[Adam Cuerden] Citizendium: The Encyclopedia only pro-Homeopathy editors can edit

February 12th, 2009 by Adam Cuerden

Larry Sanger, part-founder of Wikipedia, wrote in 2001:

How are we to write articles about pseudoscientific topics, about which majority scientific opinion is that the pseudoscientific opinion is not credible and doesn't even really deserve serious mention?

If we're going to represent the sum total of "human knowledge"--of what we believe we know, essentially--then we must concede that we will be describing views repugnant to us without asserting that they are false. Things are not, however, as bad as that sounds. The task before us is not to describe disputes fairly, on some bogus view of fairness that would have us describe pseudoscience as if were on a par with science; rather, the task is to represent the majority (scientific) view as the majority view and the minority (sometimes pseudoscientific) view as the minority view, and, moreover, to explain how scientists have received pseudoscientific theories. This is all in the purview of the task of describing a dispute fairly.

This became part of Wikipedia's policies, and remains so to this day. However, in Sanger's new project, Citizendium, he's thrown this noble goal out the window, and actively works to suppress views skeptical of homeopathy.

However, let's discuss the Citizendium Homeopathy article first.

The Citizendium article was largely written by Dana Ullman, who Time magazine described as the "leading proselytizer of homeopathy". It shows: Criticism is practically non-existant, and what little remains is pretty much strawmen designed to be attacked and knocked down, or exist solely as statements on the line of "some criticism exists. Now back to more informatiion about this great form of alternative medicine you should try"[1]

The early sections are pretty bad in themselves - discussing the process of homeopathic dilution with no mention that no molecules are likely to remain in most homeopathic remedies - I should probably quickly explain for the uninitiated:

First off, it's possible to know the number of molecules in an initial substance if you know its mass and its molecular weight, and there are upper limits to how many molecules could exist in a certain volume or mass of substance. Homeopathic remedies use serial dilution to the point that 1part in 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (1060, or 30C in homeopathic notation) is the level of dilution recommended by Hahnemann, the founder of homeopathy, for most treatments.

The number of molecules in one mole of substance is 6.022 x 1023 If you started with a mole of the substance meant to be homeopathically diluted, you'd go over that at 24X or 12C in homeopathic notation, meaning that, at those dilutions - and most homeopathich treatments are at those levels or higher - the chance of you having even a single molecule of the original substance would be only about 60%. At the 30C dilution recommended by Hahnemann, you'd have less than 1 chance in 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 of getting one molecule of the original substance.[2]

So, having ignored well-sourced and valid criticism, the article then moves into outright promotion:

A fundamental reason for conflict between conventional medicine and homeopathy is that homeopathy rejects the concept of treatments that target mechanisms of disease, and instead uses remedies that target syndromes of symptoms that they believe strengthen a person's overall constitution. Some homeopathic protocols might look like the following:

  • A physician qualified in both homeopathy and conventional medicine, after diagnosing a chronic condition that does not indicate the need for medical urgency, will usually first prescribe a homeopathic remedy which he feels may be more effective and is likely to have fewer side effects than conventional drugs.

and even downright dangerous recommendations:

  • Homeopaths disagree with conventional medicine about the role of immunization and chemoprophylaxis for infectious diseases and prefer to prescribe homeopathic remedies that they believe will strengthen a person's immune and defense system.
  • For some disease conditions, such as asthma and acute bronchitis, homeopathic remedies are often prescribed not only to alleviate chronic symptoms, but also to treat acute attacks. Homeopathic remedies might also be used after an asthmatic episode with the intent to prevent recurrences.

Homeopaths are given the final word against any of the very weak strawman arguments allowed to be placed against them:

While homeopaths also want to understand how their medicines work, they assert that there is a double standard in medicine and science because there is a long history of certain conventional medical treatments that have no known mechanism of action but that are regularly used; only relatively recently, for instance, has it been understood how aspirin works, but before then doctors used it regularly despite an inadequate understanding of its actual mechanism. Further, homeopaths assert that the overall evidence for homeopathy, including clinical research, animal research, basic sciences research, historical usage of homeopathic medicines in the successful treatment of people in various infectious disease epidemics, and widespread and international usage of homeopathic medicines today, provide extraordinary evidence for the benefits of this system

And then moves on to a section that can best be described as "Let's not let those mean scientists determine who's right. WE'LL decide who's right!":

The “balance of evidence” as to whether homeopathy has any effects other than placebo effects depends on who is balancing the evidence. Homeopaths strongly value the evidence of their own experience in treating patients, supported by the satisfaction reported by their patients in surveys; they believe that this is sufficient evidence of efficacy, but also state that most published clinical trials have shown some beneficial effects.

And, finally, a grand Galileo gambit:

Mainstream scientists and medical professionals are also often interested in homeopathy, despite generally being dismissive of the theories and of the claims for efficacy. They are interested in why so many people believe in homeopathy, when they consider that it has no plausibility. They are interested too in why some studies appear to have positive outcomes - do these reflect real efficacy, or can they be accounted for by flaws in study design or in statistical analysis, or "publication bias" - the tendency for small studies with chance positive outcomes to be published while studies with negative or inconclusive outcomes are not. They also are interested in whether positive results against expectation sometimes reflect manipulation of data or perhaps even fraud.

This interest has a much broader relevance than homeopathy. A huge number of research papers are published every year in the scientific literature - PubMed covers more than 6,000 journals in biology and medicine, and excludes very many journals that do not meet its quality criteria. Many of these papers report results that turn out to be wrong for many different reasons. Usually, errors are exposed when attempts to replicate the data fail; often contradictory results are reported, but often papers are quietly "forgotten" - never cited because their flaws become evident. Sometimes in conventional science overt fraud is revealed, but often it is impossible to confirm that fraud is present. But in conventional science generally, what counts is replicability - it doesn't matter whether unreliable results are the result of fraud or error, individual reputations depend ultimately on publishing important data that can be replicated consistently. Accordingly, scientists are professionally concerned with understanding the sources of error - including all sources of error, in study design, methodology, analysis and interpretation; and for some of them, homeopathy seems like a source of examples where they feel that the conclusions "must" be wrong, so finding the sources of error can teach important lessons.

Of course, it is possible that mainstream scientists and physicians have it wrong; perhaps homeopathy is indeed effective, and, if so, there is something important to be studied. Mainstream scientists enjoy a considerable degree of trust, and their assertions are often accorded considerable "authority". Some may exploit this authority, but the ethos of science generally is one of disciplined skepticism - including skepticism about all that we think we know. Scientific theories are never proven, but always provisional, subject to revision and occasional abandonment as knowledge grows. So scientists generally reject arguments from authority as being of any value - only arguments from reason, embracing current knowledge and understanding count, and these are arguments that each scientist must make for himself or herself, and make afresh as fresh knowledge comes.

There's more, like the section "A typical homeopathic visit", which reads like something out of a pamphlet advertising homeopathy, or "Scientific basis of homeopathy", which presents a half-dozen unsupported crank theories on how homeopathy supposedly could work as accepted scientific fact. But why do I say Larry Sanger is personally censoring any views that aren't in favour of homeopathy?

Because he's doing exactly that. Here's a short thread from the Talk page of Citizendium's Homeopathy article:

The contents of the article on Homeopathy on Wikipedia is controlled by the theorizing, skeptical, critics who have never tried Homeopathy. Anybody who is pro-Homeopathy is banned. I hope someone can change that!Ramanand Jhingade 13:27, 11 February 2009 (UTC)

Is it really necessary to attack people that choose not to try homeopathy? "Theorizing, skeptical critic who have never tried XXX", whatever XXX may be, gives the flavor of anyone who is not a proponent of XXX is an enemy. I would have thought that your experience here indicates that people can be critical but not enemies. Further, I would have thought that it has been established that one can form a reasonable judgment on something without actually experiencing it -- or are all obstetricians status para > 0?Howard C. Berkowitz 00:21, 12 February 2009 (UTC)

Oh, dear, one of those seems unduly nasty! Larry Sanger himself steps in... and, of course, removes not the one directly attacking people and bashing all people skeptical of homeopathy, but Berkowitz's polite response to it, replacing it with:

A comment here was deleted by The Constabulary on grounds of making complaints about fellow Citizens. If you have a complaint about the behavior of another Citizen, e-mail constables@citizendium.org. It is contrary to Citizendium policy to air your complaints on the wiki. See also CZ:Professionalism.

In the article, all criticism of homeopathy is being suppressed, and the homeopaths are allowed to run the show. On the talk page, attacks on critics of homeopathy are allowed to stand, but polite objections to these attacks are being deletedby Sanger himself. This highly biased deletion of posts is a level of discourse usually found in crank forums, not in a "professional" encyclopedia which was intented to show that its system was far superior to Wikipedia. Despite Citizendium's slogan of sorts, found on every page: "We are creating the world's most trusted encyclopedia and knowledge base", this article and the actions on its talk page remove any credibility that Citizendium might have.


Footnotes

[1]For instance, this is the only statement of criticism in the entire opening section, which is about a page, with the sentence after it provided for context:

Although homeopathy is practiced by some medical doctors, as well as by other health professionals in virtually every country in the world, most mainstream medical doctors and scientists, particularly those in the West, do not accept the principles of homeopathy today.[7] In addition to those homeopathic remedies prescribed in the professions practicing homeopathy, remedies are used by consumers all over the world for self-treatment of common self-limiting ailments and injuries.

That's it, and there won't be any mention of criticism again until about the third page, where there's a brief mention that some people objected to allowing homeopaths to advertise their treatments as effective based on homeopathic "provings" alone.

[2] The use of one mole is a gross exaggeration in favour of homeopathy: of all the solid or liquid substance (at room temprature) in existence, the one with the lowest atomic weight is atomic Lithium, which has seven grams to a mole and fills about 13 cubic cenimetres. It would be physically impossible to fit a mole of pretty much every substance known to exist into the size and weight of a homeopathic pill (with the possible exception of very exotic materials, such as liquid (or solid) hydrogen or helium), and more typical things used in homeopathy, like the organic molecules found in plants or inorganic oxides can have hundreds or even  thousands of grams in a mole. Hence, the case for homeopathy is actually far worse than described above.

ADDENDUM: We have CELEBRITY TROLLING in the comments - Dana Ullman, evidently so insecure that he's worried what a no-name university student is saying about him on a fairly obscure blog can't help but show up and complain. Have a read of it - it's pretty hilarious, and even includes a claim that if you do basic applications of physical and chemical laws, like in this post's analysis of the number of molecules in homeopathic treatments, then somehow love doesn't exist.

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18 Responses to “[Adam Cuerden] Citizendium: The Encyclopedia only pro-Homeopathy editors can edit”

  1. Dana Ullman Says:

    Adam above diatribe in based on jello. His assertion that I am “largely” responsible for what is written on homeopathy at Citizendium is an over-statement, and like so much of what he writes, it is based in a very emotionally charged sense of what homeopathy is, rather than what it is or what homeopaths claim it to be.

    There are good reasons that CZ’s article on homeopathy didn’t discuss the “number of molecules” in a homeopathic medicine because it isn’t the “meat” but the “meat” AND the “motion” that create a homeopathic medicine. How many molecules are there in “love”? By this logic, love doesn’t exist.

    Your obsession with this (wrong) question helps explain why wikipedia’s article is so biased against homeopathy…and maintain low academic rigor.

    Howard Berkowitz was one of the resident skeptics, but he was a lot more diplomatic and a lot less crazy-fundamentalist than so many of the editors at wikipedia. That said, Howard’s remarks were sometimes offensive…and equally often, my remarks were stricken as offensive. Still, there was a collaborative spirit on CZ that I found wanting at wikipedia.

    The CZ contributor you mention above (Ramanand J.) provided very little contribution (maybe even nothing) to the finalized version of the article.

    People who are serious about learning about the research side of homeopathy will benefit from my new short article on this subject:
    http://www.homeopathic.com/articles/view,132

  2. Dana Ullman Says:

    I mistakenly did not take adequate issue with the headline that you chose to use for this blog. Its lack of veracity is classic and is emblematic of the misinformation that skeptics of homeopathy use and even thrive on.

    Ironically (and with full-on chutzpah), Adam and other skeptics hold themselves up as “defenders of science and scientific medicine.” With these types of defenders, is it any wonder that so many seek alternatives to “scientific medicine” today.

  3. Adam Cuerden Says:

    Dana claims that the shaking done between each phase of the serial dilutions used in homeopathy mean that the (lack of any) number of molecules is meaningless. This shaking is nothing but a magic ritual, attempting, by force of human will, to force the result. Walach, in a lengthy article published in the homeopathic journal ”Homeopathy” writes:

    Hahnemann himself clearly held a non-physical theory of the action of remedies, in that he talked about the “spirit-like” nature and action of remedies. Thereby he clearly wanted to abstract from the material presence of substances and point to the non-material essence of the remedy.

    and concludes

    In sum, I propose to abstain from a causal interpretation of homeopathy. Instead
    I contend that homeopathic effects are non-causal events, similar to what
    happens in examples of synchronicity. The homeopathic remedy is a sign
    which mediates the meaning between a mental-psychological state, the illness
    in the patient, and the physical realm of bodily functions, elements of nature,
    and the like. It acts via the original interconnectedness of all beings, which is
    activated, quite like in magical rituals, by the homeopathic ritual of case taking,
    remedy preparation, repertorization and remedy prescription.

    Before you claim that this is not a typical paper, let me point out it is explicitly cited by Milgrom in his papers where he takes Walach’s idea and replaces “magic” with a severe misunderstanding of quantum mechanics. Homeopathy is an attempt at magic, and is explicitly described as such in the very journals meant to promote it. And, seriously, “my grand magic ritual is… choosing a treatment from a book and prescribing it” or “shaking the water imbues it with magic powers”? WORST MAGIC EVER.

    I’ll give Dana the final quote:

    There are good reasons that CZ’s article on homeopathy didn’t discuss the “number of molecules” in a homeopathic medicine because it isn’t the “meat” but the “meat” AND the “motion” that create a homeopathic medicine. How many molecules are there in “love”? By this logic, love doesn’t exist.

    With Valentine’s day on the horizon, who can argue with the molecules of love? More seriously, this is a classic crank argument, and I’ll hand this over to “Bronze Dog”, a blogger who specialises in deconstructing those: Doggerel #85: “You Can’t Find an Atom of Love!”

  4. Drooling Fan Girl Says:

    Well you can’t prove that’s who ever, I thought it was someone making a joke.

  5. Adam Cuerden Says:

    Nah, I’ve actually dealt with Dana Ullman before, when he was on Wikipedia. He has a very noticeable writing style. One of these days I’ll have to write up a case study on that event.

  6. Dana Ullman Says:

    You are showing a profound ignorance by saying that shaking the solution is just a ritual. Would you say that shaking solutions is ritual to a chemist? Get REAL!

    Profound ignorance is what you got here…and thanx for showing such strong evidence of this here.

  7. Bronze Dog Says:

    Thanks for the link, Adam. Ended up bringing my attention here when I checked my traffic.

    Dana: Shaking a solution in chemistry is only a ritual when it won’t affect the chemical reaction. Typically, shifting a solid around increases its surface area and accelerates reactions by doing so. Probably a few more possible uses for shaking in chemistry. The difference is that these have detectable results. Homeopathy consistently fails to produce results. Waving around the word “quantum” is useless, especially since homeopaths are completely unable to describe the mathematics of whatever they’re claiming is going on. Chemists, meanwhile, can describe molecular collisions and such.

    Going beyond working on such a micro level, well, how about you get around to demonstrating homeopathy’s effectiveness in a double-blind clinical study before you get into the sophistry of how it works. It’s kind of like describing growth patterns of unicorn horns before anyone has evidence that unicorns exist.

  8. Tom Says:

    For people visiting this particular Blog: There were lots of contributors to the Citizendium article on Homeopathy. Please visit, ‘en.citizendium.org/wiki/Homeopathy’ and read the article and see the discussions on the Talk Page to understand that it has enough criticism in it.

  9. » Skeptics’ Circle #106 Disillusioned Words: atheism, art and politics Says:

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  10. Tom Morris Says:

    Here’s the thing: I’m involved with Citizendium and I’m absolutely fucking ashamed of this article, and I’ve made that clear to the relevant people over and over. We’ve got this absolutely ridiculous system where we have two Workgroups: one called Health Sciences and one called Healing Arts. To become an editor in Health Sciences, you need to be a Ph.D involved in medical research. To become an editor in Healing Arts, you can turn up with a phony Ph.D in naturopathic magic from some diploma mill in Buttfuck, Idaho. In no other discipline do we have a Workgroup specifically set up to allow cranks to push their point-of-view. We don’t have “Economics” and “Monetary Arts”, “Political Science” and “Governing Arts”, “Biology” and “Vitalistic Life Studies”. If you come along with a Ph.D from a bunch of cranks saying that you think that the way to sort out the recession is to sit in a circle and chant, you don’t get a say in our Economics articles – but if you get a diploma mill to certify your charlatanism in “healing arts”, you are free to pass judgment on the science of homeopathy. The whole thing stacks the deck in favour of crank pseudoscience, and on the most dangerous topic it could possibly be on: medicine and health. I’ve brought this point up numerous times, and we get no action. I’m guessing we need to have someone die after reading one of our Healing Arts articles on how sticking toothpaste up your butt saves you from all the bother with chemotherapy.

    But, I do have to say, it’s very easy to criticise wikis. When this article was being written, I tried hard to get skeptics involved. I approached people who wrote about homeopathy at JREF, at the Science-Based Medicine blog, some of the writers of skeptical articles about homeopathy, in skeptical chatrooms and so on. I was e-mailing away for hours trying to get someone to come people to balance out some of the baloney being pushed on the article and in the talk page. What response did I get? None. Zip, zilch, nada. Too busy or couldn’t give a shit. What would be really nice is if the skeptical community could get involved when offered the chance, rather than bitch about it afterwards. So, an open invitiation: come on skeptics, come and write some articles for Citizendium and make sure that the next alternative medicine article that goes for approval doesn’t end up sucking quite as much as the homeopathy article has.

  11. Adam Cuerden Says:

    Yes, well, I spent three years on the wikipedia article on homeopathy, including several months dealing with Mr. Ullman’s attempts to rewrite the article. I’d rather not go back to square one on a new wiki, where even criticising Ullman – of whom I could say a great deal – is forbidden.

  12. Tord Helsingeng Says:

    I wonder if most homeopaths think it is ethical to sell homeopathic vaccines for malaria? And when these remedies don’t work, if they attribute it to wrong dosage, potence or miasms, or perhaps bad interpersonal chemistry (the “motion”, so to speak) between healer and patient? I’d really like to see some studies on these questions, actually.

    May all beings experience, peace, freedom and happiness!

  13. Adam Castelli Says:

    The “meat” and the “motion”…

    Crank it up.

  14. Gareth Leng Says:

    Adam suggests that the Citizendium article promotes homeopathy by excluding criticism.

    Well the article does, for example, say “Homeopaths also assert that corticosteroids are immunosuppressant drugs that only provide temporary relief of asthma symptoms and may lead to more serious chronic disease and to increased chances of death.”
    This is true; homeopaths do assert this. So what does Citizendium immediately say next.
    “Medical opinion is that this assertion is uninformed scare-mongering. They advise that corticosteroids prevent inflammation that can have serious consequences and symptom relief is a result of this anti-inflammatory action.”

    In what sense exactly is this excluding criticism?

    Adam tells us at length that homeopathic remedies have no active ingredient, explaining that Citizendium has ignored this well-sourced and valid criticism: so I wonder what is the following section doing in the Citizendium article:

    “We now know that, for example, a teaspoon of seawater (5 ml) contains about 160 mg of NaCl. The molecular weight of NaCl is 58.4, so by Avogadro’s number, (or, in German-speaking countries, Loschmidt’s number), 58.4 g of NaCl (one mole) contains 6.02×1023 molecules. We can thus calculate that our teaspoon contains about 2×1021 molecules of NaCl. A 12C dilution of seawater will have about one molecule of NaCl per litre. Thus homeopathic remedies diluted to more than about 12C are virtually certain to contain not even a single molecule of the initial substance.”

    Is there really no criticism? Not even in the quotes from NCCAM “There is, to my knowledge, no condition for which homeopathy has been proven to be an effective treatment.” or the NHS “Despite the available research, it has proven difficult to produce clear clinical evidence that homeopathy works”. Citizendium reports these; that’s what neutral articles do, they report criticisms. Many people would like Citizendium articles to carry an editorial message, to say “this is what Citizendium thinks”. Citizendium is trying to do something rather different, and to say this is what homeopaths believe and why, this is what scientists believe and why – it’s up to the reader to use his or her intelligence from here on.

    Adam curiously quotes the overview at length as though it were pro homeopathy; in fact it is the opposite; it is an explanation of why false positive (pro homeopathy) studies are so common in the literature. Any reasoned opposition to homeopathy must address this – as did the Lancet study, explained at length, that heralded the “end of homeopathy” – this was not a study showing that homeopathy was ineffective – it was an analysis of studies that show mainly positive results – and a demonstration of how publication bias can lead to selective publication of false positive results. It’s a subtle argument, but real understanding does require some sophistication in intelligence.

    Most of those who contributed to the Citizendium article, including me, believe that homeopathy is scientific nonsense. But most of us believe that an honest debate about homeopathy has to address the strongest case that can be made for it, not some strawman case that is easy to knock down. The article clearly stated that homeopathy lacks scientific support, and stated why in the following terms:

    “In brief, for homeopathy to receive serious scientific consideration, there needs to be plausible explanations for the following: a) how the process of manufacturing a homeopathic remedy could yield a biologically active substance or solution, b) why the principle of similars might apply in the case of homeopathic remedies c)how a biological mechanism could have evolved to recognize the specific nature of homeopathic remedies.There also needs to be clear and irrefutable evidence for the efficacy of homeopathic remedies, evidence that cannot be explained by placebo effects. These stringent demands are often summarised by the maxim “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof”.”

  15. Gareth Leng Says:

    Tord asks about homeopathy, vaccines and malaria; he might look at the Citizendium article, which states:

    “The notion of homeoprophylaxis has not received support from systematic trials and has no place in conventional medicine. Suggestions that homeopathic treatments are an effective alternative to vaccination are regarded as irresponsible by many public health professionals, and also by some professional homeopathic organizations; in the U.K., The Faculty for Homeopathy recognizes the importance of childhood vaccination and does not support the common use of homeopathic remedies in place of conventional travel vaccinations and for malaria prevention, warning travellers “that there is no evidence that these provide any degree of protection”"

  16. Reinder Says:

    Gareth, thanks for your comments. As this post is over a month old, I can’t guarantee that Adam will be back to respond though.

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  18. mike3 Says:

    The articles should also not lead the reader to the conclusion it is crap, either (even though I think it is crap, that is not the point) — rather they should advance *no* conclusion, and conclusiony bias of either direction is bad, bad, bad, and I’m afraid of it popping up in the CZ. Rather the articles should offer just the information, and let the reader decide what viewpoint they wish to take.