10. Homeopathy: There's Nothing in it!
One of the many things which I find incomprehensible in today’s society is the popularity of so-called “alternative medicine”. There are many different kinds of so-called “therapy” or “treatment”, which are claimed to cure just about any illness or ailment you care to think of – none of which have any scientific basis whatsoever. Some are simply useless; others are dangerous – but what they all have in common is that they don’t work. At best, they have not been proved to work; in most cases, they have specifically been proved not to work.
Indeed, you could almost use this as a definition of “alternative medicine”, since if any particular kind was proved to work, then it would cease to be regarded as “alternative”. In the words of comedian Dara O’Briain, “alternative medicine which has been proved to work is called medicine!”
Of all the numerous varieties of unfounded quackery, perhaps the most ridiculous of all – I would go so far as to describe it as insane - is homeopathy – the use of so-called “remedies”, which contain no active ingredient whatsoever! Homeopathic “remedies” consist of nothing but water ( or sugar pills, if used in tablet form ), and have no medicinal effect whatsoever, apart from that of pure placebo. Yet disturbingly, many high street pharmacies, including the UK’s biggest chain, actually sell this useless rubbish, and the British Government has commissioned studies into it! And homeopaths – people who practice this form of quackery – are somehow allowed to practice and “treat” patients, with no medical qualifications.
Many people apparently misunderstand the term “homeopathy”, and believe that the stuff sold by pharmacists under that name consists of “herbal remedies”, or some such thing. It does not! I shall now explain exactly what homeopathy is, and why there is, quite literally, nothing in it.
10.1. What is homeopathy?
Homeopathy was “invented” by one Samuel Hahnemann in 1796. It’s founded on two ideas, both of which are completely unfounded, and which Hahnemann proposed simply as assertions, based on no evidence whatsoever.
The first is what he called the “Law of Similars”. This is definitely not a “law”, in the scientific meaning of the word; it is not derived from evidence, in accordance with the scientific method, but is simply an unfounded assertion. It can be stated simply as “like cures like” – the idea that any substance which causes an illness or ailment can also be used, in very small doses, to cure it. For example, arsenic poisoning produces shortness of breath, so it’s asserted that very small doses of arsenic can be used to cure conditions which involve shortness of breath, such as asthma.
Hahnemann apparently thought of this idea, when he somehow discovered that eating the bark of a particular tree caused feverish symptoms similar to those of malaria; he then somehow came to believe that that bark could be used to cure malaria. He believed that introducing very dilute doses of poisons into the body would stimulate the body to develop defences against those same poisons.
( You may think that this is similar to the principle of vaccination, in which infecting the body with a very mild form of a disease – or a “deactivated” form of the virus which causes it – stimulates the body to develop antibodies, which subsequently prevent infection by the real disease. But it’s not the same thing at all; vaccines work against diseases which are carried by bacteria or viruses - living organisms which attack its cells or tissues. The body does not develop antibodies, or anything equivalent, against chemical poisons such as arsenic. )
Hahnemann’s second idea is that the more such a “remedy” is diluted, the more effective it becomes. In fact, modern day homeopaths dilute their “remedies” to such a ridiculous degree, that – as I shall shortly prove - it’s highly unlikely that they contain even a single molecule of the supposed “active ingredient”! Again, there is no scientific basis or evidence whatsoever for this idea; Hahnemann simply asserted that it was the case.
So homeopathy is based on no scientific principles or evidence at all! Neither of these two ideas has any rational basis; the only reason that anyone believes them is that Hahnemann – at a time before the development of modern scientific medicine – decided that they were true, for reasons best known to himself. The whole thing is founded on nothing more or less than a kind of “faith”.
I once came across a satirical web site, on which someone had written a spoof “FAQs page” about homeopathy. It began something like this:
Q. How can a substance which causes an illness also be used to cure it?
A. Because some guy in the 18th Century said so.
Q. Why does further dilution of a “remedy” increase its effectiveness?
A. Because that same guy said so.
Satire and sarcasm aside, this is precisely the kind of “reasoning” – and I use that word very loosely – which forms the entire basis of homeopathy!
10.2. Extreme dilutions
I shall now expand upon Hahnemann’s second nonsensical belief – that the further a homeopathic “remedy” is diluted, the greater is its effectiveness. Modern day homeopaths dilute their “solutions” to such a degree that the “active ingredient” is effectively diluted out of existence, until not a single molecule of it remains! This is why, as I said at the start of this essay, taking a homeopathic “remedy” amounts to nothing more than drinking water!
That these solutions don’t contain a single molecule of their “active ingredient” is not just an assertion; it is in fact very easy to prove, by means of scientific reasoning – and I shall do so in Section 10.3. But first, let’s look at how these so-called “remedies” are actually prepared.
The commonest method of preparing these “remedies” is to use a series of successive dilutions, each of one part in 100. You begin with, say, one cubic centimetre ( 1 cc ) of the ingredient, and dilute it in 99 cc of water. Then you take 1 cc of the resultant solution, and dilute it again, in a further 99 cc of water. Then 1 cc of that solution is diluted in a further 99 cc of water – and so on, for any arbitrary number of steps.
Many homeopaths believe – yet again, for no other reason than because Hahnemann said so – that during each dilution, the solution has to be vigorously shaken, or that the container has to be banged on a hard surface. They call this succussion, which simply means “violent shaking”. In the context of homeopathy, this is effectively a nonsensical term, which I suspect has been adopted just because it sounds vaguely “scientific”.
Some take this concept to a truly absurd level, and insist that the container must be banged on a specific surface, such as a leather-bound book! This is obviously nothing more than a ridiculous superstition; I defy anyone to tell me exactly how this differs from a belief in witchcraft, and imaginary “magic spells”!
Homeopaths use a convention to indicate the supposed “potency” of their “remedies”, in terms of the number of such dilutions. They are labelled with a number, followed by the letter C, indicating the number of successive 1 to 100 dilutions; for example, “6C” means six successive dilutions of one part to 100.
A dilution level of “nC” means that the concentration of the active ingredient in the final solution is one part in 100n, or one part in 102n. So “3C” means one part in 100 cubed, or 106 – that is, one part in a million. “6C” means a concentration of one part in 1012, or one in a million million! ( For readers who are not mathematically inclined, 1012 means one multiplied by ten twelve times, or a one followed by twelve zeroes. )
Yet homeopaths use far more dilutions than that! A commonly used degree of dilution, advocated by Hahnemann himself, is “30C” – meaning 30 successive 1 to 100 dilutions, or a concentration of one part in 1060!
So let’s see what these numbers actually mean. A few simple analogies will soon demonstrate the utter stupidity of this whole idea. A dilution of “4C”, or one part in 108, is equal to the concentration of some toxic impurities, such as arsenic, which are permitted in drinking water supplies. When you get to about a dozen dilutions, the phrase “a drop in the ocean” is literally accurate; it has been calculated that “12C” is roughly equivalent to diluting a single drop of the “active ingredient” in the Atlantic Ocean! One further step, “13C”, equates to about one drop in all the water on Earth! At some of the extreme dilutions used by homeopaths, this becomes truly absurd; “25C” is equivalent to one drop in a volume of water equal to the volume of the Earth, and the aforementioned “30C” roughly corresponds to a single molecule among all the matter in the Solar System!!!
There is even one marketed “remedy”, which is claimed to be diluted to “200C”, or one part in 10400! To appreciate the sheer insanity of this concept, consider that the number of atoms in the entire observable Universe is estimated to be of the order of 1080…
By now, any reader with even a modicum of intelligence should have spotted the gaping hole in this entire line of “reasoning”. Whatever amount of “active ingredient” you start with, it contains a finite number of atoms or molecules – so there is a limit to how far you can dilute it, before you literally dilute it out of existence! It’s a simple matter to calculate at what level of dilution this occurs; how we do so can be summarised in two words… Avogadro’s Constant.
10.3. Molecules, moles and Avogadro’s Constant
When Hahnemann first proposed his barmy ideas, the concept of atoms and molecules was only just being thought of – so he at least could be excused for not knowing that there is a physical limit to dilution. But by just a couple of decades later, the theory of atoms and molecules was well established – so subsequent generations of homeopaths have had no such excuse.
For the benefit of readers not familiar with Avogadro’s Constant, we first need to consider a little elementary physics and chemistry. Each chemical element has an atomic number and an atomic weight. The former is the number of protons in its nucleus – this is what defines an element – and the latter is the total number of protons and neutrons. For example, hydrogen, whose nucleus consists of just one proton, has both an atomic number and weight of one; carbon, with a nucleus of six protons and six neutrons, has an atomic number of 6 and an atomic weight of 12.
In fact, each element exists in two or more different forms, called isotopes, which have the same atomic number, but different atomic weights; i.e. their nuclei have the same number of protons, but different numbers of neutrons. Carbon, for example, has three isotopes, with atomic weights of 12, 13 and 14 ( i.e. with 6, 7 and 8 neutrons ); these are known as carbon-12, carbon-13 and carbon-14, and denoted by 12C, 13C and 14C. But in most cases, an element consists mostly of one isotope, with the others existing only in small quantities.
( Note that each isotope also has an atomic mass – measured in atomic mass units – which isn’t quite the same thing as atomic weight. While atomic weight is always an integer number, atomic mass is not; this is because protons and neutrons have slightly different masses, and because a small part of their mass is converted into energy – according to Einstein’s famous equation, E = mc2 – in the process of binding them together in the nucleus. )
Next, each chemical compound has a molecular weight, which is the sum of the atomic weights of the atoms in its molecular formula. For example, the atomic weights of carbon and oxygen are 12 and 16 respectively, so the molecular weight of carbon dioxide ( CO2 ) is 12 + ( 2 x 16 ) = 44.
Bear with me; I’m coming to the point! In chemistry, a gram-atom of an element is defined as its atomic weight in grams, e.g. 12 grams of carbon. Predictably, a gram-molecule of a compound is its molecular weight expressed in grams. For example, the molecular weight of sodium chloride or common salt ( NaCl ), is 63 ( the atomic weights of sodium and chlorine are 28 and 35 respectively ), so a gram-molecule of it is 63 grams.
These are actually old-fashioned terms. Modern day chemists use a unit of “amount of substance” called a mole, which is very nearly the same thing as a gram-atom for an element, or a gram-molecule for a compound. ( It’s derived from the atomic or molecular mass, rather than weight. )
Now, the vital point is this. The number of “constituent particles” in one mole of any substance – that is, the number of atoms in a gram-atom of any element, or of molecules in a gram-molecule of any compound – is always the same! This number is known as Avogadro’s Number, or Avogadro’s Constant ( there is a subtle difference between those two terms, which need not concern us here ); its value is 6.022 x 1023.
You may perhaps think this seems somewhat “artificial”, since the gram is a unit of measurement invented by humans, whose definition is purely arbitrary. But the same principle applies, no matter what arbitrary units we choose to use to measure weight or mass; the constant would simply have a different numerical value. Suppose that, for some bizarre reason, you chose to use the mass of a penny as your unit of mass, and defined a “penny-molecule” of a compound as its molecular weight in pennies; then the number of molecules in a penny-molecule of any compound would still always be the same. It would be a different number, but it would still be a constant.
So you can now see how we can calculate the limits of meaningful dilution – because for any given amount of the ingredient which is present at the start, we can calculate how many molecules it contains. Remember that a homeopath’s dilution of “12C” means that the amount remaining of the original ingredient is one part in 1024. Now, suppose that he began with an amount equal to exactly one mole of the ingredient ( in any real case, it’s likely to be a small fraction of a mole ); then, after 12 one in 100 dilutions, the number of molecules of the ingredient remaining in the solution is 6.022 x 1023 divided by 1024, which is roughly 0.6! Obviously, you can’t have 0.6 of a molecule, so we can say that there is only a 60% probability that this “solution” now contains one molecule of the supposed “ingredient”! With one further dilution, that probability drops to 0.6% - so at any level of dilution beyond “12C”, it’s highly unlikely that even a single molecule of the original “ingredient” remains – and we can now see the utter absurdity of claiming dilutions of “30C”! At this level, we can be very nearly 100% certain that the so-called “remedy” contains no active ingredient whatsoever, and is literally just a bottle of water.
( Of course, the resultant solution does contain billions of molecules of any number of other substances – because each beaker of water, which is used in the successive dilutions, contains the same amount of dissolved impurities as the previous one. )
There have been many demonstrations of the absurdity of homeopathy, but for a particularly funny one, see this video by Crispian Jago:
( Warning; it contains mildly naughty words. )
10.4. Does water have a “memory”?
Supporters of homeopathy, when confronted with these indisputable and embarrassing facts, will try to wriggle out of it, by claiming that water somehow “retains a memory” of whatever has been dissolved in it. More accurately, they claim that it “retains a memory” of the “active ingredient” which they dissolved in it – while at the same time, it conveniently doesn’t “retain a memory” of all the excrement, sewage, and anything else you would rather not think about, with which it has been in contact! ( Think about it; any beaker-full of tap water has been recycled many, many times, both in the natural environment and in man-made drainage and sewerage systems, and has, at some time, come into contact with just about any substance, toxic or otherwise, which you care to think of. ) I hardly need say that this claim is based on no evidence or scientific reasoning whatsoever; it’s simply unfounded, mystical drivel!
Some will claim that their “succussion”, either by vigorous shaking or banging, is what somehow “imprints” this “memory” in the water. Once again, this is akin to a belief in witchcraft and magic spells.
This ridiculous claim is, in a way, self-defeating. If it were true, then surely water should “retain a memory” of everything which has ever been dissolved in it – and then, according to the principles of homeopathy, you would be able to cure any illness known to man, just by drinking a glass of tap water! Duh!!!
In any case, even if this “memory of water” rubbish were true, it would be irrelevant at the aforementioned extreme dilutions. Think again about Avogadro’s Constant; at a dilution of “30C”, not only does the “solution” not contain a single molecule of the active ingredient, but it’s highly unlikely to even contain a single molecule of water, which has ever been in contact with the active ingredient! Again – duh!!!
10.5. So why do some people claim that it works?
After all I’ve said here, it hardly needs stating, that homeopathy doesn’t work, and couldn’t possibly work! Yet many people claim that it does, and that their illnesses were cured by it. How come?
Well, there are several reasons why gullible people might think they were cured by homeopathy – or, for that matter, by any other kind of useless quack “treatment”. The most obvious is that minor ailments often simply go away, without any medical treatment at all, due to the body’s natural defence mechanisms. For example, there is still no reliable cure for the common cold, but people usually tend to recover from it within a few days, with or without any medical intervention. So if a person’s symptoms simply clear up unaided, while they are taking a homeopathic “remedy”, then they may well delude themselves into believing that they were cured by the “remedy”.
The other main reason is largely psychological; it can be summarised by a single word – placebo. The “placebo effect” has long been known in medicine, as a way of “treating” hypochondriacs, or people whose “illnesses” are psychologically induced. It consists of giving the patient a fake “treatment”, which contains no medicine at all – just water, or a sugar pill – while leading them to believe that they are being given a real medicine. After all, if someone merely thinks they are ill, then they may well be “cured” by making them think they are being given a treatment!
Most cases where people claim to have been cured by homeopathy can almost certainly be explained in terms of the placebo effect, combined with the practitioner’s skilful manner of dealing with patients. An average consultation with a GP lasts less than ten minutes, before he writes you a prescription, and says, “Next, please!” To the rational among us, this is hardly surprising; for most common or garden ailments, which a GP deals with day in and day out, it only takes him a few minutes to make a diagnosis – and if your condition is something which he can’t diagnose quickly, then he refers you to a specialist. But some people, especially those with hypochondriac or attention-seeking tendencies, might see a GP’s manner as dismissive or disinterested, and prefer to put their trust into someone who appears to care, and makes them feel that they are being given personal attention.
And this is exactly what homeopaths do! In common with the practitioners of other quack “treatments”, a homeopath will give each “patient”, say, an hour of his time – no doubt at an extortionate price – and convince them that he is preparing a unique personal “remedy”, especially for them. And then he laughs all the way to the bank. They simply practice the kind of “people skills” which are essential for any successful confidence trickster! So this kind of “personal attention” may often be enough, in and of itself, to “cure” a hypochondriac of their non-existent illness; the fact that they also take a “remedy” – which is, after all, nothing more than a placebo – is irrelevant.
All of the aforementioned mystical rubbish, about how homeopathy is claimed to work, is utterly irrelevant, when it comes to proving that it doesn’t work. It isn’t necessary to know how something is supposed to work, in order to prove that it doesn’t! Many statistical studies have been carried out, which prove beyond any possible doubt that it has no effect whatsoever, beyond that of pure placebo.
To determine whether or not any kind of supposed “treatment” actually works, it’s necessary to perform a statistical analysis, to see whether or not it achieves significantly better results than no treatment at all. Such a study involves a large number of patients, all of whom have similar ailments. Half of them are given the “treatment” being tested, while the other half – known as the control group – are given a placebo. The important point is that none of them can be allowed to know whether they are being given the treatment or the placebo.
Ideally, the allocation of treatment or placebo to each patient should be done by a third party, such that the person administering them also doesn’t know which patients are receiving which; this ensures that the latter can’t inadvertently give the patients any clue as to which they are receiving. This is called a double blind experiment. It is, in fact, exactly how medical trials of genuine new drugs are performed.
After a course of “treatment”, the researchers determine how many of each group of patients have recovered, or shown an improvement in their condition. It is, of course, quite possible that some of those in the control group might imagine themselves to have been cured, due to the placebo effect, as described above. If, among the patients receiving the treatment, a significantly higher proportion show an improvement than among the control group, then this would suggest that the “treatment” under test has some genuine medicinal effect. If, however, the two proportions are not significantly different, then the obvious conclusion is that the “treatment” has no effect.
Suppose such a study involves 200 patients, 100 in each group. If, say, 15 patients who took the placebo claim to have been cured, and 17 who took the treatment, then that would not be regarded as significantly different; you would expect small differences like that, due to pure chance. But if those numbers were, say, 15 and 40, then the researchers would have to conclude that the “treatment” was at least worthy of further investigation. ( There are mathematical formulae to determine how much of a difference is regarded as “statistically significant”, but these are beyond the scope of this essay. )
Many properly controlled, double blind studies have been performed on homeopathy. Not surprisingly, not a single one has ever shown it to have any significantly greater effect than a pure placebo. Well, since any homeopathic “remedy” is nothing more than a placebo, what else would you expect?
10.6. “At least it can’t do any harm – can it?”
While we have now proved conclusively that homeopathy has no useful effect whatsoever, you may well think that – unlike many other kinds of so-called “alternative medicine”, it can’t actually do any harm, either. ( Except to your wallet, anyway! ) After all, drinking water can’t possibly do you any harm, and you can’t overdose on it!
But think again; any kind of bogus “medicine” has the potential to cause harm indirectly, if a person who is genuinely ill chooses it in preference to real medical treatment. There is at least one documented case, in which an Australian woman was diagnosed with cancer, at a stage where it could have been treated. But for some bizarre reason best known to herself, she believed that it could be cured by homeopathy. She refused all conventional medical treatment, in favour of her imaginary “magic water”.
Guess what… she died.
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