Homeopathy; a story of dilution

I am often reminded one does not win popularity contests when attempting to shatter the delusions of others. I can certainly appreciate the fact no one wants to believe that they might be wrong, especially if this belief represents a form of comfort. It is then that I carefully remind people the truth is not a matter of popularity; we have plenty of examples in history of when popular beliefs have been held erroneously, often with tragic results. Perhaps, I argue, the old adage that “the truth shall set you free” applies to more than trying to avoid lying to others. Perhaps it also means we need to stop lying to ourselves, even if we find these lies comforting.

My particular rant, this day, concerns the rather archaic and antiquated practice known as alternative medicine. This ranges from a variety of activities from the laying on of hands to acupuncture; to the supposed healing energy of crystals and magnets, or evangelical ministers and their faith healing. They may differ in their respective rituals, but each one demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of the human body and science in general. For them to be effective, those who engage in these activities must prescribe to a particular set of beliefs; either that a human being is capable of manipulating energy with their minds (and, subsequently, that energy is somehow responsible for healing), or a higher power has endowed an individual with miraculous powers. This is what makes these beliefs alternative, and they differ significantly from their orthodox counterparts, who use the rigorous double blind study and hard research to demonstrate their effectiveness. One does not need to believe in penicillin to benefit from its curative properties.

It is my belief it is primarily the lack of understanding about science which allows these myths to persist. I shall therefore try in earnest to educate as many people as possible, who themselves may be unaware of how traditional medicines work.

A relative or friend, when you are troubled by some ailment, may have at some time or another suggested to you the use of some alternative medicine to treat it. Homeopathy is perhaps the most popular alternative medicine, presumably because it is easy to obtain, and because the idea of ingesting a pill or liquid is so accepted in society. Homeopathic medicine is often available in pharmacies, which seems to legitimize their use. Somewhere, in your unconscious, you may have thought to yourself: well, perhaps there is something to this homeopathic treatment. After all, science doesn’t know everything, right?

It’s true, science doesn’t know everything. Science is a process which strives to understand the natural world, and it tests the validity all claims. Anything that is testable is fair ground. The notions of homeopathy are themselves testable, so they are not outside of the realm of science. So, you might wonder, how does homeopathy fare in the validity of their claims? Not well at all. To understand why, let us examine specifically what their claims are.

Homeopathy works on 3 very basic principles. The first, and most basic principle, is called the proof: essentially, any substance that causes a particular effect, (a particular plant, for instance, might cause swelling when eaten) will be noted for that effect. If a patient then displays symptoms that resemble the effect of that substance (like a swollen arm), then the homeopath would recommend the patient then ingest this material. This is the principle ‘like cures like’. The colloquialism one must fight fire with fire comes to mind. Does it really seem wise to give someone a substance that would only cause more swelling? Have no fear, for the second principle of homeopathy is that of dilution. If the same patient with the swollen arm were to consult a homeopath, he would ‘prescribe’ the same substance as before, but greatly diluted. Just what level of dilution makes the product safe for consumption? Well, enter the third, and presumably the most ridiculous principle of all (as though the first two weren’t silly enough); the greater the dilution, the more potent the medicine.

Yes, you read correctly. This is not a typo or slight from the author. Homeopaths actually believe increasing levels of dilution dramatically changes (for the better) the potency of their medicine. If you organized a party at your house, and were suddenly confronted with the crisis of your fruit punch running out, you certainly would consider watering it down to try and save the day. You would not, however, assume that somehow the punch had suddenly become more potent. If the punch contained alcohol, you would not suddenly warn everyone that the increased dilution would increase the deleterious effect of the liquor. You would certainly be considered quite the comedian for entertaining your guests with such a notion. But just how diluted can homeopathic medicine be?

On the back of most homeopathic remedies, unbeknown to most individuals, the actual potency of their medicine is printed clearly. A typical example may include caffeine (often, hilariously enough, in their sleeping pills) ranging with a concentration of 10-30X. This represents to which degree the ingredient has been diluted. This means, if we take the most modest example, that for every caffeine molecule, there are 10 (power of 30) (that’s 10 billion billion billion) molecules of something else, typically either water or, in the case of pills, wax. Some are so diluted, it would take a pill the size of the solar system in order to find at least one molecule of the active ingredient.

In order to circumvent this embarrassing oversight, homeopaths claim the molecules of the medium (in most cases, water or wax) still contain the ‘memory’ of whatever ingredient they purport to be using. This amounts to little more then magic. If every water molecule somehow ‘remembered’ the properties of other substances that it was once part of, then each one would certainly have the property of almost every substance known to man. Molecules are routinely recycled. Odds are you are imbibing a molecule or two that passed through the bladder of some ancient dinosaur. I would hesitate to claim Brontosaurus urine is good for your kidneys.

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Comments (6)

  • avatar

    Pierre Kerner

    Awesome-ly well written article! I think it only lacks a study on the effectiveness of the “treatment” (I wonder if this would equal a placebo effect, or if there is a “theatrical” effect: less product, more advertisement equal brain confunsed enough to elicit smal health advantage…). Who knows, there might even be a deleterious effect, but people would be too dumb to complain.
    I’m going to search for some clues…

  • avatar

    Josh Nankivel

    I can highly recommend “Here Be Dragons” by Brian Dunning…there’s a small part on the obsurdities of sugar pills with “dilluted sulphur” that is eye-opening.

    http://non-theist.com/video/

  • avatar

    Pug

    I’m with you on everything except acupuncture. I’ll agree that the idea of a Chinese doctor using it to cure a lazy kidney or something ridiculous like that is insane, but physio therapists use it all the time to release muscle tension around joint injuries and it works incredibly well. I blew a disk in my back a year ago and the only thing that actually did anything was when my physio started putting needles in to loosen my back muscles. It’s basically like a massage without the massage.

  • avatar

    Pierre

    I think the act of putting needles on some spot of the body can obviously have effects on it (compared to homeotherapy, you’re actually doing something). For starters, if you do it wrong, you might get hurt ;-)
    But, the only thing to argue with acupuncture is to tag it as what it is: it is a strictly empirical discipline. Almost everything associated with its principles is dogmatic, not backed with evidence and sometimes ludicrous. (check the traditional theory here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acupuncture). Some studies even suggest that random placement of needles on the body might give similar results. You’re right in saying that it is as a massage: it might feel good, it certainly has an effect on the body, but whenever you here of energy flow between the nerve endings of the masseuse hands and the ones from your back, you can say that someone needs to crack a science book open.

  • avatar

    Sean

    Excellent article – and as for acupuncture, it’s alternative for a reason – anecdotal evidence is only evidence that it seemed to help you.
    http://www.skeptic.com/eskeptic/08-10-08.html#feature

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