Sunday, February 6, 2011

QOTD: A placebo with side effects

Quote of the Day:
Although marketed as a homeopathic cold remedy, Zicam is not quite homeopathic. The 18th century German inventor of homeopathy, Samuel Hahnemann, believed in "vitalism," a spiritual essence that goes beyond physics or chemistry. This is by no means unusual; most people believe in spiritual or religious cures even today. "Medicine is most powerful," Hahnemann wrote, "when it communicates nothing material." Hahnemanns counter-intuitive solution was to eliminate the cure. This he did by sequential dilution. Alas, Loschmidt had not yet determined Avogadros number. To be certain that "nothing material" remained, Hahnemann typically used a dilution of 30C. That is, the substance was diluted to one part in 100, shaken (not stirred) and then diluted one part in 100 again, 30 times. This would exceed the dilution limit of the entire Earth, which is to say it's a meaningless result. Not so Zicam; the dilution is given on the package as only 2X; i.e., the X means the active ingredient, zinc, is diluted one part in 10, shaken, and diluted one part in 10 again. Now it's one part in 100. Compare that to Oscillococcinum, which is also marketed as a homeopathic cold remedy. The active ingredient is an extract of the liver of the Barbary duck at a ridiculous dilution of 200C. That would exceed the dilution limit of the entire visible universe and is thus totally meaningless. The average consumer is totally unaware that he's shelling out 10 bucks for a teaspoon of sugar.

The case before the Court involves a class-action suit against Matrixx, the makers of Zicam, for failing to inform investors of reports that its main product might have caused some users to lose their sense of smell, a condition known as anosmia. Perhaps, but anosmia has many causes and true homeopathic remedies have no side effects, or any other effects, since the active ingredient has been completely diluted away. But in Zicam the active ingredient, zinc, should be detectable by conventional means. In a brief explaining why Matrix did not feel obliged to report complaints of anosmia from users of Zicam, the company lawyer drew an analogy with old rumors that the Procter & Gamble logo had satanic links. The logo, consisted of a bearded man's face on the Crescent moon surrounded by 13 stars. It was said to be a satanic distortion of the heavenly symbol alluded to in Revelation 12:1. The flowing beard meets the surrounding circle with three curls that were said to be a mirror image of the number 666, the number of the beast. The foolish rumor damaged the P&G image and was withdrawn. Matrixx used the example to argue that there is no disclosure obligation on how "ignorant or paranoid people might react to false information." I would argue however that ignorant or paranoid is a reasonable description of anyone who buys a homeopathic product. The government position is that negative stories, even [if] they're based on superstitious nonsense, should be disclosed to investors. According to the New York Times, Justice Scalia disagreed, saying it would hold companies to irrational standards. Standards? We're talking about a company that is marketing fraudulent medicine to a gullible public. Inform the investors by all means, but first inform the public. - Bob Park

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