Ming the Mechanic:
13 things that don't make sense to science

The NewsLog of Flemming Funch
 13 things that don't make sense to science2005-03-18 14:38
21 comments
by Flemming Funch

How refreshing. New Scientist has an article about 13 phenomena that can't yet be explained by science, and yet they can't be denied. Here's a couple of my favorites:
1. The placebo effect

DON'T try this at home. Several times a day, for several days, you induce pain in someone. You control the pain with morphine until the final day of the experiment, when you replace the morphine with saline solution. Guess what? The saline takes the pain away.

This is the placebo effect: somehow, sometimes, a whole lot of nothing can be very powerful. Except it's not quite nothing. When Fabrizio Benedetti of the University of Turin in Italy carried out the above experiment, he added a final twist by adding naloxone, a drug that blocks the effects of morphine, to the saline. The shocking result? The pain-relieving power of saline solution disappeared.

So what is going on? Doctors have known about the placebo effect for decades, and the naloxone result seems to show that the placebo effect is somehow biochemical. But apart from that, we simply don't know.

Benedetti has since shown that a saline placebo can also reduce tremors and muscle stiffness in people with Parkinson's disease (Nature Neuroscience, vol 7, p 587). He and his team measured the activity of neurons in the patients' brains as they administered the saline. They found that individual neurons in the subthalamic nucleus (a common target for surgical attempts to relieve Parkinson's symptoms) began to fire less often when the saline was given, and with fewer "bursts" of firing - another feature associated with Parkinson's. The neuron activity decreased at the same time as the symptoms improved: the saline was definitely doing something.

We have a lot to learn about what is happening here, Benedetti says, but one thing is clear: the mind can affect the body's biochemistry. "The relationship between expectation and therapeutic outcome is a wonderful model to understand mind-body interaction," he says. Researchers now need to identify when and where placebo works. There may be diseases in which it has no effect. There may be a common mechanism in different illnesses. As yet, we just don't know.

4. Belfast homeopathy results

MADELEINE Ennis, a pharmacologist at Queen's University, Belfast, was the scourge of homeopathy. She railed against its claims that a chemical remedy could be diluted to the point where a sample was unlikely to contain a single molecule of anything but water, and yet still have a healing effect. Until, that is, she set out to prove once and for all that homeopathy was bunkum.

In her most recent paper, Ennis describes how her team looked at the effects of ultra-dilute solutions of histamine on human white blood cells involved in inflammation. These "basophils" release histamine when the cells are under attack. Once released, the histamine stops them releasing any more. The study, replicated in four different labs, found that homeopathic solutions - so dilute that they probably didn't contain a single histamine molecule - worked just like histamine. Ennis might not be happy with the homeopaths' claims, but she admits that an effect cannot be ruled out.

So how could it happen? Homeopaths prepare their remedies by dissolving things like charcoal, deadly nightshade or spider venom in ethanol, and then diluting this "mother tincture" in water again and again. No matter what the level of dilution, homeopaths claim, the original remedy leaves some kind of imprint on the water molecules. Thus, however dilute the solution becomes, it is still imbued with the properties of the remedy.

You can understand why Ennis remains sceptical. And it remains true that no homeopathic remedy has ever been shown to work in a large randomised placebo-controlled clinical trial. But the Belfast study (Inflammation Research, vol 53, p 181) suggests that something is going on. "We are," Ennis says in her paper, "unable to explain our findings and are reporting them to encourage others to investigate this phenomenon." If the results turn out to be real, she says, the implications are profound: we may have to rewrite physics and chemistry.
Well, you've better start writing. Other points covered are The horizon problem, Ultra-energetic cosmic rays, Dark matter, Viking's methane, Tetraneutrons, The Pioneer anomaly, Dark energy, The Kuiper cliff, The Wow signal, Not-so-constant constants, and Cold fusion.


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21 comments

18 Mar 2005 @ 21:34 by Klaus Gormsen @81.19.226.145 : Placebo
I once read about an experiment, where test persons, who had strong personal experiences with LSD, got placebo "LSD", really believing they took LSD. The effects were amazing. They got all the far out alterations of consciousness they had experienced previously - but now without the drug!!!
Theoretically we could all learn to mimick the effects of everything by the power of mind: Sleeping pills, stimulants, psychedelics, painkillers. But its probably much easier with a placebo pill, You believe is the real thing.

Klaus Gormsen

Flemming: Fælledparken-karnevallet i Kbh. er nu kun 2 md.væk!  



18 Mar 2005 @ 23:57 by Andrius Kulikauskas @193.219.5.40 : Happy Earth Day, Ming!
Flemming, I send you greetings http://www.openleader.com/index.php/VirtualFlashMobs/EarthDayGreetings on Earth Day (and Nooroz). We set up an RSS feed to display on our lab's front page http://www.ms.lt and your wonderful blog (in the Public Domain) is part of it. Just to let you know! Thank you. Also, a lot of excellent news regarding work coming in, starting off with a project Shannon Clark and I expect to lead together, and we will workers like you to give pieces to. Let's think about it, and I've set up Open Leader Biz http://www.openleader.com/index.php/OpenLeaderBiz/Welcome and you might sign in there on our wiki. I'd like to set up the work so instead of a traditional big database for batch analysis we would break it up into modular pieces that individual developers could develop for, then pull the results, reports together through a Lucid interface. We're also making good progress on our peer-to-peer social networking system. Please think of what you want to do in life, and let us know, because it would be fun to work together. Thank you for your fantastic blog and spirit!  


19 Mar 2005 @ 00:36 by ming : Earth Day
Hm, I somehow missed that it was earth day. Cool on the RSS feed, and other good news!  


19 Mar 2005 @ 00:43 by ming : Placebo
Somebody, I believe it was a teacher in a hypnosis course, told me that anaesthesiologists have a well-kept secret. Anaesthesiology works to a large degree based on suggestion. So, when an anaesthesiologist himself needs to get an operation, one needs to use several times the normal dosis, because he knows the secret. So there's the intriguing twist that it isn't just that one can duplicate the effects of drugs with placebos or suggestions, but that it is the other way around: that they only work in the first place because they suggest a certain effect. Physically, I suppose. I.e. they somehow feel like they're the kind of stuff that makes one drowsy, hallucinating, or whatever, and one goes along with the hint, and essentially does the trick oneself.

Ah, karneval, ja det kunne jo være sjovt.  



19 Mar 2005 @ 00:54 by ankh : Of course it makes sense to me
having been through a series of Bach Flower Remedies long ago, I experienced how powerful homeopathy is, and left no ill side effects as some drugs might have. Except for one of them, I did not know what they were used to treat when I started them. They all did marvelously well for the short time I needed to use them. Had nothing to do with suggestion in my case. Maybe it has to do with who is receiving what treatment. What is the secret in anesthesiology? It's a medication that goes into the veins. Some people can hold off longer than others, but eventually everyone goes under. Doesn't matter if someone is counting you down or not. Why does a larger dose of Valium given when you aren't even aware of it just as successful in putting a person temporarily out?  


19 Mar 2005 @ 16:21 by astrid : Guys, doesn't this just show....
..... how truly LITTLE we know and understand!?..... Why is the Ocean salty???? Noboy knows! THAT us the truth of it!..... Now, you go from there.....and the more you demand that the Mainstream science is your measure for what's real n' what's not, the deeper trouble you're in -AND ignorance....

Earth-Day, ming, is April 22nd. I think your friend meant they are prepearing for E-Day, which has gained trememdous momentum over the appr 25 years it's been celebrated. Its impact has been bigger than anybody could anticipate the first E-D.
It needs to be taken out from it's "One-Day-A-Year-capsule" and be "celebrated" at least once a month. Why not a Clean-up our Neighbourhood (or whatever) once a month .... or somethin'...  



21 Mar 2005 @ 14:39 by Quirkeboy @209.92.185.199 : Mind over matter..
Just a little personal story that convinced me that there is such a thing as mind over matter..
I have a stong right eye.. and weaker left eye .. so I see the world mainly through my right eye.
I was at the optometrist.. and he gave me eye drops to dilate my eyes and sent me to the waiting room for them to take effect. For some reason I decided I was determined to not allow them to work.. (I dont like those drops anyhow!!)
So .. I get back into his office and he looks in my eyes and seems honestly surprised that my RIGHT eye (the one I see through mainly) was NOT dilated..
saying that he was SURE that he used enough drops. He had to give me 2-3 times the usual dose to get it to dilate.
Not as amazing as a guru who can live without food or water for 10 years... but its only the personal experiences that convince people.  



12 Jul 2005 @ 16:40 by Joseph Kirby @209.124.2.141 : hmm...
Just want to point out a basic idea in science a single study never demonstrates anything.

Take a class of 30 people and have each of them flip the same coin 10 time now some of them with end up with 5heads/5tails others with as few as 2h. It's the same coin and it's the same process but sometimes it works and others times it fails the point is you need several independent studies with large sample sizes to demonstrate anything.

Every time you see a study demonstrating a correlation with something you have to look at all the studies look at the same thing. If they say otherwise then there is no corilation. You need to watch out for this or you end up like a teacher who says this coin lands on tails way more than it should just because one guy in one class ended up with 10 tails.  



3 Jan 2006 @ 04:08 by Peter Helfer @69.157.186.146 : Ennis' work was flawed
An attempt to reproduce Ennis' results (the "Belfast homeopathy results" referred to above) under controlled conditions failed completely. Specifically, when the experimentors were not allowed to know which test tubes contained histamine dilute and which contained ordinary water, no effect whatsoever was observed. The experiment is described here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/horizon/2002/homeopathytrans.shtml  


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