Homeopathy: Different Isn’t Better

by Seth Shostak on March 16, 2011

Sketchy beliefs may be bizarro, but in general, they do no serious harm.

Just to cite an example, the majority of Americans believe in angels. But how bad is that? From my point of view, not very – given that these soaring Seraphim don’t seem to clutter the airspace near La Guardia. About half of the citizenry thinks ghosts are real, although you’d be hard pressed to find many ghost exhibits at your local science museum. And a 1999 CNN poll showed that 6 percent of the populace figures we never landed astronauts on the moon. Nutty, and not much of a confidence builder for NASA, but well … if folks want to think that Neil Armstrong never made a giant leap for mankind, it’s no skin off my proboscis.

Even the disbelief in evolution – while ultimately bad for society because of the failure of the populace to understand good science – doesn’t harm (or kill) you outright.

But there’s one area of human experience where ignoring science can kill you, and kill you fast: bad medicine. Or in the case of homeopathy, the lack of good medicine.

Homeopathy is the ultimate in symptomatic relief, and is billed as an alternative treatment for whatever ails you. Today, it’s the fastest growing form of alternative medicine, attracting tens of millions of adherents in Europe and quite a few in the U.S. But the problem with alternative medicine is that it’s truly alternative: it substitutes for something else.

Here’s the idea behind homeopathy: You start with some substance that causes the same symptoms as your malady – just about anything (animal, vegetable, mineral) is acceptable. Then you dilute it with water and drink it.

In other words, if you have a headache, you might water down some red wine (a known migraine inducer) and use the diluted elixir to treat a pain in your brain.

This may be reminiscent of the way vaccines work. To prevent smallpox for example, just infect yourself with a weak case of that very disease, and you won’t suffer the real deal. “Let like be cured by like,” as the homeopaths would say. I suspect that this similarity in approach is not coincidental. Edward Jenner developed the smallpox vaccine in 1796, and Samuel Hahnemann proposed homeopathy a mere 14 years later.

But the approaches are only superficially similar. Vaccines are specific; they prevent a clearly identifiable disease caused by a specific agent (smallpox virus, for example). A headache, on the other hand, could be due to a whole slew of causes, ranging from vino to stress to a brain tumor. With homeopathy, the cure’s not tied to the disease – it’s tied to the symptoms. To see how illogical this is, just think of how many maladies cause fevers.

In addition – and this is the point skeptics most often make – there’s simply no plausible mechanism offered for how homeopathy could work. Vaccines stimulate the body’s immune system to set up a defense against a specific attacker. But red wine? Sure, maybe it could cure some maladies; I mean, that’s not beyond the pale. But the degree to which homeopathic remedies are diluted – often by a factor of a trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion to one – means there’s not a single molecule of red wine anywhere in a bottle of the relevant homeopathic elixir.

Let me state that again: the dilution of the presumably active substance in a so-called “30C” homeopathic remedy (typical of what you can buy over the counter) is equivalent to a single crystal of sugar dissolved in a ball of water centered on the Sun and reaching beyond Alpha Centauri! A sip of that stuff won’t be overly sweet.

Defenders of homeopathy will admit this, but maintain that the original substance has somehow modified the water to produce some therapeutic benefit. In other words, the water somehow “remembers” what was put in it.

How does that work? Physics says it won’t. But there’s also this remarkable consequence: if water could really remember a dissolved substance even after the substance has been removed, then the wet stuff coming out of your kitchen tap should cure every disease known to man, to dinosaur, to trilobite, and to anything else that’s crept or crawled on this planet.

Well, OK. But hey, sometimes science recognizes a phenomenon and puts it to practical use long before it’s truly understood. Electricity is an example, as is photography. So maybe we should say that, while homeopathy doesn’t make sense, we would be silly not to at least give it a try.

Well, as pointed out by physicist and science writer Simon Singh (who has a new book on alternative medicine entitled “Trick or Treatment”), we have given it a try. Hundreds of tries, in fact. These clinical studies of homeopathy have failed to prove that it works. So ask yourself: if a pharmaceutical company were trying to market a product without a molecule of active ingredient and no clear track record of success – would you let them sell it?

Frankly, and despite the fact that homeopathy has so many ardent users (Prince Charles is a fervent fan), this centuries-old therapy is like waving dead chickens over an invalid. Probably doesn’t hurt. But it doesn’t help. And that’s the danger.

The problem isn’t that homeopathy is a complement to science-based medicine. It’s that it’s an alternative.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar KathyO March 22, 2011 at 10:36 am

I think the hardest thing about being a skeptic is knowing when to speak out. As you say, although most irrational beliefs don’t do any harm, medical claims are a tricky area. Do I really want to deprive a friend of an effective placebo for a minor ailment? On the other hand, if I don’t say anything, what are the chances that this person will pursue nonsense to treat more serious conditions?

avatar The Prof March 27, 2011 at 7:06 am

Hello

It was our local skeptic group in Merseyside (Liverpool UK) who started the 1023 campaign on October 23rd 2009, against homeopathy. Our original protest was against the high street pharmacy retailer ‘Boots’ selling homeopathic sugar pills in their stores (off the shelf without the consultation). It has now gone global, with our last demonstration at the QED conference held by Manchester Skeptics and Merseyside Skeptics on the first Sunday in February this year at the Raddison Hotel in Manchester UK. We had other groups on every continent participating, even Antarctica! So it is nice to see the subject given air time on the show. However I would have been more critical, and voiced that it works no better than placebo.

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