This article is from a post by Professor Joe Schwarcz who has recently come under criticism by homeopaths in Canada for making inaccurate statements about their craft, and no doubt for being just plain mean for pointing out how absurd homeopathy is.
When I dilute my chicken soup, its taste suffers. When I take one aspirin tablet instead of two, my headache doesn’t resolve. When I use less detergent, my clothes do not come out as clean. Yet, in the topsy-turvy world of homeopathy, less is more. The more a biologically active substance is diluted, the more potent it becomes. The most powerful homeopathic drugs, the ones that according to some homeopaths have to be used the most carefully, are the ones that do not even contain a single molecule of the original substance! Oscillococcinum, the purported cold and flu remedy made from the liver of a duck falls into that category. At the declared homeopathic dose of 200C, the total mass of pills that would have to be consumed to encounter a single molecule of the original substance would be billions of times greater than the mass of the Earth. Yet the label on this product says it contains a ‘medicinal ingredient!’ And curiously it does not warn of the danger that such a ‘high potency’ remedy presents.
Other homeopathic preparations may be prepared from an astounding array of substances that include snake venom, fecal matter, arsenic, gold, plutonium, blister beetles and the south pole of a magnet. Even more bizarre are ‘light from Venus’ and ‘Berlin wall,’ a homeopathic dilution of which is supposed to help people with a lot of conflict in their lives.
Given that homeopaths have scientists breathing down their neck for an explanation of how nonexistent molecules can provide a therapeutic benefit, they have had to come up with some sort of a theory. The usual claim is that the process of dilution and ‘succussion’ (banging the solution into a leather pillow between dilutions) ‘dynamizes’ the remedy by leaving an ‘imprint’ of the original substance. Chemists are prone to start pulling their hair when they hear something like that. Not to worry, though, homeopathy has a treatment for hair loss, natrium muriaticum. That’s sea salt. But going for a swim in the ocean won’t do, the salt is way too concentrated.
Can there be anything to the ‘water memory’ idea? Water molecules do associate with each other momentarily through what any student of chemistry recognizes as ‘hydrogen bonds.’ But these connections last only nanoseconds before the molecules rearrange themselves. In any case, past a dilution of 30C, the solution contains no water molecules that have ever come into contact with the original substance! Furthermore, that original substance, as in the case of duck liver, is composed of thousands of different compounds. Which one is the water supposed to remember? And why does it not remember any of the other compounds it has encountered as it flowed through rivers and sewage systems? This, though, is hardly the point. Even if there were such a thing as water memory, why should that have anything to do with treating a disease? Homeopaths never address that question. They are too busy coming up with various pseudoscientific explanations about imprinting the memory of substances on water.
Another point that homeopaths seem to ignore is that their pills do not even contain any water! A drop of the diluted and succussed solution is added to a pill made of sucrose and lactose, but the water soon evaporates. So does it leave behind a ghost of the memory it supposedly contained? And how exactly is that ghostly memory released when the pill is swallowed and the sugar dissolves? Of course if you are willing to abandon or misuse the laws of chemistry, physics and biology, you don’t have to concern yourself with such issues and can be satisfied by explanations that invoke ‘vital force’ or ‘quantum entanglement.’
Sometimes the effectiveness of homeopathy is likened to the effectiveness of vaccination. This is a hollow argument. First of all, vaccines contain measurable amounts of active ingredients. And we know how they work. They give rise to measurable amounts of antibodies. Furthermore, the active ingredients in vaccines are similar to the disease causing agents. Homeopathic remedies contain no measurable ingredients, give rise to no measurable changes in the body, and the undiluted original ‘medicinal ingredient,’ such as duck liver, bears no resemblance in any way to the disease causing organism, which in the case of a cold or the flu is a virus.
At a loss to explain how homeopathy works, homeopaths essentially invoke Hamlet’s musings. ‘There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’ Seems appropriate, since both Hamlet and homeopaths appear to believe in ghostly images. Basically, the homeopathic argument comes down to, ‘we may not know how it works, but it works.’
Homeopaths are convinced of the efficacy of their treatment because of the positive feedback they get from patients. But is this because their pills are effective, or is it because they tend to be caring people who listen to patients and spend a lot more time analyzing concerns than conventional physicians? Homeopaths will point out that there are proper randomized trials that show a benefit for homeopathy. Indeed, it would be shocking if there weren’t any. When you carry out enough trials, some will by chance alone show a positive result. If you repeatedly toss a hundred coins into the air, it won’t be long before you come up with a result that differs significantly from fifty-fifty. That’s why instead of looking at individual studies, we rely on a ‘meta analysis,’ a study of studies.
Here the results are clear. The effects of homeopathy are indistinguishable from the placebo effect. Not surprising, since homeopathic remedies are indistinguishable from each other. Or from sugar pills. The James Randi Educational Foundation offers a million dollars to anyone who can by any means identify an unlabeled homeopathic remedy. Certainly any pharmaceutical company can readily identify any of their products. If this cannot be done for homeopathic remedies, how can a homeopath know he or she is giving the right substance? In fact how can we differentiate between a real and a fake homeopathic remedy?