Tag Archives: Science communication

In Support of Homeopathy Awareness Week

Hurrah, it’s Homeopathy Awareness Week (henceforth known as HAW, which in my neck of the woods is a friendly/aggressive* way of saying “excuse me, may I have your attention for a second?). I thought this was the perfect opportunity to break my blogging silence and raise some awareness of homeopathy.



The first thing to be aware of during HAW is the history of homeopathy. Its founder was a man named Samuel Hahnemann, whose name even suggests he is having a laugh. Hahnemann was a German physician who received his medical degree in 1779, but for fifteen years he struggled to make a living from medicine and was uncomfortable with the standard procedures of the time. Then one day he made a discovery which changed his life and made him a millionaire. While playing around with quinine (an anti-malarial drug), he noted that it actually produced mild symptoms of the disease it was designed to cure (i.e. in a healthy patient quinine causes fever, but not to the extent that malaria does). From this, Hahnemann deduced that illnesses could be cured by giving a patient medicine which, if given to a healthy person, would produce similar symptoms of that same illness but to a lesser degree. Basically, if you were feeling sick, Hahnemann would prescribe you medicine that would make you feel sick. OBVIOUSLY. Thus arises the saying “like cures like” (the term homoeopathy comes from the Greek words homois meaning similar and pathos meaning disease).

From Wikipedia

From Wikipedia

We shouldn’t be too hard on Hahnemann. After all, this was the late 18th century, conventional medicine wasn’t exactly the safe and evidence-based option it is today, and all Hahnemann wanted to do was develop therapies that were patient-focussed and less invasive than the routine medical practices of the day, like bloodletting. Additionally, Hahnemann mistakenly believed that the success of vaccines showed support for his “like cures like” theory (the use of the cowpox vaccination to prevent smallpox is an example). However the main feature of homeopathy that caused controversy in the medical community at the time was the dilution principle. Hahnemann believed that the active ingredient in the homeopathic medicine should be diluted as much as possible, so that it only produces the slightest symptoms. This somewhat complicated dilution process is explained below by LiveScience:

A typical homeopathic dilution is 30X, where the X represents 10. So, one part toxin (such as the aforementioned poison ivy) is mixed with 10 parts water or alcohol. The mix is shaken; one part of this mix is added to 10 parts of water or alcohol again; and the whole process is repeated 30 times.

The final dilution is one molecule of medicine in 10 to the 30th power (1030) of molecules of solution — or 1 in a million trillion trillion. At this dilution level you’d need to drink 8,000 gallons of water to get one molecule of the medicine — physically possible but implausible.

The fact that homeopathy cannot possibly work was unbeknown to Hahnemann, who developed the treatments before we understood the number of molecules present in any given amount of a substance.


Homeopathy Today

However, today we do know about dilution and molecules and we do understand that at the levels of dilution homeopathic medicine work with, it is physically impossible for the treatment to have a causal effect on an illness. So why are there still homeopathic practitioners today? Well, here we become aware of the phenomenon which explains it all. Homeopaths explain that homeopathy does work, because water memory. Yes, you heard, water memory. This is the idea that water has the ability to remember of shape of the medicine it once contained. Bear with me while I explain why this argument is far from water-tight (lolz).

  1. Water memory is not a thing as far as physics is concerned.
  2. According to this theory, ALL THE WATER has a memory. Therefore the water from your taps and your toilet has the potential to be a magical homeopathic potion too.


BUT the evidence says it works?!

During HAW, you should be aware of the fact that you can make statistics say anything. You really can. And supporters of homeopathy will insist that the evidence for the treatment’s effectiveness is supported by evidence. This is not true. In all scientific research, you will find an inverse correlation between the quality of the study and the spread of results. The studies that are cited as being strongly in favour of homeopathy are often low-quality studies (owing from many things to their methodology, the number of participants, lack of a control group, and experimenter/publisher/funding body bias). Additionally, homeopath supporters rely on case studies (THIS ONE PERSON SAID HOMEOPATHY WORKED FOR HER!!!) and the research is often carried out by biased homeopathic practitioners (OMG LOOK THIS STUDY I CARRIED OUT SAYS MY WORK IS REALLY GOOD!!)

The take-home message is this: When studied properly and scientifically, homeopathy does not work.

Taking homeopathic treatments may make people feel better, but that is not because of the homeopathic treatment, it is likely due to a fascinating phenomenon called the placebo effect. The placebo effect is related to the perceptions and expectations of the patient. If you’re unwell and are given a sugar pill which you believe to be medicine, you will report feeling better. Moreover, if you are given a saline injection which you believe to be medicine, you will feel even better, and more quickly. If you believe that homeopathy will help you, then it will. But this is a good thing. So what’s the harm?


So What’s the Harm?

It’s easy to see homeopathy as a harmless alternative medicine, but it is not. It’s unlikely that the treatments themselves will cause harm, since as we have discussed already, they are basically water. But there are indirect consequences, such as the case of the woman who died an unnecessary painful death from bowel cancer after following the advice of her homeopath husband. Alarmingly, there are organisations who are trying to convince people not to vaccinate their children but to put our entire population in danger of epidemics by promoting homeopathic alternatives. Heck, you can even get homeopathic first aid kits (for the bargain price of $79.99)

homeopathy first aid kit

As one article has noted, homeopathy don’t kill people – homeopaths do. People who make their money through homeopathy are convincing patients to ignore conventional, evidence-based, life-saving medicine in favour of water and sugar pills. And that is harmful.


HAW: Key Points

1. Be aware that homeopathy does not and cannot work.

2. Be aware that homeopathy is not harmless.

3. Be aware that promoting homeopathy as an alternative treatment to evidence-based medicine is dangerous.


I hope I have helped to raise awareness of homeopathy this week.


*In Glasgow, this is really not as oxymoronic as it seems.






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An open letter to all the kids I work with

I am an outreach science communicator. My full-time job is to pack a van full of science shows and exhibits and set off to schools all over Scotland, from the borders to the highlands and islands. I love my job, and one of my favourite aspects of it is interacting with the kids during the exhibit sessions or after a show, who can be anywhere between 5 and 16 years old. We ask teachers to fill out feedback forms in order to justify and secure our funding and to assure we are hitting all the right spots as far as the curriculum is concerned, but for me direct face-to-face interaction with the pupils themselves is the best measure of our impact, and I don’t care if it’s difficult to measure quantitatively or that it does not cut it with the funders. The children and young people I work with are the reason I do the job I do, and this is an open letter to them.

Dear Primary School pupils,

You guys are brilliant. I will never stop envying your energy, enthusiasm and endless curiosity about the world, and I think all adults could learn a lot from you.  You lot are all little scientists already and I hope you continue to enjoy the subject all the way through your lives, even if you don’t want to be a scientist, because it is all of you who will be the doctors, vets, astronauts, and teachers of the future! Thank you for all your questions which always challenge me, make me think and often make me smile (“Why is poo brown?” is a favourite). Never stop asking “why?” and “what if…?”, no matter how crazy it drives your teachers and parents.

Dear High School pupils,

I love talking one-to-one to you guys, not only because I can talk to you like adults and we usually have really good conversations, but also because you are not afraid to tell me the truth and ask really thought-provoking questions that often I do not know the answer to (admittedly I hate that almost all of you tower waaay over me). I’d like to take this opportunity to remind you that you are not stupid. I hear this all the time from you guys, and it is a downright lie. (See also: “I caaaan’t!”, my other pet hate. You can.) You know who you are, the ones who say you enjoy the show or workshop but when I ask you how you feel about science at school, your reply is often “oh I’m not good at it, I’m not that clever!” Anyway, you don’t necessarily need to be uber-intelligent to be good at science (this seems to be a common misconception). The most important thing is to never stop questioning everything around you – remember when you were little and you would ask “why?” constantly? Try to get back into that habit. But now that you’re older, try working the answer out for yourself, either on your own or by carrying out research! You guys literally have a world of knowledge at your fingertips, the internet. You can find out absolutely anything you want to – be your own teacher. I learn from all of you as much as you (hopefully!) learn from me, so thank you for being so receptive and interested in the world around you.


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On animal research

As I was wandering aimlessly around Newcastle town centre today, I heard a couple of older women talking. The only snippet of conversation I made out was something along the lines of “it’s terrible all this research they do on animals these days”. This really made me think, because as a (I hope) scientifically literate individual, my initial reaction was “pfffft clearly they don’t know a thing about animal research”. Then I paused for a second and remembered that as a teenager (not that many years ago), I was against animal research. (It is worth noting here that as a teenager I also wanted to become a member of Greenpeace and attended all the anti-war protests I could; all at a time of my life where I genuinely thought it was “cool” to go to Edinburgh for the day dressed in my pyjamas armed with vodka in a Tango bottle and 10 Lambert & Butler). Anyway, I digress. The point I’m making here is that all too often we assume that “most people” are like us, and have similar views and attitudes to us. But they don’t. And with a topic as controversial as animal research, I can completely understand why people have such strong and opposing views. So for what it’s worth, and as someone who has gone from one extreme view to another, here is my primer on animal research.

Why are people anti-animal research?

I believe the main reason that so many people are violently against animal research is due to a highly emotive subject paired with a lack of knowledge and education: This certainly was the case with my 15-year-old hippie-wannabe self. It seemed obvious to me that you could not simultaneously be an “animal lover” and pro-animal research. But I now realise that is utter nonsense. But that’s not what animal rights extremist groups would have you believe. They like to bombard the public with pictures like this:


Yes, this is a horrible image. But it is also a very old image and if you look hard enough I’m sure you’ll find other horrifying images of human behaviour from this era, like torturing fellow humans because of their religion or sexual orientation. My point is that you cannot judge current issues on what you think you know about the past. We learn from our mistakes, science advances, we move on. Don’t let stock shock and very often manipulated images like this make your mind up for you.

The truth about animal research

Have you ever been prescribed antibiotics? Are you up to date with your vaccinations? Do you know anyone who receives medicine for athsma, diabetes or high blood pressure? Guess what – we received these treatments thanks to years of research on animals. The fact is that without animal research, we would not have the life-saving medicines we have today. Therefore when people say “there is no clear benefit to humans from using animals in research”, you can tell them that they are wrong.

Despite what horror stories you may have heard or shocking stock animal rights images you may have seen, animal research is and must be carefully regulated. Three separate licences are required in order for any animal research to be carried out: a personal licence for the researcher, a project licence for the study, and a licence for the place where the research is done. In reality, due to extremely high standards and regulations, most lab animals are likely to enjoy a higher standard of welfare and care than your average household pet. According to a publication by the organisation Understanding Animal Research:

“Government vets and doctors make regular, and often unannounced, visits to make sure that the animals are being properly looked after. On their recommendation, licences can be removed and facilities closed down if rules are broken. Almost without exception, animals are specially bred for research and testing. Many studies cause little suffering. Typically, trained researchers give doses of a potential medicine, take small blood samples or scan the animal to check painlessly inside its body. Technologists and vets are on hand to look for the smallest signs of pain or distress.”


The three Rs

The three Rs refers to three techniques that are required by law to be used instead of animal research, unless it is completely necessary. These are replacement, refinement and reduction.

Replacement  techniques are those which result in the replacement of animals in research with other models, such as computer models. I often hear people saying “why do we still need animal research when we have computer models? In truth, although advances in science and technology mean that animals are now used in fewer situations, some animal research is still essential for medical progress.

Refinement refers to the welfare of any animals being used in research. This is important not only from the perspective of our moral duty to minimise any pain or suffering to an individual animal, but also for the research itself: Animals who are not distressed and live longer lives lead to much more reliable and worthwhile data.

Reduction means using as few individual animals as possible in a given study. This can be achieved by good experimental design and statistical analysis.

So remember that by law, scientists are only allowed to carry out research on animals if all of the above guidelines have been met. Permission will not be granted if animals are not essential to the research, if their welfare is not of a good standard, and there are checks on how many animals can be used.

Final thoughts

One of the key arguments used by animal rights extremists is that the scientific community is being secretive, because they have something to hide, like animal research is their dirty little secret. This is not true; plenty of scientists who use animal models talk about their work, they publish journals and speak at conferences. The reason they may not do so much public engagement with those outside their field is because of the ever-lurking menace of animal rights extremists. This is a bigger problem in the USA than it is here in the UK, but it is still a very real threat. If your family is being threatened because of the work you do in the lab, would you want to talk openly and publicly about it? Thankfully, public support for animal research is increasing, and this is a Good Thing for everyone. If scientists were able to do their work without fear of backlash from animal rights groups, we would ultimately see  an improvement both in the welfare of the research animals (for example, some UK universities have animals which would benefit from outdoor enclosures but their visibility as lab animals would make them a vulnerable target) and in the scientific progress being made.


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