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Home » Editor's Pick, Features, Top Story

The Facts About Homeopathy

Published by on Wednesday, 21 October 20094 Comments

HomeopathyWhen I told a friend of mine that I was going to write an article about homeopathy he suggested it might be more effective to just write a few lines about it. I chuckled. At this stage many of you will be scratching your heads wondering where the joke is, but hopefully by the time you reach the end of the article you will be able to appreciate it too.

It’s amazing to me how popular homeopathy is — in the UK alone it is a multi-million pound industry. Remedies are stocked in many pharmacies and even high street chemists like Boots and Holland and Barrett. It has legions of loyal followers who will swear blind that homeopathy cured them of whatever ailment they happened to be suffering from. It is also popular in Brighton and Hove, where not only do we have homeopaths plying their trade, but also a registered charity called Dolphin House devoted exclusively to the treatment of children with alternative medicine.

Surely all these people can’t be wrong? Surely they wouldn’t spend large sums of money needlessly? Well, as a sceptic you very often find that just because quite a lot of people believe something it doesn’t make it true or right. I’m sure there are many absolutely sincere homeopaths — people who genuinely think they’re helping, and thus have no qualms taking money for, as they see it, a job well done. When you ask most advocates of homeopathy how it works it’s really quite remarkable how few know the procedures involved.

The first stage in creating a homeopathic treatment is to do what is called a “proving”. This involves taking a perfectly healthy person (if you can define what that is) and giving them a substance – we’ll pick dandelion leaves in this case. Homeopaths will give this to a healthy person and wait for symptoms to develop. Let’s say this person develops symptoms of nausea, a high temperature and dizziness. Of course there’s no real proof that eating dandelion leaves has caused this effect in the person, but we’ll play along. This gets noted down and then passed around to other homeopaths.

Now, a patient goes to visit their homeopath with symptoms of nausea, a high-temperature and the constant feeling of giddiness. “Ah”, says the homeopath, “The ideal treatment for you would be a preparation of dandelion leaves”. You see homeopaths believe that whatever caused the symptoms can also cure the symptoms, but only when ingested in small quantities. Up to now you’ve probably not read a thing in this article that made you exclaim to yourself “What?!”. In fact injecting people with a small quantity of a virus, thus helping with their body to produce immunity to a full onset of the disease, has a basis in modern medicine. There are just two little problems when dealing with homeopathy: firstly introducing a virus into someone already suffering from that virus would have absolutely no effect whatsoever, and secondly homeopathy demands that the active ingredient be diluted to such an extent that not even a single molecule of the original substance remains.

Ah … there’s the “What?!”. It’s true — homeopathic preparations contain none of the so-called “active” ingredient, due to the preparation methods they use. To make a homeopathic preparation you take one part of the active ingredient, put it into 10 parts of water and apply a process called “succussion” (that’s their fancy word for shaking it and whacking the container against something). You then take one part of that diluted solution and add it to another 10 parts of water, and then the shaking ritual begins again. But there is no way you would give that to a patient … it’s far, far, far too strong (or is it too weak? You see how confusing this all gets.) This process continues many times until there is not one single molecule left in the dilation, and homeopaths insist that at every stage the solution is getting stronger and more effective.

Physicist Robert L. Park, former executive director of the American Physical Society, has noted that “since the least amount of a substance in a solution is one molecule, a 30C solution would have to have at least one molecule of the original substance dissolved in a minimum of 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,
000,000 molecules of water. This would require a container more than 30,000,000,000 times the size of the Earth”

Homeopaths make it clear that it’s very important that you also have consultations with the qualified homeopath (it’s rather difficult to define what that is as well), for just as the right homeopathic preparation is said to aid your recovery, the wrong one could make your symptoms worse. Now if we follow all this to its logical conclusion it would mean that no one who believes in homoeopathy could ever drink a glass of water, bottled or otherwise, as the number of substances those water molecules have come into contact with is so vast and varied. Proponents of homoeopathy should either be suffering from a vast myriad of symptoms or so dehydrated that they resemble human prunes.

Many might argue that there is nothing wrong with all this — if people want to spend large sums of money on something which demonstrates nothing beyond a placebo effect in certain people, then what is the harm? To an extent they have a point, but what concerns me, and this is the case with much of alternative medicine, is that people who have legitimate, and sometimes serious, medical conditions are avoiding going to a proper doctor. I’m sure most reputable homeopaths would send someone to a doctor if it was evident that they were suffering from something more than the minor ailments that plague us each and every day, but I also suspect that some wouldn’t: — for example, there are companies on the Internet which offer homeopathic anti-malarial tablets, treatments for exposure to anthrax and several serious cancer related conditions. And, sadly, it’s all too easy to do. There is very little legislation on homoeopathy as, superficially, it does very little, and it is that loophole that allows charlatans to exploit people.

So why do so many believe in it? It is because it exploits a human characteristic, and that is to constantly search for patterns and explanations. Our bodies are the most remarkable machines, evolved over millions of years, and most ailments our bodies can overcome with no help whatsoever. However they seem to disregard this fact, and search for a reason as to how they came to be better. Whatever activity they happen to be doing at the time will end up getting the credit: if they use a homoeopathic treatment they’ll sing its praises, if they’re rubbing themselves all over with magnets they’ll declare them to be the best thing since sliced bread. This is what’s known in science as anecdotal evidence, and it is the very thing that science has learnt that we cannot rely upon. That is why scientists set up test procedures to evaluate the authenticity of claims. Sadly for homoeopathy it falls very short in this regard. Just look at the image below, a photograph of the back of a homeopathic cure sold in Boots. “A homeopathic medicinal product without approved therapeutic indications”. If indeed it did work so spectacularly it would be comparatively easy to prove, and would be in the interests of any homeopathic companies to do so.
For several decades now James Randi of the James Randi Educational Foundation has been offering a $1 million prize to anyone who can demonstrate homeopathic treatments having an effect different from water. The foundation still has that money, and I don’t think they’ll be parting with it any time soon.

Bonus: Tony’s Homeopathic Hangover Remedy

  • Take one drop of pure alcohol.
  • Add it to a weight of water the size of the North and South Atlantic.
  • Shake.
  • Take a few random drops from this solution and place them on your tongue.
  • Wait a few days.
  • (This would produce quite a weak homeopathic solution, but it’s really not practical to use a container the size of the solar system in order to make a stronger remedy)


    • Joseph Putnoki says:

      I would need to write a mini essay. But I will be brief: Randi was featured few years ago in a Channel 4 British T.V segment that put homoeopathy in the cross-hairs. He tried to be fair and said while he is not convinced he is not closed to future proof about homeopathy’s effectiveness. Richard Dowkins also produced a documentary attempting to discredit alternative medicine generally and homoeopathy in particular. It was a poorly made film falling short of his customary brilliance of former ones. A
      number of errors, a superficial populist critical stance without doing his homework this time. I have no affiliation to the industry.
      WITH RESPECT the writer need to remedy her ignorance as well as adopt a non cynical stance, an open mind. Study the topic she criticises. Both allopathic and integrative medicine have their share of charlatans. Neither of them have monopoly oh truth and healing. There is some cooperation between practitioners of each camp but much hostility and arrogance in the reminder. Sure alternative medicine are not regulated as much as need be yet. “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”. In my studies there was only one lecturer who poised the question: what will you do if a published experiment you can not repeat? pause for a moment and ponder the question. I suspect the conclusion would be most times that invalidate the experiment. The lecturer said: AS A LAST STEP YOU MUST GO TO THE SOURCE AND OBSERVE CLOSE HOW IT IS DONE IN CASE YOU MISSED SOMETHING.
      Let me list a few myths worth checking out: evidence based medicine, reliable trials, full disclosure of details, validity of practice guidelines, independence of doctors, innocence of big pharma, FDA approved drugs tested long enough and not on select population or demographic, informed consent, truth about heart disease, cholesterol, animal fats, cooking oils, the food pyramid,agricultural practices and animal farming and a long list more.

      What do you say if you witness an animal been treated by acupuncture with positive results? What if an animal treated with homoeopathic medicine and recover and stays well? Other animals apart from us hardly would be influenced by the placebo effect! When you actually present and recognise they are not myths?
      Alternative medicine’s effectiveness depends more on the quality of the practitioner. The bad apples makes headlines sham practitioners and the bad eggs in the allopathic camp while sometimes mentioned in the media only if criminality is involved will be highlighted but inefficiency, ignorance, stupidity are not put too fine a point on.

      So if anyone takes on Homoeopathy, better do a good job, a honest job worth printing.

      Be well!


    • James says:


      Apart from some grammatical errors that made some of your argument hard to read (I found “what will you do if a published experiment you can not repeat?” particularly hard to parse), you make an eloquent if insubstantial argument.

      You say “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”. An oft-used (and misused) truism. However, many many people in many many blind, double-blind and meta studies have examined voluminous amounts of data both fresh and revisited – and have found precisely zero solid evidence of efficacy with homeopathic compounds. Which is exactly what you would expect to find with the quantities of active ingredients involved (unless homeopathy somehow subverts most laws of physics). You can find these studies at PubMed and many other sources.

      To paraphrase another truism, Occam’s Razor – if you look for that long and find no evidence, chances are there is none to be found.

      The scientific community has now practically given up on this subject as no longer worth spending time and effort on, as all studies have shown the same results.

      If you can point me to a published, peer-reviewed (preferably replicable) study that shows anything more by way of efficacy than is expected and seen with the placebo effect, I will be prepared to consider your argument further. Until then, the burden of proof is upon you.

      I’m afraid I must simply ignore your “list of myths”, as without any references or citations it is an unsubstantiated list of highly subjective assertions with no basis of fact.

      Regarding your comments toward the writer keeping an open mind – as someone much wittier than I once said, “there is such a thing as being so open-minded that your brains fall out”.

    • Maf says:

      I found your article predictable and limited. Instead of an ‘a priori’ approach it would be more interesting if you tried an ‘a posteriori’ approach: find people who used to be skeptics, who saw GPs and other specialists about a specific and persistent problem for years (let’s say, backache or insomnia or cystitis or skin problems) without ever resolving it, and who eventually found that homeopathy worked where ‘real’ medicines hadn’t. The placebo argument is not a rational explanation in those cases, because you would expect the GP’s pills to have cured the problem (or at least to have had the same placebo effect). The placebo argument also doesn’t apply to the successful use of homeopathy on animals and young children. A really ‘scientific’ approach should take factual evidence into account, and I mean the evidence of people with physical problems that ‘normal’ medicine couldn’t cure, being finally resolved by a good homeopath. Maybe there are just some things the scientific community doesn’t yet know. But personally I don’t care about the “scientific” explanations – homeopathy worked for me where years of doctors hadn’t, and I just wish I had been less skeptical and tried it earlier in my life.

    • Arthur says:

      When you criticise homeopathy, you are effectively criticising a ‘faith’, or a superstitious belief system – and you’ll receive the same angry responses from supporters as you would if you challenged religions or defenders of the supernatural.

      Supporters of homeopathy are little different to those who fall at the knees of weeping statues. It is belief in the face of evidence. It is the same rejection of the scientific method, and the elevation of anecdotal evidence and pareidolia (a misunderstanding of patterns), that blights all superstition and pseudo-science.

      Many people have fallen for homeopathy due to being unaware of the process and background. But you have to wonder about the state of someone’s critical faculties if they continue to fall for it after having been presented with credible information and evidence. As for those who make money out homeopathy, be under no illusions – a fair proportion of them know exactly what they are doing, and it is thoroughly dishonest.

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