It’s high time I took another pop at homeopathy. I know more and more people are wising up to this particular brand of quack lunacy but, as someone who each morning receives a new list of web articles written by delusional homeopaths happily promoting their bogus therapies, I believe it’s important in the interests of balance to keep ridiculing it.
If you are a homeopath, you might like to re-read that last sentence again and note I did not say “unscrupulous homeopushers are still conning people”. I have good reason to believe that homeopathic remedies are bogus (defined by dictionary.com as not genuine; counterfeit; spurious; sham) but I don’t mean to imply that those who make a living from their promotion are being deliberately dishonest. No, I believe that most homeopaths have themselves been conned and are passing on all the bullcrap in good faith — even Homeopaths without Borders, who claim on their website that,
Homeopathy also proves very effective in healing physical and mental injury in situations of war or political crisis.
I’m sure they really believe this and they may even have a story or two to tell that they think illustrates it. Same goes for this website, which says of homeopathy,
When used correctly, and in combination with necessary therapies, it can be an amazingly powerful tool for empowering someone to heal themselves of cancer.
And this one, which says,
Early stage renal failure due to Diabetes and Hypertension patients who are suffering from Kidney disease they must take homeopathic treatment.
It’s all said with the best of intentions. Of course it is. So I wouldn’t agree with the view reportedly expressed by James Randi that homeopaths are “swindlers, liars, cheats, frauds, fakes and criminals”. At least, I wouldn’t agree that homeopaths are any of those things intentionally. At least, not all of them.
Recently, I happened on a video featuring Johhn Boulderstone, which is modestly entitled JB explains homeopathy better than Randi.. Athough I didn’t know it at the time, Boulderstone is the author of a book entitled Living with Vitality and, according to the biography on his publisher’s website, he set up the Helios Clinic in Tunbridge Wells. The Helios website was an important source in my own comprehensive explanation of homeopathy.
My initial reaction to JB’s video was that it was a clumsy spoof: nobody could talk that much crap and believe it. I also thought JB had over-acted the part of someone who was essentially a simpleton but who’d taken some kind of mind-altering drug before recording. What, for example, is one to make of this sentence?
Now, Randi does not make it clear what homeopathy is and he’s trying to pull the wool over your eyes by saying that it’s…um…and that’s the equivalent of saying that homeopaths use badly drawn pictures of cats to cure fears.
Even in context it’s no less demented. Here’s a transcript of the video, though you really need to see and hear it to appreciate how bad it is. I found it a bit disturbing and declined to leave a comment. Then I noticed that JB had himself responded to the only hostile comment by a viewer, which stated that there is no scientific support for homeopathy. JB had responded with the usual list of reviews that homeopaths like to cite as positive evidence for homeopathy, even though they’re no such thing. I’d dealt with some of these in a previous blog post so I helpfully replied to JB, pointing out what each of the reviews actually states. For some reason, JB didn’t allow my post to appear.
Never mind — I’ve got a blog and, to thank JB for censoring my comment, I’ve decided to review his “better explanation of homeopathy” right here.
So what else does JB say in the video? Well, for a start he claims — insists even — that James Randi wrongly defines homeopathy solely by the use of dilute substances. JB doesn’t pull his punches:
Now Randi either knows homeopathy isn’t defined by the use of dilute substances, in which case he is trying to misdirect you or he doesn’t know it, in which case he is ignorant. But either way it doesn’t bode well for what he says and the argument.
Ouch! What that sentence tells us is that JB hasn’t actually watched and listened to Randi’s explanation of homeopathy. Or he has and is trying to misdirect you. Either way, it doesn’t bode well for what he says and the argument.
In fact, what Randi does is specify the use of dilute substances as one of four “rules” (meaning ‘defining features’) of homeopathy. I covered these myself in my first post about homeopathy but Randi does them in a different order, beginning with ‘provings’ which, he explains, is a way of researching what symptoms a given substance produces in healthy individuals. Provings would seem to be a pretty fundamental part of the weird world of homeopathy and yet, strangely, JB’s “better explanation” omits to mention them.
The second feature Randi specifies is the daft notion of ‘treating like with like’. As Randi puts it, “You note the symptoms of the sick person and treat them with the remedy that caused the same symptoms in the proving.” Indeed, the Helios website says:
For example a person suffering from hayfever, might be given a remedy prepared from an onion, because a healthy person chopping an onion usually experiences watering eyes and irritation.
That sounds straightforward enough, even though there is no logical reason why a bit of any given substance should cure symptoms it causes in greater exposure. There is no scientific support for the the so-called ‘Law of Similars’ in general nor for the specific claim that, because onions produce tear-jerking sulfoxides, they are a useful way of treating an allergic reaction to pollen. I like how Stephen Barrett explains the Law of Similars:
This idea is a form of “sympathetic magic” similar to the primitive idea that eating the heart of a lion will make a person brave.
As an aside, I can’t help but wish Helios used as an example one of the more bizarre ingredients from their extensive list. In my earlier post I speculated that the ingredient they call excrementum can. (aka dog poop) might be used to treat shit-for-brains syndrome but now I’m wondering if it’s something all those beleaguered chiroquacks who are currently crapping themselves might benefit from.
The third rule Randi explains is the preparation of homeopathic remedies by dilution and shaking — “succussion” — and the fourth is the patently false idea that the more dilute the ingredient is, the stronger it is.
So JB’s claim that Randi defines homeopathy just by the use of highly diluted substances simply isn’t true. Granted, it’s the large dilutions and the idea that the less you use, the stronger it is, that people mock the most about homeopathy. I’d guess this is partly because, if it were true, it would violate a law of physics and partly because they don’t know just how loopy the rest of homeopathy is. In any event, Randi actually says a hell of a lot more about homeopathy than JB, who says nothing about provings or succussion or even the so-called Law of the Minimum Dose, which is one of the two “important laws” of homeopathy, according to the Helios website.
JB seems to be at pains to point out that homeopathy isn’t just about high dilutions and goes so far as to say,
Some homeopaths rarely use diluted substances and I am one of them.
Given that most of the ingredients on the Helios list would be poisonous if they weren’t diluted before ingestion, I wasn’t sure what to make of this admission. At the end of the video JB tells us that he specialises in “treating people with multiple sclerosis, using homeopathy but without administering pills or diluted substances.” So what is he using and how does it qualify as homeopathy? We’re not told in the video but an answer to the first question can be found on his website:
When working at Helios Homeopathic Pharmacy, (John) realised he could feel the energy of the remedies, although he knew there were no molecules of any substance left in them. Eventually he moved away from using remedies altogether as he found he could work with his sensitivity to people’s energetic disturbances or blocks directly, without matching them up to the correct remedy.
Moving swiftly on…is JB therefore denying the effectiveness of highly diluted substances? Absolutely not! At one point in the video he actually says,
So the question might arise why do homeopaths use diluted substances since they cause so much problems. Well the answer is that they work.
And that’s it. No explanation of how and why they might work or why, given that they work, JB himself rarely uses them. Just a bald assertion that they do.
But wait! The best is still to come.
The one thing JB wants us to take home with us is the knowledge that homeopathy is based on the Law of Similars. He then gives what he believes to be a good example of the Law of Similars in action even though, he tells us, it’s “purely theoretical” and not one that he’s ever used himself. Usefully, the example he chooses doesn’t actually come from homeopathy at all but from psychology. To demonstrate the Law of Similars, JB eschews all talk of onions and dog poop in favour of a description — or caricature, rather — of the behaviour therapy sometimes known as ‘systematic desensitisation’ that can be used to treat phobias. The AllPsych Journal puts it in a nutshell:
In behavior therapy, one meets with a trained therapist and confronts the feared object or situation in a carefully planned, gradual way and learns to control the physical reactions of fear.
What does this have to do with the homeopathic Law of Similars? You mean it’s not obvious? Come on! If someone’s scared of a cat, show them a picture of a cat, show them a stuffed cat, even show them a tiger. Show them anything you like, as long as it’s “a similar”. It may not be diluted, it may not be shaken about in a special way, it may not even be something to ingest but it is a similar and therefore it is homeopathy. Got it now?
It shows you that a diluted substance doesn’t have to be used to make it homeopathy as long as a similar is involved. The main point is that you’re using something to stimulate a therapeutic effect and that’s what homeopathy is.
I wonder if all those behaviour therapists realise they are actually practising homeopathy?
This then, is the sum total of JB’s “better explanation” of homeopathy. The rest of the video is given over to a somewhat implausible account of how he came to acquire the cult-like mentality that seems to characterise homeopushers and users alike. Predictably, it is an anecdote of how he got sick, took a homeopathic remedy and it worked “within ten seconds”.
Saving the best til last, here’s the richest quote from the man who works “with his sensitivity to people’s energetic disturbances or blocks directly”:
I do know that there was nothing of the original substance in the pill that I took and that freaked me out and it’s been causing me concern ever since because basically at heart I’m a scientist but I also know that science doesn’t know everything. It can’t cope easily with things it can’t measure. And there are a few concepts in homeopathy which can’t be measured, the most important being life force.
Sorry, John, you may be many things at heart but a scientist is not one of them.
To round off, Crispian Jago has made a wonderful tribute to the silliness of homeoquackery based on Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues. Enjoy!
Hahnemann’s in the basement.
Mixing up the Medicine.
I’m on my iMac.
Blogging ‘bout the daft quack.