Thursday, August 18, 2011

dilutions of grandeur

You'll remember the protracted hoo-ha over the British Chiropractic Association's legal action against science writer Simon Singh, which for once resulted in an outcome pleasing to all right-thinking people everywhere, i.e. a comprehensive victory for Singh. Despite that whole business being a spectacular own goal for "alternative" medicine, this hasn't deterred others from boneheadedly failing to get the message.

The latest case is particularly interesting for a number of reasons; it involves the large multinational corporation Boiron, manufacturers of homeopathic "remedies" on an industrial scale, and a minor Italian blogger called Samuele Riva. Basically Riva made some snarky remarks, as bloggers do (and even I have been known to do from time to time), about a particular homeopathic product, and Boiron seem to have instructed their lawyers to get all lawyery on Riva's ass, as lawyers do, and indeed on the collective ass of his blog hosting people, and demand that they not only remove the offending posts and associated images, but shut Riva's blog down completely, immediately, and with extreme prejudice.

What makes this doubly delicious (aside from the inevitable Streisand effect and associated uncontrollable exposure and ridicule that Boiron will now be subjected to) is that not only is the "active" ingredient in the Oscillococcinum preparation diluted beyond there being the slightest chance of there being anything but water in the resulting liquid, but that the supposed "active" ingredient they started with doesn't even exist in the first place! While we're all having a good laugh about that, spare a thought for the poor duck which has been ritually beheaded (this is apparently important) and then had various portions of its heart, liver and pancreas wrung out into a test tube in order to extract this non-existent magic goop in the first place.

Then again, the whole point of homeopathy is that the smaller the dilution of the original ingredient the greater the effect, so maybe there's something supremely powerful about doing the same with an ingredient that NEVER EVEN EXISTED IN THE FIRST PLACE. Surely if you completed the process by not actually taking the remedy AT ALL you'd get something dangerously powerful that would probably blow your tits off.

Perhaps going after (with all due respect to Samuele Riva, who I'm sure is a fine upstanding individual) relatively inconsequential bloggers is a sign of the times; the big companies not wanting to get involved in a protracted and high-profile court case with someone (any of the TV companies who've made documentaries examining the subject, for instance) who might have the resources to fight back - clearly the last thing they would want is a forensic examination of the truth about the mechanisms and efficacy of homeopathy.

As an aside, the notion of producing homeopathic remedies in industrial quantities is a bit of a strange one to get your head around - is the repeated dilution automated? What about the succussion? I suppose in theory there's no reason why they couldn't be. I'm now picturing a huge warehouse with great ranks of flasks being slapped against pads of leather by robotic arms in perfect synchronisation, then the contents being poured into a much bigger vat of water, only for another robotic arm to dip a second test tube in, and for the whole process to begin again. Or, in the scenario where I ran the company, the same warehouse being entirely empty except for a standpipe in the middle with one bloke just filling bottles from a tap. I mean, why would you bother? The customer isn't going to know any different, after all.

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