Sunday, December 28, 2008

Don't ask the homeopath if you need a haircut

The November 14, 2008 edition of the Now EMC Ottawa-Orléans was kicking around my bag, and a couple weeks ago I got a chance to skim through it. This article on homeopathic flu remedies really got my goat and I wanted to write a letter to the paper's editor about it, but it was a bit late. Now it's really past due to respond in the paper, but I read the article again today and had to respond somewhere. So I'm doing it here, and I've spent all night to write out a full response (pardon any sleep-related errors). Click the article image for a closer view.

As my scribblings suggest, I have a great deal of problems with this article, and it's hard to figure out where to start. I could just embed a video of James Randi's critique of homeopathy, but that doesn't do this article justice. So I've put his video at the end of this post.

First, let me get out of the way the most obvious objections to the article:
  • The byline refers to her as "Dr. Irma Boyle," which in the context of medical advice, suggests an M.D., which Boyle does not possess. However, this unfortunate attribution was likely made by the newspaper editor.
  • Right off the bat in the third paragraph, Boyle suggests that "an oral homeopathic flu remedy" has the same effect as a flu vaccine. (If you're not already familiar with homeopathy and why it's a sham, see the YouTube video below, or read through the Wikipedia article)
  • In fact, the article and headline both suggest that a "remedy" can be used for "immunization." This is impossible, as remedies cure problems, whereas immunization prevents them from happening in the first place.
  • Boyle says "asking your doctor and getting information from the internet will give you more details on [the flu vaccine's] material chemical content." Repeat after me: DO NOT USE THE INTERNET TO SEEK MEDICAL ADVICE. If you have concerns about the flu vaccine, talk to a doctor. Preferably your doctor. Definitely a medical doctor. (Incidentally, this is not medical advice. This is criticism of something that closely resembles medical advice.)
  • It has obviously been a long time since Boyle has associated with real medicine, because she claims that "the flu shot is injected directly into your bloodstream." It isn't. It's injected into your muscle tissue.
  • She goes on to say frightful things about the flu shot, culminating in "it by-passes your natural defenses and weakens your overall immune system." Which is also patently false.
  • The four final paragraphs (only the last three are italicized) advertise Boyle's services. While it references her "free homeopathic flu remedy clinic dates and locations" (two locations and two dates are listed on her website), Boyle's appointments normally cost $200 for the initial visit.
Before I delve into the details of the above points, I'd like to share some gems about the claims made on Boyle's website,

On the "flu vaccination vs homeopathic flu immunization" page, Boyle cites "the Dolisos(Boiron) Research Letter," which contains a text block of medical-sounding gobbledigook about Influenzinum and Thymuline, which apparently "are homeopathic remedies that are used in the oral homeopathic flu remedy."
  • However, I am unable to find such a letter online. doesn't have any entries for after February 2007, and for after December 2007.
  • The only results for this letter that I can find in a Google search are other homeopathic websites with similar (if identical) references to this alleged letter.
  • Google Scholar returns no results for "influenzinum." Thymulin (evidently our esteemed colleagues at Dolisos zealously added an "e" to the name), being a hormone produced by the thyroid, has many hits in PubMed; the only reference to "Thymulin AND flu" appeared beacuse of references to "immunofluorescence."
  • Therefore, not only is there no evidence of this letter claiming clinical success in demonstrating the effectiveness of these two chemicals "in infinitesimal dilutions," but there appears to be no published research about these two chemicals at all!
This, while egregious to my sensitive sense, pales in comparison to what we find on another page. Under "List of conditions that can be treated," Boyle lists a litany of "conditions and disease that are treated with Heilkunst and Advanced Homeopathy at Health Dynamics. These include physical, emotional, mental, relational, financial, life, career and soul/spiritual issues, ailments, conditions and dis-eases." This is directly reminiscent of the snake-oil carnival vendors who would claim their potion would cure whatever ails you. But this isn't the egregious thing.

On the same page are listed thirty-seven benefits of Homeopathy and Heilkunst, including this tremendously unredundant sample:
  • Have more confidence – self, body, mental, emotional, physical, relationally.
  • Get yourself out there even more than you are and have the confidence and clarity to do so.
  • Speak and act with more confidence. Have a strong and clearer voice.
  • Be and feel more present in the moment.
  • Step into the world more.
  • Be and feel more present in your day to day life.
But that's still not the nasty bit. Following the glowing list of benefits are "more examples of everyday occurrences for which Homeopathy and Heilkunst can be used successfully." She goes on to explain a vaccination-related application that isn't mentioned in her New EMC article. In the article, the homeopathy remedy was touted purely as an alternative form of vaccination, but on her website, she suggests the remedies "before and after each shot to avoid the potential traumatic effect of the event and the toxins involved." Not to be outdone, she subsequently suggests "the use of the same homeopathic remedies to create natural immunity to disease for those patients who prefer to not take the risk of a chemical vaccination."

We're almost at the nasty bit. She talks about travel immunizations. The fact that people will use homeopathy to immunize themselves for travel is a serious public health threat. She cites the "successful treatment of Cholera during an epidemic popularized homeopathy on the European mainland 200 years ago" as evidence for the effectiveness of travel immunizations. I will note that this predates the development of the modern scientific method.

But this is the part that knocks my socks off: the part where she lies!

Here is what she says: "In one large-scale study in Brazil in 1974 more than 18,000 children were successfully protected with the homeopathic remedy Meningococcinum against Meningitis, with no notable side effects (Ref. British Medical Journal, 1987:294-6)."

Here (PDF) is the article referenced. British Medical Journal, Novemer 28, 1987, pages 294-296. The title of the article is "Vitamin A supplements and mortality related to measles: a randomised clinical trial." It refers to a study conducted in Africa, not Brazil. In fact, the terms "Meningitis," "homeopathy," and "Brazil" don't appear anywhere in the article. Nor, even, does "1974"!

A closer look.

All this fishiness warrants a closer look at this article.

Let us start from the top.

How qualified is Irma Boyle?

On the "Flu vaccination vs homeopathic flu immunization" page on her website, she draws out the alphabet soup: "Irma Ally Boyle DMH, DHHP, DynBC, B.A. Psych."
  • Let's start from the end. She has a bachelor's degree in psychology. On her "about" page, she also says she has a degree in computer science. I have no reason to doubt either of those (though she doesn't say where she got those degrees or when).
  • DynBC apparently refers to "Certificate in Dynamic Blood Analysis," according to A Google search for Dynamic Blood Analysis returns only references back to and (which are effectively the same website), and some scientific papers. Unfortunately, the scientific papers are all in engineering journals, and are not of a medical nature.
  • DHHP refers to "Practitioner Diploma in Homeopathy and Heilkunst," a diploma received after the completion of a 4-5 year course of studies. This includes a module on Dynamic Blood, which seems to make the above diploma redundant.
  • Upon payment of annual fees to the Canadian/International Heilkunst Association at, DHHPs can use the tile "Doctor of Medical Heilkunst" (DMH), making the DHHP also redundant. Kinda like saying "I have a Ph.D. in Economics, as well as a Master's Degree in Economics and a Bachelor's Degree in Economics! Three degrees!"
  • However, the website of the Canadian - International Heilkunst Association (whose website is actually at recommends "To make clear that one is not a “Dr.” or “Doctor” as such. For example, using the title before the name generally denotes an MD. Avoid using the title of “Dr.” or “Doctor” (before your name) and specify exactly what type of doctor is designated."
And what, exactly, is Heilkunst? Best I can tell, it's an euphemism for "homeopathy," presumably that particular branch that jives with Canadian regulations on homeopathy. If you're not already familiar with Homeopathy, I again beseech you to take in the YouTube video at the bottom of the post.
  • The German word for "Homeopathy" is "Homöopathie," so it doesn't mean that. It doesn't remotely resemble that.
  • "Heilkunde" is the German word for "medicine". It definitely resembles that word.
  • "Heil" means "well-being"; "Kunst" means "art", so "Heilkunst" presumably means "the art of well-being"
  • "Heilpraktiker(in)" means "non-medical practitioner"
  • Therefore, in English, "Medical Heilkunst" seems to suggest "Medical non-medical practise."
  • But whatever the word might mean in German, the term is being used in English. What you need to know is that "Medical Heilkunst" is not English for "Medical doctor." Therefore, you should seek a medical doctor for medical advice. Not a Doctor of Medical Pixiedust. Not the Internet.
What does she say about flu shots?

Well first, let's look at what is known about flu shots from empirical data:
  • According to Health Canada, "an estimated 10-25% of Canadians may get the flu each year," and "an estimated 4,000 to 8,000 Canadians, mostly seniors, die every year from pneumonia related to flu and many others may die from other serious complications of flu."
  • Because of this, Canada's National Advisory Committee on Immunization encourages all Canadians over 6 months of age to get a flu shot.
  • The Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care says that "Ontario is the only jurisdiction in North America to make the influenza vaccine available free to all residents."
  • It is free, and it is likely to reduce your chances to get the flu. The only reason an objective person would advise against getting a flu shot is if it is dangerous.
While she doesn't outright say it, Boyle certainly paints the flu shot in frightening terms. I've already pointed out and refuted her erroneous claims that "the flu shot is injected directly into the bloodstream" and that it weakens the immune system. She also point out that:
  • "Getting the flu shot means that your body is injected with substantial amounts of several viruses along with other toxic materials used to preserve the vaccine." (Okay, "substantial" amounts if you're used to dealing with homeopathic dilutions)
  • "Along with the virus material, the vaccine fluid may contain chemical carrying agents." (And your homeopathic pill contains lactose as a carrying agent. Lactose is also a chemical. As is water.)
She contrasts this with the wonderful and painless homeopathic "remedy" which has the following benefits:
  • It's not an injection, but "processed orally through the mucous membranes, as it would be if the virus were contracted naturally."
    • This dose provides "an extremely minute amount of the virus material alone," and "because the viral agent is so diluted, it's a lot less toxic and doesn't place strains on the body's filtering system (kidney, liver)." (This suggests that the flu virus is toxic (i.e. "Having a chemical nature that is harmful to health or lethal if consumed or otherwise entering into the body in sufficient quantities."), which is technically true (in the sense that water is toxic if consumed "in sufficient quantities"), but highly unlikely. The net result of a flu vaccination is to boost health, not harm it.)
Now, the article proceeds, that you've been presented with this frighteningly terrible flu shot, and this painless and riskless homeo-pill, "what would you like to introduce into your body"? Oh, by the way, the author has some free homeopathic flu remedy clinics and more information on her website.

Except the homeopathic stuff doesn't do as promised. Health Canada's "Evidence for Homeopathic Medicines" guidelines require homeopathic remedies to be diluted to at least 12CH. Which, according to this page, means one part per 1024 parts--Avogadro's limit. Simply put, beyond this degree of dilution are not likely to have a single molecule of the active ingredient present in the solution. Yet homeopaths claim that this still has remedial properties--indeed, that the more diluted something is, the better!

After 200 years of practise (older than modern medicine!), certainly you'd expect there to be lots of research showing how Homeopathy works.

Frankly, skeptics like Randi and me would settle for evidence that it works, much less how. Scientific literature on the topic of homeopathy returns this type of conclusion:
  • "Up to now, no research has categorically proven that homoeopathy has a specific pharmacological action, consequently it is not a proven scientific therapy. " (Mudry, A. "Is Homeopathy a Scientific Therapy?" Rev Med Suisse Romande. 2000 Feb;120(2):171-7 )
  • "Contrary to many claims by homeopaths, there is no conclusive evidence that highly dilute homeopathic remedies are different from placebos. The benefits that many patients experience after homeopathic treatment are therefore most probably due to nonspecific treatment effects. Contrary to widespread belief, homeopathy is not entirely devoid of risk. Thus, the proven benefits of highly dilute homeopathic remedies, beyond the beneficial effects of placebos, do not outweigh the potential for harm that this approach can cause." (Ernst, E. "Is homeopathy a clinically valuable approach?" Trends Pharmacol Sci. 2005 Nov;26(11):547-8. Epub 2005 Sep 13. )
The burden of proof is not on me to prove that Homeopathy is ineffective; the onus is on homeopaths to prove that their dilutions actually do anything. Nevertheless, criticisms by skeptics are often met with accusations of bias, and claims that skeptics aren't being open-minded. Open-mindedness, however, can have serious consequences when extended beyond the rational...

It is unfortunate that the New EMC was tricked into printing this homeopathic drivel as "health" advice, though I don't think the publishers will care. Ms. Boyle's article is a collection of FUD to promote distrust in evidence-based medicine while simultaneously peddling their overpriced sugar pills. If she has tricked herself into believing this stuff as well (which is questionable, considering the outright lies exposed above), then that is a pity as well.

And what, exactly is homeopathy?

For those who aren't familiar with how insanely impossible it is for a homeopathic solution to have any effect, please view James Randi's concise description of homeopathy:

If you can't believe his characterization, check out the Wikipedia article on Homeopathy, or browse a homeopathy book at the local library, and you'll see it's exactly the same as he describes it, only with a bit more pixie dust.

- RG>

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Police intimidate blogger?

zoom! of has posted an entry in her blog, aptly titled Bank Street Bully, referring to a police officer who didn't like her photographing him handling a woman on Bank street.

Zoom recounts how she valiantly held her ground and challenged the uniformed officer's demand to erase the photos from her camera. While police can be useful to some people in some situations, the officer in this case was definitely overstepping--abusing, even--his authority by trying to coerce her into deleting the photos she had just taken of him.

I'm no stranger to complaining about police, but I've never really confronted nor been confronted by an officer directly about a serious matter (there was one time when I challenged an officer after he made a snide remark he made about me to another officer).

I have, however, photographed a few police-related incidents that have set off my spidey sense, which zoom!'s post has inspired me to post tonight.

The one most similar to that observed by zoom! happened this past June on Elgin street. I was chatting with Carver, a popular downtown panhandler/artist/philosopher (who, by the way, is not an alcoholic or drug addict, and is not homeless, contrary to many people's stereotypes of panhandlers!), when he noticed a native panhandler out cold up the block, being roused by a couple of cops and a paramedic. I took a few photographs from far enough away to not attract the police's attention.

This wasn't police brutally, mind you, but I didn't think someone sleeping on a doorstep is really causing anybody any harm. Which is why I was a bit surprised when the paramedic stepped back while the police arrested him.

I'm not sure who is the guy in the blue shirt, but he seemed to play a part in the incident; he may have been the complainant, or simply a concerned citizen. He followed the officers around the corner to their cruiser, against which they pressed him before putting him inside.

I innocently asked the officer what was going on, and the officer gave me a brief overview: that they were going to put him in a cell overnight "for his own protection" yadda yadda yadda.

The next incident is from August 2007 during the Montebello North American Leaders' Summit (the one where undercover police officers were caught acting as agents provocateurs in a crowd of otherwise peaceful protesters). I had just happened to be on Cartier Street, when I discovered an odd sight. A couple police vehicles and three OC Transpo buses.

Being once again unseen in plain view, I snapped a few shots of what I saw. The windows of the buses were covered by black garbage bags, and even a garbage-bag drape was installed across the aisle.

The buses were chartered by the Ottawa Police Service to head to the Montebello Summit, as the sign in the front window (closeup below) clearly and publicly indicates. While I was sufficiently unfond of what the buses likely contained at the time--probably Ottawa Police officers with riot squad gear--I know that public transit vehicles are used during protests to detain groups of protesters en masse, and I shudder at the possibility of what could happen to detained protesters if they were hidden from public view inside these buses (paid for by OUR tax dollars!).

I wonder what the advertisers on those buses ( and Ocean's light tuna italian salad, among others not captured in my photos) think about their ads being on potential mobile holding units.

In October, I was walking home when a pair of police cruisers somewhat forcefully pulled over an OC Transpo bus that had just picked up a pair of passengers on Gladstone at Percy.

Two officers boarded the bus, questioned a young black male who had just boarded, got off the bus and let it (and the youth) go on its way. I overheard one of the officers say something along the lines of "wow, he matched the description perfectly, but it's not the guy." Just imagine being that kid on the bus and having to sit through the rest of the ride with everyone staring at you because the police thought you looked like someone they want.

This last one isn't so much police, but it's certainly along the same lines. It's also along the lines of the oft-quoted saying:
"The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread." (Anatole France, from The Red Lily, 1894)
After the City of Ottawa literally banned the poor from sleeping under a bridge earlier this year, raising the ire of CopWatch organizer Andrew Nellis (the aftermath of which I blogged about at the time), the National Capital Commission abruptly removed the shrubs in Confederation Park behind which homeless people sleep. I walked through Confederation Park every day for five years and never once noticed a homeless person sleeping behind a shrub--much less be bothered by it.

But in the name of shooing homelessness to some other quarter, the shrubs were removed from this previously enjoyable public space, leaving a grey concrete wall for passers-by to stare at.

O, how inviting this park is now. They should pave over the grass and cut down the trees, too, just to be sure it won't attract any undesirable people. (Or any people at all!)

- RG>

Saturday, December 06, 2008

$25B Bailout? Big 3 vs. Economics 101

The BBC has a video showing the real reason why the auto industry is asking for billions of dollars in bailouts from North American governments: nobody is buying their cars.

The video shows ports in Long Beach, California, where tens of thousands of brand new cars sit, unwanted. Twenty auto salesmen in one Mercedes dealership have lost their jobs. People simply aren't buying new cars.

And the Big Three understand this. When demand drops to zero, it's impossible to make supply more efficient to continue bringing in profits.

That's why, to earn profits, they've decided skip the whole supply/demand game, the whole sell-a-product-to-earn-money game, and instead go to the governments to give them money.

I say fuck 'em. This money should be used to invest in new industries, to build a more sustainable economy, not to line the pockets of dying industries.

People say that one in six Canadians has a job directly related to the automobile industry as a defence of such bailouts. This was used as an argument in 2003 when the Federal and Ontario governments each gave half a billion dollars to Ford to encourage them to build a plant in Ontario, creating jobs for Ontario workers. A plant which has since closed.

To me, one in six Canadians depending on the auto industry isn't a defence of bailing them out: it's a sign that we need to kick the auto addiction.

(Thanks to rgb for the link)

- RG>