When TV Science Creates Science Fiction
By Dana Ullman, MPH
NOTE: The vast majority of the criticisms described below about ABC News’ 20/20 program can also be directed at the BBC’s program, Horizon, which in 2002 conducted a “test” of homeopathy. This test utilized the same medical technician to conduct this poorly designed experiment. For further details and evidence for verifying this study as “junk science,” please review the various articles on this topic by clicking HERE. And it is certainly no surprise that James Randi was involved in BOTH of these “tv science experiments.” James Randi is a magician and is a master manipulator who specializes in mis-direction. He has been informed that the researchers in this silly tv experiments conducted the “wrong study,” but he has not yet acknowledged this fact or the obvious conclusion that this experiment was “junk science.” Isn’t it a tad ironic that a man who holds himself out as a “defender of science” is actually promoting “junk science”? Not really, he is a master manipulator and expert at mis-direction.
In these days of reality TV, the integration of good scientific experimentation with television could have turned the trivial nature of most reality television programs into something more meaningful and educational. However, “when John Stossel recently got involved in a TV science experiment, he created ‘junk science’ and ‘junk journalism,'” says Dana Ullman, who was interviewed by Stossel for a segment on homeopathic medicine that was aired on 20/20.
On January 30, 2004, ABC News’ 20/20 program aired an eight-minute segment on homeopathic medicine. The program began by giving a list of numerous celebrities and British royalty who are advocates of homeopathy. They then showed part of a promotion for a homeopathic medicine for the flu, to which Dana Ullman noted that there have been three large clinical studies verifying its effectiveness (see references below).
The program also noted that there have been numerous other studies that have shown homeopathy’s efficacy, but others that have shown that it didn’t work.
After giving a short explanation for homeopathy, 20/20 then sought to test homeopathic medicine using a laboratory experiment conducted at a London hospital. This study was originally supposed to be a replication of earlier studies that have consistently shown statistically significant positive results for homeopathy, that had been conducted at four different laboratories and universities, and that have been published in several peer-reviewed scientific journals.
However, the experiment that Stossel’s program created was significantly different. And not just different, it was seriously flawed. This new experiment used a chemical, ammonium chloride, that is known to destroy the cells that the experiment was supposed to count. The inclusion of this chemical was but one of numerous serious problems with this “made for TV” experiment.
ABC News and 20/20 have not given any reason why the experimenter in the London hospital chose to change the experiment at all, let alone changing it so substantially. What is particularly surprising and disturbing is that this experimenter wrote an email to Dana Ullman asserting,”consensus between all parties is essential when performing this experiment.” Yet, when he sought to get consensus from Professor M. Ennis (one of the scientists who had previously and successfully conducted this experiment and who was the person that Stossel’s producer and Dana Ullman agreed would be a consultant to the study), the 20/20 experimenter was denied consensus based on his failure to follow the experimental protocol as previously designed.
It is hard not to see a serious problem when an experiment was changed, when approval for it was denied, and yet, the experiment was conducted as though it was a valid test.
It should be noted that on February 4, 2000, John Stossel produced a controversial program called “The Food You Eat” where he claimed that “buying organic could kill you.” The program asserted that organic food had been contaminated with E. coli (this is a true but misleading assertion because most E. coli is harmless) and, according to a study that ABC had supposedly conducted, pesticide residue had not been found on either organic or conventional produce. And yet, Ken Cook of the Environmental Working Group in Washington offered hard evidence to ABC that showed that the Stossel said existed were actually never conducted.
Afterwards, ABC announced that Stossel would give a public apology, and he did so live on 20/20 saying,
I said our tests found no pesticide residues on either conventional or organic produce. That was just wrong. I apologize for the error [and] am deeply sorry I misled you. All we have in this business is our credibility-your trust that we get it right-I will make every effort to see that it never happens again.
Ironically, ABC’s 20/20 allowed John Stossel to air this segment on his “Give Me a Break” series. Needless to say.we need to tell John Stossel (the show’s co-anchor) to “give me a break!”
What Stossel got right:
• ABC’s 20/20 accurately showed Dana Ullman saying “there is a body of evidence that shows homeopathy is effective,” and they showed on-screen copies of the numerous studies that have been published in leading medical journals. To be fair, it is also truthful to say (as the 20/20 program did) that there have been numerous studies that have not shown homeopathic medicines to be successful. However, when scientists have reviewed the entire body of clinical research and have published this research in the prestigious medical journal “The Lancet,” they concluded that patients given a homeopathic medicine had a 2.45 times greater chance of experiencing improvement in their health as compared with patients given a placebo (see the reference by K. Linde and others below).
• ABC’s 20/20 accurately showed Dana Ullman referring to three large studies showing homeopathy is effective in treating influenza. Because people are experiencing the flu in greater numbers this year than in the recent past and because some people are even dying from it, the evidence that homeopathic medicines can effectively treat this common condition with such safe remedies should not be ignored.
• ABC’s 20/20 accurately acknowledged that Dana Ullman objected to the study that they had developed even BEFORE it was started because they created their own different study that was poorly designed due to its use of specific chemicals that are known to kill the type of white blood cells that this experiment was supposed to count.
• ABC’s 20/20 accurately acknowledged that one of the three British homeopaths who observed the making of the homeopathic medicine objected to the sloppiness of the laboratory procedures BEFORE the study’s results were announced. Please note that these three homeopaths only observed the making of the medicine. They were not in attendance during the experiment itself, and none of them nor ANY homeopathic researcher agreed to the mis-guided protocol that was ultimately used in the 20/20 experiment.
What Stossel got wrong:
• ABC’s 20/20 provided misinformation about the small doses used in homeopathy. Stossel asserted on air that the “6C” potency of a homeopathic medicine is equivalent to one drop in 50 swimming pools, that the 12C potency is like one drop in the entire Atlantic Ocean, and that the 16C potency is like one drop in a million earths. In actual fact, the total amount of water used to make a 6C potency is around six test tubes (or around 6 ounces of water). A 12C potency requires around 12 ounces of water. Because 20/20 had a London hospital make up the 16C of Histamine, they knew that this pharmaceutical process only required less than a quart of water (16 test tubes worth!). 20/20 seemingly and incorrectly assumed that each dilution required “exponential” (100-fold) increases the size, when, in fact, it only required repeated dilutions in a small test tube. (It seems that 20/20 is already so embarrassed by the statistics they gave, they have already omitted reference in their transcripts of the 20/20 show to the 16C potency.)
• The 20/20 experiment used a chemical, ammonium chloride, that is known to destroy basophils, the type of white blood cell that was under study. The experiment was designed to fail even before any homeopathic medicine was administered. Because this chemical was not used in any of the previous studies that have been published in peer-review scientific journals, Dana Ullman was absolutely correct in asserting that this study was “junk science,” that the study should not have been conducted in this unscientific manner, and that any results from this study are of no value.
• The 20/20 experiment also used a chemical called “foetal calf serum” (the blood from a calf foetus). According to experts in basophils and experts who had previously conducted this experiment successfully, this chemical complex is not a “recognized medium” for laboratory experiments of this sort, and its effects on basophils are presently unknown. It should also be noted that the experiment produced by 20/20 was created by an employee at a London hospital who didn’t know the answers to some simple questions about basophils when asked by Professor Ennis. Also, to be done correctly, this experiment requires “clean” basophils, and the use of foetal calf serum alters the binding reactions of the basophils.
• The 20/20 experimenter left the blood containing basophils to be collected to sit and sediment for 4 hours. It is known that basophils are extremely fragile, thus, leaving them to sit for 4 hours disturbed their viability and rendered them useless for scientific experimental purposes.
What Stossel didn’t say:
• The original experiment that 20/20 had planned to conduct was previously conducted in four separate laboratories in Europe, including a laboratory at the Queen’s University of Belfast by a professor of biochemistry who was previously a skeptic of homeopathy. These laboratories conducted 3,674 tests (!), and they found a substantial difference in the effects of potentized histamine as compared with a placebo. To read this study, see: Belon M, Cumps J, Ennis M, Mannaioni PF, Sainte-Laudy J, Roberfroid M, Wiegant FAC. Inhibition of human basophil degranulation by successive histamine dilutions: results of a european multi-centre trial. Inflammation Research 1999; 48: s17-s18.
• After 20/20 acknowledged that Dana Ullman questioned the protocol as considerably different, 20/20 said that their experts described the experiment as “technically sound” and “meticulously conducted.” 20/20 has yet to come forward with the names of these experts. Dana Ullman seriously doubts that these “experts” are knowledgeable about experiments with basophils. Just because 20/20 used so-called “experts” does not mean that they are experts on this subject.
• Although 20/20 asserted that the National Institutes of Health considers some principles of homeopathy to run counter to the apparent laws of physics and chemistry, there are many things in nature that do not initially make rational sense but later prove to be true. 20/20 was given specific reference to two studies recently written about in the respected scientific magazine, The New Scientist, which discussed new research in major physics and chemistry journals testing homeopathic doses (to obtain these articles, go to the New Scientist web site and search under the word “homeopathy”). Further, although the “nano-doses” used in homeopathy may not be adequately understood and explained using Newtonian physics, the new or quantum Einsteinian physics is better able to help us comprehend, describe, and predict extremely small (or extremely large) systems.
• 20/20 didn’t acknowledge that although we don’t know precisely how homeopathic medicines work, we also do not presently know how many common drugs work, including many used for anesthesia in surgery. Certainly, no one suggests that these valuable drugs be avoided just because we do not adequately understand how they work.
• According to the World Health Organization, one of the most serious public health problem in the world is childhood diarrhea, which leads to millions of death as a result of dehydration. A leading pediatric journal recently published a review of three double-blind and placebo-controlled studies that have confirmed the efficacy of homeopathic medicines in treating childhood diarrhea. Information about this good clinical research might have been a lot more useful than a seriously flawed laboratory study.
To read a short overview article that explains homeopathy in a modern fashion, see WHY HOMEOPATHY MAKES SENSE AND WORKS by Dana Ullman, MPH.
K. Linde, N. Clausius , G. Ramirez, et al., “Are the Clinical Effects of Homoeopathy Placebo Effects? A Meta-analysis of Placebo-Controlled Trials,” Lancet, September 20, 1997, 350:834-843. Even critics have called this meta-analysis “completely state of the art.” It reviews 186 studies, 89 of which fit pre-defined criteria for its meta-analysis. Homeopathic medicines had a 2.45 times greater effect than placebo.
J. Jacobs, WB Jonas, M Jimenez-Perez, D Crothers, Homeopathy for Childhood Diarrhea: Combined Results and Metaanalysis from Three Randomized, Controlled Clinical Trials, Pediatr Infect Dis J, 2003;22:229-34. This metaanalysis of 242 children showed a highly significant result in the duration of childhood diarrhea (P=0.008). It should be noted that the World Health Organization consider childhood diarrhea to be the number one public health problem today because of the millions of children who die every year from dehydration from diarrhea.
R. Papp, G. Schuback, E. Beck, et al., “Oscillococcinum in Patients with Influenza-like Syndromes: A Placebo-Controlled Double-Blind Evaluation,” British Homeopathic Journal, 87(April, 1998):69-76. This study of 372 patients replicated an earlier trial of 487 patients. Both trials found statistically significant results with “Oscillococcinum” in the treatment of patients with influenza-like syndromes. Earlier trial: JP Ferley, et al., A Controlled Evaluation of a Homeopathic Preparation in the Treatment of Influenza-like Syndrome,” British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, March, 1989,27:329-35. A link to the Cochrane’s review of research on Oscillococcinum, click HERE.
For references to other research, see:
• Homeopathic Family Medicine by Dana Ullman, MPH (this ebook provides a comprehensive and up-to-date review of clinical research in homeopathy)
• Paolo Bellavite, MD, and Andrea Signorini, MD, The Emerging Science of Homeopathy, Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2002 (this book provides an excellent overview of homeopathy in the light of various clinical and laboratory studies and in light of recent understanding in the medical and natural sciences.
Another good study: The highly respected journal, RHEUMATOLOGY, published by the British Society of Rheumatology, published the below article on the homeopathic treatment of fibromyalgia. Not only id these researchers find efficacy from homeopathic medicines, they found significant changes in EEG readings from those patients who were given the homeopathic medicines as compared to those given a placebo. Improved clinical status in fibromyalgia patients treated with individualized homeopathic remedies versus placebo (subscription). Bell IR, Lewis II DA, Brooks AJ, Schwartz GE, Lewis SE, Walsh BT, Baldwin CM.