Debunking Homeopathy. Again.


Homeopathy. It’s absoHomeopathic cartoonlute bunk. But you already know that. All those forms of ‘magic medicine* are bunk, of course, but homeopathy has a special place reserved for it in the kingdom of codswallop.

Codswallop is dangerous to the mind, and often to your wallet, but homeopathy compounds that by being dangerous to your health, too, even fatal, as Penelope Dingle discovered. Yes, homeopathy can kill you, if you take it’s fake cures instead of actual medicine or treatment.**

But, you ask, if a placebo works (in some cases), what’s wrong with it? As Joel Gottsegen wrote in the Stanford Daily last week, it’s the pseudoscience baggage that attends its use that is equally dangerous:

Helping people with chronic pain via the placebo effect is nice, but there are many ways to achieve this effect that create less collateral damage. Giving someone a sugar pill is relatively simple. Creating an enormous ideological framework that clouds people’s judgements about mainstream medicine is not. The biggest problem with practitioners of alternative medicine is that they often deny the soundness of scientific studies as a measurement of the efficacy of a treatment. This is a dangerous sentiment. If Deepak Chopra were to discover a new form of medical treatment that helped sick people, it should be possible to test that the treatment is actually working. By denying the validity of the scientific method, alternative healers free themselves from any kind of accountability.

The Atlantic Magazine quoted Steven Salzberg, a prominent biology researcher at the University of Maryland at College Park, saying homeopathy is a…

…cleverly marketed, dangerous quackery. These clinics throw together a little homeopathy, a little meditation, a little voodoo, and then they add in a little accepted medicine and call it integrative medicine, so there’s less criticism. There’s only one type of medicine, and that’s medicine whose treatments have been proven to work. When something works, it’s not all that hard to prove it. These people have been trying to prove their alternative treatments work for years, and they can’t do it. But they won’t admit it and move on. Of course they won’t. They’re making too much money on it.

I got back onto this old horse of an argument recently when a Facebook poster responded to my posts urging residents to get a flu vaccine by saying, “If you care for your health, take a homeopathic alternative with no added toxins.” No added anything, really, since homeopathic “remedies” are simply placebos and what you get in those little pills is a little sugar and nothing else.

Taking nothing does just that: nothing. If you care about your health – and that of others – you’ve already had your flu shot. Homeopathic “remedies” will not prevent the flu from spreading or infecting anyone. In fact they’re actually helping spread disease.

In short: homeopathy is bunk, and dangerous, unhealthy bunk at that. It’s taken off these days because of the internet-driven conspiracy-theory gullibility that pervades our culture. Terms like “Big Pharma” are used to scare people who are already deeply suspicious of government, corporations, developers, Liberals, contrails, medicine, vaccinations and science. Ooh, scary…

Homeopathy cartoon
Many people tout this New Age homeopathic nonsense online, but often they and their gullible followers don’t actually know what homeopathy is, how it originated or what it means. Nor any of the research that has gone into debunking its basic tenets. In Australia, for example, the government officially termed it useless and scathingly debunked it:

“There is no reliable evidence that homoeopathy is effective for treating health conditions.” That is the stark conclusion of the Australian government’s extensive review of the available scientific literature pertaining to homeopathic therapies, which use highly diluted formulas to treat numerous ills.
Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council assessed studies on the effectiveness of homeopathy in treating 68 different conditions, including asthma, arthritis, cold and flu, chronic fatigue syndrome, eczema, cholera, malaria, and heroin addiction, and concluded that either the homeopathic treatment was no more effective than placebo or that there was insufficient evidence to suggest the homeopathic cure was more effective than that. “Homeopathic remedies contain nothing whatsoever,” University College London pharmacologist David Colquhoun told The Independent. “The Americans have spent $2 [billion] investigating these things . . . they haven’t found a single one that works.”

Homeopathy isn’t some ancient, natural cure, or some tribal secret rediscovered. It was invented in 1796 and is based on principles taken from alchemy.

To be fair a lot of medicine in those days was quackery, and the nature of viruses and bacteria completely unknown. We’ve progressed far beyond those days in medicine and science. Homeopaths haven’t, and want to drag us back 200-plus years. As Wikipedia notes,

At that time, mainstream medicine used methods like bloodletting and purging, and administered complex mixtures, such as Venice treacle, which was made from 64 substances including opium, myrrh, and viper’s flesh.These treatments often worsened symptoms and sometimes proved fatal.

Samuel Hahnemann rejected many of these mixtures and practices. He believed that you needed to check not only the patient’s symptoms, but also his or her personal traits, physical and psychological state, and life history. Not unreasonable and for his day rather forward-thinking. But to explain disease, he drifted into bafflegab. He decided diseases were caused by some vaguely-defined “miasms.”

Hahnemann looked for substances that caused similar symptoms in healthy people as the illness did in the sick (you can see the fallacy right away, as explained below). He reasoned that large doses of that substance would aggravate illness, but because he also believed that “like cures like” he concluded that small doses would cure the illness. That’s magic. Science-Based Medicine describes the principle of “like cures like” as just another superstition:

…another way of stating the ancient superstition of sympathetic magic – the kind of magical thinking that led some ancient cultures to believe that rhino horn is a cure for impotence because of its superficial resemblance to the erect male organ. This is a pre-scientific notion, based upon vitalism or essentialism – that substances contain an essence that can be transferred separate from their physical substance. These notions remain core to homeopathy today.

And in another article on SBM:

Say you have a headache. What causes a headache? Being smacked on the head by a hammer. So in homeopathic thinking, being hit on the head with a hammer would cure your headache.
But you would not want to give known poisons like arsenic or belladonna to people in attempt for like to cure like, unless one would classify death as cure. Even the otherwise chemistry-challenged homeopaths know that would be a bad idea.
So there is the second law, that of infinitesimal dilutions, where the substances are sequentially diluted in either water or alcohol, and the potency increases with each dilution. And dilute it they do.
Take the hammer for the migraine. Take 100th of it. Thump the remainder against a Bible to activate it, the succussion of homeopathy. Then take 100th of that. Thump it against a Bible. Then 100th of that. Thump it against a Bible. And so on. Do that 6, or 15, or 30 or even 200 times. When finished you will have the an extremely small, perhaps nonexistent, but potentized hammer with power exceeding Mjölnir (Thor’s hammer). Use that to hit the skull to relieve the headache.
It doesn’t get goofier than that. Homeopathy is one of those topics which demonstrates that I am not a true skeptic. A true skeptic would say that homeopathy is highly implausible. I tend to say it is wackaloon impossible on basic principles. Zero plausibility would make homeopathy infinite on the SCAM index.

Hahnemann prepared his magical “remedies” by repeatedly diluting a specific substance he believed caused the symptoms in alcohol or distilled water. This might have even been effective in some cases had he stopped, but he continued to dilute so much that nothing of the original substance remained. He believed these dilutions enhanced “the spirit-like medicinal powers of the crude substances.” Hocus, pocus.

An Article on The Conversation adds this to explain how these dilutions work:

Homeopathy has a symptom-based approach to medicine – it ignores the actual mechanisms of disease. Take insomnia, for instance, the treatment for it is (among other things) “Coffea 30C”.
Coffea is caffeine, the substance in coffee that keeps you awake and the 30C describes how much the caffeine is diluted.
Now, most people would instinctively feel that giving caffeine to someone with insomnia is not the best idea, but the magic is apparently in the dilution.
The C in 30C means the solution has been diluted to one part in a hundred and 30C means the solution has been diluted one in a hundred 30 times.
If you take a drop of your morning coffee and drip it into the nearest dam, the concentration of caffeine in the dam would be higher than 30C dilution of caffeine.
In fact, a 30C dilution is highly unlikely to contain a single molecule of caffeine.

Read the Wikipedia article to get a better picture of how this all developed in Hahnemann’s mind and practice. Using 250-year-old medical theories as a modern cure is very much like using Ptolemaic views as the basis for modern astronomy (well, yes, creationists do that, but they’re anti-science wingnuts to begin with).

Modern homeopathic practitioners weren’t satisfied with Hanemann’s wacky theories by themselves, so they added more mumbo jumbo to make their nonsense appear scientific (albeit only to those with absolutely no scientific education whatsoever):

Modern advocates of homeopathy have proposed a concept of “water memory”, according to which water “remembers” the substances mixed in it, and transmits the effect of those substances when consumed. This concept is inconsistent with the current understanding of matter, and water memory has never been demonstrated to have any detectable effect, biological or otherwise. Pharmacological research has found instead that stronger effects of an active ingredient come from higher, not lower doses.

Water memory is so darn silly that you’d probably think it was a joke made to spoof New Age nonsense. But no, as the Wikipedia article notes, there are people gullible enough to believe in the…

…ability of water to retain a memory of substances previously dissolved even after an arbitrary number of serial dilutions. It is claimed to be the mechanism by which homeopathic remedies work, even though they are diluted to the point that no single molecule of the original substance remains. Water memory defies conventional scientific understanding of physical chemistry knowledge and is not accepted by the scientific community.

Just use a bit of logic here. If water retains a memory of something diluted in it, what are you drinking from your tap, in your coffee and tea? Surely the water remembers everything else that’s been in it. Aren’t you drinking human and animal feces and urine? Prescription drugs flushed down the toilet? Laundry soap? Shampoo? Stale tea and coffee? Runoff from car washes? Latex paint washed from brushes? Mud and soil from streams? Pesticides and fertilizer washed from fields? bathwater? So if water remembers everything, it has to remember a lot of crud and garbage that it passed through. You get the idea.

In deconstructing and debunking the ‘water memory’ fallacy, CSI writer Steven Novella wrote,

If this kind of water “memory” is an explanation for homeopathy, then these structures would have to survive not only in a sample of water but through the physical mixing of that water with other water. In fact, they would have to transfer their structure, like a template, to surrounding water molecules. This would need to be reliably repeatable over many dilutions. Then these structures would have to survive transfer to a sugar pill (often homeopathic remedies are prepared by a drop of the water being placed onto a sugar pill).
These water structures would then have to be transferred to the sugar molecules because before long the water will evaporate. This pill will then sit on a shelf for days, months, or years before it is finally consumed by a gullible patient. The sugar pill will be broken down in the homeopathy proponent’s stomach, and the sugar molecules will then be digested, absorbed into the blood stream, and distributed through the blood to the tissues of the body.
Presumably, whatever molecules are retaining this alleged ultrastructure are sticking together throughout all of these processes and finding their way to the target organ in which they are able to have their chemical/biological effect.
Absurd does not even begin to cover the leaps of logic that are being committed here. In short, invoking water memory as an explanation for homeopathic effects just adds more layers of magical thinking to the notion of homeopathy; it wouldn’t offer a plausible explanation even if the theory of water memory was true, which it isn’t.

So you really need to be pretty damned gullible to believe in that balderdash. And no, bottled water isn’t a solution: water still remembers even after it’s been filtered and boiled.

An article in Popular Science asked, “Is Homeopathy Really As Implausible As It Sounds?” and answered its own headline with:

…most homeopathic remedies are sold at much higher dilutions than 6X. On one popular homeopathic website, for example, sulphur is available in 13 different dilutions. The third-lowest dilution is 30X, which is well past the point where plausibility breaks down.
In fact, most available treatments are sold at even more absurd dilutions. Oscillococcinum, a popular flu remedy derived from duck liver and made by Boiron, a French manufacturer of homeopathic cures, comes in a standard dilution of 400X.
At this low concentration, to ensure you actually did ingest one molecule you would have to swallow about 10380 pills—many, many more pills than there are atoms in the universe.
And that’s pretty implausible.

Homeopathy cartoonHomeopaths have defended themselves, of course, but not well or scientifically (no experiment or replicated research has ever proven a homeopathic claim). On the Natural News site (a health-based New Age conspiracy-theory site that still touts the now-discredited ‘gluten sensitivity’ claptrap and “natural” herbal cures for ebola…), they presented 50 “facts” about homeopathy, most of which aren’t facts at all, just wishful thinking. Most of those 50 are simply logical fallacies. and were roundly debunked by Mark Crislip on Science-Based Medicine with each “fact” taken apart.

(CBC’s Marketplace ran a piece on some of the pointless and misleading terms and phrases used on “alternative” medicines you should read… they apply to more than just homeopathy…)

So let’s get this clear: homeopathy is bunk. Dangerous, superstitious bunk and you have to be really gullible to buy into it. It has failed in every good clinical test to show it has any more effect than a sugar-pill placebo. Remember: anecdote is not evidence. As Singh and Ernst write in their book, Trick or Treatment,

….hundreds of trials have failed to deliver significant or convincing evidence to support the use of homeopathy for the treatment of any particular ailment. On the contrary, it would be to say that there is a mountain of evidence to suggest that homeopathic remedies simply do not work.

Of course, you are allowed to be stupid and harm yourself by taking magic potions instead of proper medicine. You are not allowed to harm others, however, and taking homeopathic potions – even if they’re just water or sugar pills – instead of medicine for flu or other contagious diseases does just that. It  can be a serious threat to your friends, family and neighbours. It is anti-social to risk the health of those around you for your superstitions. It could result in the death of children.

In a perfect world, people who risk the health of others would be exiled or locked up for threatening the wellbeing of the community. So get your flu shot and leave the magic potions alone.


* In a 2008 article in the National Health Executive magazine, David Colquhoun, professor of pharmacology in the UK, commented sarcastically about several popular magic medicines that have no science behind their claims:

  • Homeopathy: giving patients medicines that contain no medicine whatsoever.
  • Herbal medicine: giving patients an unknown dose of a medicine, of unknown effectiveness and unknown safety.
  • Acupuncture: a rather theatrical placebo, with no real therapeutic benefit in most if not all cases.
  • Chiropractic: an invention of a 19th century salesmen, based on nonsensical principles, and shown to be no more effective than other manipulative therapies, but less safe.
  • Reflexology: plain old foot massage, overlaid with utter nonsense about non-existent connections between your feet and your thyroid gland.
  • Nutritional therapy: self-styled ‘nutritionists’ making unjustified claims about diet to sell unnecessary supplements.

** From Science Based Medicine, a comment on the potential threat to health some homeopaths present to their patients:

Imagine my surprise when I stumbled across “Adverse effects of homeopathy: a systematic review of published case reports and case series.” My first thought was – no way! Nothing can’t cause an adverse reaction and I would be skeptical that a homeopath would recognize, much less report, an adverse reaction.
The article was one of the usual complete evaluations by E. Ernst and colleagues. As always he scoured the published literature, finding the most obscure of articles pertaining to the topic at hand, and summarized them nicely.
The abstract flabbered my gaster:

In total, 38 primary reports met our inclusion criteria. Of those, 30 pertained to direct AEs of homeopathic remedies; and eight were related to AEs caused by the substitution of conventional medicine with homeopathy. The total number of patients who experienced AEs of homeopathy amounted to 1159. Overall, AEs ranged from mild-to-severe and included four fatalities. The most common AEs were allergic reactions and intoxications. Rhus toxidendron was the most frequently implicated homeopathic remedy.

Four fatalities from giving nothing? It turns out that most of the adverse reactions were intoxications or allergic reactions and were not from giving nothing after all:

In 94.7% of cases, the potencies were described as below 12 C, the point beyond which the likelihood of a single molecule being present in the remedy approaches zero. It is plausible that low dilutions of homeopathic preparations cause direct AEs, particularly allergic reactions.

People were being given cesium, bromide, petroleum, mercury (at higher doses found in vaccines) and arsenic and getting toxicities. Patients were being poisoned.

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One comment

  1. Worth a read:

    When a newspaper article pushes the idea that you can use distilled water and magic to treat a disease which is really killing thousands of people in Africa, though, that does matter. It may kill real people. Doing the “right” thing in journalism, working out the moral course of action, isn’t always easy, but in this case it is, and the Mail has chosen the immoral course. It is disgusting.

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