A Sub-Molecular Dilution of Credibility

A couple of hours ago, the anonymous quack who calls herself homeopathy4health posted an article entitled “James Randi avoids homeopathic challenge for $1 million prize” and, in true cowardly fashion, immediately disabled user comments. She links to, and characteristically copy-pastes most of, a page called “the facts about an ingenious homeopathic experiment that was not completed due to the ‘tricks’ of Mr. James Randi” apparently written by someone called George Vithoulkas, who had taken up Randi’s $1m challenge. (Randi offers a million dollar prize to anyone who can prove something supernatural, a category in which he includes many alternative ‘therapies’ such as homeopathy.)

Neither is fun to read. Quacks do love to go on, possibly because simply saying a lot of things is an effective way to stop sceptics from being able to counter them all – it takes a second to say ‘miasmas exist’ without a reference but it takes a good five minutes to properly explain why they don’t. Throw in a stock ‘reference’ and a response might take an hour to craft. Of course, you can just say ‘prove it’ but that won’t convince anyone who doesn’t already have a healthy respect for science. It also doesn’t help that the English is somewhat broken. Possibly it is a second language. (In the quote below I have refrained from adding ‘[sic]’ after errors, as it would be appended to every other sentence and just look like Vithoulkas had been at the sherry.)

Apparently, Randi fell ill and the challenge had to be postponed, by which time a change of management meant the centre would not be willing to participate. I can sympathise with this – the research unit I work for has this kind of problem all the time. Almost exactly this has happened at least once. That’s one of the problems, unfortunately, with doing proper science: everything has to be planned so meticulously that the slightest detail can throw it out and cause long delays. Vithoulkas claims that this was a trick to avoid ever having the experiment:

In 7.4.2006 Mr. Gindis wrote to Mr. Randi in order to signal to him that the homeopathic team was ready to start... But instead Randi suspended all activities of the experiment attributing it to his supposedly state of health! Mr. Randi knew very well that this period was crucial for us to start the experiment and we had made this urgency explicit by sending several e-mails urging them that it was necessary to go ahead immediately. But Mr. Randi needed ...six months "to recover" denying to assign a collaborator.

James Randi is 80 years old. Is it really that hard to believe he might be ill?

Vithoulkas and his team refused to accept this change to the schedule and have decided to do the experiment without Randi, which Randi.org quite accurately described as a withdrawal from the challenge. Randi points out that as his foundation is the one offering a million dollar prize, he gets to set the terms. Vithoulkas has decided that this is unfair and then, brilliantly, written Randi a retraction for him to post. He hasn’t. It seems to me that as a homeopath Vithoulkas is unfamiliar with the problems faced by real scientists doing actual clinical trials and is presumably used to ploughing on in an ad-hoc fashion and knocking the whole ‘study’ out in a week.  I can see how in that case Doing It Right might look like stalling.

Still, whoever is right, I presume that since homeopathy4health is now in the business of chastising sceptics who she feels are shirking from a challenge, she will be immediately getting six bottled remedies and negotiating with Andy Lewis to find a trusted third party so she can participate in his far easier, lower-stakes challenge.

Otherwise frankly she’s fooling nobody but herself (and that’s only because herself is so very credulous).