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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics


Saturday, September 16, 2017

He's Apoplectic That This Anomaly Is Being Researched

As shown in this post, the ire of neuroscientist Steven Novella was recently ignited. Very strangely the bitter indignation of this scientist has been kindled by the simple fact that a research laboratory has been opened.

The research laboratory is a laboratory in India to study the anomaly known as homeopathy. I have never tried homeopathy, and have never recommended it. But I know that it is an alternative medical technique that can sometimes involve giving people extremely diluted solutions. A believer in this technique may believe that if you take a certain type of concentrated solution, and then dilute it by a factor such as 10,000 times or more, the solution will still have some medical potency (and the medical potency can still be retained even if there is no detectable trace of what was originally in the concentrated solution).  

Based on what we currently know about chemistry, you would expect homeopathy to have no effectiveness whatsoever. But surprisingly, research studies have often seemed to show real medical effectiveness from such extremely diluted solutions. There seem to be three possibilities here:

  1. Homeopathy has no real effectiveness, and studies suggesting otherwise are just false alarms.
  2. Homeopathy does have some real effectiveness, and its effectiveness is because nature has some important aspect that our chemists have overlooked or not yet discovered.
  3. Homeopathy can sometimes be effective not for chemical reasons but simply because some people believe it is effective; and homeopathy is a case of a mind-over-matter effect or a placebo effect in which a person's expectations or beliefs can affect his medical outcomes. (Notably, a meta-analysis in the British medical journal Lancet found that homeopathy produced results substantially better than could be explained by a placebo effect; it stated, "The results of our meta-analysis are not compatible with the hypothesis that the clinical effects of homoeopathy are completely due to placebo.")

Because items 2 and 3 are of very significant scientific and intellectual interest, it seems that homeopathy is worthy of further study and investigation. So I am puzzled by the irate reaction of Steven Novella to an Indian news story that merely mentions that a new research center has been opened in India to study homeopathy, without even making any general claims about homeopathy. Why would a scientist not want an anomaly to be investigated further? Could it be that Novella is worried that the research might find something that challenges his dogmatic proclamations on the topic of homeopathy?

Novella has a link saying “homeopathy does not work for anything.” When I follow that link, it takes me to another post by Novella mentioning mainly the NHMRC report on homeopathy. In a previous post, I thoroughly examined this report, and found it to be a prime example of a faulty and biased meta-analysis. I documented quite a few defects in the meta-analysis, such as arbitrarily excluding studies with fewer than 150 subjects, a cut-off level that is not typically used by other medical meta-analyses. A typical meta-analysis on a topic other than homeopathy will include studies having 75 or 100 subjects.  The NHMRC considered only 225 research studies out of more than 1800, an exclusion rate far higher than we have with other similar meta-analysis studies. There are guidelines called the PRISMA guidelines which give recommendations on how a meta-analysis should be done. The NHMRC report violated such guidelines. So we cannot use the NHMRC as a guide to whether homeopathy is effective, and its meta-analysis does not cross-out the Lancet meta-analysis suggesting that homeopathy has an effectiveness better than a placebo. 

Novella also compares ESP and homeopathy, and the information he gives on ESP is dead wrong. He says this:

After a century of research and thousands of studies there is no clear evidence that ESP is real. For both homeopathy and ESP there is a great deal of noise, but no clear signal. There are many flawed or small studies, but no repeatable high quality studies.

What Novella is telling us about ESP is entirely wrong. Sound experimental research showing the reality of ESP has been done for more than 130 years. Among the research highlights was the work of Professor Joseph Rhine at Duke University. Under controlled experimental conditions, Rhine showed spectacular results such as tests showing 3746 successes out of 10,300 tries (a 36% success rate), in experiments in which the expected success rate was only 20%. We would not expect such a result to occur by chance even if every person on planet Earth was tested for ESP. The subject in question (Pearce) got even better results testing with another researcher (Pratt), getting 558 successes in a card-guessing experiment in which the expected number of successes was about 370. Such a success rate occurring by chance had a likelihood of less than 1 in 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. Pearce's successes were repeated, showing Novella's claim about repeatibility is inaccurate. An even more spectacular result was reported by Professor Riess, who did a remote card-guessing test showing a success rate of 73% on 1850 guesses in an experiment in which the expected success rate was only 20%.

More recent research on ESP has included sensory deprivation experiments called ganzfeld experiments. Done by many researchers using many subjects, such experiments have repeatedly  shown success rates of 30% to 32% and higher on tests in which the expected chance rate is only 25%. This is a very high degree of repeatability. Even more dramatic recent results are summarized at the end of this post. There are also innumerable very dramatic  anecdotal reports of ESP collected by researchers such as Louisa Rhine, and summarized in the book The Gift

So Novella is simply misinforming us about ESP. He's told us that “there is no clear evidence that ESP is real,” which is false. He's also told us that there “are no repeatable high quality studies,” but there are very many such studies, and ESP is very much an effect that shows up dramatically in repeated scientific studies.

Given that Novella has misinformed us about ESP, we may wonder whether he is also misinforming us about the evidence for homeopathy. He tells us that there is in regard to homeopathy a “great deal of noise, but no clear signal,” and if you read between the lines, that “great deal of noise” sounds like something that could be real evidence of an important reality behind homeopathy. How to sort out whether there is real evidence? One way is to do more research. So Novella's ire about a homeopathy research center appearing is strange, and also unscientific.  


 "Don't bother me with more data" isn't scientific

Postscript: Another example of a Novella misstatement is this  post with the title, "AWARE Results Finally Published -- No Evidence of NDE." The AWARE study (which you can read about here and here) actually found very dramatic evidence for near-death-experiences (NDE), including a case of a man reporting floating above his body while his heart had stopped (including independent verification of his recollections of his medical resuscitation efforts while he was unconscious), and a person who reported traveling through a tunnel toward a very strong light, and encountering a beautiful crystal city, along with about 100 other near death experiences.

Postscript: Novella's rage against paradigm-challenging research continues in this post, where he fulminates against the existence of the Susan Samueli Center for Integrative Medicine.  In the post Novella claims that acupuncture "does not work." But a New York Times article asserts otherwise, saying the following:

A new study of acupuncture — the most rigorous and detailed analysis of the treatment to date — found that it can ease migraines and arthritis and other forms of chronic pain. The findings provide strong scientific support for an age-old therapy used by an estimated three million Americans each year.  

In the post, a methodologist at the very prestigious Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York says, "We think there’s firm evidence supporting acupuncture for the treatment of chronic pain."