving woo when I saw it. I had to get a hold of the whole article. So I fired up my trusty browser just before I was going to leave work to see if I could download a copy of this amazing piece of quantum homeopathic altie woo in its entirety. My critical thinking skills shuddered in anticipation of the pseudsocience and quantum mysticism likely to be found within. (Deepak Chopra, anyone?) I couldn’t wait to see what kinds of equations and throwing about of quantum theory jargon Dr. Milgrom used, seeing if any of it would stick.

Then I hit my first roadblock.

Apparently, my university in its wisdom has not purchased an online institutional subscription to this particular journal. I can’t imagine why. After all, I’m sure loads of investigators like me are dying to get a hold of the “research” articles contained in Forsch Komplementärmed. I like to think that the people in charge of deciding which journals the university will subscribe to have some critical thinking skills, but, more likely than not, I’m guessing it has more to do with the fact that most of the articles in this particular journal happen to be written in German, as this Table of Contents demonstrates.

So I looked to see how much it would cost to buy the article for download and recoiled in shock. They’re asking $25 just to download a PDF of a stinking article! Gentle readers, my dedication to delving deep into the bowels of quantum obfuscation, all for your education and amusement, is strong indeed, but, alas, it does have its limits. One of those limits happens to be forking over that much of my hard-earned green for the one-time thrill of subjecting myself to altie woo of the highest order for the sole purpose of generating blog fodder. It’s too much for something that would amuse me for the couple of hours that it took to write the blog post (plus however long the discussion engendered by this post lasts before petering out) and then be promptly forgotten. I’m sorry, but when it comes to woo, particularly quantum altie woo, I like my thrills cheap–or, even better, free. After all, were this not the case, I might actually have purchased one of Deepak Chopra’s books or (shudder) even Kevin Trudeau’s book, putting my critical thinking skills in grave jeopardy. Fortunately for future Respectufl Insolence™, I never did. (Of course, if any reader who does happen to have online access to this journal wants to send me a PDF, I’ll be grateful. I think. Also, no guarantees that I’ll post a followup. There’s only so much my poor neurons can take.)

So instead, I looked for other articles on the topic, and boy are there a lot of them! One in particular caught my eye:

Walach H, WB Jonas, J. Ives, R. Van Wijk, O. Weingartner, and P. Nat (2005). Research on Homeopathy: State of the Art. J. Alt. Compl. Med 11:813-829.

It’s a truly what the military (and we in the skeptic biz) call a “target-rich environment,” and I might have more to say about its other content in future posts. However, for purposes of this discusssion, after laughing myself silly at the claim that homeopaths were pioneers in science and doing double-blinded clinical trials, I zeroed in like a laser on the section on quantum theory as a justification for “nonlocal” effects:

Generally speaking, the starting point for these theories is the observation that, in quantum mechanics, so-called nonlocal correlations in well-defined quantum systems are operative. While these decay through interaction with the environment, it might be the case that under similar, isomorphic conditions nonlocal correlations are established in analogy to holistic quantum correlations. A theoretical framework exists that predicts such nonlocal correlations, and some efforts have been made to apply such a scenario to homeopathy. While some observations speak in favor of such models,182 direct experimental evidence for the existence of nonlocal correlations outside the realm of quantum mechanics is still wanted.

These models have a common consequence: If homeopathic effects are the result of nonlocal correlations, by definition, they cannot be distilled out as causal signals, like in drug therapy. Attempts at strict and direct replication, are doomed to failure. This has to do with a rather technical argument that prohibits the use of nonlocal correlations as direct signals. (Otherwise, time-reversal paradoxes could be created that contradict special relativity.) As long as the original context is not disturbed and no signal can be distilled out of a setup using such correlations, they could be a very elegant way of coordinating behavior.

The practical consequence of this theory is that clinical research is best conducted by not disturbing the normal clinical practice through experimental interventions such as blinding and randomization and that the placebo-controlled trial is probably a suboptimal method of testing, not only for homeopathy but also for conventional pharmacology. A serious problem with the nonlocal model is that it may not
be directly testable in the clinical setting and so cannot be proven as an explanation for homeopathy. Only indirect experimentation is a potential avenue to prove it and this has yet to be established.

Leaving aside the unsupported assumption underlying the article that homeopathy actually “works” and that does something more than provide a nice cool drink of water to the patient seeking an actual remedy, the above explanation is breathtaking in how utterly ballsy it is. It basically comes right out and says that you can’t prove that homeopathy works and that randomized clinical trials aren’t the way to test homeopathy! After all, to the woo brigade, if homeopathy “works” by some sort of “nonlocal” effect mediated by quantum mechanics (quantum entanglement, for example, as discussed by Dr. Milgrom), then its mechanism can never be experimentally tested and verified in a double-blind randomized, placebo-controlled trial, nor, apparently, can its effects be predictable or reproducible! If homeopathy “works” by these mechanism, then, if we are to believe the above, time reversal paradoxes will prevent its mechanism from ever being scientifically studied and validated! I wonder if he’s saying that studying homeopathy would cause time to reverse itself. (Now that I’m on the wrong side of 40, I’d certainly be willing to pay for that. Imagine the possibililties for using homeopathy to reverse aging!)

In any case, what was it I said again about homeopathy being nothing more than magical thinking?

After delving deep into quantum homeopathic woo, I have to wonder what the Bad Homeopath or fellow ScienceBlogger and physicist Chad Orzel would have to say about all this.