Homeopathy: the 2nd Most Ridiculous Pseudoscience

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It doesn’t come up often, per se, but I’ve mentioned homeopathy several times in the past month or two and each time I have to mention that it’s complete pseudoscience, and each time I just don’t have time to go into the details of why it’s pseudoscience. So a few of you viewers have asked if I could do a video going into the details, and I’ve put it off because there’s just no newsworthy reason  to do it. But this week I was researching another video topic and realized I would be mentioning it again, and I thought, wouldn’t it be nice to have another video I could point to and say “if you wanna know more about that, just go watch this”? Well. Here we go.

Many years ago when I was about 21 or 22, I was a grungy little hippy living in low income housing in Seattle, where I had no health insurance. I had a health problem but since I couldn’t afford to see a doctor, I went to my local herbalist, because that’s like a doctor, right? Sure. He gave me an all-natural homeopathic treatment, which I took. It did nothing. I just blamed myself, thinking I probably didn’t explain the problem clearly enough or whatever. Surely the problem wasn’t this all natural medicine, right??

It wasn’t until a few years later that I learned that “alternative medicine” is what they call “medicine” that doesn’t work, and also that there’s a difference between “naturopathic” and “homeopathic.” Here’s what it is: “naturopathic” is a wider category that can include a broad array of dubious treatments and outright bullshit, but it’s generally based on vitamins, minerals, changing the diet to “whole foods,” stuff like that.

Homeopathy is sometimes considered a subset of naturopathy, and unlike many other naturopathic treatments, homeopathy specifically contains absolutely zero active ingredients. Not a single molecule of a vitamin or a pain reliever or anything. This is what makes homeopathy, in my opinion, the second most ridiculous alternative medicine modality of all time.

The first, if you’re wondering, is “therapeutic touch,” in which no one touches anyone and a nurse or someone who dropped out of nursing school waves their hands over the patient’s body for a bit before declaring them cured.

But homeopathy is a close second, and to explain why I will simply tell you the honest truth about what homeopaths themselves say. I promise I’m not making this up. Homeopathy is based on two essential truths:

First, that “like cures like.” A medicine works when it causes the symptoms that the patient is currently experiencing. This is the origin of the name “homeopathy”: a combination of the Greek words for “like” and “suffering.” 

This means that, for instance, if you have an annoying itch, you should consume something that CAUSES itching in a healthy person, like poison ivy. If you have cancer, X-rays should help with that. If you have a migraine, maybe a falling anvil will do the trick. Etc.

This idea was hatched by Samuel Hahnemann in 1796, after he heard that a particular kind of tree bark could cure malaria. He did not have malaria but he ate some bark to see what would happen, and found that he started to experience the same effects that malaria patients experience: a high fever, uncontrollable shivers, and joint pain. Thus, “like cures like.”

This is a really great example of the difference between “medicine” and “alternative medicine,” in that the alt med guy stopped after one anecdotal data point and built an entire industry on it, while the real med guys went on to figure out that the tree bark contained quinine, which is toxic to the parasite that causes malaria but delicious when paired with a good gin.

So that’s the first rule of homeopathy: like cures like.

Hahnemann himself very quickly realized that this was NOT enough: OBVIOUSLY if you drop an anvil on the head of a patient with migraines, their headache is only going to get WORSE, not better. The second rule, then, must be that less is more. Perhaps a very tiny anvil? And if dilution makes the treatment better, it then stands to reason that diluting something even more makes it work EVEN BETTER, and if you carry that to its natural conclusion, the strongest possible dilution must be one far beyond the point where a single molecule of the “treatment” remains. In our migraine example, perhaps we reach the point where we simply draw an anvil on a post-it note and stick it to the top of the head of the patient.

“Now hold on Rebecca,” some of you are saying, “surely you are being hyperbolic. Surely they don’t actually dilute things down to the point where not a single molecule remains.” And I am sorry to inform you that they do. Hahnemann used the “C” scale to measure dilutions, with C representing 100. So, a 1C dilution is one part of the original substance diluted in 100 parts of water or alcohol. 1% of the substance would remain. The scale increases logarithmically, so a 2C dilution is one part of the original substance in 10,000 parts of the solution, meaning 0.01% of the original substance would remain.

12C is the highest dilution in which a single molecule of the original substance is likely to still exist in the formula. Mathematicians accurately describe 12C as “a pinch of salt in both the North and South Atlantic Oceans.” 13C would be less than a drop of the original substance into all the water on Earth. Hahnemann advocated for treatments to be diluted to at least 30C, which is 1 in 10 to the 60th power. A quick search of homeopathic products currently sold shows they commonly go from 30C up to to 200.

“Ok Rebecca,” you’re thinking now, “you weren’t exaggerating about that, but it was really unkind to make that joke about drawing an anvil on a post-it note and sticking it on a patient’s head. You’re really poisoning the well with such a ridiculous example.”

Friends. Hold on to your hats.

In June of the year 2000, the New Zealand Homeopathic Society released their quarterly newsletter with an editorial criticizing fellow homeopaths who were giving out paper treatments:

“…if you run out of a proper homœopathic remedy you can write its name and potency on a piece of paper and put it in a pocket, or pin it on the left side of the patient’s chest. Be careful not to write down too high a potency it warned.

“But my laughter died when I read on and found this practice was promoted by a person describing herself as a classical homœopath, and it was all dead serious.

“And even more scary were numerous reports from people claiming to have tried such “paper remedies” as EXCESS FAT 30c to lose weight, INSUFFICIENT FUNDS 30c to boost real estate sales, COMPUTER WORKING 200c for a hard-drive problem, CAR START 30c for a sick vehicle, COURAGE 30c for public speaking, TOTAL RECALL 30c for an exam, and the more prosaic HEADACHE 30c, VERTIGO 30c, ITCHY FEET 30c, etc. One person found AGNUS CASTUS 30c gave ill-effects whereas AGNUS CASTUS LM1 felt good.

“The woman I refer to is Eileen Nauman, who plans to run a course in New Zealand.

“For people who find writing remedy names on slips of paper too difficult, Gillian Lee, owner and manager of a business in England called White Mountain, has had made for sale a device looking like a pocket-size tape recorder into which the surreal homœopath had merely to speak the name of a remedy and its potency – then lactose tablets in a well inside it will be made into the remedy thus spoken.”

So, yeah, it’s kind of a fringe practice but there are homeopaths out there writing down treatments on pieces of paper and claiming it will cure the patient.

What’s funniest about all of this is the idea that the “mainstream” homeopaths are like yeah, like cures like, got it….dilute it until there’s nothing left, sure, makes sense….hold on, write it down on a piece of paper? That’s just silly. Ridiculous. Have we no standards??

Anyway, that’s homeopathy! A bunch of nonsense. Now you know, and I don’t have to stop to explain it the next time I mention homeopathy in videos. I’ve just saved myself countless seconds!

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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