Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Homeopathy weak.

Apparently it's Homeopathy Week. I learned this from Ars Technica, of all places.

They're reprinting an extensive review of homeopathy from 2007.

I recall an incident where a friend of mine, who generally avoids silly stuff like religion and professional sports, remarking that his allergies were a lot better after he switched medications from his old homeopathic one. I kinda thought it was a joke, but it wasn't. When I tried to point out to him how plainly obvious it is that homeopathy is bunk, another friend chimed in, expressing skepticism, if not outright distrust, of modern, "conventional" medicine.

This really surprised me, because this other friend was even more sciencey. I would have assumed he'd at least know how homeopathy is meant to work.

That's why the Ars Technica article is great. It's a long read spanning 3 pages, but worth it. The article pokes away so much at the theories behind homeopathy that there's nothing but holes left. It doesn't just go over how homeopathy is an affront to modern medicine, but also how it's an affront to the scientific method, peer review, chemistry, physics, and mathematics. Not to mention the obvious casualty: logic. I'm not going to try to summarize the article or describe homeopathy, just read the article.

I was rather disappointed to read, on page 4 of the April 2013 edition of Ottawa Woman magazine (whose issues and articles appear to require Flash and defy linking), an article called "Homeopathy during labour and birth". I won't do a detailed breakdown of all the parts of the article which offend me (been there, done that), in part because I'm not exactly the target audience. Suffice it to say that she gives a lot of advice that sounds to me like euphemisms for "placebo effect from such-and-such homeopathic mixture will make the mother feel better."

Okay, I don't want to go through the whole thing, but the passage that triggered my visceral cringing reflex (aside from the initial one I get at the sight of the word "homeopathy"), was "Some mothers will give birth not only with a midwife and a doula, but also with a hypnotherapist, acupuncturist, or a homeopath." It's good to hear that witch doctors, blood letters and phrenologists are not currently fashionable for childbirth (I have nothing against midwives or doulas, to be clear). It was only on a subsequent reading that I noticed this immediately follows the first paragraph, in which the author talks about how childbirth is a simple affair that can easily be cluttered with too many medical practitioners.

But I have to wonder how demeaning it is that a magazine feels it needs to promote such vacuous hoo-haw in order to consider itself a magazine that caters to women. I'll leave you to consider the implications of this suggestion.

The last point I wanted to make about homeopathy in this rant is that people often point to Health Canada's regulation of homeopathic remedies as an endorsement of homeopathy by Health Canada. It is not. Much as I'd like to say that the regulations are clear, they're at least understandable. And if you've got a cursory understanding in the field, you'll know what to look for.

A homeopathic remedy (which, to my dismay, can legally be called a "homeopathic medicine") must describe the 'active' ingredient, and must be at a potency of at least 12CH. If you haven't read up yet on homeopathic dilutions (Wikipedia), "potency" in the homeopathic world refers to how diluted it is. The higher the number, the more the ingredient has been diluted. From Wikipedia: "the greatest dilution that is reasonably likely to contain one molecule of the original substance is 12C, if starting from 1 mole of original substance."

In other words, Health Canada's regulations are designed to ensure that there is no more than one molecule of the 'active' ingredient per 6x1023 molecules of solvent (usually water). It's there to make sure it doesn't have any of the active ingredient in it (which is fine with the homeopaths, as they prefer to rely on the water's "memory") so that in case the active ingredient is toxic, at least the remedy won't do you any harm. Helpfully, Health Canada also requires the remedies to be labelled with a statement like "Consult a health care practitioner if symptoms persist or worsen", which is always good advice when administering a placebo.

So Health Canada will ensure that it's safe to take the stuff. As for efficacy, the Evidence for Homeopathic Medicines document from Health Canada states that, when a use is specified for the drug (i.e. "this is a dilution of bovine faeces, which is used in treating gullibility" as opposed to just "this is a dilution of bovine faeces"), the targeted condition—which cannot be one of the many major conditions listed in Schedule A of the Food and Drugs Act—must be effective based on one of various standards published by the Homeopathy industry. So Health Canada doesn't have any standards on making claims that homeopathic mixtures are effective at treating anything, so long as the homeopaths agree on it.

A certain skepticism of the medical community is healthy (no pun intended). I've even been known to myself. But it needs to be productive skepticism, like asking for evidence of the efficacy of something (as I did in my cryptic entry about the H1N1 vaccine linked in the previous sentence). The reaction my friend gave me when I called homeopathy out was not skepticism of conventional medicine, but pure distrust of it. If it were skepticism, I presume he'd have investigated the evidence for homeopathy's effectiveness instead of merely embracing it as an alternative to the thing he distrusts.

It is important to keep in mind that homeopathy originates before conventional medicine as we know it existed. Conventional medicine wasn't based on the scientific method, it was based on what was done to treat things in the past. You know, stuff like mercury, blood letting, and so on. Contrasted against that, doing nothing (which can be done very elaborately through homeopathy) usually yielded better results.

Unfortunately, now it's homeopathy that is acting based on an unchanged, unproven process, while conventional medicine has grown up. And homeopathy defenders, ironically, claim that as a benefit.

I'd go on, or at least go over this blog entry a couple times to strengthen the phrasing, if not the arguments, and maybe stick in something about how other quasi-medical people get grouped in—often willingly—with homeopaths, but it's getting late and my laptop's battery dying.

So unfortunately, I'll have to leave this blog entry like Homeopathy Week: weak.

- RG>

Saturday, April 13, 2013

If it weren't for Star Trek, I might not be yelling at my computer.

Because it's usually disguised as the present, it's easy to forget that we live in the future. Every now and then when I encounter a new unexpected piece of technology conveniently replacing a simple task, I'm momentarily reminded of this: Doors that open when you walk near them. Lights that turn on in a room when you walk into it. Locks are controlled by digital keypads. You can enter, use, and leave the washroom without touching anything but the toilet seat and the stream of water and soap. Many of these technologies have been around for a long time on an industrial scale, but they're now readily accessible on a consumer scale too.

And then, every now and then when the technology breaks down, I forget it again. It's easy to not contemplate the future when you're preoccupied with trying to simply open a door or turn on a light. Silly RG, they don't yell at technology in the future!

Other things from science fiction programs of yore are also available: modern PDAs, tablets and laptops far outpace anything Star Trek imagined in their respective form factors, and the combinations of things you can do with them have tremendous potential. Skype and FaceTime let you have live video conversations on demand with ease, and you don't have to have a console monkey in the room to put it up on the screen for you (I presume; I don't like user-facing webcams myself).

Even the famed communicator, which lets Captain Picard reach anyone he likes by tapping a button on his chest, is here: Apple iPhone 5 users have their very powerful and quasi-sentient "Siri". I don't use an iPhone, but I've had this function on my Blackberry for as long as I've owned one: I simply press and hold the button on my headset and tell it a phone number or the name of one of my contacts. My old Nokia brick phone prior to that even let me record up to 20 sound bites to associate with voice-dialing contacts.

I even rented a car recently which didn't have a key. There was just a fob I had to carry around, and the car knew I was near it and unlocked the doors for me. It knew I was inside the car to enable the "start" button that I pressed to start the ignition. These features were so unexpected they had to be explained to me by the clerk, and it took me even longer to figure out how to turn the lights on once it got dark, long after I'd left the lot. (It'll be interesting to see scrap heaps ten years from now filled with cars where 99% of the electronics and machinery still work but an out-of-production patent-protected fingernail-size part prevents the computer from letting you turn on the steering wheel.)

But science fiction's impact on our relationship with technology does more than just drive new ideas and foster automated convenience. I think it also drives our frustrations with technology, too.

Think about it. When you think about technology on the Enterprise, you think about how it works, right? What about when it doesn't work?

There are plenty of examples of futuristic technology not working on TV, sure. But when it does break, you usually know why (even if the character might not). If the cause is not something obvious like a catastrophic power loss, it's usually something nefarious. Someone has locked a control panel, or a villain has short-circuited the turbolift, or Moriarty has reprogrammed the holodeck. Sometimes there's some energy-based lifeforce that's screwing with all the systems in the ship that only creates the subtlest of symptoms. And even then, the characters usually have a workaround readily available, because unlike your journey through the doorway, the TV plot must go on.

How often have you watched science fiction and something went wrong for unknown, unexplained, and relatively benign reasons? In other words, because it simply isn't working properly? Not often, I'd say. There's no such thing as an idiopathic TV tech malfunction; everything happens for a reason—usually a malicious reason—and if you don't know already what that reason is when the character encounters the problem, you'll probably find out by the end of the episode.

So then think about your own experiences with technology. I, for one, couldn't tell you how many times in a week I go to do something with a computer, or my phone, or some other gadget, and it refuses to behave itself. I know how it's supposed to work and I've gotten it to work a hundred times before, but it won't do it this time. I spend hours trying to figure out what the problem is, trying workarounds, reinstalling things, only to eventually give up.

It still has power and is configured the same as when I last used it. It's responding to all my other commands. But it's not doing this one thing that I want it to do now. There must be a reason for the holdup, a malicious force at play, I just haven't figured out what force that is. I know there must be something because that's what I'm trained to believe by years of watching science fiction TV. Well, nobody else has been using my computer, and there are no supernatural forces at play.

Therefore it's the computer itself that must be the malicious actor trying to keep me from doing what I want. Occasionally one can blame the manufacturer or software designer, but neither of them are in the room and it's hard to curse at someone when you don't know their name. It's convenient enough, on the other hand, to blame the computer. All the other variables are controlled, which leaves the computer as the only thing that can change what's happening with my computer.

So after a frustrating few hours, wasted, trying to get my futuristic gadgets to perform my benign chores, I forget that we "live in the future". I forget that breakdowns of technology are only malicious on TV for plot reasons.

And I forget that people in the future don't yell at their computers.

- RG>