In this article I will take a calm and objective look at what the therapy invented 200 years ago by Samuel Hahnemann and known as ‘homeopathy’ is and why it is absolute crap.
Not only is it utter crap but somehow it’s acquired an air of respectability. As the Lancet famously said in 2005, the more dilute the evidence for homeopathy, the greater seems its popularity. All over the place people are talking unashamedly about trying homeopathic remedies on themselves, their children and their animals, oblivious to the fact that talking like this immediately flags up that they are ill-educated, gullible or deluded. It is because homeopathy is so absurd and yet taken so seriously by so many who should know better, that I focus on it a lot when I’m ranting about alternative therapies in general.
I’ve already said a bit about the (lack of) scientific evidence for homeopathy but there is much more of this lack of evidence, so to speak, elsewhere on the web. Try PubMed and Cochrane. As for why people use it, I think the reasons why people try it are much the same as the reasons why they try other alternative therapies and I discussed some of those reasons in an earlier post. One of the reasons I suggest is that people don’t actually know what is (or, rather, what isn’t) in the remedies and how their manufacture has much to do with weird cultish rituals and nothing to do with science or medicine.
Let’s look at how they’re made. The UK-based homeopathy manufacturer, Helios, helpfully provide a list of several hundred homeopathic ingredients on their website. Here are a few examples:
If you’re thinking that homeopathy’s beginning to sound quite appealing, then my next example will make you wonder if it’s actually some footballer’s totty’s Christmas list I’ve been looking at by mistake.
Chanel No. 5
No, really. Here’s their remedy finder, check it out yourself if you don’t believe me.
Why it should be Chanel No. 5 and not, say, Chanel No. 19 or Miss Dior or Old Spice, is anybody’s guess. More intriguing is the question of how in the name of Zeus did it even occur to some deranged quackpot to consider that an upmarket perfume best known for being Marilyn Monroe’s only sleep attire might just possibly have useful healing properties in the first place.
And I have the same question about this next one:
WTF? Did someone spot a wee goldfish swimming round in its bowl and think ‘Hey, maybe a dose of goldfish would help with my hurty knee (or whatever)’? I mean, seriously, whatever possessed anyone to even think of investigating a goldfish’s medicinal properties?
To call them deranged is putting it mildly. Compared to other things on that list, perfume and goldfish sound almost reasonable. At least they exist. What are we to make of this next one?
Venus Stella Errans
A quick google revealed this to be the ‘focussed light of the planet Venus’. We’re not told exactly how they get this light into the remedy but we are treated to a very plausible hypothesis:
Whilst I don’t think that the symptoms that can be cured by this remedy will be ones caused by exposure to the light of Venus, it is possible that individuals who have these symptoms are sensitive or susceptible to it. It is one of the many interesting aspects of this proving. We already know people can be affected by the Sun and Moon. A further possibility is that venus may be significant in their astrological birth chart, or maybe the position of venus at the time of making the remedy relates to the chart.
Thanks for sharing.
But even the source of that explanation — a handy little website called remedy finder — says nothing about this next one.
Venus in Transit
According to Wikipedia, a transit of Venus across the Sun takes place when the planet Venus passes directly between the Sun and Earth, obscuring a small portion of the solar disk. The last Venus transit took place in 2004 and the next one is booked for 2012.
Nowhere in any article I could find on the web, is it explained how they manage to capture Venus in transit and stick it in a remedy. Or what that remedy (or any of the others I’ve mentioned thus far) might treat.
Of course, we know what some of the treatments on the Helios list are used for — at least when they are prescribed in a proper dose by a proper doctor. Take these:
There are also a number of vaccines on the list including influenza and Hepatitis B. But if you find the fact that Helios appear to include evidence-based treatments in their list in any way reassuring, brace yourself for what’s coming. You didn’t imagine the remedies were vegan-friendly or anything eccentric like that did you? If so, think again. The list include many, many items that would turn the stomach of even the most unrepentant of carnivores including:
Sheep mastitis milk
Canine sinus pus
The last one’s a posh way of saying dog poop. Surprisingly, there is no excrementum taur on the list. I wonder, do they keep the dog for its sinus pus and faeces then let it dies a natural death before snipping off its balls?
Dilution and the ‘Law of the Minimum Dose’*snigger*
I hope I’ve put readers off homeoquackery for life but, in fairness, nobody should imagine the products being sold as homeopathic remedies actually contain any of those ingredients. No, these are just the starting substances, which will be dissolved in water or alcohol to make what they call the ‘mother tincture’. If you looked at the Helios list you will have noticed the wee numbers next to each ingredient. These refer to dilutions because one of the wackiest of all the wacky notions we can attribute to homeopathy is what they call the Law of the Minimum Dose, also known as the Law of Infinitesimals, which says that the more diluted the homeopathic preparation, the more powerfully it works. As you can see from the list, a common dilution used in the remedies is 30 C (100 to the power of 30).
That means 1 part ‘ingredient’ to 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,
000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 parts water!
If you can’t get your head round that figure, Wikipedia helpfully puts it this way:
30 C: Dilution advocated by Hahnemann for most purposes: this would require giving two billion doses per second to six billion people for 4 billion years to deliver a single molecule of the original material to any patient.
In Rose Shapiro’s excellent book, Suckers: How alternative medicine makes fools of us all, I read that to hold that much water would require a container over 30 billion times the size of the earth (p. 87). You don’t have to be a scientist to know that diluting something makes it weaker not stronger: any child who has made herself a glass of orange squash will have worked that one out. And anyone with even half a brain will realise that a dilution of 30 C means the original ingredient will have been diluted out of existence — a fact readily admitted by homeopaths themselves. A typical response to the argument that homeopathy has no active ingredients so it can only work as a placebo is this one, which appeared as a comment on You Tube.
Not really relevant … it works on a bio-energetic rather than a pharmacological basis.
Bio-energetic? What does that mean? Apparently homeopaths use it to mean something like this:
The idea is not to cure the disease as to restore the body’s balance, so that the body deals with the problem itself.
(Dr Peter Fisher, quoted by Rose Shapiro, Suckers p. 93. Great book — buy it!)
This, of course, will immediately raise other questions in the mind of the intelligent reader and the first one will be ‘What the hell is the body’s balance??’ It’s words like ‘balance’ and ‘bio-energetic’ that give clues as to what homeopathy really is and this will become increasingly apparent as we continue to investigate the manufacturing process.
Because it doesn’t end with dilution. There is a crucial step in the process of preparing the remedy that makes all the difference, apparently. Don’t take my word for it, take it from Rachel Roberts, research consultant for the Society of Homeopaths.
Homeopathic remedies are prepared from highly diluted substances and hence controversy has arisen in the UK about its efficacy. However, critics often ignore the fact that the production of remedies involves vigorous agitation or succussion between dilutions. It is this succussion that makes the difference between an inert solution and an active homeopathic remedy. Source pdf.
And not only does the agitation have to be vigorous, it has to involve striking against an elastic surface a set number of times. Here’s a demonstration.
This, homeopaths tell us, leaves an ‘imprint’ or ‘memory’ of the mother tincture on the water, right?
Wrong. When challenged on what exactly an ‘imprint on the water’ means and why it is undetectable, some homeopaths assert that the structure of the water changes. Here is an example:
Current thinking is that when one dilutes in the specific homeopathic method of dilution, which involves successive dilution with utterly pure distilled water as well as succussion, or shaking, the water molecules create patterns, like snowflakes, unique and precise, around each molecule of solute. In other words, a homeopathic preparation of sulfur and a homeopathic preparation of maple tree bark are pretty much the same to the casual observer: just water. But that water is very different, in that one has the “imprint” of the sulfur, and the other resembles, in its properties and molecular mega structures or “clathrates,” the “imprint” of the maple tree bark.
Unfortunately for the promulgators of this theory, research finds that any molecular change in water round a solute lasts under 50 femtoseconds. A femtosecond is one quadrillionth of a second. But in fairness to Samuel Hahnemann, he doesn’t say anything about solutes causing molecular changes. Back in 1810 it wasn’t necessary to come up with sciencey-sounding explanations and he could get away with twittering on about ‘developing the latent dynamic powers’ of the substances he used. The guff they’re coming up with now is just another example of the present-day homeopath’s schizophrenic attitude to science, which is that it’s generally bad but it’s OK to fabricate a scientific-sounding explanation about how implausible ingredients can make water special. What they can’t fabricate is a satisfactory explanation as to why the water only remembers the homeopathic ingredient that’s been added and forgets everything else.
Ben Goldacre was the subject of a complaint to the Press Complaints Commission by a homeopath who objected to a piece he wrote sneering at the water’s selective memory idea (“How does a water molecule know to forget every other molecule it’s seen before: How does it know to treat my bruise with its memory of arnica, rather than a memory of Isaac Asimov’s faeces?”).
The homeopath apparently declared that you have to “bang the flask of water briskly ten times on a leather and horsehair surface, and that’s what makes the water remember a molecule. Because I did not mention this, he explained, I had deliberately made homeopaths sound stupid”. (Ben Goldacre, Bad Science, p. 36. Great book — buy it!)
The ‘Law of Similars’
At the start of this post I said that many homeopathy users don’t know much about the manufacture of homeopathy and the ideas behind it.
But there are homeopathy users and, especially, practitioners who do know all about dilutions, succussion, potentisation and all the rest of the twaddle and who appear to accept it all at face value. Of course, some people have a great deal invested in homeopathy. Some people make their living from it. Remarkably, some of these people do have at least some kind of education in sciences and some could presumably make a comfortable living without messing around with quack therapies. Here, for example, is the personal website of Jayne Donegan, who qualified as a proper doctor in London and who calls herself a ‘GP & Homeopath’. She says:
Homeopathy is based on three principles:
- A medicine that in large doses creates the symptoms of a disease will, in small doses, cure it. This can be summed up in the phrase; ‘like cures like’
- Extreme dilution enhances the medicine’s healing properties and eliminates any undesirable side effects along the way
- Homeopathy takes the whole person into consideration
So not only does dilution make any therapeutic effects of the substances stronger, it eliminates any undesirable side effects. Phew! No trace of Asimov’s faeces then. Just some therapeutic dog faeces.
Jayne Donegan’s three principles would be a very concise summary of how homeopathy works, if only it did work and wasn’t hogwash. Like cures like? Think about the ingredients I mentioned earlier. Just what human ailment is ‘like’ dog poop? What condition could possibly be treated by the application of water with an ‘imprint’ of dog poop? Shit-for-brains syndrome?
The idea that like cures like — the ‘Law of Similars’ — is the one thing that most people know about homeopathy if they know anything at all and it obviously resonates with quite a number of them. Indeed, it’s hard to credit some the stuff about it that is contained in thousands of moronic websites purporting to educate and empower people in matters of health. Take this site for example.
The Law of Similars is used in vaccination, to treat hypothermia, and many incidences of poisoning, such as snakebites, all examples of using the toxic substance to create the cure. The idea of ‘fighting fire with fire’.
Used to treat hypothermia? So if I come across someone suffering from hypothermia, I should treat him with an ice pack?
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read homeopathy apologists try claim there is some link between how vaccines work and how homeopathic remedies work. This excruciating piece of gobshite from a homeopusher on Yahoo questions is typical:
Homeopathy scintifically works. Who told you it is unproven science? if you are unaware that does not mean all are ignorant like you. Homeopathy treatment is nothing but one type of Immune therapy which help to activate your immune system so that your immune system helps in the curative process.Neither Homeopathy nor conservative treatment can give gyrentee in advance stage of any cancer and for your kind information open your mind to science that will be helpful to you. thank you [sic]
Utter claptrap. Vaccines have real ingredients, which include a bit of a known causative agent such as (severely compromised) viruses or bacteria. Once injected into a person, the vaccine stimulates the production of antibodies that will defend the body if it is invaded by that particular pathogen in future. Homeopathic remedies have no active ingredients, therefore they can’t possibly activate your immune system.
It should, in my opinion, be against the law to sell so-called remedies labelled as containing specific ingredients, be they herbs, animal body fluids or anything else, when in fact there is no trace of any such ingredient in them. But apparently it’s perfectly legal in Britain, provided the label says ‘homeopathy’.
Edit: This post is interrupted to bring you this brilliant two-minute pastiche by Mitchell & Webb.
“Does anybody know What sort of car hit him?”
“A blue Ford Mondeo, apparently”
“Right. Get me a bit of blue Ford Mondeo, put it in water, shake it, dilute it, shake it again, dilute it again, do some more shaking, dilute it some more, then put three drops on his tongue. If that doesn’t cure him, I don’t know what will.”
Anyway, having covered ingredients, dilutions and succession, the next piece of the jig saw is a partial answer to my earlier question about how did they ever discover the supposed therapeutic benefits of piss, shit, a goldfish and Chanel No. 5. The answer is my favourite thing about homeopathy— provings.
This is the word used by homeopaths to describe how remedies are tested. Wiki tells us that the word ‘proving’ comes from the German word Prüfung meaning ‘test’ and that Hahnemann tested his remedies on himself and on other healthy volunteers, who were required to keep a detailed journal of their symptoms. As it says on this homeoquackery site:
The purpose could be to gather symptoms of a remedy, the essence, a total image or all those combined. The proving is not the same as a clinical trial which is more directed at just physical symptoms, it is more sensitive.
Apart from the hilarious typo, which somehow turned ‘wholly subjective and therefore worthless’ into ‘more sensitive’, this is a useful illustration of what homeopathy really is, and it ain’t science. But more of that in moment.
With provings, as with everything else connected with homeopathy, it seems that not a lot has changed since Hahnemann’s day. After some searching, I found an example of a proving carried out in the 21st century. The starting substance was a bit of rock from a Scottish mountain top. It was ‘tested’ on five women (tiny numbers of testers don’t seem to bother homeopushers at all) for a minimum 14 days and here are a few of the notes they recorded (the first number in brackets refers to which of the five volunteers is speaking):
Essence arrived today at three thirty. Took first dosage at that time. Felt slight nausea. Felt deep seated family-related depression. (03. Day 1)
Developed red spot under left eye. Very itchy. (05. Day 7)
Pimple on chin developed, right protuberance; painful to touch, but have to scratch it open. (02. Day 2)
Diarrhoea/very loose stool with gurgling in abdomen after eating fresh fish and potatoes. (02. Day 6)
[Update one month later] Yesterday my menses started, exactly 8 weeks after the last one. So the essence suppressed the menses, but didn’t shift the cycle, not even one day. And it seems every single drop was saved, ie. the amount of bleeding today is overwhelming (even more than normal, but no pains). (02. Day xx)
Sensitivity of teeth (which are usually quite sensitive in areas of exposed dentine due to receding gums) has disappeared. Can brush them vigorously without discomfort. (01. Day 13 and after)
Sensitivity of teeth seems to have returned with a vengeance, worse than it ever was, but only on the right side. After 2 weeks, change brushing regime to start on the left rather than the right and sensitivity disappears again. (01. Day xx)
Last night I had severe difficulties to fall asleep – unusual; seemed to take hours. (02. Day 5)
etc, etc, etc.
In a nutshell, after taking the ‘essence’, every twinge, every blemish and every variation — however slight — on what normally happens, is noted in case it was caused by the essence. From this information, the practitioner builds up a profile of what the essence might treat. It is indeed different from a clinical trial which, ideally:
• has a lot more than five people;
• is randomised so that there it includes subjects of both sexes and a spread of ages and other factors (unless there are good reasons not to include both sexes and a spread of ages, obviously);
• includes a control group who are given a placebo, or no medication or the best available current medication for whatever condition is being studies, so that a comparison with the group who are taking the medication on trial can be made;
• is double-blinded so that neither the subjects nor the researchers know who is getting the medication and who is getting a sugar pill.
Homeopathic provings, it seems, are based on a logical fallacy known as post hoc ergo propter hoc: A happened, then B happened so A must have caused B, e.g. I drank a glass of water then I developed a headache so the water must have caused the headache.
Sure enough, the list of conditions that this very useful homeopathic remedy can treat includes depression, sleep disturbance, skin eruptions, delayed menses and “Diarrhoea after fish/potatoes”. Laugh? I nearly choked on my muesli when I read that. Presumably if diarrhoea comes after a plate of moussaka or a slice of cheese flan, a different remedy will be warranted.
Treating the ‘whole person’
Or maybe not. Going back to Jayne Donegan’s list of homeopathic principles, the one we haven’t looked at yet is the claim that homeopathy “takes the whole person into consideration”.
Well, the reason why people come away from their homeopathic consultations feeling so much better is that the homeoquack spends a lot of time — time that NHS doctors simply don’t have — finding out every tiny thing about the customer. Fortunately, I didn’t have to waste my hard earned cash on buying one of these ego massaging sessions to find out the kind of things homeopaths need to know because a list of such questions was very kindly provided to posters of a certain forum by a homeopusher called Nancy Malik, who seems to spend most of her time trolling internet boards promoting her quackery. The list has 176 items on it, here’s a sample:
1=Always 2=Often 3=Sometime 4=Never
1: Loves to travel 1 2 3 4
2: Cry When Thanked 1 2 3 4
3: Cry When Nervous or From Anxiety 1 2 3 4
6: Relieved by Crying 1 2 3 4
8: Likes/Loves Sympathy 1 2 3 4
9: Hates/Dislikes Sympathy 1 2 3 4
10: Sympathetic 1 2 3 4
62: Likes Warm Foods And Drinks 1 2 3 4
63: Dislikes Warm Foods 1 2 3 4
64: Likes Raw Foods 1 2 3 4
65: Lose Appetite During Mensturation 1 2 3 4
110: Heights 1 2 3 4
111: Enclosed Spaces 1 2 3 4
112: Crowds and Public Places 1 2 3 4
113: Mice and Rats 1 2 3 4
114: Snakes 1 2 3 4
115: Water 1 2 3 4
136: Warm And Made Worse By Heat 1 2 3 4
137: Ailments are Worse in Stuffy Rooms 1 2 3 4
138: Feet are Hot In Bed, Stick Them Our of Bedclothes 1 2 3 4
139: Chilly But Made Worse By Heat 1 2 3 4
140: Chilly But Better With Heat 1 2 3 4
141: Feet Are Sweaty And Smelly 1 2 3 4
Homeopathy is a crock
Hahnemann can be forgiven. He lived 200 years ago when conventional medicine was little better than witchcraft — bloodletting was one of the most common medical practices, for crying out loud! Homeopushers often argue that the survival rates during cholera epidemics were better than those of ordinary hospitals. Of course they were! Patients at the homeopathic hospital were given ineffective remedies and left in peace instead of being tortured with leeches etc. Doctors then didn’t know what doctors know today and when Hahnemann explained what he thought was the cause of all human ailments, he probably didn’t sound too nutty. Hahnemann described illness as
a state of being of the organism dynamically unturned by a disturbed vital force…In the state of health the spirit-like vital force (dynamis) animating the material human organism reigns in supreme sovereignty. It maintains the sensations and activities of all the parts of the living organism in a harmony that obliges wonderment. The reasoning spirit who inhabits the organism can thus freely use this healthy living instrument to reach the lofty goal of human existence.
(Samuel Hahnemann, Organon of Medicine, 8-9, sixth edition)
It is surely obvious from this small extract that, to Hahnemann, sickness had more to do with spirituality than science and, given the state of 18th century medicine, who can blame him?
But the homeopaths of today have no excuse. I believe that most people who set themselves up as complementary therapists of any sort do so because they love the feeling of power that goes with being a ‘healer’ but they don’t have the ability or inclination to train as proper doctors.
As for those people who are medically qualified and yet still promote homeopathy, it should be obvious to anyone who has researched the subject that they are seriously deluded. Rose Shapiro (p. 96) provides us with this quote from a proper doctor who is also a homeopath:
when you meet with someone and you choose a medicine for them, the medicine in some way becomes invested with some of the properties that were established during the time when the practitioner and the patient got together, so they are not separable in the normal pharmaceutical sense…there is some sort of wider picture here and homeopathy is tapping into it and it’s just even the names of homeopathic medicines, you know like compared to drug names, they’re just so much more beautiful.
Whatever he’s on, I want some. As long as it’s not homeopathy.
Related Posts by Skepticat
- Why do people use alternative therapies?
- Do alternative therapies work?
- Why I am qualified to comment on alternative therapies
- Homeopathy, hissy-fits and how to catch malaria
- Homeopathy is still crap