prompted by a quiz question…

… to which I knew the answer. It was ‘homeopathy’.

Quite a few science bloggers comment on homeopathy from time to time. I haven’t done so myself, before this – partly because I haven’t been inclined to stir things up.,.. But recently I’ve read material that rather bugs me.

I find many of the concepts surrounding homeopathy quite confusing – & completely unscientiific. For example, the idea that a substance that causes a particular set of symptioms will, if sufficiently diluted, treat those symptoms. Or the idea that this ability to treat symptoms becomes stronger, the more you dilute that substance. There really is no scientific basis for this, considering that in many instances the remedy is so diluted that no molecule of the initial substance can possibly remain.

Which does rather make you wonder about claims of cures by homeopathic plutonium, for example. Orac (among others) has written quite extensively on this one. Given the dilutions involved there is no possibility of the patient being exposed to a radiation source (which is rather a good thing, really!). But what I really, really want to know is – where did the original plutonium come from? Plutonium is an incredibly tightly-regulated substance (for very good reason!) & not something one can hope to buy off the shelf… Nor is it something you’d want to have sitting around in your average laboratory. (Although apparently there was a brief period in the old Soviet Union where plutonium batteries were used in pacemakers. Pity the poor patients.)

There are also quite odd claims about sending homeopathic treatments to patients via mp3 files. Or (via the Little Black Duck)  there’s the idea that a practitioner can take a hair from the patient & dip it in a vial of a particular remedy, thus transmitting the cure to the patient (they don’t have to be in the same place). There is no mechanism known to science by which this could work – you could say that it’s verging on magical thinking.

You could argue that at least all this does no harm (except perhaps to the client’s wallet), & if the patient improves, then that’s to the good & shows that the treatment works… (I should probably write something about self-limiting conditions, & regression to the norm, in the future. Also the placebo effect, which is almost certainly acting here.) But in some cases, there is definitely potential for harm. Take, for instance, the claim that homeopathic remedies can be used to treat the symptoms of malaria, or act as a prophylactic & stop you developing the disease. (This last does go counter to the advice of the UK Society of Homeopaths, but must surely raise questions about the efficiency of any regulatory bodies involved.) This is a real concern – the benign forms of malaria can make you sick for weeks, left untreated, while the malign form has the potential to kill you very dead indeed, (This is why blood donors must declare any recent overseas travel & – if they’re whole blood donors – refrain from donating for several months after visiting an area where malaria is rife; plasma donations get centrifuged & fractionated. The alternative is the very real possibility, if they’ve contracted malaria, of passing it on to any blood recipients.)

I have a sneaky suspicion that I’ve just opened a can of worms…


7 thoughts on “prompted by a quiz question…”

  • I hadn’t heard about the hair dipping practice but magical thinking is exactly what it is. Substitute witchdoctor for Homoeopath and it would fit very well.
    It’s surprising that even though homoeopathy is becoming more popular the average person still has no idea what it is, thinking it’s just “do do with herbs and natural remedies or something”. It was actually a discussion on this subject that got me blogging in the first place.

  • Alison Campbell says:

    I think that’s part of the problem – that many people conflate homeopathy & herbalism. And while herbal remedies may contain some active ingredients (& many have become part of modern medicine), true homeopathic remedies contain absolutely none due to the extreme dilutions used. And the ‘explanations’ given in support of claims that homeopathy works regardless of this really do amount ot magical thinking. Hahnemann’s ‘Laws’, for example, are simply made up; they aren’t a description of a phenomenon that can be measured & which is always the same in a particular set of defined, circumscribed conditions (unlike, say, the gas laws).
    I said ‘true’ homeopathy there as there’s been some interesting material on Orac recently to do with something called ZiCam – a zinc-based remedy for colds that’s described by the manufacturer as homeopathic, which most of us would take to mean, so diluted that there’s no actual zinc present. However, it seems that the dilution in this case is fairly minimal as the ZiCam contains sufficient zinc to do lasting damage to the olfactory surface/nerves in some people…

  • Alison Campbell says:

    Me likewise – but I just know the reason will be along the lines of ‘well, we’re just meeting a demand, & people want to buy them, & they do work for some people, so where’s the harm etc etc’ (saw a similar comment at Orac’s today)… I guess I could say that I’d take my business elsewhere but I have a nasty feeling that this would mean there’d be nowhere to fill my prescriptions!

  • I recently read a very good book called ‘The End of Mr Y’ in which a homeopathic dilution is used to transport one to the ‘troposphere’ – a kind of corridor which allows access to any consciousness in the immediate area.
    It was interesting as I had never really looked into what homeopathy was (nor had I ever used a remedy), and I was intrigued by the concept of diluting a substance to make it more effective. Now, I’m no scientist, but the logic seemed flawed to me!
    Have you ever read this book Alison? It contains quite a few scientific references (in a fictional context) and I’d be interested in how accurate they are.

  • Alison Campbell says:

    Not a book I’ve come across – someone else here might have read it? If you have, please chime in & tell us what you thought of it!
    Don’t know about the ‘troposphere’ though, I always thought that was a region of the atmosphere & that, in itself, would make me doubt the book’s scientific accuracy…
    But your take on the ‘logic’ of homeopathy is spot-on 🙂 There is no way that diluting something – in many instances to well beyond the point at which any molecules of that substance could be present – is going to enhance its ability to affect a process in your body. One of the more way-out claims made to support this foolish concept is that it works by the ‘memory’ of water: the idea that water in some way retains a physical memory of something that’s been mixed with it. Thinking about that one is almost enough to drive one to drink – pure alcohol! How on earth could the water retain a memory of only the supposed remedy, & not everything else (remember, fish pee in water. And have sex in it…)? And in fact, the lab that supposedly demonstrated this ability was subsequently unable to repeat it when asked to demonstrate to visiting (skeptical) scientists. It Just. Doesn’t. Work. Except through the placebo effect, which is a quite different kettle of fish.

  • Perhaps teenagers could justify skimming the vodka bottle and topping it up with water by saying ‘but mum, it retains the memory of the vodka…’ 🙂

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