Checking homeopathy – fat chance

In which I get distracted. And even more geeky. (You’ll see why – keep reading.)

I am SO, SO BORED with homeopathy.


I would rather write about anything, practically. Like chess. Or films (movies to our US based readers).  Or… anything.

Even actual science.

Well, maybe not that. That is, after all, the day job

But anyway, I am heartily bored with homeopathy. A feeling, I have noticed, that is shared by other scientists who write about it.

Nonetheless, in a rather frantic week last week – our teaching semester is only three weeks old, and the bits I am responsible for are about one major foul-up away from unravelling – I managed to find a spare hour to pen a short email to the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency or MHRA’s consultation on the labelling of homeopathic remedies.

Why did I bother?

I suppose it was because, like in many things I do, I’d already invested quite a bit of time in writing about homeopathy and I felt.. well…. sort of… obligated, somehow.

Anyway, here’s what I wrote:



I am a scientist and lecturer in bioscience, involved in physiological research and in teaching undergraduate students in medicine, other healthcare professions and in biological sciences. I also run a magazine,  Physiology News, for the Physiological Society, which is one of the UK’s learned scientific societies. In 2006 I was involved in helping draft the Physiological Society’s response to the MHRA’s proposed changes to the regulations on labelling of homeopathic products. I am, however, writing here in a personal capacity.

Austin Elliott


Response to consultation

The key point I wish to make is that there is no reasonable excuse for the MHRA label NOT informing the public, in clear language on the label, that homeopathic products contain no trace of the “ingredient” with which they are badged. Not to give the customer/buyer/patient this information is wholly misleading, and deprives the person of the information they require to make a fully informed decision about what they wish to take for their perceived healthcare needs. This flies in the face of all the principles of modern views on patient autonomy and decision-making, for which accurate and complete information is mandatory.

To defend this misleading labelling on the basis of safety, or “consumer choice”, seems to me to miss the point entirely. It is not sufficient simply to label “remedies” with phrases like “the 30C homeopathic dilution of”… Anyone NOT familiar with the homeopathic dilution system will inevitably conclude, I contend, that this means “dilute”, but will NOT infer that it means “no detectable ingredient present”, as is actually the case.

It is thus unequivocally wrong for the MHRA label to state, on a homoeopathic preparation (for example):

“Active Ingredient: Each pill contains 30C Arnica Montana”

– since there is NO active ingredient, and the pill contains NO Arnica montana. The MHRA label should instead state:

“Active Ingredient: None – contains no Arnica montana

Prepared in accordance with homoeopathic practice”

Conflict of interest statement: I have no financial interest in the manufacture or sale of homeopathic or any other natural remedy or altermative medicine.


[NB to blog readers: some parts of the email owe a debt to the excellent response to the MHRA consultation written by Prof John McLachlan, which I commend to your attention.]

Many people reading here will probably be aware of this particular discussion on how to label homeopathic potions, so I won’t re-hash it again. If you aren’t , you can get some of the background at David Colquhoun’s blog. Or you can read an editorial I wrote for Physiology News about this back in 2006.


And now for something completely different

Finally, to prove that I really WOULD rather write about chess than about homeopathy, and especially for the two Steves (Dr Caplan of this neighbourhood, and Prof Moss of UCL) here is a chess problem, taken from my long-ago Shameful Past as a teenage chess nerd.

The following position arose after White’s 29th move in a game A Elliott – AJ King, Southern Counties U-16 Tournament 1977 (Yes, really – and yes, it certainly is depressing to be this old. Need you ask?).

Position after 29. Nd4

White has just played 29. Nd4. The previous move-but-one black had played 27. …Be5, threatening the pawn advance …f4. The white Knight (which was already on d4) had gone to c6 (28. Nc6) to chase the Bishop away. Then 28…Bg7 and 29. Nd4.

There is thus a fairly obvious draw by repetition on offer – black could play 29. …Be5 again, then 30. Nc6 (30. Ne6 instead looks bad for white after 30. …Rg8) 30. …Bg7, 31. Nd4 Be5 etc.

However, black seemingly still had winning ambitions (he was the higher rated player) and instead played:

29. ….f4?!

30. Ne6 Be5 (diag)

Position after 30. ...Be5

The idea of …f4 and …Be5 is 31. Nf8: fg: + with attacking threats. Looking hard I think the attack should peter out, provided White does not blunder into a checkmate, but with both players short of time I didn’t really fancy it.

Luckily White has a neat way to defuse the threats and end up with a quietly won game. Can you see how?

Answer at the bottom.


…what to write about next? There is that more extended chess post I didn’t quite finish. The Steves might read that, even if no-one else does. Or perhaps if the family all come down with some tremendously nasty bug I can write about that, like the indefatigable MrDr H.G. of Cromer. Though, not having H.G’s devotion to the writerly craft, I suspect I would be too busy being ill. Or frantically washing my hands in obsessive-compulsive fashion. The state of the Universities in the UK is pretty much too depressing to write about. Ditto science funding. Ditto politics, from my perspective. So… History, perhaps?

Or just more procrastination?


Or – any suggestions?


Answer: the game continued:

31 Qe5: + ! de: (if 31…Rf6 32. Nf4: if 31. …Qf6 32 Qf6: + & 33. Nf4; if 31. …Rg7 or 31. …Kg8 32. Nf8: and if 32. …de: 33. Ng6:) 32. Nf8: Qg4 33. Nd7:  …and with two Rooks and Knight for the Queen, White won easily.

About Austin

Middle-aged grouchy white male. Hair greying but hasn't all fallen out yet. Spreading waistline ill-concealed by baggy jumper.Semi-extinguished physiology researcher turned teacher. Known for never shutting up. Father of two children (aged 6 and 2) who try to out-talk him. Some would call that Karmic Revenge.
This entry was posted in Annoyances, Chess, Nerdishness, Pseudoscience. Bookmark the permalink.

26 Responses to Checking homeopathy – fat chance

  1. KristiV says:

    Homeopathy came up in a phone conversation I was having with an old grad school housemate last night. I brought it up as one of two things, about which left-wing liberals in the US (and I include myself in that group) might have quite irrational (I used a ruder version of this word) opinions. The other thing, brought up by my friend, is nuclear energy. There are almost certainly more than two things about which liberals tend to be unscientific and downright stupid, but those were the two topiques rants du jour.

  2. cromercrox says:

    Scrabble. And it’s Dr H. G. of Cromer.

  3. Austin says:


    I was thinking genetically-modified organisms might be another one to add to your list, but I guess GM crops have gone so far in the US that maybe that one is a done deal.

    AltMed is interesting partly because (at least in the UK) it is kind of a “transcends politics” issue. Certainly true that the Green Party and yer stereotypical eco-hippies tend to be very anti mainstream med and very pro-alternative nonsense. But the people who form Prince Charles’ influential AltMed Posse tend to be posh/well-off/conservative, and the Foundations that push CAM (like the Bravewell Collaboration in the US) are the brainchilds of the rich and very clearly coming at it from the right-wing / free market perspective, at least IMHO.

    One theory for the enthusiasm of free marketeers and the well-off for CAM is that it seems to promise that you can live forever (or at least longer) by pampering yourself with scented oils / detox / vitamin concoctions / thinking the right way – it is a sort of perceived reward for being virtuous, in the rich person’s special sense of “spending a lot of money looking after myself”. May also explain its appeal to so many Celebs (along with general dim-ness of the latter group).

  4. Grant says:

    Know the feeling. What can we say? Saw a careers article offering homeopath as a career in the weekend edition of the local paper, took offence and wrote a blog post. Typical, right? I should follow this up and write to the editor, offering an opinion piece but the homeopathy nonsense is weary as you say. Incidentally, I raised the same issue about stating what is in the remedies in my post (and in earlier ones). I agree they ought to state what’s in the remedy (in standard units, like everyone else).

  5. Austin says:



    Have the same problem myself with the kids. Often have to point out to them that I am not “Mr Smelly Daddy”, but most definitely Dr Smelly Daddy.

    “I didn’t spend all those years in Smelly Bloke Graduate School to be Mr Smelly Daddy”

    Sadly, they are not impressed, and The Daughter has taken to pointing out that I am not a “real” (i.e. medical) doctor. I fear for the future.

    PS Hope the vomiting has died down at the Maison des Giraffes.

    • cromercrox says:


      The vomiting has abated though we all feel rather drained and nauseius. I commuted into London this morning, which was probably a mistake. Should have stayed home.

      My middle initial is ‘E’ and I have been trying to convince the Croxi for ages that this stands for ‘Extraordinary’. No luck.

      • Austin says:

        With that middle initial you’re lucky no-one’s tried to call you “HeeGee”, Henry.

        My middle name is Charles, like our, er, esteemed *cough* Heir to the Throne. I used to label all my stuff in the lab as “ACE”, following standard lab convention, until I got tired of people asking me if my middle initial was really C or whether I had made it up…

  6. steve caplan says:


    I worked once with a fellow graduate student and teaching assistant who had a part time job in a “homeopathic lab”. He was an astute and skeptical fellow, very cynical, and I asked him how he could stand it. He told me: “it pays great, and I don’t have to concentrate or measure anything. I just throw the stuff together, crush up some weeds and seeds, and if I dropped earwax or lice into the mix, they’d only come back and say how great it works”.

    I too am sick of this. I really respect your desire to fight it. It is the kind of attitude that I think is honorable and correct. But sometimes I wonder why we don’t just leave them to their fate? The homeopaths, and …well… hopefully I’m not insulting anyone…. the smokers. The information is out there. Anyone who can read and still falls for it–is either in denial or doesn’t care. But at the same time, I definitely agree that allowing alchemy territory within the world of valid science is undercutting our credibility as scientists.

    As for the chess problem–ahhhh- I love the problems more than the games. I will have to wait until I get this grant out before I can attack it though. But I will within the next few weeks. I will also post one of my own–how I snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by missing a neat little tactic (under time pressure, as I always was) against a 14 year old a couple years ago…

  7. @stephenemoss says:

    I have never blogged or written so much as a single word on homeopathy, there are already so many of you who do such a good job. But as one who now has dealings with the MHRA and the rigorous standards they set as we head towards a clinical trial, I find this issue of labelling homeopathic products to be quite Pythonesque. Would they permit a label to read ‘Active Ingredient: Each pill contains 30C Plutonium?’ I suspect this might run into a few problems, yet the molecular composition of the pill would be indistinguishable from the 30C Arnica. Ho hum.

    As for the chess, I guessed the correct move, but could not work through all the possible permutations thereafter, and will need to get the chess board out this evening to convince myself that black’s position is lost. Either way, looks as though you pulled off a nice counter-punch.

    • Austin says:

      That is a very good point about the “30 C Plutonium”, Steve. Hadn’t really thought of that, but I wonder what the MHRA would do? Or what about “30C Morphine” (which is certainly in some of the homeopathic remedy catalogues). And “Pythonesque” is an excellent word to describe the absurdity of it.

      I suppose I should write about something more useful, but homeopathy sort of crystallises the “reality vs absurdity” debate so clearly – at least , it does to a scientist – that it is hard to let it go. Interestingly, though, non-scientists often do not see this at all. A predictable, though still will-to-live-sapping example is here.

      Finally, re the chess game, I was quite pleased (then and even now!) with the idea. The rest of the game was pretty unmemorable, but just being able to play a move like that once in a while is, I think, a big part of what makes chess fascinating. At least for chess players!

  8. @stephenemoss says:

    Wow – just discovered a lengthy and interesting thread on Steve C’s original chess blog. Plus some interesting comments from Athene that got me thinking about how my daughter used to be fanatical about chess, so much so that I was persuaded to start up a chess club at her primary school. Sadly her interest didn’t last, though I believe the chess club has.

    • Austin says:

      Yes, that sounds quite a lot like what Steve C said on the second chess thread about his daughter losing interest. Beginning to sound like a pattern! Though I suspect a lot of male players lose interest too, but maybe a bit later and for other reasons – more “other things to do” (my own main reason) rather than “possible perceived gender stereotype pressure” (or variant thereof).

      Being a moderately serious chess player involves quite a lot of solitary activity, of course, so perhaps it appeals to more bookish introverted types, or to kids when they are going through a relatively bookish introverted phase.

      • Steve Caplan says:

        “more bookish introverted types”

        Hey! You mean “geeks” like me?!

        • Austin says:

          Heh. Actually I was thinking particularly of myself! Or at least of my 11-15 year-old self… Though there might have been a bit of a more general:

          “the kind of kids who often get into all-consuming “nerdy” hobbies, and sometimes science”

          – in there as well.

  9. Hi Austin. I’ve love to know more about what your life in the lab is like. Not the depressing “oh my God we’re running out of money” stuff, but perhaps some anecdotes about what goes on in your corner of the scientific world. Have there been any interesting practical jokes lately? Or exciting discoveries? Or a piece of equipment with a life of its own?

    I’d even settle for a photograph of a cell containing the ghostly image of Jesus, which you might flog as a holy relic for a fiver on eBay.

    • Austin says:

      To be honest, Jenny, me getting physically anywhere near an actual lab is a distinct rarity. I don’t have a PhD student, and my dwindling involvement in research mostly comes as a “consultant” on experimental design, literature backdrop and ideas on stuff in other people’s labs. Though I do have a final year undergrad project student in at the moment – and being a one-man band, I have to show him how to do everything myself (horrors!), which is a bit of a shock to the system. Luckily he is a bright guy and only has to be shown things once.

      Anyway, thanks for the suggestions – food for thought, and your comment has given me one or two ideas. Now I’d better write them down before I forget..! Brain like a sieve these days…

      PS Do we know if anyone has ever claimed to have found an image of Jesus in a cell? I guess there must be examples, though I haven’t heard of any…

  10. stephenemoss says:

    Jenny and Austin – a quick Google search reveals that many people have indeed seen images of Jesus in cells. Albeit prison cells rather than fibroblasts.

    • Austin says:

      Good one. I have always been fascinated by the way that being jailed seems to cause people to get religion, especially in the US. I first came across this when reading about Watergate. Practically all of Nixon’s staffers that were jailed “found the Lord” in prison, and I’m pretty sure a couple went on to become Evangelical Ministers. And then there is the UK’s own Jonathan Aitken.

  11. Plenty of writing fodder in showing a newbie the ropes! I look forward to your scribbles with great anticipation.

  12. Steve Caplan says:


    That’s a neat little tactic! I didn’t have time until this evening to look at your game, but it’s unlikely that I would have seen that, especially under time pressure. It’s not natural to think about sac’ing the queen.

    • Thanks, Steve. It’s not that hard to spot once you think:

      “Hmm, wish I could take the Rook on f8, then I’d get the other one too, except for that pesky Bishop on e5”

      This leads you to “What if I take the Bishop?” and then it is pretty easy to see that White will come out with two Rooks and Knight v Queen, which should be a win.. So then you just have to convince yourself there are no obvious sneaky checkmates or queening pawns, and try and calculate the variations.

      I know what you mean, though – the Queen has a kind of special symbolic significance as the strongest piece, and thus giving her up isn’t the first move you consider.

      Of course, the corollary of that is that games where you DO manage any kind of Queen sacrifice – even one that is really just a sort of trade, like this one – tend to stand out in the memory. I think all the (few!) games I played where I was able to sacrifice the Queen, or trade her off for other pieces, would stand among my favourites out of my collection.

  13. Harry Benson says:

    Dear ,

    I’m not sure whether you are going to love me or hate me but I’m sure that you will find this latest research on Homeopathy incredibly beneficial as there needs to be more proof out there if homeopathy DOES work then WHY does it works. Then perhaps there wouldn’t be such prejudice against those who do believe in it, and frustration for those who don’t. This new research is about the property of water, and discoveries that prove very simply how homeopathy works. It may come as a surprise to you to discover, that it is nothing whatsoever to do with chemistry but it is all to do with the unique properties of water and vibrations.

    This research does not conclude that water has a memory as the use of this word is technically incorrect. It finds that water is the key to the issue, but it is not based on anything to do with a possible memory, this is a misuse of the word. It is the fact that water changes its vibrational frequency to that of any substance that it comes into
    contact with. This fundamental discovery provides a new and exciting explanation as to why homeopathy works. If you take all of the chemical substance out of water it
    does not matter if there are no chemical atoms left, as the water will have changed its vibrational frequency to that of the chemical. It is this vibration that the body
    reacts to. It works on the principles of physics and not biochemistry.

    Anyhow, if you would like to, then have a look at the website at The chapters are free to download so start off with ‘Water’


    • Hey ho. Looks like sales-spam, given the link, but I’ve posted it as it is so characteristic of the kind of semi-science-y sounding nonsense homeopaths often trot out.

      Of course water does have “vibrational frequencies” – not just one frequency, note. These frequencies are a property of all the possible molecular motions (stretching, bending, waggling etc) of the chemical bonds within the water molecule. As people doing chemistry degrees learn at some length, these vibrational frequencies are the basis of infra-red (IR) spectroscopy, which used to be one of the major ways of identifying unknown compounds when I were a lad doing a Chemistry BSc and NMR machines were scarce and expensive. Funnily enough I just sat through a presentation last week about Fourier Transform IR spectroscopy of cells on a microscope stage.

      Anyway, the idea of bulk water permanently “adjusting” its vibrational frequencies (to repeat, the motion of the intramolecular bonds in all the water molecules in the sample) to that of a solute which is no longer actually there is as daft as it sounds.

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