IMAGINE YOU WENT to see a doctor with a health complaint. He (or she) nods thoughtfully, then suggests a remedy. Except the solution they propose has been debunked for hundreds of years, is physiologically nonsense and would have to violate the laws of physics to be effective. You might think your doctor had been hitting the liquor a little too hard of late, and you’d most likely go elsewhere to find a reputable physician.
Yet an scenario similar to this happens every day in Ireland. Despite having not one iota of biological plausibility, homeopathy has become a thriving and growing market, both here and in the rest of the world.
Homeopathy is based on the philosophy of Samuel Hahnemann, a 18th-century German doctor. His theory was the law of similars: ‘like cures like’, or ‘similia similibus curantur’ for Latin majors. If you were, for example, suffering from fever, Hahnemann would recommend a something that also caused fever… only very diluted. What evidence did he have for this ? None. Zip. Nada. He just liked how it sounded. After all, it was a nice symmetry and this was the 1700s, where medical knowledge had not progressed all that far (the germ theory of disease wasn’t proven until the 1890s, and a doctor washing his hands for hygiene was unheard of).
Even by the standards of the time, Hahnemann’s theory was on weak ground; but how exactly was it supposed to work? Well, the core principle of homeopathy is that the greater the dilution, the greater the potency. Homeopathic ‘remedies’ typically start at dilutions of what is known as 30C. This means a dilution of ten-to-the-power-of-60 times, or ten followed by 60 zeros. This is tiny. So tiny in fact that it presents a problem – after such a dilution none of the original substance is left. In fact, to get even one molecule of the original substance, you’d have to consume a billion times the mass of the Earth in pills. A 40C concentration would be equivalent to one atom in the entire universe. But homeopaths go up to 400C.
So homeopathic remedies have none of the original substance in them. They are, literally, just water. Homeopaths skirt this issue by claiming that even though none of the original substance is left, water has ‘memory’. This simply violates the laws of physics.
Supporters of homeopathy often cite studies that find it has a positive effect. But not all studies are created equal; they are of vastly differing quality depending on how they’re conducted. High quality studies are those carried out on large groups of patients, utilising the ‘double-blind’ standard which means neither the patient nor the doctor know who is receiving the treatment, and who the placebo. Poor quality ones, on the other hand, might be those conducted with small numbers, no blinding or with methodological problems. The handful of studies homeopaths cling to are invariably of low quality. Higher quality studies show zero effect compared to placebo.
Some might be inclined to shrug and ask ‘What’s the problem?’ Surely if some people are willing to splash out on these remedies for the psychological crutch they may provide, then what of it? But sadly there is a much darker side. In the past, a number of homeopaths have decided that they can and will dispense medical advice, contradicting medical professionals with dire ramifications.
From an Irish perspective, some may recall the case of Mineke Kamper, a self-described homeopath (though not registered or qualified as one) in Mayo who allegedly advised her customers to discontinue their prescribed medications and take her remedies instead. One of her patients, Paul Howie, died from a cancerous tumour in his neck which a pathologist at his inquest found could have been removed with conventional surgery. The coroner ruled that Howie should not have died. He added that this was the second death in his experience where the patient had been advised to halt conventional treatments by a practitioner of ‘alternative medicine’.
Children have also been the victims. In 2009, homeopath Thomas Sam was convicted of the manslaughter of his nine-month-old daughter Gloria in Australia. Gloria suffered from eczema, which wore down her body’s defences and left her unable to fight the eye infection that killed her. Her father refused to use conventional medicine, treating her with homeopathic remedies instead, and she passed away.
An often-repeated claim is that homeopathy is ‘natural’ and thus ‘safer’ than conventional medication. This is a fallacy – natural is in no way synonymous with benign or even beneficial. Uranium, radium and plutonium are also natural but this does not mean adding them to one’s breakfast cereal is advisable.
Too often, homeopathy stirs mistrust of conventional medicine with lofty holistic promises it can simply not substantiate. In many cases homeopaths are quick to paint themselves as the little guys being suppressed by ‘Big Pharma’. This is disingenuous – there is huge money in homeopathy. Boiron, for example, are a company manufacturing homeopathic products. They are the second larger manufacturer of over the counter medication in France with annual revenues of €526 million in 2009 and a presence in 59 countries. Several mainstream pharmaceutical companies also have homeopathic wings, and it’s easy to see why – there are no research costs, minimal manufacturing expenses and the only ingredient is (you guessed it) water. Sales of homeopathic remedies in the USA stood at $2.9 billion dollars in 2007 and the market worldwide expands every year.
Alternative medicines fall into two categories – treatments that have not been proved to work, and treatments that have been proved not to work. Treatments that have been proved to work are called simply medicine. Despite the protestations of homeopaths, this is nothing to do with ‘world view’ , ‘healing modalities’ , ‘patient-experience’ or any of the tripe used to insulate this deceptive practice from the criticism – this is simply about the question of whether it works.
As far as homeopathy goes, the answer to that is a resounding, unequivocal negative.
David Robert Grimes is a doctor of medical physics with a keen interest in the public understanding of science. He writes a blog on science and medicine called Three Men Make A Tiger.