A skeptical look at homeopathy

1/29/2008 | 3:01 PM | Evolved Rationalist

A branch of ‘alternative’ medicine that has been gaining prominence in recent years is homeopathy. According to a homeopaths, homeopathy is the second most widely used system of medicine in the world. This is indeed cause for worry as the very basic foundations that homeopathy relies on does not stand up to any scientific scrutiny whatsoever.

Nevertheless, I personally know of skeptics who still believe that some element of homeopathy still works beyond the placebo effect. The cause of this would probably be the advent of homeopathy into mainstream pharmacies and the offices of qualified medical practitioners. Although nobody denies that there are qualified medical doctors who are also qualified as homeopaths, the very basis of homeopathy doesn’t render it suitable as a replacement or even as an ‘alternative’ to evidence-based conventional medicine.

The three main principles of homeopathy are:

  • Like Cures Like
    For example, if the symptoms of your cold are similar to poisoning by mercury, then mercury would be your homeopathic remedy.
  • Minimal Dose
    The remedy is taken in an extremely dilute form; normally one part of the remedy to around 1,000,000,000,000 parts of water.
  • The Single Remedy
    No matter how many symptoms are experienced, only one remedy is taken, and that remedy will be aimed at all those symptoms.

Let’s take a look at the first principle, the so-called like cures like theory. Hahnemann, the founder of homeopathy believed that restoring the ‘vital forces’ of the body is the way to cure diseases that were incurable in his time. He also claimed that the very small doses of a medication would be enough to heal as the potency of a particular substance could be manipulated by succussion (vigorous shaking). He founded the like cures like theory after observing that quinine, which causes fever, cured malaria (in which one of the symptoms is fever).

He expounded further on the like cures like theory, by claiming (without any evidence whatsoever) that diluting the so-called cure minimizes its bad effects but maintains its full ‘curative’ power. Scientifically, this is utter nonsense. Is he speculating that some sort of metaphysical force in the water exists and diverts the harmful effects of the substance while maximizing its healing capabilities? That would probably be the only way his pet theory could work, after all. The development of homeopathy has taken place outside science; therefore its claims still lack justification or scientific evidence despite homeopathy being around for more than 200 years.

Some modern homeopaths even go so far as to claim that similar principals form the basis of conventional allergy treatment, where the allergic substance is given in a small dose and in vaccines where an impotent form of the virus is given to bolster the immune system against that particular virus. Again, this is merely a faulty analogy and an overdose of wishful thinking. The dilution process involved in homeopathy causes no active ingredient to be left in the medication itself, making it indistinguishable from plain water or alcohol. You might as well be taking an empty pill instead of a homeopathic tablet. This immediately renders their above claim as false. Firstly, there is no active ingredient entered into the body, or rephrased: NOTHING at all enters the body that triggers an immune response. Secondly, as opposed to the case of immunization, homeopathic medications do not stimulate the body to produce substances that may protect the body from a certain disease. Immunology is a tested, proven, verified branch of medicine, whereas the evidence for homeopathy is still non-existent.

Now, we move on to the second principle of homeopathy, the ‘minimal dose’. According to the calculations done by Dr. Simon Singh (a UK-based science journalist), for a homeopathic dilution to have even one molecule remaining of the active ingredient, the pill has to be the size of the planet Earth. Alas, these ever-so-wise homeopaths rush to proclaim that one of the many undiscovered, unproven magical properties is that it has the ability to retain a ‘memory’ of the active ingredient. Their claims are increasingly going off the deep end over the past few years. Jacques Benveniste even claims that a homeopathic solution's biological activity can be digitally recorded, stored on a hard drive, sent over the Internet, and transferred to water at the receiving end. Clearly, this is preposterous. Where is the evidence for all these shocking, outrageous claims? Some homeopaths also claim that homeopathic remedies have powers to ‘magically’ alter the molecular structure of water. (These were the same homeopaths that claim that homeopathic remedies are merely derived from natural elements around us, right?). Worse, there isn’t any evidence for the very basis of the ‘minimal dose’ theory, where it is claimed that one could minimize the negative effect of a ‘cure’ by significantly reducing the size of the dose Well, the least they could do is to prove that their fantastic ideas work, and be in the running for a Nobel Prize in Medicine.

The third and perhaps the most outrageous claim is the ludicrous ‘single remedy’ principle. It is a widely known fact that a disease is usually associated with a variety of symptoms. These symptoms help doctors identify the disease and subsequently prescribe a cure. The opposite seems to be the case for homeopathy. One cure is prescribed (diluted into oblivion first, that is) that supposedly cures one of the symptoms of the disease, thus curing all the other symptoms at the same time. In the homeopaths’ on words: homeopathy is system of medicine that targets the symptoms of a disease (as opposed to conventional medicine where the disease itself is targeted.)

Now let’s look at a little gem of contradiction here (from a homeopathy website):

Homeopathy is holistic. It treats all the symptoms as one, which in practical terms means that it addresses the cause, not the symptoms. This often means that symptoms tackled with Homeopathy do not recur.

Huh? Treating all the symptoms with a ‘cure’ directed at merely one of the symptoms addresses the cause of the illness? They contradict themselves in the last line by admitting that they merely target the symptoms, not the disease. Yet this is the exact opposite of what they said in the previous line ‘addresses the cause.’ Are you willing to place your health in the hands of a bunch of people who can’t get their symptoms and causes straight?

If homeopathic remedies seem to work, it is not because of the metaphysical properties of the ‘miracle water’, but the body's own natural curative mechanisms or the placebo effect. Although most homeopathic remedies are safe and merely ineffective, the danger is when a patient chooses not to seek proper treatment by a conventional medical doctor in cases where the patient could be helped by such treatment.

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  1. The Born Again Atheist |

    Very well done. I noticed the disclaimer at the homeopathy site that you referenced: "This site is for information only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice. Nothing on this site is a recommendation as to how to treat any particular disease or health-related condition. Not all conditions will respond to homeopathic treatment."

    No shit? Imagine that!

    The Born Again Atheist

  2. Anonymous |

    I still don't understand why you guys focus all of your energy on Christianity and seem completely fine with Islam and other beliefs. So, the idea that you believe this because Christians are trying to take beloved science away from you is just week.

    BTW - I should help some Christians out and start a blog about all the things that "unquestionable" science has brought us - like eugenics. All of a sudden an idea that was "proven" science as little as 60 years ago just vanished from the face of the Earth.

  3. Anonymous |

    BTW - I also want to add that environmentalism has a strong fundamentalist base that believes the Earth is an actual living being.

  4. Bozman |

    Anonymous, Ignoring the fact that your post is completely off topic to the original article, which was an excellent shelling of the ridiculous idea of homeopathy, I'd like to take issue with pretty much everything you just wrote. For starters, many of the attacks that are percieved as specifically anti-christian are in fact broadsides against the foundations of all religions and religious thinking. They are placed in a Christian context because that is the social and cultural context in which most of us were raised.

    Secondly, you seem to have twisted science into some sort of absurd caricature of what it actually is. Science is NOT an ideology, it's a process for methodically describing the world around us through observation. You mention eugenics as an example of some percieved evil that science has brought into the world.

    Let me be very clear here. Science makes no moral or ethical judgements on any of the secrets that it reveals. It is up to us to use science in a moral and ethical manner. The disappearance of eugenics is a function of changing ethical standards (and some additional research on it), not some sort of change in the false science dogma that you seem to be describing. It is a tool, not an ideology. Furthermore, Science is NEVER "unquestionable", it is in fact the exact opposite of that at all times - always questioning, always wondering, and always trying to learn more. Old theories are replaced with newer, better ones and mankind takes another tiny step forward. Which of these things seems more reasonable to you, taking a book written piecemeal over thousands of years and finished 2000 years ago that describes, among other things, rules on slave ownership and slaughtering innocents, or the discipline of observation and experimentation that has brought us incredible advances in standards of living for people all over the world.

    If you despise knowledge so much, perhaps you should renounce the things that the scientific method has brought you, such as your house, plumbing, medical science, your car, most of your food, and the computer that you typed your blog post on. Put your money where your mouth is.

    Also, you spelled "weak" wrong.


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