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Homeopathic research will never be decisive

Yesterday's BBC Horizon programme was on cold fusion, which most people thought was a dead duck after widespread failure to replicate the original claims by Ponds and Fleischmann. (Even Fleischmann, it appears, now accepts that these claims were mistaken.) However, Dr Rusi Taleyarkhan at Oak Ridge National Laboratory has recently revived cold fusion using a different technique based on sonoluminescence. His research has been published in the leading US science journal, although not everyone in the field accepts his claims. Horizon set out to replicate his work and see if in fact neutrons were being generated. The attempt failed. Horizon asked Taleyarkhan to comment; he said that the failure was due to not following his technique sufficiently accurately.

All this is oddly reminiscent of the claims and counter-claims that have dogged other contentious research such as that into homeopathic dilutions. Homeopaths claim that the highly dilute solutions they use (so highly dilute that there should be no molecules of the original substance left) reveal astonishing properties of water. The late Jacques Beneviste published research on this question in Nature and the consequent furore largely put paid to his scientific career. However, research on homeopathic dilutions still continues and positive results continue to be claimed.

One big difference between homeopathy and cold fusion is the amount of attention they receive. If cold fusion were ever shown to work the results would be enormously significant. We would have a cheap pollution-free and inexhaustible source of energy for ever. Homeopathy, in contrast, is very small beer. So while cold fusion attracts millions of dollars of funding and is focused on by research groups all over the world, homeopathic research has to be carried out on the proverbial shoe string. As a result, I doubt if a consensus about it will ever be reached.

In fact, Horizon did do their own research on homeopathy last year and, as in the present case, they reached a negative conclusion. Predictably, this did not have more than a minor effect on homeopaths, who simply dismissed the research as flawed, for much the same reasons as Taleyarkhan.


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