Wednesday, January 20, 2010

What is Homeopathy?

I've heard a lot about this homeopathy stuff. It's for sale in almost every pharmacy here in Paris, but just what is it? Is it effective? Must be if it's for sale in a pharmacy, right?

Let's take a look at how the British Society of Homeopaths describes it - from the horses mouth, as it were. Here's their "what is" page:

"Homeopathy is a system of medicine which is based on treating the individual with highly diluted substances given in mainly tablet form, which triggers the body’s natural system of healing."

Hmm. Not much information there, but ok....let's read on further.

"Scientifically it can not yet be explained precisely how it works, but new research in biochemistry and quantum physics is going some way towards shedding light on the process."

How it works can't be explained, yet with an appeal to quantum physics. Curious.

"Homeopathy has been used in the UK for over two hundred years. It was Samuel Hahnemann, a brilliant doctor working in 1796 who developed the scientific and philosophical foundations of this gentler way of healing. These scientific principles form the basis of successful homeopathic practice today."

OK. First things first: Just because something lasts a long time doesn't mean it's right. Look at the Ptolemaic model of the solar system. That lasted for thousands of years until Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo came along and upset the applecart.
Next: During Hahnemann's time, when blood-letting, leeching and other sorts of prescientific medical practices were being used, just about anything non-invasive would've been gentler. This was before we knew anything about the germ theory of disease, before anesthetics, before antibiotics. A time when few children reached adulthood because of disease, and childbirth was each and every time a very serious risk to the lives of both mother and baby. In other words, medical prehistory. Since then we've learned a lot about biology, anatomy, biochemistry and pharmacology. We've learned that leeches and bloodletting don't work, but on the other hand we've held on to some of the ancient wisdom that works. For example, it's been known for millenia that the bark of the willow tree can sooth pain and from that we developed aspirin. This is how medicine, and science in general, evolves. If it works it stays, if it doesn't it gets tossed out with the leeches. To paraphrase Tim Minchin from his poem Storm: alternative medicine that works is known as medicine."

"How are the remedies made?
The raw extracts (from plants or animals) or triturations (from minerals and salts) are made into a ‘tincture’ with alcohol which forms the basis of the dilution procedure. Dilutions are made up to either 1 part tincture to 10 parts water (1x) or 1 part tincture to 100 parts water (1c). Repeated dilution results in the familiar 6x, 6c or 30c potencies that can be bought over the counter: the 30c represents an infinitessimal part of the original substance."

No information on how the "tincture" is prepared, but this is, after all, an outline. So let's do the math. 1C is a dilution of 1 part per 100 in water. 30C is 1C repeated 30 times. So I dilute it down 1:100. Then I take a part of this and dilute THAT down 1:100. Repeat 30 times. Robert L. Park, Ph.D., executive director of The American Physical Society, has noted that since the least amount of a substance in a solution is one molecule, a 30C solution would have to have at least one molecule of the original substance dissolved in a minimum of 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (10^20) molecules of water. It would require a container more than 30,000,000,000 times the size of the Earth to be certain of containing 1 molecule of active ingredient at this dilution!


So in reality, we're left with a container of water. Wow. How could it possibly work if it's only water?

After each dilution the mixture is vigorously agitated in a machine that delivers a calibrated amount of shaking. This is called succussion. It is thought that this process leaves an energetic imprint of the medicinal substance throughout the body of water .

Here's another alarm bell. An "energetic imprint". Some mysterious energy, undetectable by science, gets imprinted in the water. In physics when we speak of energy, we refer to the ability to do work, ie to make things happen. We can talk broadly about kinetic and potential energy, and we can drill down into each type, delving into into various subtypes such as chemical, nuclear, gravitational energy and so forth. They can be converted from one to the other and back again. We understand these forms of energy quite well. But invoking the word energy like this, in the same way as invoking quantum physics, always sets off my woometer.

We also know quite a bit about H_{2} O ( We know its chemical composition and behaviour. We also know a lot about how the atoms in a water molecule bind together. Imprinting "energy", or anything else for that matter, on water molecules is something that the laws of physics and chemistry as we currently understand them simply can't happen. These laws have been verified experimentally on many different occasions and not found wanting. They explain the observable universe quite well. There are Nobel prizes aplenty for anyone who can demonstrate the mechanism by which homeopathy allegedly works, placebo effects aside.

Science and technology have moved on enormously since Hahnemann's development of these ideas, but homeopathy has not. These same ideas have been propagated for over two centuries with little or no modification. It's as if we still bled hospital patients. Homeopathy may be less messy and relatively harmless in wealthy countries, but when you have snake-oil salesmen pitching homeopathic remedies for big killers like AIDS, malaria, and cancer in the place of proven science-based medication, then it's time to come down, and to come down hard. What's the harm, you ask? Look here:

It's the second decade of the 21st century. It's time for this pseudo-scientific twaddle to go the way of leeching and bloodletting.

Let's send it on its way.

Posted via email from John's posterous

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