The Homeopathic Elephant in the Room

April 16, 2012

While always on the radar of skeptics, Homeopathy has has hit the news – or at least the blogosphere – recently with the case of Homeopath Francine Scrayen attempting to sue blogger Dan Buzzard over telling the truth of her involvement in the death of Penelope Dingle.

A while back I ran the numbers to show that there is in fact nothing in homeopathic remedies. But there is one more little thing that rarely gets mentioned, and I would like to haul that out into the open for ridicule. Suppose, just suppose magic water did have the ability to remember the properties of dilution to non-existence. Just suppose. The majority of homeopathic remedies are purchased in pill form. So, what’s in the pill? Pills are a sugar or starch based solid that, we presume, have come in contact with the magic water. But in order to package the pills, they must be dried out. In other words, the water is evaporated away. So not only do homeopathic pills not contain any active ingredient, they also contain none of the magic water that is supposed to retain the memory of the nonexistent ingredient.

So to produce homeopathic remedies, they first dilute out the ingredient leaving only water, and then they remove the water. Yup. There really IS nothing in it.


Hats off to Rhys Morgan

November 29, 2011

Just go read this post:

Rhys Morgan, high school student and skeptical blogger, deals with threats from a frothy-mouthed rep of Burzynski clinic with aplomb.

Keep up the great work Rhys!

Whatever Happened to Parsimony?

October 2, 2011

These two items cropped up recently:

The people proposing these theories and putting the photos up for sale are either themselves loopy, or they think there are gullible loopy people out there with scads of cash to waste. Or both.

I mean really.

When you see a picture that sort of looks like someone, do you think to yourself “gee, that sort of looks like [person]”?  Or do you think “That looks like [person], so it must be [person], because nobody else could POSSIBLY look kinda like [person]”?

It frightens me that there are people who think that undead vampires and time travel are more probable than some people looking like other people. They need to spend more time on this site, so they can learn that George Carlin is actually Sigmund Freud…

The Nibiru stupid – it burns!

April 17, 2011

I was searching for a nice tutorial for my students on using Stellarium today, when I came across this youtube video:

At first I thought it might be something cute inserted by the Stellarium team – it is open source, after all, so someone may have slipped it in. But then I read the description:

…If you also want observe Nibiru, just download and install the software Stellarium ( ) and then go directly to the directory C:\Program Files\Stellarium\data, and copy/paste the information below at the end of the ssystem.ini file.

name = NIBIRU
parent = Sun
radius = 24000
oblateness = 0.0
albedo = 0.9
lighting = true
halo = true
color = 1.0,0.84,0.68
tex_map = ariel.png
tex_halo = star16x16.png
coord_func = comet_orbit
orbit_Epoch = 630033.0
orbit_MeanAnomaly = 220.0
orbit_SemiMajorAxis = 234.888999
orbit_Eccentricity = 0.991700
orbit_ArgOfPericenter = 270.0
orbit_AscendingNode = 194.5
orbit_Inclination = -145.0
sidereal_period = 1336815.0


So I ask myself, just how fucking stupid are these people? This guy adds data for a nonexistent object into the software, and then claims the output is proof of the existence of that object. And he tells you how to do it.

So just to show how utterly ludicrous this is, I give you the following screenshot from Stellarium. Proof. What more do you need?

Running the numbers on homeopathic dilution

February 13, 2011

Why do we keep saying that homeopathy is not medicine? Why do we keep saying that there is no medicine in it? Surely when you dilute something there is still some of it there. So why do skeptics insist that there is nothing?

Well, I’ll explain.

In a typical homeopathic dilution, a tiny sample of something is dissolved in water, and then 1 mL of solution is transferred to 99 mL of water (making an even 100 mL). It is mixed (well, “succussed”), and then 1 mL is transferred to another 99 mL container, and so on. This may be done 20 or 30 times.

Sure, that’s a lot of dilution, but even if you put a few drops of something in a swimming pool, there are so many atoms in a drop that any sample should contain traces of the substance, and the homeopathic dilution is, after all, only a few litres.

Well, no. Let’s do the math on this, and see what the concentration comes out to be at the end. Let’s choose something like Lithium, as it is light, and it is used as a medication (I have no idea if it is used in homeopathy, but let’s just use it as an example). Lithium has a molar mass of 6.94g, and a density of 0.53 g/mL. Let’s begin with a 1% solution (v/v), and dilute it 20 times:

1 mL of Lithium contains 4.6×10^22 atoms. That’s 4600000000000000000000 atoms. That’s a lot. When dissolved, 1 mL of that solution should contain 1/100 of that, though still 46000000000000000000 atoms. But each time we dilute it, we decrease it by a factor of 100, so with serial dilutions, we have

  1. 460000000000000000 atoms
  2. 4600000000000000 atoms
  3. 46000000000000 atoms
  4. 460000000000 atoms
  5. 4600000000 atoms
  6. 46000000 atoms
  7. 460000 atoms
  8. 4600 atoms
  9. 46 atoms
  10. 0.46 atoms
  11. 0.0046 atoms
  12. 0.000046 atoms
  13. 0.00000046 atoms
  14. 0.0000000046 atoms
  15. 0.000000000046 atoms
  16. 0.00000000000046 atoms
  17. 0.0000000000000046 atoms
  18. 0.000000000000000046 atoms
  19. 0.00000000000000000046 atoms
  20. 0.0000000000000000000046 atoms

What this means is that after only 10 dilutions there is a roughly 50:50 chance of a single atom being present, and after 20, there is a chance of 1 in 217 billion billion that there will even be one atom present. Or, put another way, it would be the same as taking one mL of a substance and dissolving it in a volume of water equivalent to a sphere over two and a half billion kilometres across, or roughly the size of the orbit of Saturn correction: with 20 dilutions the volume would be about the volume of a sphere the size of earth’s orbit. But if you add two more dilutions, that sphere expands to the orbit of Uranus. And if I’m doing my math correctly, 30 dilutions would be equivalent to dilution in a sphere 130 light years across!*

So we know that there is none of the active ingredient in homeopathic medicine, if it is in fact prepared properly. None at all. But then, homeopaths don’t claim the original substance is there – they claim the water is influenced, and retains a “memory” of the substance, and that this memory is what is amplified by the dilution. This, too, is of course utter bullshit.  This idea is born of magical wish-thinking, and is not even remotely related to reality. Water is water, and has the properties of water, not a “memory” of what was once in it.

So that’s why, when we say “there’s nothing in it”, we really mean it.

*check my math:

  • there are 10^15 cm^3 in a cubic km
  • 30 dilutions by 100 is 10^60 mL
  • which is 10^45 km^3
  • which is a sphere with radius 6.2×10^14 km, or 65 light years.

The Disingenuous “Thermodynamics” Argument

January 20, 2011

You know, I still keep seeing the second law of thermodynamics being used as an argument against evolution, despite multiple thorough rebuttals. So let me add a few words of my own in an effort to stem the flow of stupid.

The argument, loosely summarized, goes like this:

  1. The Second Law of Thermodynamics says that entropy must increase in any closed system.
  2. Since life from non-life requires complex molecules to form from simple molecules, life could not arise by chance, because this would violate the 2nd Law.
  3. Since mammals and birds and fish are all more complex than single-cell organisms, they could not have evolved, as a system cannot become more complex over time.

The rebuttals for this are, quite simply:

  1. The Earth is not a closed system. We receive about 1.3 kJ of solar energy per square metre per second, every second, always.  The second law of thermodynamics does not apply.
  2. Life from non-life is abiogenesis, not evolution. But abiogenesis is thought to have been driven by heat and chemosynthesis, so again there is an input of energy.
  3. Lastly, and most ironically, the very people who claim that single celled organisms couldn’t possibly become complex, multicellular organisms, themselves grew from a single cell. So it’s good enough for them, but not any other organism. And secondly, the argument using thermodynamics against evolution proposes, instead, the sudden appearance of all living things. Like that doesn’t violate the laws of thermodynamics. Sheesh.

But wait, there’s more. You see, the argument that evolution is impossible because of the second law was widely promoted by the likes of Drs. Henry Morris and Duane Gish of the Institute for Creation Research. Please note that these gentlemen, at the time they made these claims, had doctorates in Engineering and Biochemistry respectively. Which means they understood the laws of thermodynamics, and would have known that the argument was wrong. Which means they were blatantly lying.

The fact that this argument is still being presented as evidence against evolution is appalling, and shows just how ill-informed the anti-evolution movement really is.  Feel free to send anyone you find using this argument to this page, or for a more torough thrashing, to the Talk Origins Thermodynamics FAQ.

Economic argument against the woo

October 20, 2010

XKCD for the WIN: