It’s world homeopathy awareness week and so I thought I would oblige and make people aware of one of the most prevalent and pernicious forms of alternative medicine in existence. There are many who steadfastly believe in homeopathy even though the foundations not only have no basis in reality, they are really quite bizarre.
Preparation of a homeopathic remedy involves taking a substance which causes similar symptoms to some disease or ailment, followed by an enormous dilution of the substance to the point where not a single molecule remains. The resulting “therapy” (which is now just water) is then claimed to have therapeutic benefit while being devoid of side-effects.
To give an example, a dripping nose and running eyes are symptomatic of the common cold. According to the homeopathic ethos, onions offer treatment because they cause similar symptoms. The homoepath dilutes an extract of onion to make, for example, a 30C preparation. The 30C notation shows that the extract undergoes a one in a hundred dilution, thirty times over. To put this level of dilution into context, it is equivalent to ten billion times more dilute than a single atom contained within the planet Earth.
So what’s the harm if some gullible people want to spend their money on rather expensive water? If homeopathy only applied to treating running noses, then perhaps that’s not so bad. The trouble is however, some homeopaths claim to treat serious conditions such as haemophilia, AIDS, a replacement for vaccination, diabetes and infectious disease including Covid-19. Some homeopathic organisations are careful about what they recommend and may even say homeopathy should not replace regular medication. I’ll give credit for an attempt at ethical behaviour, but not all homeopaths are so moral. Many homeopaths also claim homeopathy is good science, and by inference all the genuine medical researchers in the world are bad scientists. Believe me, homeopathy is not science by any definition of the word, but this does not stop the proponents of homeopathy from trying to sound scientific. Perhaps at the more bizarre end of homeopathy sit remedies such as Murus Berlinensis – a scientific sounding name for an ultra dilution of pieces of the old Berlin wall – yes the Berlin wall, the one that was demolished in 1989.
The counter argument for homeopathy has focused on the huge dilution factors. Skeptics point out that the idea that ultra-dilution increases potency contradicts the laws of physics, chemistry, biology and just about any other legitimate science. Homeopaths respond by saying that water has a memory of the starting material, although there is no evidence for such an effect. Homeopaths also claim preparation of the dilutions are special through striking the vial in a process they call “succussion”. The physics behind succussion remains unclear.
There are many clinical studies that have looked at homeopathy. The homeopaths will select those that claim to show efficacy, science will look at all the data and conclude there is no effect. Of course, bad science can provide evidence for whatever you choose.
For my part, I don’t find the clinical studies that helpful as the fundamental premise of homeopathy is so implausible. And for my money, although the theory of increased dilution leading to increased potency is absurd, this does not deliver the homeopathic coupe de grass. There is another aspect of homeopathy that is often overlooked, the one that claims a substance that causes similar symptoms to some ailment will also be an effective cure. This is what’s known in homeopathic circles as the law of similars.
Let’s imagine that a scientist with the combined mental acuity of Newton, Einstein and Feynman won the Nobel Prize by showing that water had a ‘memory’. Homeopathy proven, right? Well no, because it still doesn’t explain how (to use the above example) onion is an effective treatment for the common cold. Back before it was known germs caused disease, back when leeches were state-of-the-art medicine, back when people died of what we might consider minor ailments today, a teleological philosophy prevailed. Plants effective against heart disease, for example, had heart-shaped leaves. Walnuts were good for the brain because they looked like little brains. If you are not familiar with the mushroom Phallus impudicus, then Google an image and take a guess what medical condition it might be used for.
These were the origins of the law of similars based upon medieval superstitions. Samuel Hahnemann continued with those traditions and applied the law of similars when he invented homeopathy in 1796. That the shape of a plant directs a physician towards its therapeutic use is not part of modern science. Those who argue against homeopathy seem to focus on the ridiculousness of the dilution but not so much on the ridiculousness of the law of similars. I am not sure why because either one of these hypotheses invalidates homeopathy as a science but the two together are a synergistic double whammy.
Homeopaths often provide lists of credentials (sometimes rather dubious) and lists of celebrities and other famous people, including the British Royal Family, who believe in homeopathy. Some pepper their narratives with the language of science; some become indignant and fire off salvos of ad hominems at their critics; some even just make stuff up to win the argument. Not all homeopaths do this and some may genuinely believe in what they do, but none of these things makes it real, none of these things makes it science.