Homeopathy as “nanopharmacology”? The only thing “nano” is the quantity of the science involved

It would appear that during my mini-hiatus (indeed, a homeopathic hiatus, so to speak) to celebrate having passed the fifth anniversary of the start of this blog and being irritated by some of my colleagues enough to risk getting myself in a little trouble, I actually missed something that normally I’d leap on like a starving hyena. Normally, such woo would have been like waving the proverbial red cape in front of the bull, holding a slab or bloody red steak in front of a starving pit bull, or a rabbit zipping in front of my late lamented dog. The not-so-Respectful Insolence would have been flying fast and furious. Oh, well, better late than never, I guess. This is especially true since a blogger who normally doesn’t write about these sorts of topics pointed it out to me.

She pointed out to me that everybody’s science-challenged homeopath is back. With a vengeance. I’m talking, of course, about Dana Ullman.

You remember Dana, don’t you? He’s the Energizer Bunny of Woo, a homeopath who shows up in many blogs, including mine, to whine whenever a skeptic has the temerity to point out that homeopathic remedies are a mixture of water and magical thinking, all serially succussed until any hint of science, logic, or reason has been diluted to nothing. Just like a real homeopathic remedy, come to think of it. This time around, he’s back at that repository of all things anti-vaccine and quackery, that home to luminaries of woo such as Deepak Chopra, that online publication in which no form of quackery is too quacky to be included. That includes Dana Ullman’s latest dive into sympathetic magic entitled How Homeopathic Medicines Work: Nanopharmacology At Its Best.

Before I delve into the woo, I love the way that Ullman slaps a coat of science onto his pseudoscience by appropriating science-y terms like “nanopharmacology.” However, it should be pointed out right here that when it comes to putting a science-y gloss on homeopathic nonsense, Ullman is a rank amateur compared to Lionel Milgrom. Now there‘s a creative homeopath. I mean, come on! His concepts of quantum homeopathy, likening homeopathy to a quantum gyroscope, and, finally, viewing homeopathy as a chiral tetrahedron. That just leaves appropriating, well, lame terms like nanopharmacology. Don’t get me wrong. Nanotechnology is being used in pharmacology, and the combination has been termed nanopharmacology, although there appears to be a lot more hype there than reality at the moment. Appropriating it to describe homeopathy is what’s lame. Lame like this:

It is commonly assumed that homeopathic medicines are composed of extremely small doses of medicinal substances. And yet, does anyone refer to an atomic bomb as an extremely small dose of a bomb? In actual fact, there is a power, a very real power, in having atoms smash against each other.

Wow. Just wow. Amazing. Too bad there isn’t any real power, other than perhaps a homeopathic dilution of power, in having Ullman’s brain cells smash against each other. We used to have a saying about particularly dim bulbs that their brain consisted of two neurons connected by a spirochete. In Ullman’s case, I’m not so sure about the spirochete. In any case, it never occurs to Ullman that there is a vast difference between reactions occurring at the molecular level and chain reactions occuring at the atomic level. And what is it with homeopaths and atomic bombs, anyway? Remember Charlene Werner, the homeopath who produced a cringe-worthy video allegedly describing the physics behind homeopathy that likened homeopathy to a molecular “bomb” releasing all the energy in the matter involved, which sounds an awful lot like an atomic bomb to me.

Be that as it may, unfortunately Ullman takes his analogy and goes wild with it:

Homeopathic medicines are made through a specific pharmacological process of dilution and vigorous shaking. However, when skeptics say that there is nothing but water in homeopathic medicine, they are proving their ignorance, despite the incredible arrogance in which they make these assertions. Dr. Martin Chaplin, a respected British professor who is one of the world’s experts on water, has verified that “homeopathic water” and “regular water” are not the same, and his review of almost 2,000 references to the scientific literature on water (!) confirm this fact (Chaplin, 2009).

I like the reference at the end. It looks almost official, like a real citation in a real peer-reviewed paper. It’s not. It doesn’t even really support his belief in homeopathy. Chaplin even concedes while dissing skeptics:

One of the main reasons concerning this disbelief in the efficacy of homeopathy lies in the difficulty in understanding how it might work. If an acceptable theory was available then more people would consider it more seriously. However, it is difficult at present to sustain a theory as to why a truly infinitely diluted aqueous solution, consisting of just H2O molecules, should retain any difference from any other such solution. It is even more difficult to put forward a working hypothesis as to how small quantities of such ‘solutions’ can act to elicit a specific response when confronted with large amounts of complex solution in a subject. A major problem in this area is that, without a testable hypothesis for the generally acknowledged potency of homeopathy, there is a growing possibility of others making fraudulent claims in related areas, as perhaps evidenced by the increasing use of the internet to advertise ‘healthy’ water concentrates using dubious (sometimes published but irreproducible) scientific and spiritual evidence.

But whether or not a reference really supports him or not has never been something that Ullman has worried overmuch about. He doesn’t even pause as he launches into a meandering mess of a montage of uncritical thinking writ large, which means that in homeopathic terms it must be very weak because the woo is so very, very concentrated. This mess leads into Ullman declaring that homeopathy isn’t quackery or woo. Oh, no. It’s science! It’s nanopharmacology! Really, it is! He then goes on to liken homeopathy to phermones and various forms of chemical communication that animals use:

For instance, it is commonly known that a certain species of moth can smell pheromones of its own species up to two miles away. It is no simple coincidence that species only sense pheromones from those in the same species who emit them (akin to the homeopathic principle of similars), as though they have developed exquisite and specific receptor sites for what they need to propagate their species. Likewise, sharks are known to sense blood in the water at distances, and when one considers the volume of water in the ocean, it becomes obvious that sharks, like all living creatures, develop extreme hypersensitivity for whatever will help ensure their survival.

No, no, no, no, no, no! This is a classic non sequitur. All of the examples that Ullman gives are based on known chemical mechanisms. The chemical structure of hte phermones can be isolated; their concentrations can be measured; the cell receptors to which they bind and thereby activate biochemical responses can be characterized. There’s nothing magical about this. There’s nothing that requires the “memory of water” about this. It is not homeopathy; it is chemistry and biochemistry. It does not follow from the fact that sharks can sense blood in the water at very low concentrations and follow the chemical gradient back to its prey that homeopathy works. It does not follow from the fact that moths can detect phermones from two miles away that homeopathy works. It does not follow that various creatures other animals can detect extremely low concentrations of various molecules that homeopathy works.

Yet that’s exactly where Ullman goes with this:

That living organisms have some truly remarkable sensitivities is no controversy. The challenging question that remains is: How does the medicine become imprinted into the water and how does the homeopathic process of dilution with succussion increase the medicine’s power? Although we do not know precisely the answer to this question, some new research may help point the way.

Actually, we do know the answer to this question. Homeopathy is water. Period. It is the dilution of a substance that may or may not have anything to do with relieving symptoms or curing disease because the choice of said substance is based on a prescientific understanding of how the body works based more on sympathetic magic than anything scientific to the point where not a single molecule remains. I’d be willing to consider the possibility that homeopathy might be something more than a collective delusion passed down for 200 years from Samuel Hahnemann to his followers, including a certain Energizer Bunny of a homeopath. Homeopaths have never been able to develop convincing evidence that homeopathic remedies are anything other than water or that they do anything more than a placebo. Instead, they cherry pick studies that seem to support their viewpoint or find studies that are among the “false positives” that are positive by random chance alone, ignoring the bulk of the evidence against homeopathy, not to mention its inherent scientific ridiculousness.

Now, I’m not going to go into the ridiculousness of Ullman’s abuse of quantum theory. After all, I’ve dealt with such abuses of physics in the service of quackery time and time again by homeopaths, Deepak Chopra, and a wide variety of quacks. Rather, I want to point out his invocation of, in essence, the Galileo Gambit in which he likens homeopaths physicists who discovered quantum mechanics:

Quantum physics does not disprove Newtonian physics; quantum physics simply extends our understanding of extremely small and extremely large systems. Likewise, homeopathy does not disprove conventional pharmacology; instead, it extends our understanding of extremely small doses of medicinal agents. It is time that physicians and scientists began incorporating both Newtonian and quantum physics into a better understanding of what healing is and how to best augment it.

The difference, of course, is that there was copious evidence that there were deficiencies in pre-quantum physics. It didn’t explain a number of observations. Quantum mechanics explained these observations and phenomena better. Numerous experimental, observational, and theoretical studies converged on quantum theory, which has been further refined over the last century by further experimentation and observation. Homeopathy, on the other hand, has never been shown to do anything beyond what a placebo can do. Unlike the case of quantum mechanics, no scientific observations have been made that can’t be explained any other way than invoking homeopathy. In marked contrast, it was observations that only postulating the concept that energy is quantized could explain that drove the development of quantum theory. No similar burning discrepancies between what is observed and what theory predicts drives the acceptance of homeopathy. That’s because homeopaths put the cart before the horse. They have their belief, and then they try to cherry pick data that seems to support. Likening homeopathy to nanopharmacology doesn’t change that. Heck, nanopharmacology isn’t even primarily concerned with the concentration (ultradilute or otherwise); it’s concerned with the size of the drug or drug delivery device.

Truly, homeopathy is the One Woo To Rule Them All, One Woo to find them, One Woo to bring them all and in the darkness bind them, and Hahnemann is the Sauron of Woo. Meanwhile, Dana Ullman is nothing more than one of his Ringwraiths. Still, that’s scary enough.