Anti-Science

Homeopathy (is) for Dummies

Let’s take a step back.

Yesterday, I wrote about doctors in England protesting the promotion of homeopathy (and other unproven “alternative medicine”) by the National Health Service. As usual, the post was written in my own snide style, for which I make no apologies since homeopathy deserves to be mocked merciliessly until the people who sell it to the public are too embarrassed to continue living. However, today I’d like to take a moment to offer a serious overview for the benefit of readers who may not fully understand what homeopathy is all about.

I once was a hippy. Okay, I still consider myself rather hippy-ish, but not like I was. I worked as an activist for a progressive nonprofit, used all organic everything, ate a completely vegetarian diet, and I smoked a lot. Tobacco. Of course. Nothing wrong with any of those things, it’s just that all together they technically made me a hippy.

But as part of the hippiness, I also thought homeopathy was a perfectly acceptable alternative to prescription medication. I didn’t really think about it — it just seemed to be common knowledge. At the time, I assumed that homeopathy was the same as naturopathy: all natural ingredients that people have known for centuries to be beneficial to a person’s health.

Then one day I read an actual description of what homeopathy is. Imagine a neighbor you’ve known for a few years. He’s quiet and always says hello when you see him in the yard. Then one day the cops knock on your door and start asking you questions: have you ever seen him in possession of large amounts of hamsters? Do you hear strange “squeaking” sounds coming from his basement at night? Has he ever asked to borrow your wood chipper? You are shocked to discover that your quiet neighbor, who you never really gave a second thought, is bat-shit insane. Your neighbor is homeopathy.

There are two important beliefs upon which homeopathy rests:

1.) Like cures like. In other words, if your liver fails, the best thing for it is something that causes liver failure. Like whiskey.

2.) The more diluted something is, the more effective it is. To really help your liver, you shouldn’t drink the whiskey straight — have it on the rocks. Alternatively, skip the Bushmill’s and go for the stuff in the jug on the bottom shelf. Night Train, or something.

Some of you may think that these are the same ideas that give us vaccines, which we know are effective and even necessary for combatting diseases like polio. Your mistake is assuming that the homeopaths are using common sense. They take belief #2 to an extreme so absurd that you almost wish they were grinding up hamsters in the wood chipper instead.

Let’s take the whiskey as an example — one glass of Bushmill’s will not help your liver. If you take an eyedropper and remove one tiny bit of it and drop it in a bathtub of water, it comes closer to being able to help you. Now mix up the water and take a drop from the bathtub. Deposit it in the swimming pool out back. It’s getting even better! Now take a single drop from the pool and drop it in the Atlantic Ocean. Once the ocean is well mixed, a single drop from it is powerful, but not even half as powerful as some of the “higher potency” homeopathic “remedies.”

Any child can tell you that there is no more whiskey in that mixture. If you want to get technical, maybe the child can tell you all about Avogadro, who came up with an exact figure for determining whether or not a particle of something is still in existence. Maybe the child will be all cute and pronounce it “Avocado’s number,” saying it is “thikth point thero two two timeth ten to the twenty third.”

But anyway, you don’t even need to know that — you just need common sense. Would you sit in a bathtub someone just peed in? Would you swim in an ocean that someone just peed in? There’s a difference, and if you can’t tell that difference then you deserve to spend your life sitting in a tub of pee.

Homeopathic remedies are nothing more than water, or sometimes, sugar pills. They have never been proven to work by a simple, double blind peer-reviewed study. They give people false hope and in some cases they encourage people to stop taking real medicine that could help them. The people who sell these sugar pills (often at an exorbitant cost) are at best deluded and at worst frauds.

I hope that cleared things up for some of you who like me may have been under the impression that homeopathy was just your nice, quiet neighbor.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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38 Comments

  1. Exactly.

    It appears to me that about 98% of homeopathy believers are sincere because they've never once looked at the math and are just credulous hopefull innocents. The other 2%, who produce these medicines or understand the process and believe in its efficacy, are murderously greedy and/or simply indisputably insane.

  2. Yeah, yeah, most of us know how silly the so-called thinking behind homeopathy is. Now get on to the good stuff — is that really you playing the guitar in that picture, Rebecca? If so… HOW CUTE YOU LOOKED.

  3. I mentioned that article on my blog yesterday, and stirred up a little debate with a quackery advocate. It's sad that people are so willing to turn their backs on science for things that are simply loony.

    And to be accurate, I did some math on a previous post of mine… If you want a single molecule of a remedy diluted to 30X, you don't need to drink a whole ocean… It only takes about 10,000 gallons ;)

  4. 'Serious overview'??? I almost laughed at least three times. It was a good overview, but you owe reparations for your false claim. Homeopathy is silly to begin with, so you should have realized your low chances of success in advance.

  5. Very funny… Triggered my memory that New Scientist ran an article in April ( I think) of this year about the supposed magical qualities of water. Somebody suggesting that on a quantum level water has a memory. Anybody read that?

  6. My experience is that explaining what homeopathy really is doesn't get you anywhere. Friends/family/colleagues will promptly counter you with sh*t loads of anecdotal evidence about how they experienced that it absolutely works. How do you carefully explain your loved ones that their perception is eluding them? ("Placebo? So you are saying I am crazy?") They are not going to believe you… This is the thing that bothers me most about homeopathy, and alternative medicine in general. People believe in it because they think that their experience proves it works.

  7. PetertheGreat's comment reminded me that a gentleman named Masuru Emoto is engaged in trying to prove that water has not only memory but emotion. See the entertaining film "What the [email protected]#$%! Do We Know?" Apparently you can be murdered by bath water that is angry you peed in it….

  8. oh, I can just see the legal defense from Emoto's work:

    Prosecutor: "The victim drowned. Your fingerprints were found at the crime scene and your hair found in the water—yet you insist you are not guilty of murder?"

    Alleged Criminal: "Absolutely! I just touched that water and it got so mad that it jumped right down her throat! Just ask Masuru Emoto!"

  9. Great post, Rebecca, you rock!

    This is just so great to read, after spending years being frustrated on seeing (a lot of)friends, family, collegues blindly believing in Homeopathy and trying to convince you that a sugar pill will make your headache go away…

    We need more Skepchicks, I have always been a 'Skepchick' too, but unfortunately there are too few where I come from.

  10. "… deserves to be mocked merciliessly until the people who sell it to the public are too embarrassed to continue living."

    I'd rather not you make people not want to live anymore. There are enough of those already. You can be firm and friendly at the same time.

    Btw, *most* medicine have quite a large placebo effect – generally in the 30% range. Some anti-depressants closer to 50. The placebo effect plays a great role even in ordinary medicine. However, my pharmacology professor tells me I can't give my patients sugar pills, because that would be fooling them deliberately.

  11. 'What the [email protected]#$% do we know' is the biggest pile of steaming excrement ever to be presented on DVD. It takes something already mysterious to the layman – quantum mechanics – and misinterprets it so wildly to support the cause of magical thinking that it's no longer recognizable. What it lead to is some hippy telling me that homeopathy has been 'proven' using quantum mechanics (i nearly choked laughing, very dangerous).

    All you need to know about that movie is that one of the 'scientific advisors' listed in the credits is a spirit guide who used to live in Atlantis, and whose brother was reincarnated as Shirley McClaine. You couldn't make this stuff up.

  12. Moonflake: I agree with your assessment of "What the [email protected]#$%! Do We Know?" I have to admit that I DID relish the idea of "creating my day" — waking up, envisioning the day I would have, and then having that kind of day — but I must be doing something quantumtatively wrong because I just can't ever get it to work….

  13. Berkeley—

    *Everything* has a placebo effect: this is nothing new. The point is that the medication that is effective demonstrates a statistical significance beyond placebo.

    And I have to question your figures. Could you please provide a reference?

  14. The placebo effect is interesting in its own right… My own experience was downright classic. Back in college, I had a wart on my finger, which kept growing back after several kinds of removal. Then, while working in the cafeteria, a falling piece of equipment chopped the wart off, very dramatically. Then it didn't grow back.

    PS: WTH with the font on this page? It makes everything look like ransom notes!

  15. Just a thought on homeopathy… Does it work with humans? I mean, if you take one complete idiot and dilute him by placing him in the general population, does everybody become an idiot?

  16. Does it work with humans? I mean, if you take one complete idiot and dilute him by placing him in the general population, does everybody become an idiot?

    No, but enough do to re-elect him.

  17. I would have chosen Belladonna instead of Whiskey for the example, but maybe not everyone knows what Belladonna is – or what it does.

    For those who posted to my comment yesterday, many didn’t read it very well. At the beginning I remarked that single-drop-of-substance-cures were "crap" (I hate using terms such as that, but I’ll stay in context), but the Homeopathic Hospital article also included alternative or complementary treatments. My comments were addressed to alternative treatments, like acupuncture and biofeedback. Many alternative treatments do beat the placebo curve for effectiveness, although we don't understand why in a rigorous scientific sense. For those who would like to bash alternative treatments, please keep in mind that just because it doesn't work for you and yours, e.g. acupuncture, that does not mean it does not work for a significant number of people.

    Lest you think me uninformed or wholly one-side on this subject, I work in pharmaceutical drug manufacturing.

    And a gold star to DS for the comment regarding the partial fallacy of the Galileo Gambit, although I did clarify the particular perspective of that situation that I was addressing. Oh, but you obviously didn’t really read my comment very well or you wouldn’t have accused me of defending homeopathy – "You mean the real research that shows homeopathy to be utterly ineffective?". Also, DS, doctors and homeopathic practitioners are both human – with different ideas about what constitutes medical treatment – although I know some of you might not think of the later as such. Dr. Fisher does have a point that when a human identifies himself as a homeopathic practitioner, he can expect discrimination. (Come on, someone attack my use of him rather than her!)

    The point that I was making yesterday is that although snide is fine, it can go too far, and a skeptical argument can be lost simply by not being taken seriously.

    Regarding Dr. Emoto, by his own admission, "Messages in Water" is a "photo essay." It is so sad that so many people believe it's "real", i.e. scientific. Even Dr. Emoto himself does not claim that it was scientific. How many crystals formed in each sample, and how did he choose which one would be used for the photo?

    I do believe (with some skepticism) that there are some connections between us and our environment, and our thoughts can make a difference, but Dr. Emoto just embarrasses that belief. (Regarding the power of thoughts, do some reading about prayer and crime.)

    "What the Bleep…" was mostly junk, but did have some sentient parts, e.g. the animation of emotions and the brain was particularly interesting. And I was quite amused that "What the Bleep…" got the actor that played "Quark" in "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" to pitch for "Messages in Water."

  18. Does it work with humans? I mean, if you take one complete idiot and dilute him by placing him in the general population, does everybody become an idiot?

    No, i think the way it works is that if you dilute an idiot in the general population, and then eat a member of that population, you become a genius. Like cures like, remember :)

    now that i think about it, that could explain why Hannibal Lecter is so smart…

  19. Homeopathic remedies are nothing more than water, or sometimes, sugar pills. They have never been proven to work by a simple, double blind peer-reviewed study.

    ================

    Then how can you just so easily dismiss homeopathic ideas? If there has been no study, how do you justify your derision? My point is not to defend Homeopathic medicine. I am no expert.

    It just caught my eye how you admit there has been no investigation but that doesn't stop you from concluding it is all garbage because you don't like the sound of it.

  20. CJ said: "I do believe (with some skepticism) that there are some connections between us and our environment, and our thoughts can make a difference… (Regarding the power of thoughts, do some reading about prayer and crime.)"

    CJ, you are just far too hopeful about the woo-woo. You say you reserve some skepticism. All that means to me is that you really really want to believe all the magical connections but you tentatively accept that the evidence is not there to substantiate it, YET. Am I accurate on this?

    Regarding "prayer and crime", I've done plenty of reading on it. Your comment, however, speaks volumes about your personal filtering techniques. It's the hopeful filtering of woo-woos. If you still believe there is any positive causal connection between prayer and crime, or prayer and health, etc., then you have put personal (read: hopeful) emphasis on the positive articles, and utterly ignored or denied the more rigidly controlled studies that show there is no link whatsoever.

    Re homeopathy: Your comment from yesterday is perfectly legible, no sense in trying to change the meaning of your sentences in today's comment and pretend I didn't read it very carefully yesterday.

    Today:

    "For those who posted to my comment yesterday, many didn’t read it very well. At the beginning I remarked that single-drop-of-substance-cures were 'crap'…"

    Yesterday: "some homeopathic 'cures' are, well, crap…" (emphasis added)

    You see, those are two different statements. To be more direct, you know, so there is no confusion, when you say "some" homeopathic cures are crap I take it to mean that you believe that "some" are efficacious. When you follow that statement with an attack on conventional medicine, I take it mean you are defending homeopathy at least to "some" degree, correct? If I'm not correct, don't dismiss my comprehension; rethink how you phrased your argument. And don't rephrase it with an entirely different meaning the next day and say I didn't read very carefully the first time.

    CJ said: "And a gold star to DS for the comment regarding the partial fallacy of the Galileo Gambit, although I did clarify the particular perspective of that situation that I was addressing."

    Sorry, what do you mean by "the partial fallacy of the Galileo Gambit"? You played the Galileo Gambit. Played it like a woo-woo:

    "Of course many mainstream doctors are going to participate in actions against alternative treatments – they don’t want the competition, and they have their own belief systems…. Reminds me of the Catholic Church and Galileo."

    Are you saying you didn't mean what you obviously meant with that whole paragraph?

  21. I think we're forgetting the real issue here. Should the NHS foot the bill for treatments that have no basis in science??? I can't believe we even have to ask this question.

    Homeopathy is based on the belief that like cures like, and the more infintesimal the dilution, the better. This belief contradicts science, and has no evidence to support it.

    Acupuncture is based on the belief that the body has an energy force running through it ("Qi"), and that disease and injury are caused by blockages of this energy. This belief contradicts science, and has no evidence to support it.

    Chiropractic is based on the belief that most health problems are due to misalignments ("subluxations") of the spinal column, and that certain manipulations of the spinal column correct the flow of nerve energy, thus allowing the body to heal itself. Some chiropractic treatments for back pain appear to have an effect, but the foundation of this belief contradicts science and has no evidence to support it.

    Et cetera.

    Why should the NHS cover treatments like these?

  22. CJ,

    Emphasis mine:

    For those who posted to my comment yesterday, many didn’t read it very well. At the beginning I remarked that single-drop-of-substance-cures were “crap” (I hate using terms such as that, but I’ll stay in context), but the Homeopathic Hospital article also included alternative or complementary treatments. My comments were addressed to alternative treatments, like acupuncture and biofeedback. Many alternative treatments do beat the placebo curve for effectiveness, although we don’t understand why in a rigorous scientific sense. For those who would like to bash alternative treatments, please keep in mind that just because it doesn’t work for you and yours, e.g. acupuncture, that does not mean it does not work for a significant number of people.

    I think we wouldn't be calling it alternative medicine if it was actually shown, in a decent scientific trial, to be more effective than placebo. And I'm not talking about those three or four trials out of several hundreds that seem to look promising but don't really go beyond what might be expected by pure chance. Modern medicine is very quick to adopt something that's proven to be an effective cure. So if it's capable of passing that treshold, it'll probably not remain alternative that much longer.

    There's still no good reason to believe accupuncture actually works. At least not better than placebo. One of the problems with testing it is that it's very difficult to have a decent placebo control group, since the patient is very much aware whether he's being stuck with needles or not. And then there's the fact that there's no real consensus on exactly where to stick the needles for which particular desired effect. Being ancient and Chinese is still it's major selling point, not scientific validity.

    And remember, lots and lots of raving reviews by people who tried a remedy are not the same as a scientific trial. Just because everyone knows what it is or even uses it often and apparently successfully doesn't necesarily mean it actually works. Like homeopathy for example.

    While it's good to be skeptical and not just dismiss something because it sounds strange or appears, at first glance, to defy common sense, it's also good to be skeptical of things that have been around for ages without any solid evidence proving efficacy. The burden of proof still remains firmly on those making the claim.

  23. In response to just a few comments:

    Viking, actually, I think your math is a bit off. The "higher potency" dilutions are the equivalent of a single drop in a body of water the size of the solar system. See this page at Quackwatch for more info.

    JF, yes, that's me — it's a photo taken just last summer at a skeptic get together. Thanks for the compliment!

  24. You're absolutely right. We're talking about two different ends of the improbability spectrum. At the far end, yes, we're talking about entire solar systems of water per molecule. But at the more reasonable end, it's really not all that bad. At a dilution of 30X, assuming about 10^21 molecules per drop of water, you only need a billion drops of water per molecule– the size of a small pond, which I thought was absurd enough.

    But you're absolutely right. There are homeopaths out there who go much further. There, your oceans analogy stands true– even understates the full scale of the absurdity. My apologies for seeming to undermine your argument :)

  25. 30X = 15C, which is just barely crossing the Avogadro limit with only three extra 1/100 dilutions past 12C. 30C is actually more of a standard dilution in homeopathic remedies.

  26. Ahhhh, yes. Homeopathy cures. As they say, "Laughter is the best medicine." I would like to tell you more about the complete fallacies and pseudoscience involved in this holistic "medicine."

    As you may or may not know, homeopaths believe that the reason that these sugar pills work is because water has "memory", meaning that a substance can be put into liquid water, and, using the right procedures, leave an imprint on the water molecules. Some pseudoscientists even go as far as saying that this mechanism works at the quantum level, which would probably rule out the validity of homeopathy, because at the quantum level, the "memory" of water should not be restricted to water itself, but almost any substance should be able to "remember" other substances. (however, that might be false, so look that up).

    That being said, I would like to mention the "rationale" behind the memory of liquid water at the molecular level, and not the quantum level. There are idiots out there who believe that when water is shaken vigorously, things called "water clusters" form in the water. These are spheical formations of water molecules that come in many different forms, and by taking a poison and diluting it with water, water clusters are formed with properties similat to those of the poison.

    There is a big problem, however: water is liquid. the molecules in a liquid generally flow freely and do not make rigid formations (I say "generally" because, there are, in fact, certain liquids that sometimes do make rigid formations, and these are called liquid crystals, like those in LCD screens. However, water has never shown the smallest bit of evidence that it can form liquid crystals). So that throws the whole water memory theory down the drain.

    Homeopathic remedies are said to stimulate the "vital force" in our bodies. As yet, science has never found any evidence of the existance of this "vital force."

    Just look up "water clusters," and I'm sure you'll get a good laugh. All in all, the conclusion is….

    HOMEOPATHY HAS NO BASIS IN SCIENCE WHATSOEVER, AND ALL WHO WISH TO USE HOMEOPATHY INSTEAD OF CONVENTIONAL MEDICINES ARE DOING SO AT THEIR OWN RISK.

    I'm not claiming that homeopathy does not work (I've heard many claims about its benifits); I'm just saying that there is no physical way that it can work. Maybe it works spiritually. Or not. You decide.

    Thank you for your time,

    Doni, Lord of All Things Shiny, Wizzard of Chutney.

  27. Hi folks

    Loving the attacks on homeopathy. I've been studying it for 2 years now to become a professional homeopath. I still can't definitively tell you how it works, specifically. Mind you there are scientists out there who can; and they are the quantum physicists. Jazz Rasool is one, he is an astrophysicist and also a molecular biologist. Doesn't really matter all that much to me how it works. How does an antibiotic work? a painkiller? do we need to know the exact details?

    All that does seem to become more apparant to me, and the reason I am still studying, is the nature of disease and how healing can occur. It seems that our spiritual, mental and emotional makeup is more important than many of us would concede in our physical health. Even our conventional doctors now at least regard stress as one of the biggest problems in illness. We can feel the mind body link just thinking of our most stressful situation or our deepest fear. Heart races, palm sweats….. our emotional and mental state are precursors to what happens in the body. If we can accept that, we can accept energy medicine; as there is no physical substance to the mind or a thought or emotion. It is simply movement of energy. This is also what homeopathy and acupuncture work with. There is no molecule of the original substance left but simply the energetic blue print of it. On this level you might understand the like with like healing a little like if you are grieving and share with another who is grieving there can be a healing response although no substance has transferred. Homeopathy works like this but more specifically and more individually. Or, maybe its a load of rubbish!

    All the best.

    Siobhan

  28. "I think we wouldn’t be calling it alternative medicine if it was actually shown, in a decent scientific trial, to be more effective than placebo. …. Modern medicine is very quick to adopt something that’s proven to be an effective cure."

    Riiiight. That's why doctors are still prescribing non-steriodal anti-inflammatories, and not having their patients try things like SAMe, which ARE shown by double blind test to often be about as effective, and a lot safer.

    Probably also explains why the FDA was in court years after the link between folic acid deficiency and spinal bifida was proven, trying to keep the public from being informed.

    The medical comunity's system for propagating information IS pretty effective, but it isn't remotely as perfect as you'd portray it. A fair number of effective treatments get swept into the "alternative medicine" bin, simply because so much information is routed through pharmaceutical companies, or government bureaucrats who have concerns besides just getting the facts right.

  29. Well, unlike homeopathy, medication has plenty of hoops to jump through and tresholds to climb. It doesn't just have to be shown to work, it then has to pass numerous safety trials and other tests. And yes, sometimes side-effects only show up years after something has been in use, and sometimes doctors continue to prescribe medication they've been prescribing for ages rather than the newer, more efficient variant. But all in all, plenty of measures are in place to make sure medications are a safe as possible.

    None of that for homeopathy. They just fill another bottle with sugar tablets, slap a name and a dilution-factor on it, and ship it to the supermarket.

    Oh, and from now on they are apparently no longer prohibited from claiming it can cure things that it actually can't. Next thing you know, perhaps Coca Cola will be allowed to claim their newest concoction can cure baldness, all because some people saw a need to loosen the rules a bit for homeopathy.

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