Jason Gencher, U3 Bachelor of Music
On Tuesday, November 27th, 2012 students and the general public gathered for the second and final time at McGill University to hear a debate between Drs. Joe Schwarcz and André Saine. This debate would serve as the last chance for the two to present their views on the topic of homeopathy. While the motion was curtly stated as “Homeopathy: Mere Placebo, or Great Medicine,” the arguments seemed to downplay these adjectival modifiers. Having attended the first round, there were stark contrasts, and slight refinements to both gentlemen’s arguments that I noticed.
The general atmosphere of this second debate I perceived to be more academic. This was likely because the event was held during the school year, in a larger lecture hall, and advertised to the students of one the McGill World of Chemistry courses. Yet, when the moderator, Dr. Mark Ware probed the audience for their sympathies to either side of the motion, I noticed that those who endorsed Dr. Saine’s side of the argument were present in significant number. Still, I hold that compared to the first debate, billed as an event of the 2012 Alternative Medicine week in Montreal, the ‘academic spirit’ this time round was present to a greater extent.
André Saine, who is the “Dean and main instructor for the postgraduate program of the Canadian Academy of Homeopathy since 1986,” began his 30-minute opening argument with a belabored general account for the validity of homeopathy. Often, he would begin by quoting some past article by Schwarcz which would dismiss the point he would then make. While he briefly covered the history of homeopathy, raising Hahnemann, it’s founder, to cultish or prophetic level of fame, he spent most of his time presenting cherry-picked articles from the vast archives of scientific journals. Perhaps the most accurate way of representing Saine’s opening remarks would be as follows:
“Joe Schwarcz says that it is impossible that X can occur. Well this is a paper that suggests the contrary.”
Dr. Saine was not able to finish his opening arguments in 30 minutes.
Joe Schwarcz then began his opening 30 minutes. He delineated what seemed to me to be the scientific consensus with regard to homeopathy, arguing based on many of the points that he made at the last debate. He spoke of the nonsense of dilutions, of the unlikelihood of water having a memory, of the countless studies that exposed homeopathy as being synonymous with the placebo effect. He cautioned to the effect of cherry picking data, as Saine had done, stating that everything, including science, is on a bell curve, and that just because someone is able to point to a study that proves one thing, it is the analysis of where the robustness of the results are found. In this case, it is demonstrably of the persuasion that homeopathy, or the phenomena associated with it, are not yet accounted for.
I should admit, that I was struck off guard at one point made by Saine in his opening presentation. One of the articles he presented discussed nanoparticles, and their continued presence in solution upon dilution. This seemed convincing to me, considering his assertion that water can retain an active chemical upon dilution. It appears, upon further research on my part that this reality, likely provides more trouble to Saine’s argument than he might suspect. The paper which he sites, mentions nanoparticles; what he did not care to add, was that these particles were present in concentrations at the level of nano, so about 10-9. Yet, to be consistent with 20C and 30C homeopathic remedies, these nano-solutions would have been completely impossible. A 20C solution is something that is diluted to about 10-40, well beyond Avogadro’s limit. Further, the effect was only possible with certain particles or molecules, and that there was no evidence to suggest that this might be done with organic molecules. Saine is left with the same trouble of accounting for the homeopathic dilution ‘phenomenon’ while clearly also demonstrating his lack of basic scientific knowledge.
The rebuttals were somewhat hard to listen to. Saine, feeling personally attacked by Schwarcz, spent half of his 10 minutes personally addressing Schwarcz while he sat in the audience, seemingly neglecting the rest of the crowd of people. He returned to his unfinished opening arguments, but was yet unable to finish them. Schwarcz returned to the podium for his 10 minutes, but did not have much to add, already having clearly stated his points, but using the time nonetheless, to talk about Randi’s one million dollar challenge, and commenting on the poor methodology of many of the often cited studies that appear to confirm homeopathic principles.
The final round of the night was set to be a cross examination between both Schwarcz and Saine. The most striking question Saine asked Schwarcz was perhaps the most typical. He asked if, given a hypothetical situation where a loved one has lost consciousness due to a bacterial infection, and no medication was working, if he would give homeopathy a try. To which Schwarcz responded, “Desperate people will do desperate things.” Schwarcz, inquiring as to why Saine would not take Randi up on his challenge was answered that he did not have the resources to take up such an offer, but if Schwarcz was willing to lend his equipment, would be glad to split the money with him. At one point, both debaters deferred to a special guest in the audience, Dr. Amir Raz, who specializes on the placebo effect commented that his coming to this debate was like listening to “Science Fiction versus Reality.” Of course, he got cat-called and hissed at by those dearest and meek supporters of homeopathy, while the scientifically literate of us in the audience bit our tongues.
While I mentioned that I found that their arguments downplayed the adjectives in the motion, I think Joe Schwarcz stated this the most concisely. While homeopathy is likely the placebo effect in action, he said, there is nothing mere about it. We know that the placebo effect is responsible for a great deal of recovery in patients, and that it’s intricacies and nuances can be a great boon. Even knowing that you are taking a placebo seems to still promote recovery. But we must not fool ourselves into thinking that we can only recover through the action of the placebo effect. In cases like cancer, where if all patients were to defer from chemotherapy, or surgery, and solely rely on the placebo (or homeopathy), the death rate would be close to 100%. Medicine, while not able to lower this rate to 0, can at least boast to being more effective than this. In effect, homeopaths are reticent to comment on this because they are fixed to their beliefs. Like creationism, they hold homeopathy as a position of faith, and shun any information that suggests otherwise. Thus, I was not surprised in the least, when Saine made his final comment, in a fanatic ‘just you wait’ tone, adamantly stating that homeopathy is the future of medicine. I think the jury is still out on that one, but to André Saine, I might be just the person he wants, a doubting Tom.