Homeopathy: Modern Day Snake Oil

08-27-09 imageThis blog has been up for nearly a month and I have yet to weigh in on homeopathy (minus a couple of linked videos).  The homeopaths have been quiet as of late.  Or at least they had been at the time I started writing this.  I didn’t finish the post (it’s quite difficult to fit the amount of stupid inherent in homeopathy into one little article) and left town for a few days.  By the time I got back, homeopathy was very much in the public eye.  The World Health Organization came out against the use of homeopathy for treating HIV, TB, and other diseases.  I’ve come across multiple articles and blog posts advocating the efficacy of homeopathy in preventing and treating swine flu.  Oh, and this nutbag was on TV in Australia.  Sadly, the video has been taken down (here’s a transcript of the interview).  I suspect the backlash against the television station that aired the interview led them to file the copyright claim to try and save themselves future embarrassment.  But I’m going to tackle homeopathy anyway.  We’ll briefly explore its history and why its practice is complete and utter idiocy.

In the late 18th century, conventional medical treatment was unquestionably dicey.  Common treatments of the time included bloodletting and purging.  Unsurprisingly in this age of medical ignorance, the treatment was often worse than the disease.  Enter Samuel Hahnemann.

Hahnemann was the German physician who developed and propagated the practice of homeopathy.  He based his theory on two main principles: the law of similars and the law of infinitesimals.  The law of similars (like cures like) states that by giving a patient a substance that induces the very symptoms they are experiencing, it is possible to cure the disease.  For example, a homeopath might prescribe onion extract to someone suffering from watery eyes and a runny nose.  However, not all of Hahnemann’s antidotes were as innocuous as onions.  Arsenic, strychnine, and and other powerful toxins are used in homeopathic remedies.  Hahnemann got around this problem by introducing the law of infinitesimals.  To avoid poisoning his patients, Hahnemann diluted active substances over and over and over (and over and over and over) again until there literally wasn’t a single molecule of the original compound left.  But instead of rendering his concoction inert, he claimed that this serial dilution actually made the ‘medicine’ more potent.

Hopefully your bullshit detectors are running hot right now because the above is some high quality nonsense.  Homeopathy is pure magical thinking with no more proof and plausibility behind it than the existence of dragons in Times Square.  It is the most ridiculous of the alternative medicine modalities, even beating out therapeutic touch, which takes some doing.  Like most of alternative medicine, homeopathy was developed a long time ago by one man during a time when almost nothing useful or true was known about medicine.  Since that time, humanity has made extraordinary advances in science and medicine.  The same can not be said of homeopathy.  While modern medicine long ago discarded the practices prevalent in Hahnemann’s time, homeopathy still clings to its original tenets despite a mountain of evidence that disproves both its clinical effectiveness (no better than placebo) and its underlying theory.  If homeopathy were true, it would invalidate the laws of physics and chemistry, as well as the germ theory of disease.

A standard homeopathic dilution is a 30C dilution, meaning that the original substance has been diluted one part in one hundred 30 times.  By the end of the process, there is roughly one molecule of the original substance for every 1×10^60 molecules of water, which makes it 37 orders of magnitude more pure than chemically pure water (a designation based on Avogadro’s constant, or 6×10^23).  To find one solitary molecule of the original substance in a 30C dilution, you would need a sphere of water with a diameter equivalent to the distance between the Earth and the sun.  Potent indeed.

How do homeopaths propose this works?  Yet more absurdity.  Sensing a theme?  The process of succusion is very important in the preparation of homeopathic remedies.  That is, it’s important to the homeopaths.  In reality, it doesn’t do a damn thing.  According to theory, a homeopathic remedy is effective because the water molecules retain a ‘memory’ of the original substance.  They become infused with the medicinal properties of the active compound (but without any of the side effects) by mimicking its structure.  This is accomplished by succussion, a very specific way of agitating the liquid at each step of the dilution.  Unfortunately for homeopaths, it’s a well-established fact that water molecules undergo rapid changes and hold any specific structure for roughly 1 picosecond (1×10^-12 seconds).  Strike two.

Homeopathic theory also necessarily rejects the germ theory of disease.  Instead of treating a disease, like influenza or syphilis, homeopaths treat the symptoms.  This stems from the law of similars.  After determining the full range of symptoms being experienced by the patient, the homeopath digs into his bag of tricks and finds a concoction that elicits those same symptoms (like treating like).  This approach makes absolutely no sense in light of what science has discovered in the last 200 years.  Disease is much more subtle and complex than a mere amalgamation of symptoms, and treatment is much more difficult than prescribing a glass of really pure water.

Medicine was a decidedly barbaric practice at the time Hahnemann developed his theory.  He recognized this and even abandoned his own medical practice as a result.  He was trying to do good and correct the wrongs he saw in his profession at a time when the tools weren’t yet available.  I have no problem with him.  No, my scorn is reserved for modern day practitioners and proponents of this ridiculous fairy tale.  They engage in bad science and display a complete and utter lack of critical thinking.  There is no plausible mechanism for homeopathy, and clinical testing has shown it to be no more effective than placebo.  One must be willfully ignorant to believe in something so patently absurd.  They then spread this ignorance and cause real harm.  They counsel against vaccinations (see Australian quack above), provide treatment for AIDS in Africa (shades of Matthias Rath), supply worthless malaria prophylactics, and claim to treat a myriad of other diseases including cancer and asthma.  That’s where the harm lies.  Someone treating their headache or cough with homeopathy isn’t a problem.  Those are self-contained conditions that are likely to resolve themselves on their own.  But when those same people rely on homeopathy to protect them from malaria and eschew science-based medicine to treat their cancer with magic water, the results are both tragic and depressingly unnecessary.  Spread the word.

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