18 July 2009
They come right out and tell you that there’s nothing in it, yet millions of people across the globe consume homeopathic remedies on a daily basis. The “key points” section of the National Institute of Health’s (NIH) National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) page on homeopathy clearly states that “research studies on homeopathy have been contradictory in their findings” and “[no] … explanations have been scientifically verified”. It also specifically states that “many homeopathic remedies are so highly diluted that not one molecule of the original natural substance remains” (U.S. Dept. of Health). Though adherents will tell you that it is safer than conventional medicine, homeopathy is dangerous quackery performed by charlatans because it is scientifically unsound and causes significant financial and physical harm, including death.
In order to truly understand the infeasibility of homeopathy, one must consider its foundations and methods to understand both what it is and what it is not.
Homeopathic medicine can be traced back to Hippocrates and the ancient Greeks. Samuel Hahnemann breathed new life into the idea in the 18th century. He was extremely dissatisfied with the contemporary medicine of the day, which included bloodletting and leeching in order to “balance humours” in the body. In his search for an alternative Hahnemann noticed that while cinchona bark (the key ingredient being quinine) was widely used as a curative for malaria, uninfected imbibers exhibited malaria-like symptoms. Researching Hippocrates’ methodology that “like cures like”, (most commonly attributed to the consumption of syrup of ipecac, a purgative, to cure nausea and vomiting) Hahnemann himself consumed cinchona bark over several days and, once he began to show malaria symptoms, declared the “Principle of Similars” to be cutting edge medicine (Rosenfeld 209). The essential core methods of homeopathy are those of “succussion” and “potentization”. Hahnemann’s experimentation led him to believe that the lower the concentration of the curative, the more powerful the effect would be upon the body’s “vital force”. This is known to homeopaths as “The Law of Infinitesimals”. Through ever decreasing amounts of curative in solution (succussion) and the act of striking a sample of the solution against a leather padded saddle (potentization), he truly believed that he was imparting properties into the potion. Results of experiments similar to his quinine adventure and factors of dilution were compiled into a book titled Homeopathic Pharmacopeia (Barrett).
In contrast, homeopathy should under no circumstances be confused with the alternative medicine “disciplines” of naturopathy, herbal remedy, acupuncture, chiropractic medicine, or other methods which don’t necessarily fall under mainstream medicine, but actually use physical manipulation or a material curative method for treatment of ailments (U.S. Dept. of Health). Caveat emptor, however, as quacks can be found within them as well (Rosenfeld), but at least they do something other than charge upwards of $150 for a bottle of water or lactose pills.
To be fair, Samuel Hahnemann lived in an era when “modern” medicine was as brutal and barbaric as ever. Bloodletting, leeching, purging and trepanation were standard prescriptions for virtually every disease. Germ theory had not been considered, the structure and composition of single-celled creatures was still in its infancy, and Avogadro’s number had not yet been vindicated. This last instance is critical in understanding how homeopathy simply can not work. Anyone anywhere on the planet with a junior high school education who persists in believing this dangerous quackery is a fool of the highest order.
Consider this our first battlefield, then, where the archaic “Law of Infinitesimals” engages in fearsome combat with Avogadro’s number and the very nature of chemistry itself.
The Law of Infinitesimals states that lower doses of medicine have increased effects in the body. In 1860, four years after his passing, Amadeo Avogadro’s work on molecular weight in relationship to gas densities was championed by Stanislao Cannizzaro and disproved this theory by determining the number of molecules in a mole (Avogadro). Given a mass of substance equal to its molecular weight in grams, for instance 1.01 grams of elemental hydrogen with an atomic weight of 1.01 atomic mass units (amu), you will always have 6.022 X 1023 atoms, or one mole (McMurray and Fay 75). This is true in every instance. 12 grams of elemental carbon is equal to 6.022 X 1023 carbon atoms. 18.02 grams of pure water is always equal to 6.022 X 1023 water molecules. No matter the weight or size of the atom or molecule, if you want a sample equal to its atomic or molecular mass in grams, you need 6.022 X 1023 of them. Later experimentation into atomic composition and nuclear physics confirmed the mass of the atomic particles and has proved Avogadro’s number to be true in every instance (34).
The critical aspect of this information is the fact that solutions are not, by virtue of their nature as matter, infinitely divisible. If you had a sample of equal parts water and glucose, for instance, you would eventually reach a point in division where you separated the very last water molecule from the very last glucose molecule. This would no longer be a solution, but two pure samples.
The standard method of succussion is to take one part of solute (or curative) and dissolve it into 99 parts water or alcohol. Once dissolved, the homeopath will strike the container 10 times against a surface (Samuel Hahnemann used a specially constructed wooden saddle covered in leather padding). One part of this solution is then extracted and added to 99 more parts of pure water or alcohol. The solution is struck 10 times again and a single part is extracted yet again and added to another 99 part sample of pure water. This process is repeated a number of times equal to the homeopath’s choosing. Hahnemann recommended 24 repetitions, or “24X”, but today’s standards are usually “30X” or “30C” (the X and C correlate with the Roman numerals for 10 and 100, so comparing scales requires that one be able to multiply by 10, as a C solution is 10 times more dilute than an equivalent X solution, but supposedly 10 times stronger, as well), indicating 30 repetitions. Even higher dilutions of 60X, 75X, 200C, or even 1000C are “prescribed” today (Barrett).
Simple mathematics will show that even at Hahnemann’s preferred “standard”, a homeopathic remedy has merely a 60% chance of containing any of the original solute at all. Stephen Barrett of QuackWatch.com and HomeoWatch.org explains that a 30X solution means that the original substance was diluted one nonillion (that’s a one followed by 30 zeroes) times and at 30C, a patient would be required to drink a quantity of remedy equal in volume to 30 billion times the size of the Earth in the hope of consuming the amount of the original “cure”.
The second battlefield to meet upon would be in the realm of physics. Homeopaths claim every conceivable explanation out of theoretical physics from string theory to quantum mechanics as to how homeopathy works. Whatever claim is made, it all falls back to the same idea: Water has a memory (U.S Dept. of Health).
NCCAM’s “Questions and Answers” page states that Hahnemann believed the acts of succussion and potentization would impart the “vital essences” of the curative into the solution. A cursory glance at any available frequently asked questions (FAQ) page on homeopathic websites will show you that in the intervening 200 years, nothing has changed except the terminology. Commonly, the word “quantum” is bandied about as if use of a fledgling explanation of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle can explain how homeopathy is supposed to work.
In short, if homeopathy is true, then everything we know about science is wrong. Homeopathic principles (if they were true) would make quantum manipulation possible through the mere act of striking an object (i.e., molecules or atoms) against another. This is tantamount to one tossing a gold tooth into a bag of nickels, shaking it a few times and declaring that all of the nickels are now gold coins. Furthermore, homeopathic principles (again, if they were true) would invalidate modern chemistry, as it would be possible to make hydrogen and oxygen atoms retain all of the properties and physical characteristics of normal hydrogen and oxygen atoms (atomic mass, valence, color, freezing and melting points, etc.), but also possess properties of different atoms and even wholly different molecules in ways only detectable by human consumption. Essentially, homeopathy is nothing more than a belief in alchemy.
Modern homeopaths bilk consumers around the world out of billions of dollars each year (Rosenfeld 216). One of the most common ways homeopaths get people to spend their money is to instill a fear of contemporary medicine into consumers, claiming that they can cure the same things doctors can without the use of chemicals. Vilification of the words “chemicals” and “doctors” among those in the alternative medicine arena aside, by definition, the very product that the homeopath provides is a “chemical” as well. The New Oxford American Dictionary defines “chemical” as “a compound or substance that has been purified or prepared, esp. artificially”. Either this displays a total ignorance of what it is that they sell, or it is a clear indicator of deceit used to prey upon the general public’s scientific illiteracy to push their snake oil.
In their fervent bid to be a “safe alternative” to modern medicine, however, they drive people to avoid proven methods of treatment in favor of homeopathic remedies and unknowingly risk death or disability in the process. Whatstheharm.net has an extensive repertory of cases of death, disability, or financial loss suffered by people who turned to homeopathic remedies. Each case is presented as a synopsis of who was affected and how, along with a brief by-line and links to news article from around the world. More often than not, the by-lines begin to sound the same as one peruses the 437 cases the site provides: “… homeopath told her to give up her asthma medication”, “[17 month old dies from malnutrition] … parents, concerned about modern food additives, were advised to give her an organic vegetarian diet … treated with herbal and homeopathic remedies … parents were convicted of neglect”, “a natural health therapist and homeopath told Paul he would die if he used conventional medicine”. The list goes on and on. The common thread is that more often than not, a homeopath has caused someone to avoid a treatment that works in favor of one that has no better success rate than a placebo (Shang, et. al). It must be noted that these cases are merely the ones that have been conclusively linked to homeopathic practices and also have web links to articles verifying the stated cases.
Homeopaths are also secure in the fact that there is no standardized method of education. In Europe, homeopaths attend three to six years of schooling as a primary professional degree or as post graduate training for doctors. In the U.S., one can declare oneself a doctor of homeopathy by completing a correspondence course (U.S. Dept. of Health).
In the long run, homeopaths can just sit back and rake in the cash, knowing that it is not the remedies that they sell that are harming people; it is the maladies their patients are seeking respite from that are doing the damage.
If homeopaths are simply out to make money with their bunk, all they really need to do is prove that it works. If there were any veracity to their claims, the James Randi Educational Foundation has established the “James Randi Challenge”, wherein they could claim a $1,000,000 prize for simply showing that their cure works better than placebo in a scientifically controlled, double-blinded experiment (Wagg). Mr. Randi himself has intentionally "overdosed" on homeopathic sleeping pills onstage on several occasions in order to disprove claims that homeopathic medicine works (Randi). Since no one has stepped forward to claim the prize one must wonder; do the homeopaths know they will be proved as frauds or are they simply too busy conning more money than the prize offers? If you can't answer that question by now, then I have a bottle of magic water that I would like to sell to you.
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