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This week, IA facts man man John Turnbull takes a look at the interesting hypothesis that like cures like and water has memory, and asks the important question what is Avogadro’s number?

What is homeopathy?

According to the Society of Homeopaths

Homeopathy is a system of medicine which involves treating the individual with highly diluted substances … with the aim of triggering the body’s natural system of healing. Based on their specific symptoms, a homeopath will match the most appropriate medicine to each patient.’

Homeopathy is based on a principle that you can treat ‘like with like’, that is, a substance which causes symptoms when taken in large doses, can be used in small amounts to treat those same symptoms.

Homeopathy is sunshine, flowers and wholesome watery goodness…

Where did homeopathy come from?

Depending on what perspective you take, homeopathy was either discovered or invented by a German doctor called Samuel Hahnemann in the early eighteen hundreds.

Supposedly looking for an alternative to the horrific medical practices of the day (which included bloodletting and purging) Hahnemman observed that the symptoms of mercury poisoning were similar to the symptoms of syphilis, leading to the not-insigificant leap of logic that like cures like.

It is worth noting that Hahnemann also proposed the ‘coffee theory’ of disease around the same time, suggesting that many serious diseases including impotence, abscesses, mucus and blue rings around the eyes were caused by the consumption of coffee. Needless to say, this theory was dismissed shortly afterwards as implausible and vaguely ridiculous.

Like cures like? That makes sense

Seriously? I got run over by a truck this morning, but then I jumped in front of a car straight away so I was fine.

Like cures like is pre-scientific nonsense.

But natural medicine has to be better than something cooked up in a laboratory?

Poison dart frog (Image via animals.nationalgeographic.com.au)

This is known as the naturalistic fallacy.

Just because something is natural doesn’t mean that it’s good for you. Most of the worlds deadliest poisons come from natural substances — such as hemlock, ricin and those beautiful, yet deadly, deadly dart frogs.

By the same token, much modern medicine has its roots in natural therapies — like the refinement of aspirin from the bark of the willow tree. The difference between science based medicine and so-called alternative medicine is that science based medicine has been proven efficacious in blinded trials.

Alternative medicine has either not been proven to be effective, or has been proven not to be effective.

Be serious! Gve me one good reason homeopathy doesn’t make sense

Fine.

Homeopathy relies on the little-mentioned proposition that water has memory.

Homeopathic solutions are prepared by diluting a tiny amount of an active substance ‒ say caffeine, to cure sleeplessness ‒ hundreds of times. Dilution is shown on homeopathic products using the letter C, wherein 12C means that the original active ingredient has been diluted twelve times, each dilution being one hundred fold.

This is where an interesting thing called Avogadro’s number comes into play.

By the time you get to 12C dilution, it is unlikely even a single molecule of the original active ingredient is left. All you’ve got left at this point is water memory and a sneaking suspicion that you might be getting ripped off.

You’re just a shill for Big Pharma

I’m really not.

I don’t get paid to write this column. I write it because I’m interested in science and have been fortunate enough to develop a reasonable sceptical toolkit over the years. Without wanting to sound grandiose, I’m just trying to make the world a slightly smarter place.

If you honestly believe I’m a paid shill, then there probably isn’t anything I can do to persuade you otherwise.

A couple of points to consider, however:

  • Most Big Pharma companies also sell homeopathic products alongside their science-based remedies.
  • Homepathic remedies are generally more profitable as they don’t require expensive research and development, and government regulation in most countries remains embarrassingly lax.
  • If Boiron want to offer me big bucks to be a homeopathy shill, I’m all ears. Contact details below.

To quote Tim Minchin — if you open your mind too much, your brain will fall out.

Final Thoughts

From all evidence I have been able to review, homeopathic remedies offer a placebo effect at best — a dangerous substitution for real medicine at worst.

As ever, the diligent people at whatstheharm.net give an extensive list of people who have been injured or killed through the use of homeopathic medicine. It’s depressing reading, but worth a look if you’re on the fence.

If you want to take a homeopathic remedy for a cold, knock yourself out. I think you’re wasting your money, but you’ll probably get better anyway.

If you want to take a homeopathic remedy for lung cancer, please do it in conjunction with a medically based intervention and discuss what you’re doing with a real doctor.

But don’t believe me. Do some reading for yourself. Look at the science.

And think for yourself.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License

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