Monday, June 30, 2014

A Very Brief Look at Homeopathy

In the late 19th century the German Doctor Samuel Hahnemann devised, or more accurately pulled out of his ass the pseudo medical practice of Homeopathy. Dr. Hahnemann decided by fiat that a substance that would cause the particular symptoms of a disease would if given in small amounts treat beneficially the same symptoms of an actual illness. The idea was that like cures like. Now so far it doesn't sound too outrageous even though it smacks just a little like sympathetic magic. But then the major woo started to be added.

Dr. Hahnemann decided that diluting the substance made the "medicine" more potent. This as with the above principle was decided by fiat and his subjective experiences. Then he added the final element of pure woo.1

The final principle was the principle of  "succession". This involved striking the glass vial with the diluted liquid 10 times against a wooden board covered with leather stuffed with horsehair. This supposedly fixed the curative properties of the "cure" into the vial's contents.2

Now I can see a sort of logic with the first point in that giving someone something that may be thought produce symptoms like a particular illness may produce a immune response and the patient be able to deal with the symptoms better. So superficially at least it makes a sort of sense. But it is still a type of sympathetic magic. To quote:
But could homeopathic remedies work like a vaccine, where we introduce tiny amounts of some germ to a patient to stimulate immunity? Superficially, they sound like the same thing, but in reality there is no comparison. Atypical vaccine has billions of killed viruses or virus fragments in a few millilitres of solution, and those work immediately stimulating the immune system to kick into high gear and recognize their chemical signal, so that the white blood cells quickly attack when a full-strength virus invades at some later time. By contrast, a homeopathic remedy is pure water, or at best one or two molecules of an active ingredient, and there is no reason to believe these things stimulate the immune system or anything else.3
However numbers two and three are just pulled out of thin air total woo. The idea of dilution increasing the potency of a medicine doesn't make much sense and the notion that a woo woo ritual will fix something into the water is just absolute nonsense. It ranks right up their with all sorts of medical chicanery and alternative medicine nonsense. And of course Dr. Hahnemann just pulled it out of the air and his delusions.

In the context of his time Dr. Hahnemann's crap isn't quite so insane has it appears today. After all mainstream medicine at the time was full of absurd theory and bizarre treatments. Scientific Medicine barely existed and people were well advised to avoid a conventional Doctor with his purges, dangerous operations and most horribly the widespread use by Doctors of blood letting to "cure" people. Often such treatments "cured" people of the disease called life. Early Homeopathy by having its patients avoid such death dealing treatments probably inadvertently saved lots of lives. Also the silly theory of dilution increasing drug potency was no more silly than mainstream Doctors notions of the four humours and assorted other nonsense about disease.4

Thus in context Homeopathy isn't quite so silly; that is the context of the late 18th and early 19th century. In the course of the 19th century Medicine became truly scientific and we learned via advances in physics a great deal about how the universe works. Homeopathy was left far behind as a bizarre relic of a bygone age of credulity.

The key feature in pointing out the absurdity of Homeopathy is the dilutions. Homeopathic remedies are prepared by starting with a 1 part in a hundred dilution, and then that dilution is mixed into a 1 part per hundred mix and so forth. Thus a common Homeopathic is 30C which is 1 in 100 to the 30 or 1 followed by 60 zeros. How much of a dilution is that well if a sphere of a diameter of 90 million miles was composed of water a dilution of 1 part per 1 followed by 60 zeros would mean there was one molecule of the substance in the sphere! In other words in your small vial all there would be would be water and your Homeopathic pills with a drop of such diluted water in it are just sugar pills.5

Amazingly some Homeopathic dilutions are greater than the above there are Homeopathic dilutions of 200C! Which means If the entire Universe was filled with water there would be not a single molecule of the substance in the water!6

How Homeopathic remedies are developed is amusing; the process is called proving. It consists a group of volunteers, (One to several dozen), taking 6 doses of a remedy over a range of dilutions over two days and keeping a diary about the physical, emotional etc., symptoms they feel. This creates a symptom picture of the remedy and this is put in a big Homeopathy book and since like cures like then dilutions of this remedy will help with symptoms caused by a disease that causes those particular symptoms.7

On the face of it Homeopathy is simply idiotic and a nice way to take money from peoples pockets. But then bizarre things have turned out to be true in the past. After all the theory of relativity to say nothing of quantum mechanics are pretty strange but also real. However in the case of Homeopathy the special pleading explanation that water has a "memory" faces certain problems.

It has not been demonstrated that water has a "memory". How does water avoid having a "memory" of all the stuff that been mixed with it? The explanation that the water's "memory" has to be fixed by striking a vial of the water 10 times on a board covered in leather is bluntly risible and stupid.8

In fact on January 30, 2010 a group of British skeptics staged a Homeopathic overdose day in which they each took hundreds of times the recommended amounts of Homeopathic remedies. If the Homeopathic remedies were for real and increasing dilutions did indeed increase potency then doing this should have resulted in severe injury or death in some cases. Since all they were doing was consuming water and sugar nothing adverse happened at all.9

And of course Homeopathic remedies have not been shown to work any better than placebos.10

That Homeopathy is a multi-billion dollar business today is simple proof of the gullibility of people.

1. Goldacre, Ben, Bad Science, McClelland & Stewart Ltd., Toronto, Ont, 2011, pp. 30-35. See also Samuel Hahnemann, Wikipedia   Here.

2. Goldacre, pp. 32-33.

3. Prothero, Donald R., Reality Check, Indiana University Press, Indianapolis, Ill, 2013, p. 191.

4. IBID, pp. 191-192, Goldacre, pp. 33-34.

5. Goldacre, p. 35. See also Prothero, pp. 189-190.

6. Goldacre, p. 35.

7. IBID, p. 33.

8. IBID, pp. 36-38.

9. Prothero, p. 195.

10. Goldacre, pp. 38-47.

Pierre Cloutier

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