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A handful of people alive today were born before Felix Hoffmann invented aspirin, so almost the entire history of modern medicine has happened in their lifetimes. My parents were born before the discovery of penicillin and before anything was known about the biology or reproduction of viruses. I can remember the first successful heart transplant, and in my children's lifetime we have beaten smallpox and now have polio staggering on the ropes. We now know the location of every gene in the human genome (although we mightn't know what they all do) and we routinely talk about the genetic origin of diseases, but it is only fifty years since Watson and Crick showed us how DNA replicates itself.
While these advances in medical knowledge and science have been happening, there has been a parallel stream of medical non-science, nonsense and crackpottery. Every science has its fringe dwellers, outsiders and enthusiastic amateurs who challenge the orthodoxy, but medicine seems to attract more and the "science" can be even more bizarre and bewildering. There is no single word to describe someone who thinks, for example, that the laws of thermodynamics are flexible enough to allow a perpetual motion machine to be built, but everyone knows what a "quack" is.
One difference between science and pseudoscience is that science discards ideas when they become outdated or are shown to be false. Pseudoscience never throws away anything, and the usual reason given for outlandish ideas not being immediately accepted and used to change the world is that they are suppressed by the establishment. Nowhere is this belief stronger than in pseudomedicine. When Hahnemann invented homeopathy it made a sort of sense and probably did less damage than the actions of doctors at the time. The fundamental principle became meaningless a few years later when Avagadro showed the limit of dilution, but the nonsense of almost infinite dilution is still here two hundred years later. Another example of "nonsense preservation" is belief in the chemotherapeutic properties of laetrile, a cyanide compound in apricot seeds. It is still on sale today, although now it is called "Vitamin B17" to avoid the stigma now rightly associated with the name.
I have in front of me several devices which, according to the people who sell them, can cure a wide range of diseases, including cancer and AIDS. These machines are available through a variety of mail-order and internet outlets and are advertised in newage/conspiracy magazines like Nexus and New Dawn. Practitioners who use these machines advertise in mainstream papers and magazines, offering to cure all sorts of ills. The philosophy underlying these machines is that every pathogen has a unique vibrational frequency, and they can be destroyed by getting them to resonate at this frequency. They then shatter like Caruso's famous wine glass. Some of the machines use sound, but most use electricity. A few use pulsating magnetic fields. Needless to say, their real power is the ability to extract money from wallets.
Much of the frequency medicine practised today descends from Royal Rife, who did his research in the early 1930s. Rife identified the virus that caused all cancers (!), which he named "BX". As this was before the invention of the electron microscope, Rife invented an optical microscope with a claimed magnification of 17,000x. A perusal of the web sites of Olympus, Nikon and Zeiss shows that the best theoretical magnification claimed today is about 1,400x, although practically it is about 1,250x. (Zeiss use an appropriate slogan to promote their microscopes: "Limited only by the laws of physics".) The secrets of Rife's microscope are lost, presumably suppressed by orthodox optical companies, but his method of curing cancer lives on.
Rife's 1931 demonstration of the microscope involved creating a non-filterable form of the typhoid bacillus, which appeared as small moving turquoise dots in a static background. Scientists looked through Rife's microscope and also saw these blue dots. Some astronomers once looked through Lowell's telescope and saw canals on Mars; some scientists once saw evidence of the refraction of N-rays in Blondlot's laboratory; some scientists were once convinced that deuterium could fuse at room temperature within the crystal matrix of palladium. All of them were mistaken. The difference between the last three delusions and Rife is that almost nobody believes them any more. The other difference is that a belief in Mars canals or cold fusion cannot kill anyone. A belief in a false cure for cancer can.
This article appeared in Australian Doctor in April 2003
A version of this article was published on the Yahoo! 7 News Blog on December 8, 2009
EDITOR Mr Peter Bowditch's references ('The unhealthy claims of pseudo-medicine', Therapy Update, 4 April) to homeopathy require correction.
First, the fundamental principle of homeopathy is not about dilution. It is to induce healing by administration of a medicine made from a substance which can cause a similar state of disease as that found in the patient.
Second, Avagadro may have shown the limitation of dilution when imagining the smallest particle as being one molecule of a substance. (We must not, however, ignore the presence of atomic and subatomic particles, and their blurring into energetic presence.)
Homeopathic remedies are made by a process of potentisation, which involves serial dilution and succussion. Even though dilution may not be the crucial factor, Mr Bowditch cannot focus his mind on anything other than what he already understands (hence he is a sceptic) and thus suggests homeopathy's potentisation principle is meaningless.
Apparently where he looks, he cannot find meaning. Homeopaths base their practice principally on experience, which is that medicines manufactured and used in the prescribed manner have therapeutic effects. Some effects have also been demonstrated in clinical trials. The challenge remains to find a satisfactory explanation for these observations, and that is likely to come from outside Mr Bowditch's zone of familiarity.
Dr Nick Goodman
President, Australian Medical Faculty of Homoepathy
EDITOR Homeopath Nick Goodman presents a one-sided view in his letter 'Meaning missed' (23 May).
First, the fundamental principle of homeopathy is not about dilution, but about potentisation. Without shaking or grinding -- as the homeopathic doctrine states -- the medicament remains inactive and inefficient. One has to bring alive the "spirit of medicine" by succussion.
Second, Goodman maintains a completely unsubstantiated, unproved and, I am told by physicists, ridiculous idea that by potentisation the atomic structure could be broken. "We must not, however, ignore the presence of atomic and subatomic particles, and their blurring into energetic presence," he says in his letter.
What the homeopaths are presenting to the public is the idea that shaking or grinding by hand can replace a nuclear reactor by releasing some kind of healing energy locked in the atom.
To add to this incredible idea, homeopaths maintain that such a "spirit of medicine" could be released even from water when the dilution is over the Avogadro's number -- that is, does not contain one molecule of any ingredient.
Two hundred years of scientific research had not come up with any explanation of Hahnemann's ideas, based on the founder's allergy to quinine, his misinterpretation of Rumford's mechanical heat theory and his belief in the twin brother of "spirit of medicine," phlogiston.
Ridiculing Peter Bowditch, as Nick Goodman does ("Mr Bowditch cannot focus his mind on anything other than what he already understands") will not dispel the homeopaths' inability to present to the scientific community any credible experiments.
What homeopaths demonstrate is a placebo effect, self-delusion and faith in the supernatural. These are all signs of a cult -- what homeopathy in its essence is.
Dr William Thomas, Elsternwick, Vic
Taken to task
EDITOR Dr Viera Scheibner takes Peter Bowditch of Australian Skeptics to task for exposing to ridicule her pet subject of homeopathy, which he, "a computer man, not a medical researcher … has obviously not studied" ('Study first, judge later', Gut Feelings, 2 May).
This non-medical PhD would have Peter "learn that homeopathic remedies are an electromagnetic imprint of the structure of the substance on the soluent, a truly scientific principle". Obviously unaware that the prestigious Royal Society of London has conclusively demonstrated this illogical notion to be pure balderdash, she reveals her own "gaping ignorance" and exhorts us to follow the example of Dr Constantine Herring, who studied homeopathy to debunk it but instead became a famous homeopath.
Well, I have studied it and practised it for many years before abandoning and debunking it as nothing more than placebo. I thank Craig Hassed ('Sceptical about sceptics', Gut Feelings, 2 May) for pointing out the very guarded support from a large meta-analysis in the Lancet, but I ask him how "high potency" remedies containing not a single molecule of active agent can possibly work other than as a placebo.
I began to question homeopathy after seeing dramatic results with lactose pills "electromagnetically potentised" in a black box which, on inspection, contained nothing more than a few wires going nowhere! The greatest factor in the placebo response is undoubtedly the faith that the practitioner has in the remedy -- and every effective homeopath is a true believer. As soon as I became a sceptic, homeopathy ceased to work for me and my patients.
Dr Scheibner goes on to contrast homeopathy with "orthodox medicine [which] kills 18,000 Australians every year … injecting highly poisonous substances … useless and dangerous … vaccines [that] derange the immune system by reversing the T4/T8 ratio, a common denominator in … chronic fatigue syndrome, immunoreactive and auto-immune diseases". What a lot of twaddle from a self-acclaimed researcher. What ignorance! What prejudice!
Worse than comparing toy cars (which are safe but useless) with real ones (which can be dangerous), she not only fails to consider the enormous number of lives saved by orthodox medicine and vaccines, but also ignores the very real danger of false security from useless homeopathic "vaccines".
Dr D Weston Allen
Manly West, Qld
A very well regarded book in the alternative medicine universe is "The Cancer Cure That Worked: Fifty Years Of Suppression" by Barry Lynes. You can read a review of this ridiculous hagiography here.
Do I have to say it 17,000 times? (21/8/2010)
Royal Raymond Rife made a microscope that could magnify 17,000 times. Or maybe 60,000 times. It depends on which of Rife's true believers you are listening to at the time. The fact that the wavelength of visible light does not allow magnification beyond about 1,250 times is dismissed by true believers as an excuse given by orthodox physicists and lens makers for their failure to reproduce Rife's work. The next thing you get told is that all of Rife's notes were destroyed (sometimes even by Morris Fishbein, evil editor of JAMA) and his microscopes trashed to protect the conventional microscope industry. When you point out that Rife's notes are available on the web you get told that everything is suppressed and that is why you can't buy books setting out Rife's designs. When you give them the titles of the books and the prices at Amazon they revert to telling you about how nobody knows how Rife managed to get magnification with visible light beyond that achievable by electron microscopy because all his notes and his microscope were destroyed by the Fishbeinites. If you get lucky, as I did this week, you can be told in the same message that there was only one microscope and it was destroyed but there were five microscopes and two of them still exist, hidden away so Zeiss and Olympus can't copy them.
Sadly, I didn't have the £14,400 needed to buy one of the trashed and destroyed microscopes when it came up for auction at Bonhams of London in November 2009. I've always wanted to own something of which only one existed and was destroyed except that five were made and two still exist. But does it magnify 60,000 times? I'm afraid that information is suppressed, like the existence of the microscope itself and its design.
Do you get the feeling that I find conspiracy theorists tiresome?