I just learned from Neurologica and Respectful Insolence that it is World Homeopathy Awareness Week (April 10-16th) – Happy WHAW! This is the week in which skeptics all over the world have a chance to illuminate the utter nonsense that is homeopathy. And I do encourage you to visit Respectful Insolence blog to see some excellent homeopathy videos – some will make you laugh, others will make you cry. So, happy WHAW, everyone!
Oh wait, actually, WHAH is hosted by people who believe in homeopathy.
Well, here’s some information to help you decide exactly how YOU would like to celebrate WHAW this week:
What is homeopathy?
Homeopathy is a complementary or alternative medicine with two major tenets:
- “Like treats like”, or the law of similars
- Dilution of curative substances.
Like Treats Like
Homeopathy relies on the false premise of the law of similars, or more commonly “like cures like”.
ClassicHomeopathy.com attributes the law of similars to Hippocrates and Aristotle, and the phrase “like cures like” or Similia Similibus Curentur to Dr. Samuel Hahnemann (1755 – 1843), the father of homeopathy. Here’s an example of “like cures like” from ClassicHomeopathy.com:
In “A treatise on Materia Medica” by Dr. William Cullen, it was mentioned that the drug Cinchona was used to cure Malaria, but that it (Cinchona) would also cause the symptoms similar to Malaria if the drug were taken in overdose.
Wikipedia explains further:
Dr. Hahnemann believed that by inducing a disease through use of drugs, the artificial symptoms empowered the vital force to neutralise and expel the original disease and that this artificial disturbance would naturally subside when the dosing ceased. It is based on the idea that a substance that in large doses will produce symptoms of a specific disease will, in extremely small doses, cure it.
Wikipedia calls this reasoning a ipse dixit axiom, which is a fancy way of calling it an unproven proposition that is held as truth…just because Dr. Hahnemann believed it was self-evident. Also of note is the healing agent in this case is “vital force”; this is a reference to a non-measurable, non-observable “life energy” that is advocated by many practitioners of CAM (complementary and alternative medicine).
Okay…hang on to your hat: Homeopaths believe that by diluting a substance, you make the substance more potent, and that the remedy will have a greater effect on the body. To be clear, to dilute is to reduce the strength, force, or efficiency of something by mixing it with something else, like water or air. Synonyms for dilute include weaken, temper, mitigate, diminish.
So, homeopaths believe that diluting something actually has the opposite effect of dilution. If I take a homeopathic shower, would I get dirtier?
When homeopaths dilute substances – some of which are of questionable therapeutic value at any level – they reduce the substance down until almost none of it remains in solution. Follow this link to see a neat animation of serial dilution. The link is showing a bacterial serial dilution, but the same actions are taken for serial dilutions of homeopathic remedies.
Again from Wikipedia:
In Hahnemann’s time it was reasonable to assume that remedies could be diluted indefinitely, as the concept of the atom or molecule as the smallest possible unit of a chemical substance was just beginning to be recognized. We now know that the greatest dilution that is reasonably likely to contain one molecule of the original substance is 12C.
Hahnemann used 30C dilutions, but maybe he didn’t know about Avagadro’s number. However, homeopaths today still recommend dilutions of 12C, 30C and 200C! Remember, in Homeopathy Land, the less of a substance you have, the more powerful it is…
This table from wikipedia gives you an idea of what all that 12C, 30C stuff means. Ratio describes the amount of the substance compared to the amount of the diluent (water, oil, alcohol, etc):
A more recent and even woo-ier explanation of how dilutions work is that homeopathic preparations allow water to maintain a memory of the substance that was once dissolved in it, even if the substance has been completed diluted out of solution. If this is true, don’t go swimming in the ocean – that water probably remembers a LOT of crap and might take some of it out on you, you stinky, polluting human.
There’s a great organization called the 10:23 Campaign, or Homeopathy: There’s Nothing In It. This group formed on the understanding that homeopathic pills are nothing but water that has been diluted so much that nothing remains except…water (and sugar).
And for fun, here’s a homeopathic webcomic:
So why do I care?
Homeopathy, if assumed to be nothing more than water, sugar and feel-good energy quackery, can’t possibly cause any ill effects, right?
1) People drop tons of money on homeopathic remedies. If you want to waste your money, who am I to judge? But do you want to spend your money on something that has been proven to have no objectifiable, repeatable evidence of curing illness?
2) You help the bastards win. Some people use homeopathy as a complementary medicine, that is, as a complement to conventional medical treatment. In fact, many homeopaths will encourage you to take homeopathic preparations along with your doctor-prescribed medicine. Now we know that homeopathy doesn’t work, but when you add a fake medicine to a known medicine and you get better, you’re giving leverage to quack homeopaths who can claim that homeopathy helped you get better! In reality, your homeopathic “remedy” didn’t help any more than did drinking tap water with your dinner.
3) You stop taking your conventional medicine and die. You’ve been completely dazzled by homeopathy. You think it’s the One True Cure for your bladder infection or your peptic ulcers or your cancer. You quit taking your ciprofloxacin , your omeprazole or your Zoladex because you are going to use an alternative medicine: homeopathic preparations.
Many homeopaths will not recommend homeopathy as a stand alone treatment for these types of diseases because they know that conventional medicine is critical to you getting better. They will recommend you use your homeopathic treatment to support your doctor-prescribed treatment (now is a good time to ask them to explain this “support”) Remember point two: When you add a fake medicine to a real medicine, there’s a good chance you get better. When you only take a fake medicine…hmm.
Also check out What’s the Harm for a list of people who have been hurt or killed by homeopathic intervention, and Orac at Respectful Insolence for some scary homeopathy-related injury photos.
4) Taxes, Insurance and Special CAM laws. If enough people begin to support this bogus treatment, our tax money, insurance coverage and even state and federal laws can begin to change, and not for the better. Our tax money currently supports the NCCAM, some insurance providers already cover the cost of select alternative medicines and treatments (mine covers acupuncture and chiropractic) – which we all pay for in the end, and legislative and regulatory measures evolve to cover CAMs. That’s a lot of hubaloo for something that doesn’t have any objectifiable or observable evidence, isn’t it?
Medicine is medicine because it is proven – it is objectifiable, quantitative, and repeatable. Alternative medicine is none of these things. If homeopathy worked, don’t you think Pfizer would be right there, patenting these incredibly easy and cheap to make products?
If you really want a homeopathic remedy, go on down to the grocery store and pick yourself up a nice, refreshing bottle of Evian. It’s just like homeopathy – overpriced and…oh, yeah…just water.