I’ve stated it before on this blog but these days we are surrounded by people peddling “alternative medicines” and the like in an attempt to gain funding for what ultimately, has either not been proved to work or proved not to work. One of the biggest perpetrators of this is homeopathy also called homeopathic medicine. Homeopathy was concocted by Samuel Hahnmann a little over two hundred years ago. He disliked the philosophies of the then current medicine and instead attempted to develop a field of medicine based on the principle of “like-cures-like”. Hahnmann believed that if something was to cause a set of symptoms in one amount then in a much lower amount it would surely cure the same symptoms, specifically if that substance was massively diluted in water and repeatedly shook it would release its ‘healing energy’ into the mixture which is then called a remedy. He went on to test many different substances by getting people to take them and record every symptom they then suffered. This practice is called “homeopathic proving” and the records of the symptoms from each substance are then stored in books known as “repertoires”. Using all of this the practice of homeopathy goes a little like this…
Patient: I have aches in my feet, a swollen neck and am feeling nauseous.
Homeopath: let me consult my repertoire……Ah I see, a teaspoon of X causes those symptoms. Ill prepare a remedy of diluted X and you will be better before you know it.
There is a wealth of evidence showing that homeopathy does not work as a medicine. Aside from the notion of like-cures-like not having any basis in anything other than wishful thinking the dilutions that homeopaths use ought to demonstrate to anyone that this is at best, an outrageous scam and at worse, a dangerous idea. (As a side note like-cures-like does not apply to vaccination which relies on the exposure of antigens to the immune system. I’m not going to go into immunology right now because it is a huge field but if you are interested wikipedia, contrary to popular belief, is quite a good start). To accurately describe how diluted homeopathic ‘remedies’ are I’m going to have to go over a little bit of chemistry…
All matter is formed of atoms; these atoms can bind together in groups to form molecules. Due to the different masses of different elements (for example; a single oxygen atom masses more than a carbon atom) if we have a gram of one element and a gram of another they will not have the same amount of atoms in them. This is a bit like having a tonne of bowling balls and a tonne of tennis balls; bowling balls are bigger and weigh more so there will be less of them, tennis balls are smaller and weigh less so we need far more than bowling balls to make up a tonne.
If we want to have a sample with one atom of substance A for every one atom of substance B we have to do a bit of working out. There’s a useful unit in chemistry known as a mole (not to be confused with a mole), one mole is roughly 6 billion trillion molecules or atoms (depending if the fundamental unit of the substance is a molecule [e.g. water] or an atom [e.g. iron]). To know how many grams of a substance you need to make one mole you need to find out its atomic weight, simply looking at a periodic table will tell you this (I’m not going to get into how we weigh atoms!). The atomic weight of oxygen and carbon are 16 and 12 respectively, therefore 16 grams of oxygen has the same number of atoms as 12 grams of carbon.
So how does this little chemistry lesson apply to homeopathy? I’m going to go through step by step how to make a homeopathic remedy of salt. The first thing a homeopath does is make a 1 in 10 dilution (homeopaths call this a “1X”); salt is made from the molecule NaCl (a molecule of one sodium and one chloride atom). One mole of NaCl is 58 grams; one mole of water (H2O) is 18 grams. To make a 1 in 10 dilution where we have one NaCl molecule to one H2O molecule we can put 5.8 grams of salt into 18 grams of water. Shake the sample to make sure it’s evenly mixed and voila! Now we have a 1X solution.
The next step is to do the same thing again, diluting one part of this solution into ten parts water. Now for every NaCl molecule there are 100 molecules of H2O and it doesn’t stop there. Homeopaths repeat this shaking and 1 in 10 diluting dozens of times. Remember the number of molecules in a mole? It’s 6 billion trillion (or 6×1023), at the beginning when we had an equal amount of salt to water we had this many NaCl molecules, with every dilution we’ve got 10x less so after twenty-three dilutions there will likely now only be six NaCl molecules in the entire solution. Beyond this limit of only there are only two options; the first is that every time a sample of the solution is taken to dilute in more water some of these six molecules goes with it. This would mean that the 24th dilution was not dilute 10x more than the 23rd. Secondly (and far more likely) these six molecules wont be picked up and all that will be transferred is water, in that case the sample is no longer a dilution but a pure solution of water. From then on any more 1 in 10 mixing is not diluting but merely mixing water on its own. Unfortunately the story gets worse…
Most people could probably see that half a dozen molecules of something is not going to have a great effect on your body but twenty-three dilutions only creates what’s called a 12C remedy. Apparently this isn’t good enough and this solution is then diluted further, the problem with this is that if the solution only has one molecule of a substance in it then diluting it a further ten times in water means that to maintain just one molecule you need ten times more water. After twenty-three dilutions the sample will contain only water but homeopaths advocate remedies to be diluted sixty times! This is called a 60x solution. It’s difficult to understand just how dilute this would be if it still contained just one NaCl molecule;
The Earth is nearly 8000 miles wide. Imagine a globe the size of the Earth but made entirely of water, that’s 1 billion trillion litres of water. Now make that globe a member of a team containing 100 globes. Make that team a member of a group containing 100 teams. Make that group a member of a company containing 100 groups. Make that company a member of a cohort containing 100 companies. Finally make that cohort a member of a system containing 100 cohorts. In one system there are 10 billion globes. Add to that just one molecule of NaCl and that’s how dilute a 60x salt solution is.
At his point it should be obvious that homeopathic remedies are just water and aren’t worth the tap they came out of. But homeopaths in light of this evidence still stick to their guns. When homeopathy was being concocted by Hahnmann it was not known if matter was made of fundamental units or if it could be divided infinitely. Since the discovery of atoms we have known that this is untrue and this leads to preposterous scenarios needed in the dilutions as mentioned above. But homeopaths today try to get round this by arguing that water has memory. Yes they claim that pure water when mixed with a substance and shook repeatedly remembers what was in it and takes on the properties of this substance, purportedly by forming a network of water molecules around the substance to mimic it. But this last attempt at saving their ideology is by far the easiest to prove wrong. To start with if water has memory that doesn’t bode to well for our recycling of toilet water into drinking water (hence the expression “homeopathy is full of shit”), secondly this would mean that the water’s healing properties are due to it replicating the effect of the substance in it. If this were true it would violate the idea that a dilution is stronger because instead of having just the substance in water the entire water now acts as the substance! Lastly the time in which water molecules change places and orientation to form new networks is on the order of picoseconds (meaning it happens nearly a trillion times per second), far too short a time for any memory.
In spite of having no evidence for like-cures-like, remedies so far diluted they are just water and no evidence for claims of a memory system in water homeopathy is still a huge and active movement in the western world. The matter is only complicated by figures such as Prince Charles (a man with no scientific or medical credentials) stating that homeopathy should be considered. Homeopathy should be considered as much as any unproven or disproven field in medicine, it is not fair if homeopathy get’s to sidestep the stringent drug testing that any proper medicine must undergo purely on the basis of people’s choice or popular figures ideas. The issue is far worse though, a report by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee revealed that the NHS is spending money on homeopathic treatments. Worryingly there is no exact data on how much is being spent and on what, however it is estimated that homeopathic remedies cost the NHS over £150,000 a year (outrageous when A, it’s water from a tap and B, in an earlier post I talked about how some people feel £100,000 a year for Paul Mason was not deserved) and the cost of running the four homeopathic NHS hospitals we have in the UK is quoted as being near £12 million.
The only shred of justification modern homeopathy has is that it can act as a placebo. A placebo is a substance administered to a patient that does nothing biochemically relevant to their condition but due to the patient believing they have taken medicine they show improvement. The placebo effect is controversial as it may only work by making the patient less aware of their discomfort whilst their body heals naturally, it cannot heal beyond what the body can heal unassisted anyway and there is an ethical dilemma in lying to a patient about their treatment. But if homeopathic remedies are an effective placebo then there is no reason why they could not just be replaced, very easily, very cheaply by a nice, refreshing bottle of evian.
I hope this post has enlightened you a little on what exactly homeopathy is and how it claims to work. I hope I have stimulated a curiosity to learn about these things and how we can know if something has evidence or not. In the modern world the veracity of any medicine (and indeed any science) is only confirmed through repeated, demonstrable experiments by different parties. The data from these experiments can then be published (providing the research was logically and methodologically sound) for other scientists to examine, repeat and have their results also published. Through this long meticulous process we can ascertain what works and what does not. Now more than ever we can ill afford to allow untested, unproven medicines and sciences to gain funding at the expense of that that has fairly passed the best tests known to man.