Pseudo-Science and Mystical Properties

Tony Travis ajt at
Tue Sep 7 17:38:36 EST 1993

aphrk at edu.montana.oscs.Msu wrote:
: Hello Tony:

: About your post mentioning your frustrations with "medicinal plant activity
: being explained by pseudo-science and mystical properties..."

: [...]
: Still, it is very frustrating to me to inform my natural products chemist
: friend of an herb which I know is positively affecting cancer, yet, she is

Ok, Robyn you 'know' you have an effect: all you need to do to convince
a sceptical audience is demonstrate that this same effect could not
occur by chance at a level of probability appropriate for the intended
use of the herb, and satisfy statutory regulations concerning its safety. 

The difficulty I have with 'mystical' properties of plants (or anything
else) is one of quantifying uncertainty.  I need to be convinced that
my observations could not, equally, be attributed to chance events.

For this reason, I select my plant material at random and replicate my
experiments in order to provide evidence that will support my
hypothesis.  Such 'experimental design' has a long and distinguished
tradition in agricultural research and enables an investigator to say
to what extent he/she believes the observation is not a chance event.

: not interested because it has been "studied" and there is no "active"
: ingredient.  Sigh.  I think that maybe we just haven't figured out how
: to measure things that seem to be "not there".  I.E., running the extract
: through liver enzymes for example, can sometimes uncover a chemical that
: was changed in vivo.  

You are raising two separate issues: the existence of an effect and the
elucidation of a mechanism.  If there is an effect, there must also be
a mechanism and I accept that we simply don't have the methods yet to
measure some things.

The role of calcium signalling in plants was a mystery until methods of
detecting and quantifying the very small levels of calcium ions were
developed.  The role of calcium signalling in plants is now one of the
most lively areas of plant physiology, so perhaps you can look forward
to an opportunity of elucidating the mechanism of action of your herbs
as new methods of analysis emerge.

Dr. A.J.Travis,                       |  JANET: <ajt at>
Rowett Research Institute,            |  other: <ajt at>
Greenburn Road, Bucksburn,            |  phone: +44 (0)224 712751
Aberdeen, AB2 9SB. UK.                |    fax: +44 (0)224 715349

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