A trip down the rabbit hole of homeopathy
January 29, 2012
I never really thought much about homeopathy. However, I recently read the two premises upon which homeopathy is based and had to look into it a bit deeper. It didn’t take much effort to verify that what I had read was accurate. Homeopathy is based on two principles. The first is “like cures like” and the second is that the more dilute a remedy is the greater its effect. Seriously, that’s the foundation of homeopathic therapies for everything from influenza to cancer.
I can’t bring myself to discuss all the bizarre beliefs of the homeopathic system such as water having a memory but looking at the two fundamental tenets should be sufficient to understand the root philosophy of the practice.
“Like cures like” means that if a person is suffering from an acetaminophen overdose then they should be treated with very dilute amounts of acetaminophen. For the record, if I’m ever found to be in that situation please go with acetylcysteine instead.
The concept that a dilute solution of the “like” substance is more effective than a more concentrated solution is equally perverse. Homeopaths talk about dilutions in terms of “C” which is a 1:100 dilution Using Avogadro’s number and simple arithmetic one can calculate that a 12C dilution of a would mean that no molecules of the original substance would exist in the final dilution. A common dilution is 30C meaning a ratio of 1: 1060 – that’s a one with sixty zeros.
It goes further, much further. A popular homeopathic treatment for the flu is Oscillococcinum which according to the package label is “Anas barbariae hepatis et cordis extractum 200CK” or duck liver and heart diluted 1:10400. The “K” in “CK” indicates the Korsakovian method was used as the dilution process. I’m sensing that the light from the top of the rabbit hole is growing fainter but in the Korsakovian method measuring the volumes for the dilutions is abandoned in favor of simply rinsing out the container between successive dilutions. In this method it is assumed that 1% of the original solution remains after each rinse.
So, to make Oscillococcinum one would grind up some duck heart and liver and place it in a container. Next, rinse out the container with pure water. Fill the container with pure water, shake vigorously and dump out the water. Repeat this process 199 more times. Save the last container and sell it as a flu treatment at well established businesses such as Walgreens and CVS. There is nothing in Oscillococcinum except sucrose and lactose but it will set you back about 20 bucks.
The inescapable reality is that homeopaths are selling water or in the case of Oscillococcinum, sucrose and lactose. At least the charlatans of the old west had the integrity to at least put something in their snake oil other than sugar. The similarity between then and now is that in the old west there were plenty of consumers for anything that “they believed” would cure their ailments. They didn’t require any objective, science-based evidence to convince them that the snake oils would be effective. The same seems to be true today. A segment of the population would rather take a product “they believe” will work even in the face of overwhelming evidence that there is absolutely nothing in it. The difference is that we now have the ability to use scientific methods to study medical therapies to determine their efficacy. Sometimes the results of even well designed clinical trials are ambiguous and sometimes the results are unequivocal such as is the case for homeopathy. Never the less, 4 million people sought homeopathic remedies last year. The fundamental reality is that as long as there are consumers there will be suppliers. And as long as people make health decisions based on emotions, faith or anecdotes and ignore the reality of science then we will continue to see Oscillococcinum and other homeopathic products on the shelves of Walgreens and CVS. Welcome to the total darkness of the rabbit hole.