Homeopathy Awareness Week: how do you approve a course for something known not to work? Grant Jacobs Apr 15


Homeopathy[1] uses solutions diluted until the active ingredients are no longer present—water basically[2]—to treat illnesses.[3]

Poison-ivy-homeopathic-remedyThe premise of homeopathy is so absurd, it opens itself to parody.[4]

More seriously, homeopathy has been examined and found to be ineffective with several formal reports saying so. Fellow blogger Siouxsie mentions one such report from the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council. Similarly, the British House of Commons Science and Technology Committee’s report Evidence Check 2: Homeopathy gave a very firm “no” to homeopathy.

Coming forward and saying that homeopathy is ‘bunk’ isn’t a new development. Homeopathy has long been considered worthless. Take for example Oliver Holmes’ words this vectorial speech to medical students in 1871:[5]

  Some of you will probably be more or less troubled by the pretensions of that parody of mediaeval theology which finds its dogma of hereditary depravity in the doctrine of psora [homeopathy], its miracle of transubstantiation in the mystery of its triturations and dilutions, its church in the people who have mistaken their century, and its priests in those who have mistaken their calling. You can do little with persons who are disposed to accept these curious medical superstitions. The saturation-point of individual minds with reference to evidence, and especially medical evidence, differs, and must always continue to differ, very widely. There are those whose minds are satisfied with the decillionth dilution of a scientific proof. No wonder they believe in the efficacy of a similar attenuation of bryony or pulsatilla. You have no fulcrum you can rest upon to lift an error out of such minds as these, often highly endowed with knowledge and talent, sometimes with genius, but commonly richer in the imaginative than the observing and reasoning faculties.

[Oliver Wendell Holmes, Medical Essays. From The Young Practitioner, A Valedictory Address delivered to the Graduating Class of the Bellevue Hospital College, March 2, 1871.]

Modern statements that homeopathy is no better than placebo offerings are backed by studies. You might think that this would lead to no standards bodies approving courses teaching it.

However, in New Zealand the NZ Qualifications Authority (NZQA) approves courses in homeopathy.[6]

A question, then. How do you approve a course in something that is known not to work? Known not to have therapeutic value beyond a placebo effect.

If you search the NZQA website for ‘homeopathy’ you’ll be offered five pages among them listing courses and institutes that they have approved. As one example, they approved a ‘Certificate in Acute Prescribing with Homeopathy’. You don’t have to be a medical practitioner to realise ‘acute prescribing’ of homeopathic remedies makes little sense.

Elsewhere I have argued that homeopathic remedies should not be present in pharmacies. Should courses in homeopathy not be formally approved by NZQA?

You’re welcome to offer your thoughts in the comments below.

My feeling is that veneers of respectability and soundness ought to not to be given to practices like this as it may give consumers the misleading impression that the treatments ‘must’ have some merit if a formal accrediting agency has put their weight behind the courses teaching it.


Thanks to Alison Campbell for bringing the NZQA approval of homeopathy courses to my attention.

1. Or homoeopathy, but I prefer the simpler and more common form. (I confess, also, that for a while I found myself occasionally mistyping homeopathetic.)

2. Some seem to use alcohol as the solvent, in which case you might just as well take a nip of your favourite (strong) alcoholic drink.

3. The mixtures are, apparently, shaken between each serial dilution. My recollection is that this originated from a variant of his remedy that Samuel Hahnemann, the ‘inventor’ of homeopathy, introduced to help sell his remedy where a strong brand of Christianity appealed to faith healing. This variant was to whack the mixture against a bible after each dilution so that the power of the good book might enter the remedy. (Or so the sales pitch went.) The (few!) homeopath websites I have viewed made no mention of a bible but do mention shaking the mixture.

4. There are many other examples; this one isn’t by any means the best but I hope it gives readers the general idea.

5. I like the allusion to Archimedes, although I suppose you could say it really wants ‘nor a lever long enough’ added to it, rather than (just) the size of the fulcrum.

6. We could also look at other things NZQA approve such as courses in such as naturopathy and so on, but let’s stick to homeopathy for now. They have a section ‘Complementary Therapies’.

Other articles on homeopathy on Code for Life:

Homeopathy check-up: Not in the health system, disclaimers on labels

Homeopathy – practical remedies to address it?

Homeopathic remedies in NZ pharmacies

Undiluted humour: If Homeopathy Beats Science

Message to Otago Daily Times: homeopath is not a sound career option*

Homeopathy and farming; let’s do better, media

Homeopathy check-up: Not in the health system, disclaimers on labels

Medical DIY…

Homeopathy in NZ pharmacies revisited: Wartoff and more

USA survey of PhD graduate futures Grant Jacobs Apr 14


You have your PhD. Now what?

Hopefully most doctoral students try think about that well before they complete their PhD. Either way, this infographic drawn from data from post-doctoral fellows in the USA makes for interesting reading -

(Source: the acsb post, 'Where Will a Biology PhD Take You?' by Jessica Polka.)

(Source: the acsb post, ‘Where Will a Biology PhD Take You?’ by Jessica Polka.)

The full-size image can be seen on the acsb (American Society for Cell Biology) blog; I have excerpted the relevant portions below for easier viewing.

The general pattern shown bears some resemblance to that in other countries – I’ve shown charts for New Zealand and the UK near the end of the article.

The tenured (or tenure-track) academic career position is reached by a minority of Ph.D. graduates; a majority say this is their preferred option – Read the rest of this entry »

Books, boxes and cats – are eBooks reducing community access to university library material? Grant Jacobs Mar 19


Last year a chapter I wrote was finally published.[1] The book came in the box to the right -


Aimee, the cat, didn’t come with the book.

It’s massive tome, over 1200 pages. A print copy will cost something fierce, I’ve no doubt. Electronic copies of each chapter can be purchased too.

Read the rest of this entry »

First-person stories about science careers Grant Jacobs Feb 27

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… are the theme of the newly-lauched website, MySciCareer.


The website, developed by Eva Amsen and Lou Woodley, former biochemists who now work in science publishing, aims to expose a wide range of career options for those with scientific training through first-person stories available at a single source.

The articles can be accessed via job type, training (reflecting the last academic science position held), or just browsed at random. There’s also a search box at the top-right of each page for those after a specific thing and viewers can link to similar articles via the tags at the end of each article.

Each article is headed by a tweet-like pull quote, like this one* -


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More science-related reading ideas Grant Jacobs Feb 20

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I’m guessing most of those that follow this blog like reading. (Given time to read!)

Coming soon is the annual ScienceOnline (un)conference. They’ve just put out their list of books for this year’s meeting. I can imagine reading all of the 37 books, but I don’t have that sort of time…

It’s a great collection – check it out for reading ideas. Not all of them have been published yet; those that haven’t will soon.

A few picks from the collection: Read the rest of this entry »

Free science of science communication reading Grant Jacobs Feb 16

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If you’re into science communication and are looking for a little late-night Sunday reading, you might try the National Academy of Sciences’ summary of the second Arthur M. Sackler Colloquia on science communication, The science of science communication II. These meetings are focused on issues and best practices for scientists communicating science to non-specialists.

The first meeting focused on research in science education, communication, medicine, and decision science. The second meeting added perspectives from social and cognitive psychology, political science, mass communication, cultural anthropology, business, and social network analysis. Leaving out the front matters and the appendices, the summary of the second meeting is about 100 pages long – plenty to dig your teeth into.


You can download a free PDF of this. On the page for the summary, click ‘download’ (shown to left).


You’ll be presented with a login page. Click ‘I don’t have an account’ on the bottom-right.


Once you’ve done that, you will see a registration page. You could register to use NAS website – not a bad idea if you think you might like some of the other stuff at the NAS website. If you just want a copy of the Science of Science Communication PDF, click ‘Download as guest’ at the bottom-right.

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Science Communication seminars at Dunedin Grant Jacobs Feb 14

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If you’re interested in science communication and are in the Dunedin area, mark these in your diary for Monday 24th and Tuesday 25th of this month:

  • The Science Writer’s Muse: The (Empirically) Unexamined Life is Not Worth Living. Dr Jesse Bering, 12pm Monday 24 February 2014.
  • Science Communication – Why do people engage, what are the impacts and how can benefits be increased? Professor Nancy Longnecker, 5pm Monday 24 February 2014.
  • Science on Film: What format do audiences really connect with? Dr. Maarten Roos, 12pm Tuesday 25 February 2014.
  • “FACT… The survival of the EARTH depends on FROGS” Communicating the science of global amphibian conservation. Associate Professor Phil Bishop, 5pm Tuesday 25 February 2014.

All talks are at the Centre for Science Communication Annexe, 7 Malcolm Street.

I’ve copied the blurbs for each talk below. At the end of the article I have listed some short pieces I’ve written on science communication for those who’d like more to read.

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Homeopathy and farming; let’s do better, media Grant Jacobs Feb 09


Today Stuff published a Fairfax NZ News article titled, Homeopathy key for dairy farming couple. Unsurprisingly this has been spread to other sites, including pro-homeopathy sites.

Unlike many (most?) articles at Stuff, no means of commenting on this article are available.

Let’s quickly look at key problems in this story.

We might use as inspiration the TED slogan, “ideas worth sharing”, altering it to fit our purposes “information worth sharing”, considering ‘information’ and ‘news’ to be synonymous.

It carries with it a catch: if the information isn’t sound, it’s not worth sharing – not worthy of a place in a newspaper or news website.

Was this information, as it was published, worth sharing?

Read the rest of this entry »

Pratchett on becoming a manager: this too for scientists Grant Jacobs Feb 09

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I frequently hear or read of senior scientists bemoaning that they no longer do science, but manage. That in becoming a PI (principle investigator) working life has become dominated by paperwork, coordinating things and meetings.

Pratchett puts moving up career ladder to management responsibilities so eloquently in Night Watch (2002, hardback, p24) through the mind of Vimes former copper, now Commander of the Watch, reminiscing:

Where did I go wrong? thought Vimes as the litany went on. I was a copper once. A real copper. I chased people. I was a hunter. It was what I did best. I knew where I was anywhere in the city by the feel of my boots. And now look at me! A duke! Commander of the Watch! A political animal!  I have to know who is fighting who a thousand miles away, just in case that’s going to mean riots here!

When did I last go on patrol? Last week? Last month? And it’s never a proper point patrol, ’cos the sergeants make damn sure everyone knows I’ve left the building and every damn constable reeks of armor polish and has a shave by the time I get there, even if I nip down the back streets (and that thought, at least, was freighted with a little pride, because it showed he didn’t employ stupid sergeants). I never stand all night in the rain, or fight for my life rolling in the gutter with some thug, and I never move above a walk. That’s all been taken away. And for what?

Comfort, power, money and a wonderful wife…


…which was a good thing, of course, but … even so …

Damn. But I’m not a copper anymore, I’m a, a manager. I have to talk to the damn committee as if they’re children. I go to receptions and wear stupid toy armor. It’s all politics and paperwork. It’s all got too big.

What happened to the days when it was all so simple?

Faded like the lilac, he thought.

You could re-write that for a scientist so easily. (And many other careers too.)

In scientific research, students and post-docs are very much hands-on workers; group leaders much less often so.

Most group leaders have their time full running their laboratory, guiding the research, writing the grants, attending the institute’s meetings, peer-reviewing others’ grants, papers and job applications, doing teaching and all that goes with that. And so on.

Scientists don’t quite get “Comfort, power, money” – at least not a whole lot of these. Power of sorts in their own tiny sphere, perhaps. A modest income, provided you can keep the grants coming in. Comfort is whatever you make it I suspect.

In general there less for remaining hands-on, at least within the academic system.

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Coming soon: a remade Cosmos and Life on Earth Grant Jacobs Feb 06


A remade Cosmos

Carl Sagan’s Cosmos—both the book and the documentary series—were inspirational for many.

Well-known American astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson* is hosting a new take of Sagan’s tour and paean of the cosmos, titled Cosmos: A Space Time Odyssey. It’s showing in early March in the USA; hopefully it will make it’s way to New Zealand in time.

The writing team for the series includes members of the original series team of scientists and writers, such as Sagan’s wife Ann Druyan and astronomer Steven Soter.

Here’s a short (1:03) promotional video for the series,

YouTube Preview Image

You can view and read more at the series website, Facebook page or follow them on twitter.

If there’s one bone I’d like to pick, it’s: why use cartoon DNA molecules? There are excellent molecular graphics representations of DNA, and the other ‘molecules of life’, that reflect how they really are.

Life on Earth

Speaking of excellent animations of molecules, Life on Earth should have many as it features Drew Berry’s work. Readers can see some examples in a post I wrote two years ago that features some of Drew’s work along with some thoughts on molecular animations. You can glimpse examples of his work in the video blurb for Life on Earth below.

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