Extending the ‘Simple Challenge’

Homeopaths claim that their pills can induce predictable and distinct sets of symptoms in healthy people. That is how they prove their powerful medicine. This is basic stuff for homeopaths and my simple test asks them to prove it because I do not believe it for a minute. If this claim is not true then everything else they say falls apart. So, far no-one has the courage to come forward.

But I want to extend my offer. I have given homeopaths almost complete freedom in how they do this test. The only real basics I ask for is that the test is verifiably blinded and they do the test publicly, that is, say what they are doing in advance. I do not need to be involved.

Homeopaths are claiming that us sceptics are behind the times and there is now research from material scientists that show that homeopathic preparations are different from normal diluted solutions. I do no believe this too. I think the experiments so far can be explained by bad experimental design: either contamination or instrumentation problems. No chemist can reliably show how homeopathic water is different from ordinary water.

So, the extended challenge: exactly the same as before; any six remedies; some third party swaps the labels around; tell us which remedy is which when the labels are not on the bottle. You can use any experimental equipment you like, any conditions you like – you just have to be blinded. Simple.

As this is analytical chemistry, I think I would one further condition over the original challenge. The remedies must be 12C, or more potent. The claims of homeopaths are that post-Avogadro dilutions are recognisable.

Let’s see it.

Any homeopathic friendly chemists want to do this? Your chance to punch this smart alec sceptic on the nose.

15 Comments on Extending the ‘Simple Challenge’

  1. I like that experiment, I’ve seen variants posted on homeopathy blogs, but I think it can be made even simpler:

    Take several identical bottles of pills, one which has had a drop of homeopathic remedy on it, the others just the succession solvent. Use several experienced “provers” who believe they are sensitive enough to detect the remedies and allow them to choose the remedy that they think they are most sensitive to. Give them a week or so to select the correct vile of pills, so they can space talking the pills out reducing the risk of miss identification and giving them time to confirm their selection a number of times. Count the number of “provers” who get the answer right.

    I’ve tried, but I can’t do the combinatrix, to work out the best combination of numbers of provers and pill vials. It would be good to set it up so that getting less than a certain threshold of correct identifications would be almost certain if the provers are no better than chance but getting equal to or more than that threshold would be almost certain if the provers were capable of a modest success rate, say 75%.

    This would be a very simple, highly sensitive, highly specific test. More importantly it gives every advantage to the homeopath, reducing the credibility of post hoc rationalisations for the inevitable failure.

  2. I think it would be harder to tell multiple remedies apart than to select a single remedy from a selection of nulls, although that would be up to the homeopaths to decide. I have, however, seen homeopaths suggest that symptoms caused by remedies vary from time to time and person to person. They obviously have to believe that in order to maintain their delusion. Selecting a single remedy that the homeopath believes they are especially sensitive to from a null back ground should account for that claim.

    My problem is I’m an experimental design nut and fitting every objection of a Woo into an experiment to test their claim is as much fun as I can have on my own in public, without getting arrested.

    No homeopath will take you up. They have another kind of knowing! That is not the point. The point is that when one complains about irrational prejudice you can point, in all sincerity, to a list of scrupulously fair experiments that would demonstrate to your satisfaction that what they claim is true.

  3. You are right derick.Homeopaths feel no compunciton to be onsistent in their beliefs with each other so one experiment could never pin them all down. But you would have thought that experiments could be used to rule out one strand of homeopathic belief over another. But they have very short memories. Hydra’s heads etc.

    I also think getting homeopaths to test with placebos is problematic. To keep it simple to do it would seem that placebos are bad. The homeopaths would have to source some placebos. To you and I that would be easy – pop into Boots and pick up an arbitrary tub of homeopathic pills. Not so easy for a homeopath…

    Also, with a simple binary choice, n would have to be fairly large to get good stats. With 6 from 6 it is not too bad. Plus homeopaths are always banging on about how powerful their medicine is.

    And yes, I doubt that any homeopath will have the gumption to take the test. And it will make a strong message that they are prepared to take on the heavy repsonsibility to care for the sick – exclusively in most cases – and yet totally unwilling to demonstrate the slightest thing about what they do is true.

  4. I agree with you on the short memories. To listen to them talk about impending paradigm shift and a conservative biomedical establishment etc you’d think homeopathy had been discovered in the last few years.

    It occurs to me that what you propose is such a reasonable test, of that facet, of homeopathy that it ought, if homeopathy were correct, to form the basis of a practical exam in the early stages of training any aspiring homeopath.

    I wonder if the new crop of university educated homeopaths would be interested in taking you up.

  5. It is good that Canard Noir is challenging the homeopathic world in this way. I welcome it – Perhaps many homeopaths do not.
    The experiment would require considerable investment in time and money to yield a proper worthwhile result.
    The tests called homeopathic provings need large groups of participants to obtain a clear picture of each sample diluted drug. For this reason at least 10-12 people would be needed for EACH of the six remedies. With supervisors we will in total need about 80 participants in the study. We will also require about two months working out the general themes and symptoms for each remedy. Homeopathic provings are not instant. Diferent participants taking the same remedy would have to compare notes so as to try to eliminare as much as possible their own idiosyncrasies. This should be obvious. A group of 12 might be enough – Idealy the group for each remedy would be even larger.
    No doubt if there was a positive result it would be necessary to repeat. I accept this as this would be normal scientific protocol.
    It would be a lot of work. If this was used to try and get Randi’s million dollars it might not even be worth it after tax, the declining dollar and the need to recompense about 80 people.
    Stewart McOwan – Minerva

  6. Thank you Stewart for you support in this challenge.

    I do, however, find it difficult to accept that it would be that difficult. I have seen a number of homeopaths challenge sceptics recently to do a proving. “Take a remedy and then deny there is not an effect”. ‘Strong’ remedies like rus tox are suggested. If such a demonstration is supposed to be undeniable to a sceptic, then I find it difficult to believe that trained homeopaths need to group themselves up into huddles of a dozen or so before they can eek out the signature of a remedy. It also just does not square with the general statements of the ‘powerful nature of homeopathy’ that we hear so much of.

    Secondly, I do not buy the argument that even Randi’s million dollars is not sufficient incentive. Even if the million is taxable (are you sure about prize winnings like this), let’s take a marginal rate of 40% and an exchange rate of ~2 and 12 x 6 homeopaths, that’s £4000 for each tester just for taking one sugar pill. Are homeopaths that well off that this would not be tempting?

    Stewart – as a homeopathic book shop owner, and with your obvious keenness to test, you are in a perfect position to do both my test and/or Randi’s. As an incentive, be upfront and say, you will keep half the prize money for your work in organising the test, and offer (say) two grand to each person you test. Should be easy to recruit people from your book shop lists.

    If money does not interest you, then keep it simple and do my test and claim the fame? Why not?

  7. That was a quicker response than I was expecting Canard Noir (!) Are you doing this full-time?
    I would have to entirely disagree with any homeopath who may have told you that there is ALWAYS a discernable effect from a homeopathic remedy. I would be interested in the identity of your sources.
    I even know of a well-known but heretical homeopath who told me that remedies have never worked on him at all (!) By their nature these remedies are extremely subtle and require a sensitivity and individual susceptability to them.
    Indeed sometimes absolutely nothing happens. An honest non-celebrity workaday homeopath might tell you that he/ she believes he helps about 60% of all patients (varying with complaints of course). A problem is that homeopaths are under pressure to succeeed like everybody and will sometimes ignore their failures.
    Remedies are normally selected painstakingly for a patient who is supposed to need them at the time otherwise not a lot happens.
    For this reason when testing remedies on themselves homeopaths really have to form proving groups with a leader who collates and sifts information. Remedies may have to be taken repeatedly to get impressions and usually have to be hammered home in these situations.
    This ‘proving’ procedure has been going on since the time of Hahnemann.
    It would require an incredible sensitivity for one person alone to work out which correct label to put on each of six bottles. This person would also need a considerable time interval between prescriptions – There was one very celebrated prover who played a large part in the provings of Jeremy Sherr but even for her I would imagine your test to be a very tall order.
    Regarding Randi, I hardly imagine that he is going to part with his money even if three groups of 80 provers succeeded in repeating very positive results. If the test was repeated perfectly twice we would have a 1 in 720 x 720 probability which is 1 in 518400 but as I see it the real problem is one of trust. I am aware that many homeopaths are conspiracy theorists and in addition many sceptics see homeopaths as deluded people who are highly selective when presenting any form of evidence to back their beliefs. This means that an infallible impartial third party is essential to police the trial. I don’t think Mr Randi would be that man – How can you be objective when money is involved ? Difficult methinks.
    Despite this, I emailed Randi and suggested that he finds a way of increasing the money to 10 Million but have had no reply so far. I think 10 Million is fair enough for overturning the laws of physics.
    I don’t think a million USD is enough to motivate a serious crack at proving that something is in the remedies. By its nature just the first stage of the experiment would have to take at least a couple of months and it would not just be a case of taking a pill – It would require writing down impressions in an organised manner. In addition six remedies that are very unlike would need to be selected by people who understand homeopathy to aid recognition.
    The problem with some trials is that they have been organised in a very poor way such as the recent Arnica – Carpal Tunnel trial which should surely have used Hypericum.

    Thanks for taking the time to challenge homeopaths – Hopefully you will end up provoking a response. Unfortunately, I think you will find though that most have little interest in proving themselves to sceptics.
    Few meaningful or genuinely exciting things benefit from desperately trying to go mainstream and some of the current wooly and fluffy homeopathic advertising/ propaganda is a case in point. Like you I deplore ‘prophylactics’ for malaria, Yellow fever etc. It is not part of the homeopathic philosophy even if a minority of people calling themselves homeopaths give this terrible advice. I knew a lady homeopathic devotee who sadly died of malaria on a mission to the Congo (!)
    Take care

  8. Stewart,

    Homeopaths need not fear Randi’s challenge. He makes it quite clear that he would not be involved. All he wants to do is approve a protocol. Come up with a way of testing the provings, Randi agrees, off you go.

    And I am amazed that it would take you ten million dollars to get out of bed. A million not enough? Indisputable proof of homeopathy not enough?? I find that bizarre to say the least!

    These effects must indeed be subtle. The sceptic in me can only conclude ‘non existent’.

    But I am glad you deplore the wilder claims of homeopaths. That is all I really object to too. Do you have a reference for the tragic case of the homeopath in the Congo? It could certainly prevent more misadventures of that type.



  9. Hi Andy

    I am being rather cheeky and asking for more money as that is standard business practice in the modern world. If homeopathy is mere quackery then Randi and any other sceptics have nothing to fear whether I accept for three shillings and sixpence halfpenny or ten million quid. So why not ten million?
    When the prize of a million dollars was first announced it was a lot of money. These days it will hardly buy a cramped noisy flat in Fulham. That is not much for contradicting the laws of physics.
    As I explained the project would no doubt have to be repeated many times until Randi accepts to pay. I have a mortgage to pay and a business to run. I have a wife to keep happy and a house to maintain.
    I am not naive and would expect no end of suspicion if results were highly positive. The process would hardly be uncomplicated. It would involve getting out of bed far more than once (!) and lots of people having a dig.
    I will though, discuss this with various colleagues. I must say that the general idea of having to label six bottles of homeopathic remedies from a list of six names is clever and it is amazing that nobody to my knowledge has thought of this before. Was it your idea?
    If it was I must congratulate you.

    Regarding the unfortunate lady who died of malaria, I don’t believe this was picked up by the press so I don’t have any references unfortunately.


  10. You are being cheeky since this is not a business deal, but a challenge! You can ask Randi, but he will undoubtedly say ‘no’ to ten million. If you look at his FAQ, you can see the $1M is real. You can write to the bank and see for yourself. It is held in trust by the foundation for the purpose of making the award if won. It is a prize set up by his foundation and so if it does not have $10M then he cannot give it. Simple.

    As for multiple tests. The rules of the challenge are quite straight forward. You have to do the test twice – first, a quick and simple test to make sure that your claim has some merit. You make this as quick and simple as you like to demonstrate your powers and show you understand basic testing protocols. The second test is then the formal test for the prize. A protocol is agreed that, should you pass, you will win the money. It it that simple. I know few people who would sniff at the euqivalent of #500,000. Maybe the homeopathic book trade is better than I thought!!

    I am sure, should you win, then that money would not be the end of it as you would be an instant celebrity.

    The challenge was my idea, but I do not think I can be unique in proposing such a protocol. There is nothing clever about it and it is just amazing that nothing like it has been done.

    My test is not about money or celebrity. It is just about the willingness of the homeopathic community to subject itself to basic and objective tests of its claims. And for homeopaths, I would imagine a straightforward chance to silence their critics. Clinical trials are by their nature complex, expensive and can be ethially problematic. They can be difficult to interpret and, as far as I can see, most homeopaths do not understand the nature and interpretation of accuracy and precision within such trials. But clinical trials are not the only way of testing. Medical trials got through many stages of pre-clinical test before full blown trials. I amazed that homeopathy has failed show an experimental base of any sufficient sort given the length of its history.

  11. Thanks Andy for the reply. I have received a refusal from the Randi Foundation to increase the prize money. They suggested that with my ‘paranormal’ powers I would be able to make far more money on my owm steam later on.
    I would beg to disagree. If positive the experiment will not prove that homeopathy ‘cures’ – On the contrary it would only show that symptoms can be CREATED by apparently non-material doses.
    A positive result would be just the first faltering step to demonstrate that the methods of homeopaths are not wishful thinking. I’m not interested in being a minor celebrity – People often want to be celebrities simply to have a multitude of sexual partners and a wild lifestyle. 1 would much prefer a quiet life with a couple of million to invest.
    A major obstacle is the ‘quick and simple’ test. I don’t believe that remedies can be recognised instantly like cereal packets in a supermarket – The long and complicated test would be the easier version (!) Here we have a big problem and maybe it is insurmountable.
    I am though confident that people will be coming forward in time to take up a challenge of this form as it is a fascinating one – It would be a fresh approach to homeopathic research which has not always been the slickest. Apart from poor imagination, a main problem has probably been funds. Research is expensive in terms of time and money. Homeopathy has always lived its life on a shoestring.
    I strongly suspect that the Randi Foundation will insist on their impossible initial ‘quick’ test which is a shame.
    I promise to encourage people in the homeopathic world to think about the proposed experiment. It could be a most valuable exercise. Simultaneous with the experiment, the participants could confirm the accuracy of earlier ‘provings’ of the 6 remedies.
    The best homeopathic experimental reference book is Michael Emmans Dean’s The Trials of Homeopathy (KVC Verlag 2006). This includes a CD Rom to help locate fresh data on the internet. This details clinical trials in Europe and North America to date. The reader will be confronted by quite a volume of material (!)

  12. To prove or disprove all of Homeopathy’s claims would be a major project, but good initial data regarding one aspect could be obtained by this simple test.

    Homeopathy lays claim to a powerful system of medicine, with low toxicity and material costs.
    Medical Insurance companies would be very interested in such a system.

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