The Facts About Homeopathy
When 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
(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)