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The Institute of Science in Society purports to be about promoting a socially responsible approach to science. It combines some reasonable stuff about global warming with a lot of utter rubbish about homeopathy (mainly written by the Institute’s director, Dr Mae-Wan Ho).

(This item has been transferred from the old IMPROBABLE SCIENCE page.)

I just stumbled across this organisation. At first sight, its theme of “science, society and sustainability” sounded right up my street. It seems to be predominantly an anti-GM, pro-organic farming, organisation. Although some of their contributors seem to be somewhat paranoid, there is much that I can agree with in what they say about that.

But they completely ruin their case by including quite barmy homilies about homeopathy (and here), water structure and traditional chinese medicine. There is also an amazing piece of sheer pseudo-scientific nonsense, “Homeopathic Medicine is Nanopharmacology” by Dana Ullman (though elsewhere on the site, nanotechnology gets a bad press).

Most of the nutty content seems to be written by the director of the Institute herself. Dr Mae-Wan Ho, who is listed as “Reader in Biology at the Open University” (that’s odd -no trace of her on the Open University web site). In fact some doubts have been cast on her biography. Wikipedia says “She is former head of the Bio-Electrodynamics laboratory at the Open University in Milton Keynes after either having been fired for incompetence or resigning because of personal reasons.” Whatever the truth in that may be, she clearly doesn’t understand homeopathy.

The board of directors of the Institute includes Zac Goldsmith (editor of The Ecologist) and it is advised by some apparently respectable scientists.

It is sad that an organisation with a respectable sounding title like the Institute of Science in Society is being used to propagate some pure pseudo-scientific gobblydegook. Is it any wonder that journalists and the general public get confused?

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13 Responses to Institute of Science in Society: beware!

  • dg says:

    thanks for your review of the i-sis site. I am interested in any more info on the articles you mentioned as all that was said is that they are eg barmy and nonsense without any published critique or analysis of any of the articles? this seems itself quite unscientific if as I suspect you approached them with preformed opinions and bias? I am not an apologist for such things, nor  have I studied them yet so have not set opinions, but I do like to keep an open mind and in particular always like to keep at the back of my mind the famous einstein quote about Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic…

    I does concerm me that many ‘scientists’ are only prepared to accept evidence of things that they have explanations for already: that is hardly a route for progress!

    I would imagine that Maewan-ho (who’s articles on gm etc  and also OUbiology course books I have read) doesn’t work at the OU any more as she seemed to have devoted her life to the work that you have mentioned!.

    regards dg. 

  • Thanks for your comment. It’s the first in the eight years since this was posted. Since then I’ve heard nothing about the Institute or its founder for years now.  I don’t even know whether it still exists.  If it does, it certainly doesn’t have much influence.

    You are quite right to say that I didn’t document any of the criticisms here.  There is so much elsewhere on this blog, and on thousands of others, that show homeopathy to be nonsense that it scarcely seemed necessary to repeat it on this post.  Homeopathy is particularly simple, because their pills mostly contain nothing whatsoever.  That means you don’t even need to do an experiment to find out whether the pills work better than a placebo: the pills are identical with the placebo.  The only way to escape that conclusion would be to deny the existence of atoms and Avogadro’s number. If you did that, the internet wouldn’t work.  It’s explained in this post, if you are interested in the details. I found it fascinating to discover that the founder of homeopathy had no way to do the calculations. Modern homeopaths have no such excuse. Worse still, a lot of them seem to believe that their ingredient-free pills will help to cure or prevent malaria, AIDS and Ebola. Such views amount to culpable homicide in my opinion. Indeed homeopaths have been jailed for manslaughter (of their own daughter). The pills may be harmless, but homeopaths are not.

  • dg says:

    thanks for the quick reply and glad I found your site there is some interesting stuff there for sure. Yes the i-sis site does exist and creates a plethora of interesting looking articles that I haven’t had the time to look at!. It’s mainly the gm stuff I am interested in and found out some very interesting info there for sure.

    I do know that the probability of a target molecule existing in a homeopathic solution is extremely low, but I think the article is looking at a completely different mechanism so that may not relevant to what they are saying;, its more a case of whether the mechanisms they are discussing are valid. I will at some point have a good read of the articles you mentioned when I have time and let you know what I think (fwiw!) , and if you are able too I would be interested in your critique! I think its all related to a series of articles about some
    undocumented properties of water, quantum effects etc. You are bound to be in a better position than me to understand and analyze them than me!

    I know from the few articles that I read that their information seems very cutting edge and well thought out, at least that is the impression I get so i dont think its fair to dismiss some of their research without a
    detailed analysis.

    Thanks a lot! dave. 

  • I’m afraid that the “mechanisms” that they discuss for homeopathy are sheer made-up (pseudo)science.  Once you have a bit scientific background, it’s easy to use long sciencey-sounding words to blind people with pseudo-science. If it worked, you’d imagine that there would have been at least a few convincing clinical trials during the last 200 years. There isn’t. 

    You say ” dont think its fair to dismiss some of their research”.  But as far as I know, they don’t actually do any research. They just speculate about other people’s research which is very different matter.  

    If you want a refutation of a particular claim, I’ll be happy to have a go, but there is so much pseudo-science there it isn’t feasible to go through the whole site. Meanwhile, the most relevant reference might be the Buzzword song:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1yTX514RAuQ

  • dg says:

    HI tx again for quick reply. there are 2 issues, we need to be careful not to conflate them. 

    1. whether  there *could* be a mechanism for something that is highly diluted to still retain some property, (such as is claimed by homeopaths to happen.)

    2.whether over time any research has shown statistical significant of homopathic cures. 

    It is theoretically possible that 1. could be true even if 2 is not. 

    I will have a look at the articles at some point and then be able ask you more about the psuedo science in detail and can look at any research claimed to back it up. 

    thanks again 

  • Just about anything could be true. Luckily for patients, you are required to produce good evidence that your idea actually is true before you can sell it to patients. Well that is the usual view. An exception in the law is made for homeopathy and other forms of alternative medicine. That’s not a good idea in my opinion. It could have something to do with Royal patronage, I fear.

  • dg says:

    Glad you like me like to keep an open mind!

    I agree there seem to be different standards for some things than others! eg I get the impression with chemicals and gm materials the safety standards may be not as high as for medicines?. Ie lack of evidence of harm is taken to be proof of safety even when the tests are short term and usually industry funded. 

    For all medicine I agree evidence of benefit should be required. Well I think the fda idea is good if its not proven then they have to say its not intended to cure etc Do you think that would be a good thing to do in the Uk or does that not go far enought?… I think safety is a seperate issue, most alternative products (assuming pure) have been in use for a fairly long time so their toxicity should be well  known already?.  so should new medicines perhaps have more stringent safety testing criteria, or is that the case already? 

    And then if  and when the ingredients as known to be safe the testing for purity of the product is another issue!. The polluted chinese herbs I am thinking of here. do you have any thoughts of the best way this could be policed?  

  • ishi says:

    *I just came across this but Mae-Wan Wo has a fairly new article (2013, ‘the new genetics’ )  in the journal Entropy (mdpi.com/journal entropy)  (an ‘iffy’ journal but some respectable people publish there and some of it is a bit ‘fringe’ but some of these fringe ideas actually make some sense but it takes usually years to work them out (i think historically this includes relativity and quantum mechanics for example). Ho also has some affiliation with Ray Kurzweil. The ‘homeopathy’ thing is mentioned in her paper  (eg see footnotes 60, 61 etc.) and this derives in part from http://www.arxiv.org/abs/1012.5166 (DNA waves and water, co-authored by Luc Montagnier (AIDS virus fame and notoriety) and physicst E del-Guidice (fairly famous in physics, though I dont know the assessment —Italy has had quite of few sortuh wack physicists (santilli, majorana).  Its hard to know who is ‘wack’ and who isn;t in my view—for example Newton believed both in his ‘calculus and newtonian mechanics’, and also alchemy. After years of study, only alchemy is now accepted as a scientific theory (eg nuclear fission, quantum mechanics), though newtonian mechanics could be viewed as a primitive precursor of the current consensus theory of alchemy, just as religion some argue was more or less a precursor of democracy.(Similarily Darwin’s works can be seen as the primitive precursor of Lamarckianism (now renamed stress-triggered directive mutation, and epigenetics).    

  • dogbreath says:

    David, when you mentioned in an early paragraph that you saw much to agree with in this respect regarding ISIS, were you referring to their anti-GM nonsense or something else?

  • It’s now 11 years since I wrote that, and I guess the honest answer is that I have no recollection at all of what I meant.  

    I was (and still am) pretty angry with Monsanto who gave GM such a bad name by their ruthless commercial exploitation of the technology.  But I think GM, properly used, has much to offer.  All the rumours about short term toxicity are pretty obvious nonsense.  The long term effects of introducing foreign genes won’t be know for a long time, but my guess, for what it’s worth, is that the risk is pretty small.

  • Bud says:

    With all due respect, your comments about the issues involving the 4th phase of water and why Mae-Wan Ho and her colleagues are writing about the aspects of homeopathy which can be explained by this simply indicate that you have not spent the time it takes to begin to understand the complex nature of water or the notions of Gilbert Ling regarding so much that has as yet been basically ignored for well over 50 years despite the answers his work provides and the enormous progress in science that has been achieved by those who have paid attention to these issues. Mae-Wan Ho’s two books The Rainbow and the worm and H2O and the living Rainbow are extremely demanding texts and have revolutionized the possibilities in biology and physics. I am in hopes that you may spend the time in exploring these in your busy schedule. If you do, I hope that you will write a kind of recanting of your previous comments so in opposition to what appears to be your open stance in regard to the other topics you approve in Mae-Wan Ho’s and her associates work. 

  • @Bud

    Gilbert Ling’s work is old and it’s thoroughly discredited.  If you look at modern work on the structure of water, you’ll find that water does indeed have some structure but the estimates of the lifetimes of these structures is of the order of a few nanoseconds at most.  Some say more like 50 picoseconds.  Water does indeed, in a sense, have a memory, but it is a very short memory indeed.

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