On homeopathy

July 2, 2013 at 4:02 pm | Posted in Ethics, Opinions | 5 Comments

Homeopathy is a system of treatment invented in 1796 by a German physician named Samuel Hahnemann. “Medicine” in the eighteenth century was not exactly evidence based, and Hahnemann correctly realised that a lot of it did more harm than good; however unlike some of his contempories (such as Edward Jenner and Anton van Leeuwenhoek) , Hahnemann didn’t really grasp the scientific process with both hands.

Hahnemann knew that, through experiment, effective drugs were being developed to treat illnesses, and he wanted to be a part of improving medicine; he tested many substances to observe their effects on the human body. It is pretty clear that he understood the nature of experimentation through trial and error, and he even got so far as formulating a hypothesis to explain some of his observations. Unfortunately, he also had some fairly large gaps in his knowledge. In combination with what I suspect might have been a little too much enthusiasm to make a name for himself in medicine, this lead him to some very simple errors. It should be noted before I continue that aside from homeopathy, Hahnemann’s other major hypothesis was that disease was caused by coffee. I mention that here just to give some insight into the mind of the man I’m going to talk about.

While working on the translation of a treatise on malaria, Hahnemann began to self-experiment with the bark of the cinchona tree – Commonly known as Jesuit’s Bark, or Quinine. For many years, Quinine was the only effective remedy for malaria. It was so good that British explorers made infusions of it called “tonic water” and drank it with gin (Edit: that might or might not be where gin and tonic comes from, this may be apocryphal, but there doesn’t seem to be a huge weight of evidence either way). Sadly, malaria has long since evolved an immunity to it.

Despite translating the work of others, Hahnemann was no expert on the use of Quinine. Whilst testing its effects on himself, he took an overdose and made himself extremely ill. What followed is the invention of the founding principle of homeopathy – Forged from pure ignorance.

Despite having little or no knowledge of malaria as a disease, Hahnemann seems to have unilaterally declared that the symptoms he experienced due to an overdose of Quinine were exactly the same as those experienced in the acute onset of malaria. Ten seconds on Google will be enough to demonstrate that he was quite wrong.

On the basis of this extremely shaky logical foundation, Hahnemann went on to make two even shakier logical jumps: Since he knew that Quinine cured malaria, and since he thought that Quinine induced the same symptoms as malaria, and since he had found that a large dose of Quinine was nearly fatal (or at least extremely unpleasant), it followed in his mind that 1) Any disease could be cured by a preparation of any substance that could induce the same symptoms as the disease in the person taking it (the “doctrine of opposites”, and 2) The smaller the dose given, the more effective this “medication” would be.

I trust I’m not going to have to point out the logical fallacies there.

Homeopathy has been developed (if that’s the right word – perhaps “completely made up” would be better) from that beginning. One interesting aspect (that completely trashes the “doctrine of opposites”) is the technique homeopathists use to dilute their preparations. Let me start by saying that mathematics is probably not their strong suit.

First, a solution of the substance to be used in the “medication” is prepared by diluting it one part in ten with distilled water. The vial containing this dilution is then struck hard against a leather bound book, ten times (bear with me, I’m not making this up – Hahnemann did that). The solution so produced is then further diluted, by taking one tenth of it, and diluting it again one part in ten with distilled water. Bang the book ten times and voila, you have a one part in one hundred dilution.

And now it gets a little tricky: Homeopathists believe that the more times you repeat this process, the more potent the medication becomes. Homeopathic remedies are often sold as a “potency” of “6C” – In real terms, one part in one trillion of the original ingredient, diluted in distilled water. A 12C concentration would be equivalent to a single pinch of salt in the Atlantic Ocean. But that’s not even where it gets really absurd – Some homeopathic treatments are diluted up to 200C. To give you a rough idea of what that means in real numbers, 40C would be the dilution given by one single atom of the original substance, diluted in all of the mass in the known universe, if it was all distilled water. To be sure of containing any of the “active” ingredient, a 200C dilution would actually require the existence of 10^320 more universes that this one, all made entirely of distilled water, and between them containing just one atom of the original substance.

But wait! There’s more! You might have noticed that homeopathic remedies don’t tend to be in liquid form – And you’re quite right, they don’t. They tend to be pills. And that’s because, having gone to all the trouble of contaminating distilled water and then diluting it so heavily that the contaminant is completely undetectable even compared to the chemicals the water leaches from the sides of its glass container, homeopathists then take this “preparation” (read: “water”) and put a single drop of it on to a sugar pill. They then allow it to evaporate (i.e. the pill to dry out). And the resulting sugar pill is what they sell in pharmacies and health food shops all over the world as homeopathic remedies.

Was ever a process so long-winded, so complicated and so utterly pointless?

Unsurprisingly, the research evidence (yes, people have wasted their time researching it) on homeopathy is unequivocal: It has no effect whatsoever beyond placebo. It revolves around people assuming that natural regression to mean is the same as cure. It does nothing. It is quackery at its absurd finest.

Edited 02/07/2013 to reflect uncertainty over the history of tonic water. Sources:

http://goo.gl/yuDag (Athens or Wiley login required)

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  1. Thanks for the straightforward approach to debunking homeopathic nonsense.

    I laughed when I read “extremely shaky logical foundation” so very apt. “There’s a whole lotta shaking going on…”.

  2. Standing up and applauding. Loudly.

  3. Reblogged this on Pedro Stephano and commented:
    If you’d like to understand more about homeopathy, read this. Try not to laugh.

    • I think people should laugh at this – it is a laughable concept. On the other hand people die through the propagation of this ignorant delusion. Laugh at the concept and fight the promoters of homeopathy at very opportunity as they are not just delusional but dangerous.

  4. […] Excerpt from On homeopathy: […]

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