Ben Goldacre excoriates the practice of homeopathy ( A kind of magic?, November 16). For the record, I have never studied or held a position for, or against, the clinical effectiveness of homeopathy. However, I am a materials chemist who has written one of the most cited papers in materials science, on aqueous solutions.Having recently studied the extraordinary biological properties of ultradilute aquasols (water with one part per million of solid particles) and written a long review on the structure of water, I accidentally also discovered a new social disease, “homeophobia” – that is, a phobic reaction (mainly by scientists) to the word “homeopathy”, the virulence of which is exemplified by Goldacre.
A major bugaboo for “homeophobes” is the concept that a solution where the solute is extremely diluted (beyond Avogadro’s number) absolutely cannot, they believe, be any different from the original solvent. Hence homeopathy must be a fraud. This has been the anti-homeopathy crowd’s trump card for more than 100 years.
But let us turn to scientists who specialise in water’s properties. Prof Martin Chaplin of London’s South Bank University, a leading expert on the (molecular) structure of water, says: “Too often the final argument used against the memory of water concept is simply ‘I don’t believe it’ … Such unscientific rhetoric is heard from the otherwise sensible scientists, with a narrow view of the subject and without any examination or appreciation of the full body of evidence, and reflects badly on them.”
As it happens, there is agreement among all those who have studied liquid water that it is, in fact, the critics, who are totally wrong. Proof? Diamond is the planet’s hardest material; graphite one of the softest. They are absolutely identical in composition, and they can be interconverted in a millisecond with zero change of composition.
Prof Eugene Stanley of Boston University, the leading expert on the physics of water, has catalogued 64 highly anomalous property changes in pure water. According to the first law of materials science, that means that there must be the same large number of different structures in liquid water – what he called “polymorphism” of water. This year Prof Chaplin, in the journal Homeopathy, discussed in detail how water could retain a “memory”.
But the main thrust of Goldacre’s argument is the role of the “placebo effect”. Yes, this works. And, yes, it is without doubt present in every homeopathic intervention; but it is far more powerfully present in orthodox medical pills because they are advertised so widely in billion-dollar campaigns.
Goldacre is accurate in pointing out the high rates of positive v negative outcomes in many of the homeopathy studies. But there are enormous discrepancies in any set of randomised controlled trials on the same orthodox pills.
Does Goldacre seriously suggest that a homeopathy paper with a positive outcome would be treated fairly in any mainstream journal?
· Rustum Roy is Evan Pugh professor of the solid state, and research professor of materials at Arizona State University [email protected]