It’s never really been my intention to use this blog as a repository of skeptic rants, but this blog is about advancing the public understanding of science and sometimes that mean confronting issues of pseudoscience. That being the case, you can expect this sort of thing from time to time.
Let’s begin by talking about what homeopathy is.
A homeopathic “remedy” is an extreme dilution of an active ingredient which is then applied to a sugar pill or added to a tincture for consumption. Most of these products are labeled “30c” (like the ones pictured above). This is a measure of just how diluted the active ingredient is. For example, a 1c solution is 1 ml of active ingredient in about 100 ml of water (or alcohol, or whatever other substance is being used for dilution). The scale is logarithmic, so a 30c solution is not 30 times as dilute as a 1c solution, it’s actually a 1c solution diluted to the 30th power. Take a look at this table to get an idea of just how insane this gets:
It takes 2.5 million liters to fill an Olympic class swimming pool. That means a 5c solution is equivalent to a one milliliter drop of active ingredient in four Olympic sized pools. But, of course, what you’re getting in a homeopathic pill or tincture is far more dilute than that. A 30c solution has a ratio greater even than one drop of active ingredient in an entire ocean. For a fun video that explains how the dilution process works, see: If Homeopathy Works, I’ll Drink My Own Piss.
Basically… There is no active ingredient in the pill at all. Most labels reveal this simple truth to us. The example to the right is a 30c dilution. “Contents: 1.4g sucrose pills.” Exactly! It’s just sugar.
Why do homeopaths believe that this works? Their argument is that diluting an active ingredient makes it more potent.1 Yes, really. Homeopaths claim that water retains the “memory” of the diluted substance and through this “memory” the “remedy” is able to help the patient.
That’s an incredible claim! It’s a claim for which there is no evidence. Worse yet, there is not even a proposed mechanism for such an event as water “memory.”
“How?” is a very important question in science and one that is not allowed to go unanswered for long. That said, I finally approach my point.
Homeopaths and those who accept the claims of homeopaths are typically skeptical of medical science. They’re often the first to protest the use of pharmaceuticals and chemicals on the grounds that we don’t fully understand them or the effects that they might have on our bodies and our environment.
This fear is not crazy, as it’s founded on very real examples of corporate abuse of chemistry in the pursuit of profit that extends well beyond just the medical industry2. I’m not interested in beginning a discussion of the follies of modern medicine, but I do want to recognize that there are legitimate questions that should be asked regarding the role of drugs (artificial and natural) in our society. It is, however, ironic that some of the fiercest opponents of the pharmaceutical industry themselves advocate the use of an unproven treatment.
Homeopaths are operating on a double standard. The “medicine” they advocate (if we simply assumed it’s efficacy, which homeopaths do) operates using mechanisms that are a complete mystery. With no understanding of how the cure supposedly works, how are we to gauge the potential consequences of ingesting the material?
If advocates of homeopathic medicine accept that this material is potent and effective, how can they possibly justify such broad, unregulated distribution of it?
The answer, of course, is simple. It’s just sugar, and they know it! The only thing it might give you is pimples. The only thing it might cure you of is a craving for sweets.
I have good friends who are practitioners of natural medicine, and in large part I accept and respect what they do and the ways they’re challenging the medical establishment. They spend more time with their patients, they listen more closely than any M.D. I’ve ever seen, and in my state and many others N.D.’s (doctors of natural medicine) are able and willing to apply and prescribe tested and established medicine when there is need for it. Many of these friends have their own doubts (or even outright reject) homeopathy. Some of them, however, supplement their medical arsenal with these sugar pills. Whether they do so because they believe that a placebo is actually what’s called for, or if they believe in the efficacy of homeopathics, I’m not sure.
In any case, if anyone reading this wishes to present scientific paperwork in the comments refuting anything I’ve said here, I’d be happy to read it. The first question I want to see answered adequately, though, is the “how” question. Otherwise this whole homeopathic endeavor seems like nothing more than a medical double-standard.