The dog days of summer

I must admit to you that I’m not in much of a blogging mood when it’s this hot out. My walk to the office and then back to my flat are exhausting in this heat. The mid-Atlantic humidity really does a number on me. When I get home and all my clothes are soaked and clinging to me, the last thing I want to do is blog. (Yeah, that was not a pretty picture.)

I’ve been especially grumpy lately because some pro-vaccine advocates have taken it upon themselves to tell me what to write, how, and when. They think that I’m a writing machine. I’m not the blogger with hypergraphia. I’m the blogger that is slowly working his way to the 200th post, and is thinking very hard about what to write once that milestone is met.

I guess I could tell you all about the lies and misinformation being spewed by the anti-vaccine advocates, but what else do you expect from anti-vaccine advocates? Or I could tell you that Andrew Jeremy Wakefield continues to claim that he didn’t say what he said, or that his study said something completely different to what it really said. But what else do you expect from Andrew Jeremy Wakefield?

I could explain to you why a petulant anti-vaccine loon thinks that having/knowing/friending/peeing next to someone who does business with someone who is related/knows/works or pees with someone in the pharmaceutical industry makes you “morally bankrupt.” But what do you expect from that child? That’s all he knows how to do, a real stain in the educational institution that is GWU.

Maybe I could tell you why homeopathy would violate all rules of physics if it worked like homeopaths and others say it does. Or that “alternative and complimentary medicine” is not really “medicine.” Rather, these things are no better than “wishful thinking.” While there is such a thing as the placebo effect, there is no room in reality to say that these things are cures for anything.

What I’m trying to say is that I can only write and write and write some more about the things that anti-science, ignorant people say or do online and in real life. There are only so many topics that can be covered. There are only so many people I can laugh at (while simultaneously shaking my head). I keep thinking about this as the 200th post is coming up.

Remember, this blog was not supposed to be all about refuting stupidity. It was supposed to be a companion blog to “The Poxes.” It just got out of hand because there really is that much stupid to refute. There really are that many ignorant and evil people in this world. So we’ll see where I go once I hit 200.

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Dealing In Absolutes

Gary Schwitzer has an awesome post on the “Three common errors in medical reporting”. I suggest everyone read it to better understand how some of the stuff that medical reporters (or reporters in general) can get things wrong even when they’re trying to get it right. My favorite error is the absolute vs. relative risk fallacy. As Mr. Schwitzer describes it:

Many stories use relative risk reduction or benefit estimates without providing the absolute data. So, in other words, a drug is said to reduce the risk of hip fracture by 50% (relative risk reduction), without ever explaining that it’s a reduction from 2 fractures in 100 untreated women down to 1 fracture in 100 treated women.  Yes, that’s 50%, but in order to understand the true scope of the potential benefit, people need to know that it’s only a 1% absolute risk reduction (and that all the other 99 who didn’t benefit still had to pay and still ran the risk of side effects).

This is something that people on both sides of a scientific debate are guilty of doing. Some overzealous public health people may say that an intervention is the best thing ever because it “cut in half” the number of new cases of some disease or condition. On the flip side, pseudoscientific zealots may say that some “natural” remedy is “the shit” because it “more than doubled” the life expectancy of a person with cancer… Or something like that.

In both instances, it is absolutely critical that the person making the assertion report on the actual numbers, not just how much – or how little – impact the intervention had. So trust your sources, but always verify. Just because something is “statistically significant” doesn’t mean that it’s “impressive”.

Why October 23?

If you’ve been paying attention, you may have seen that the countdown clock to “The Poxes” is almost there. It will reach zero time on Sunday, October 23, at one minute past midnight that morning. Why did I pick that date?

I picked that date because it is “10.23” a date in which people in different parts of the world point out the scientific inaccuracies of the homeopathic remedies sold as cures to all sorts of things. Why 10 23? Because Avogadro’s number is a constant which establishes that there can only be 6.022 times 10 raised to the 23rd power (6022 followed by 20 zeroes) atoms or molecules of something in a mole of that something. It’s a pretty big number, but you can see how diluting something by 100 two hundred times can wipe out even that many molecules. An example? Keep reading.


From the periodic table of elements we see that glucose (made up of six carbons, twelve hydrogens, and six oxygens) has a molecular weight of about 180 grams per mole. That is, 6.022×10^23 molecules of glucose weigh 180 grams. So let’s take those 180 grams and put them in a liter of water (1000 milliliters). Now, like any good homeopath, let’s take that initial solution and make a “200C” homeopathic remedy.

The “C” in “200C” stands for a dilution of 1 to 100. So “200C” means that the solution is diluted 1 to 100 two-hundred times. So we start with a 180g per liter solution. Dilute that by 100 the first (of 200) time, and we have a 1.8g per liter solution. Dilute it the second (of 200) time and we have 0.018g per liter. The third time? 0.0018g per liter. But let’s just stop and look at what’s happening at the mole of glucose.

The mole of glucose we started with in one liter was 6.022×10^23 molecules. There were that many molecules of glucose, remember? After the first dilution, there were 6.022×10^21 molecules. Second dilution? 6.022×10^19. After the third, there were 6.022×10^17. Can you see where this is going?

As we continue to dilute our homeopathic remedy, we are adding two zeroes immediately to the right of the decimal point in terms of grams per liter. In terms of moles, we are subtracting two powers of ten from the exponent (ten times ten is one-hundred, get it?). In both cases, if we go through to the 200th dilution of 1 to 100 parts, we’re going to A) have a whole bunch of zeroes to the right of the decimal point (400 zeroes, in fact), and B) run out of exponents of the moles.

It’s B that really brings the message home. Why? Because 0.0…198 zeroes here…018 grams per liter equals less than one molecule per liter left. What’s less than one molecule? No molecules. (You can’t split a glucose molecule and still call it “glucose”.) That’s right. If you dilute a mole of glucose (180 grams) – or anything else in the known universe – to a “200C” solution for homeopathic treatment, you end up with no chance of even one single molecule left in the final dilution.

No chance… Well, okay, there’s a chance, but it’s small. I’m talking really, really small. How small? Let’s say that we have the ability to fill the universe with lottery balls. You can pick one ball. What is the chance that the winning ball will be yours if we have the entire universe to pick from? Yeah, it’s that small.

And what does one goddamn molecule of anything do, anyway?

So how does homeopathy “work”? It doesn’t. But the charlatans that push it will still tell you fantastic stories of how water “remembers” what’s been in it. So, even with no molecules left, the water in the 200C remedy will remember that it once had whatever you dissolved into it. Yes, you guessed it, there is no evidence of this claim. (In fact, if it were true, then water would remember all sorts of nasty things it’s been in contact with… Like feces.)

What if you add more than one mole to the initial solution? Is there an amount of moles you can add to still have at least one molecule left at the end? Yes, there is. But that number is so large (6.022×10^23 multiplied by 180 grams, in our example), that you’re diluting the water in the solution, not the “active ingredient”.

In “The Poxes”, you will meet two very skeptical characters. One is skeptical by nature, because he is always questioning the universe around him, a true scientist. The other is skeptical out of spite. A homeopath did something very, very bad to him earlier in his life. So the second character has an axe to pick with questionable medical practices. You’ll get to meet them on 10-23. I hope you join me.