Primary author: Nick K.
Corresponding author: Christopher_NW.
Image from http://www.cartoonstock.com/directory/h/homeopathy.asp
Today I have the pleasure of bringing you an article primarily authored by a good colleague of mine, Nick K. Nick’s research lies in understanding the fundamentals of the immune system. Apart from this information, Nick shall remain anonymous due to the inflammatory nature of this article on homeopathy. We personally consider homeopathy as unproven woo-woo, and any controversy surrounding it to be in fact, manufactroversy. I shall be writing a further critical and justly deserved scathing article on a certain homeopathic group in the near future, so I am more than happy to cop any flak from this and any other future articles, hence why I am the corresponding author on this article. Wes rationally thought that before I go into full “attack mode” against pseudoscience, an initial introductory piece should written. So thanks to Nick, here it is.
Say I offer you three glasses of concentrated fruit juice. The first was made by pouring 500 ml of the concentrated juice into an empty glass, a second by pouring 100 ml into 400 ml of water, and another by pouring 5 ml into 500 ml of water. Which would you want to drink? Intuitively the second option is the best choice, since that would make the drink tasty yet not overpowering. The alternatives are bad because with the first option, the glass contains highly concentrated fruit juice that would prove to be too intense. Whereas with the third option, it is so dilute that you wouldn’t feel the fruit juice. Well let’s say I insist you take the third option by stating that the solution is in fact more potent than the other options. Better yet, let’s say I give you a fourth option, one where I take 5 ml of the third option into another 500 ml of water, would you have this drink? Even better, I make a fifth option by taking 5 ml of the fourth option into another 500 ml of water, would you take this drink?
So what does this hypothetical scenario involving fruit juice have to do with this article? This, my good reader, is an analogy of what homeopathy is. Homeopathy claims to be a form of holistic medicine that aims to promote natural healing of the whole body. Homeopathy started in the 18 -19th century by a physician named Samuel Hahnemann who believed that if a patient had a set of symptoms of a disease and was given a substance that would cause the same symptoms in a healthy person, the sick patient would be cured of those symptoms. Furthermore, if you give that substance in an incredibly dilute preparation, the solution would exert a more powerful healing effect on the patient, as claimed by homeopaths (for a brief history see reference 1).
There are issues with these two key features of homeopathy. The first being the notion of similia similibus curentur or that “like cures like”. This is illogical in science and evidence-based medicine because the application of compounds that would promote the symptoms of a disease does not somehow cancel the effect of a disease that’s already present; if anything it could exacerbate the disease. It would be like giving a patient who is currently experiencing deadly nightshade poisoning MORE deadly nightshade because that will counteract the current poisoning. Yes that doesn’t make sense; in fact a five year old who plays Pokemon would laugh at this idea, with a statement like “water Pokemon are good against fire Pokemon, not other water Pokemon”. If a 5 year old can make more logical sense than a homeopath, that speaks volumes to the gibberish of this quackery.
However it should be noted that this is not the same principle with how vaccines work, that is, while vaccines include parts of a microorganism or virus, these parts are included in order to generate immunity to that particular organism. In other words, this is to PREVENT an infectious disease by that organism. Additionally, the components in a vaccine have not been diluted out of existence, which is essentially what homeopathy would require. Furthermore, the immunity that is generated by a genuine vaccine results in the production of antibodies, the serum titre of which is measurable. The same cannot be said of homeopathic vaccines which don’t result in the production of antibodies (they do however, result in the deficit of cash in your wallet).
The second key feature, arguably the zenith of homeopathic quackery is that “the more dilute a substance is, the more powerful it is”, which is the socalled law of infinitesimals. Now think back to the fruit juice scenario I mentioned earlier. I included that scenario because that is the most intuitive and simple way to explain what homeopathy is. That you take something that actually works and dilute it down so many times to the point that the final solution doesn’t have any of the active ingredients present (or any ingredients for that matter); since there isn’t anything present in the preparation, the homeopathic “medication” cannot work. The whole point of medication prescribed by a medical doctor or pharmacist, is that a tablet or pill contains enough of a compound to give some benefit without having so much that an overdose would occur, which is what can kill people (especially if incorrectly used, as in cases of self-medication).
Now some homeopaths would claim that their craft is genuine by the publication by Jacques Benveniste in the prestigious science journal Nature. He claimed to have found evidence in support of homeopathy, however the paper was found to be flawed, irreproducible and more importantly, illogical. Unfortunately the article was never retracted. Benveniste claimed that the water retained “memory” of the compounds that were present previously. But if that were the case, that would mean that if I drink tap water, that water would “retain” the memory of every poison, toxin, carcinogen, pollutant and venom that has ever existed. So how is it that you and I are still alive after drinking fresh tap water?
As a sign of desperation, a drowning man clutching straws if you will, homeopaths are turning to physics as an explanation of homeopathy, using “sciencey” words like quantum mechanics, magnetism and even dark energy (for more information on this, see reference “Quantum Homeopathy” in reference 8). But trying to sound smart does not give validity to something that is illogical. Frankly I am somewhat relieved they didn’t mention The Force as an explanation.
So what is the danger of homeopathy? Well it isn’t the homeopathic preparations for starters because they have essentially nothing in them, active ingredients or otherwise. The real danger is that these things are being sold in pharmacies as if they were “real medications”, where desperate people buy these things and hope for a cure and yet are being financially swindled. Frankly you might as well drink urine than a homeopathic preparation*. Even though urine is 95% water, at least there’s something there! For other logical ranting about homeopathy check out Dr Mark Crislip’s recent article and others.
*Please don’t drink your, or any other person’s urine.
Edited by Christopher_NW and Wes.
1) A brief history of homeopathy, Irvine Loudon, J R Soc Med 2006;99:607–610
2) James Randi explaining homeopathy: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BWE1tH93G9U
3) Another James Randi video on homeopathy: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0jqP_1beVXQ
4) Article on Benveniste: http://www.nature.com/news/2004/041004/full/news041004-19.html
5) QuackWatch article on Homeopathy: http://www.quackwatch.org/01QuackeryRelatedTopics/homeo.html
6) Brief Homeowatch article on “Law of Infinitesimals”: http://www.homeowatch.org/basic/infinitesimals.html
7) More information on homeopathy: http://theness.com/neurologicablog/index.php/homeopathy-awareness-week/
8) A humorous take on homeopathy: http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/homeopathy-ramblings/#more-27238