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Alex_Kasman
Aug 23 2004
Skeptical of Homeopathy

Just last week I saw an article on Yahoo News about homeopathy. It described the "idea behind the technique", and basically read like an advertisement for homeopathy, but it left out some vital information. In fact, one of the things that I will point out below I have never seen mentioned anywhere else, by skeptics, scientists or proponents of homeopathy. So, if you are curious about this subject, read on and you might learn something.

One thing that everyone seems to agree upon is that the field of homeopathy was started in the 18th century by Samuel Christian Hahnemann who considered the following idea: if eating some amount of a substance (like the leaf of a particular plant) causes a symptom (such as a headache) in a person, then perhaps a smaller amount of it will cause the persons body to fight that same symptom. This is the idea of homeopathy. Give someone a tiny amount of something that would cause pain, and it will help you fight pain. (This is apparent in the etymology of the word itself: "homoeos" is Greek for "the same" and "pathos" is Greek for suffering.) It is also important to mention two selling points of homeopathy, namely that the amounts of the "drug" are so small that they supposedly cause no side effects and that the "drugs" are all derived from natural sources.

Okay, so that's what you can read in a non-skeptical description of homeopathy. But, as you know, I'm a skeptic, and so I do not simply accept those statements at face value. I know that some of the people who repeat that description really believe that it is true, and only intend to help people by telling them about it. It is also true that some of the people who promote homeopathy do so because there is a great deal of money to be made. But, the sincerity or greed of the people who say these things should not be the deciding factor in whether we choose to believe in it. No, sincere people can be wrong, and greedy people can be right.

If you are trying to decide whether you believe in homeopathy, then I suggest you consider the following points...especially the last one which is one I have come up with on my own and not seen anywhere else despite its utter simplicity.

1) Experiments: Some people, including people I know, seem not to be very convinced by scientific experimentation. In fact, as you know if you've read my earlier essays, I also do not blindly accept every conclusion that scientists claim they have proven. However, to reject a scientist's conclusion, I think you at least have to have an alternative explanation for their data. In the case of homeopathy, the data is quite clear: if you give one large group of people some placebos (pills with no medicinal value) and another large group of people some homeopathic medicine (according to the definition above) then you will find approximately the same percentage of people in both groups who claim to have been cured of the symptoms that the homeopathic medicine claims to cure. Some might say that this "doesn't really prove that it doesn't work"...perhaps if you are desperate, this is a reasonable argument, but it certainly shows that homeopathy doesn't work very well! (I mean, if it really did work, then a lot more of the people who took the "drug" should be cured, right? And, yes, the drugs that mainstream medicine prescribes really do pass such tests...the FDA makes them prove efficacy in this way before allowing them to make any claims of effectiveness.)

Now, there are two important caveats to consider here. It is important to consider only double-blind experiments like the one described above. That is, it should be the case that neither the experimenter nor the patient knows whether they are being given the placebo or the "drug". This is important because it is well known that mere knowledge of this fact affects the outcome. (This just shows that people are more likely to claim that they are cured if they believe they are taking powerful medicine, but it has nothing to do with the question of whether the medicine is actually effective.) Also, it is important to remember that I am talking about homeopathic medicine, not "natural" medicine. I have read articles in which the authors claim that some studies have proven the effectiveness of homeopathic medicine, and then upon closer examination it turns out that the medicine given is some herb like ephedrine given in reasonably high doses. That is not homeopathy! Ephedrine, like its more commonly marketed cousin pseudephedrine (Sudafed) is a decongestant. Even if a study shows that it is effective at curing a stuffy nose, this does not provide any support for homeopathy since nobody claims that large doses of ephedrine cause stuffy noses and because the dose given is not as small as those proposed by homeopathy. Which brings us to the second point.

2) Dilution. Real homeopathic "medications" have dilution amounts written on them. They say something like "10X" or "9X". What do these numbers mean? They simply tell the number of times that the original substance (the stuff that was supposed to cause the symptoms that you want to cure) has been diluted seven fold. That is, "10X" means you mixed one part of the substance with six equal parts of some neutral filler, and then you mix that with six equal parts of the filler, and again, and again, ten times. In the end, you would have one divided by seven to the tenth power grams of the substance for every gram of filler. By the way, seven to the tenth power is quite a large number! It is so large, in fact, that if you phrase the question in terms of molecules of the original substance per pill in the bottle of homeopathic medicine, you find that it is more than likely that some of the pills don't contain even one molecule of the supposed "medicine" but are 100% filler.

I have heard proponents of homeopathy address this apparent problem with the theory. They have to claim that the theory of molecules is not all that it is cracked up to be. Okay, considering quantum theory and its unusual consequences, maybe it is not so strange to think that some of the qualities of the substance are contained in the pill even if less than an entire molecule is there. But, don't think that this means that I accept this idea. It really has a fundamental flaw that you have to consider. Suppose it is true that taking a pill with less than a whole molecule of some substance can affect your body to the extent that it can cure a serious symptom. Then every molecule that lands in your mouth would be affecting your body tremendously! Every breath of air you breathe contains pollens, smoke, dust, a tiny bit of yesterday's lunch, sweat, and plenty of substances that would cause "symptoms" if you took them in large enough doses. How do believers in homeopathy address the question of why all of these substances don't seem to affect your body? (Or, if they do, why should one more in the form of a pill make any noticeable difference!?)

3) But it doesn't even make sense! It amazes me that despite all of the articles I have read about homeopathy, both pro and con, not one of them has pointed out that the idea makes no sense at all. You don't need to do experiments like (1) above or know about molecules like (2) above to see problems with it.

Consider the example of a person who has a terrible headache. If this person believes in homeopathy, they will take a pill containing filler and possibly some tiny amount of echinacea. The theory, as explained above, is that echinacea is a substance that will cause you to have a headache. So, the theory goes, if you take just a little bit of it then your body will react to it and defensively will fight the headache. But wait! The person in this story already had a headache! Why wasn't their body already doing everything possible to fight the headache? Why would just a little bit of headache causing substance make the body fight any harder than the actual terrible headache that the person had? In other words, it seems to me that the theory of homeopathy shows that taking echinacea will only really help you fight a headache if you don't happen to HAVE a headache!

So, in summary, studies have shown that homeopathic medicine are not very good (in fact, no better than empty pills) at doing what they claim to do. The amount of substance in the pills is so small that from the point of view of a chemist, the pills really are empty pills (so that the earlier comment is not at all surprising) and the whole idea of homeopathy is internally inconsistent since it seems that the pills will only be effective in people who don't have the symptom they are supposed to cure!

Nevertheless, homeopathy is a huge business. At health food stores and even drug stores, these bottles containing lots of filler and tiny, tiny amounts of herbal extract sell for ten or fifteen dollars. (That's a huge profit, if you think about it.) So, why is it that people buy this stuff? IMHO, it is because people are gullable, and lazy about using their brains to actually think about things.

Take, for example, the person who wrote the article on homeopathy on Yahoo News that I read last week. This person claimed that homeopathy was better than "traditional medicine" because it treats the whole body while medical doctors focus only on alleviating a particular symptom. This sure makes doctors sound bad: they don't think about your real problem; they just cure a symptom (leaving the underlying problem unresolved) and take your money. Okay. Sounds good...except, wait a minute! Was this the same article in which the author explained that the way homeopathic medicines are discovered is by checking to see which symptom they cause and then assuming that they will then cure the same symptom?!? Echinacea cures headaches because it causes them....so what about the underlying problem? It sounds as if homeopathy by its very definition is concerned only with symptoms, while I know for certain that medical doctors at least sometimes are concerned with the underlying problem.

I think I've got some convincing arguments above that homeopathy sounds pretty good until you think about it just a little. Once you do, it stops sounding reasonable really quickly. At least, that's how I see it. Do you disagree? Please write to me. I'd love to hear your opinion (and just to know that someone's read this).

jesuslovesme
Sep 6 2005

Hi, Alex!

I realize you started this thread some time ago, and this may not even be a topic you care to discuss any longer. However, here in Asheville, homeopathy and various other new age, pseudoscientific, "alternative" medical practices are all the rage. In fact, some people are such staunch believers in this hooey that they are as bad as or worse than some of the bible-thumping fundies I've come across. One homeopathist actually screamed at me when I expressed slight skepticism about the effectiveness of homeopathy.

Unfortunately, I know very little about "alternative" medicine (AM for the sake of brevity). I've read the Skeptic's Dictionary, and I think Robert Todd Carroll does a fine job of debunking most of these claims, but he is (necessarily) rather brief and doesn't have the space to cover all the counter-arguments new agers might throw at him. I've also read a few articles on AM in various skeptical publications and I've read a couple of pro-AM books. I'm hoping to get a little more help on these issues from my fellow skeptics in the SHL.

1. First of all, I'd like to commend you on your exposition of homeopathy, Alex. I think you're right on. Of course, I agree with your discussion about the dilution of homeopathic substances, and from what little chemistry I remember, there simply isn't enough of a given drug left in a homeopathic solution to have any physiological effect. (To prove this point, James Randi once chugged an entire box of homeopathic sleeping pills before giving a long, energetic lecture!) However, new agers would argue that we skeptics clearly don't understand what's going on here. We have failed to take into account the fact that the water retains a "memory" of the original substance. Furthermore, homeopathic medicine isn't meant to be taken all together in the way Randi did. Rather, its effects are cumulative and take some time before becoming apparent. How would you respond to these defenses?

2. What do you think of other AM practices, beliefs, and entities such as chiropractic, acupuncture, therapeutic touch, reiki, rolfing, reflexology, aura (and aura photography or Kirilian photography), chi (or qi or ki), magnetic therapy, massage therapy, naturopathy, osteopathy, holistic medicine, herbalism, and any other new age paraphernalia you might like to mention? (Sorry! I know that's a lot!) Is there anything to any of these? If not, what are the fatal flaws of these practices? From what I understand, many of these new age oddities haven't been studied extensively by conventional doctors/scientists. Is this true? If so, why is this? Does the fact that so many of these practices are based on supernatural ideas discount them from the start? I know a number of atheists who believe in AM practices and just shrug off all references to the soul or the spirit and they ignore the fact that many of these practices have their origins in things such as astrology. What might I say to such an atheist? Also, I've heard of alternative approaches to healing cancer that don't involve chemo, but rather rely on heavy doses of vitamin C and/or "essiac" (vaguely described as a "nontoxic herbal preparation") and those who use these methods swear by their results. Does anyone know anything about these or any other supposed "alternative" methods for healing cancer? (Finally, in one of the pro-AM books I read, Bernie Siegel, M.D., supposedly integrates conventional medicine and the patient's "innate healing abilities" by asking the patient, under anesthesia, to do things such as divert their own blood flow and lower their pulse rate! This sounds absurd! But I could be completely wrong. Does anyone know if there is any truth to such stories? If they aren't true, how might one go about debunking such tales?)

3. In my discussions with new agers, their hostility for "Western" medicine is almost palpable. Any source I might cite to debunk one of their AM claims is (to the new ager) clearly biased and funded by organizations with vested interests in suppressing competing AM practitioners. If it is even possible to do so, how might one go about circumventing such deeply entrenched conspiratorial thinking? Also, one of the main complaints from new agers is that conventional medicine is primarily concerned with treating symptoms after there is already a problem rather than preventing the problem from occurring in the first place (as, presumably, AM does). From this perspective, conventional medicine is seen as a kind of band-aid while AM gets to the source of "true healing." Is there anything to this claim? If not, what is the situation actually like? At any rate, it seems to me that new agers have an unhealthy skepticism (cynicism?) when it comes to conventional medicine and an unhealthy credulity (gullibility?) when it comes to "alternative" medical practices.

Thanks for all that you've already said on this topic, Alex! As always, your ideas come in handy! And I appreciate anything anyone else might have to offer to this discussion.

Sincerely,

Billy Kelly

Alex_Kasman
Sep 7 2005

I realize you started this thread some time ago, and this may not even be a topic you care to discuss any longer.

It was VERY long ago, on the other Webserver before we moved here to humanists.net...but I'm happy to chime in again.

1. First of all, I'd like to commend you on your exposition of homeopathy, Alex. I think you're right on. Of course, I agree with your discussion about the dilution of homeopathic substances, and from what little chemistry I remember, there simply isn't enough of a given drug left in a homeopathic solution to have any physiological effect. (To prove this point, James Randi once chugged an entire box of homeopathic sleeping pills before giving a long, energetic lecture!) However, new agers would argue that we skeptics clearly don't understand what's going on here. We have failed to take into account the fact that the water retains a "memory" of the original substance. Furthermore, homeopathic medicine isn't meant to be taken all together in the way Randi did. Rather, its effects are cumulative and take some time before becoming apparent. How would you respond to these defenses?

If the question is "how can it work if all of the substance is gone" or "why didn't randi fall asleep" then those are reasonable responses. There are stranger things in science than that a substance might retain memory of something diluted in it, and it is at least not logically impossible that one homeopathic sleeping pill would help you sleep while a whole bottle would have no effect.

I have never heard a response to the problem that, if homeopathy were real and even the tiniest amounts of substance that ever came in contact with water or sugar could have dramatic effects on a person who swallows it, then we'd all be in terrible trouble from tiny bits of just about everything! But, let's suppose that they could answer that question as well.

I've also never heard any believer explain to me why a small amount of something which causes a headache taken orally would cause your body to "fight" the headache (as if it were an infection) when actually having a headache did not! But, again, suppose they could answer this.

There's only one serious problem that they fail to address: The things just don't work. Lots of studies have confirmed the fact that homeopathic remedies work no better than a placebo. You can switch the homeopathic medicines with each other and users still claim that they work even though they should now be having a different effect entirely.

Yes, they may say that these studies were corrupted by the evil pharmaceutical industry...and I'm not claiming that the pharmaceutical industry is not at least a bit evil...but I'll address that comment below.

2. What do you think of other AM practices, beliefs, and entities such as chiropractic, acupuncture, therapeutic touch, reiki, rolfing, reflexology, aura (and aura photography or Kirilian photography), chi (or qi or ki), magnetic therapy, massage therapy, naturopathy, osteopathy, holistic medicine, herbalism, and any other new age paraphernalia you might like to mention?

There is no one way to address all of these at once. However, having looked into many of them deeply in the past, I can tell you this: lots of them are completely bogus. Then, although I cannot completely discount all of the others without checking into them, I can say that I'm justified in being skeptical of them. In particular, I think that they really have to do something to convince me that they DO work, because I know for a fact that people can get all excited about "cures" for everything that are nothing but scams. (Perhaps a good analogy is this: I receive e-mails every day from people in Africa who have millions of dollars in an account and need my help to move it. Now, it is certainly possible that ONE of those is real and honest...but after so many bogus ones, I'm no longer even giving it much thought!)

To further confuse matters, there are tiny bits of real stuff hiding under some of these things. Certainly HERBALISM can have a real effect. Many of the medicines that are used by traditional doctors have their roots in herbalism: aspirin, pseudephedrine (an artifical version of the plant derivative ephedrine), etc. There is no doubt that herbs contain substances with medical use...the problem is that herbalists do not seem to be interested in using scientific methods to determine which ones work and which ones do not and which do not. Consequently then wind up with a few really useful things hidden amongst tons of garbage. Furthermore, though not all herbalists are guillty of this, many USERS of herbalism mistakenly conclude that herbal medicines are SAFE and really hurt themselves with them. (I'm not sure there is really such a thing as a medicine that has an effect but is safe in all doses and all situations.)

Acupuncture, too, seems to have some tiny bit of truth to it, but it is difficult to work out exactly what it is due to the distaste that its practitioners have for testing it.

The idea of holistic medicine -- that one should consider the whole body and person and not just individual symptoms -- makes sense to me. But, if the practitioner decides to use bogus methods to address the problems then it is as worthless as those methods in any other circumstances.

3. In my discussions with new agers, their hostility for "Western" medicine is almost palpable. Any source I might cite to debunk one of their AM claims is (to the new ager) clearly biased and funded by organizations with vested interests in suppressing competing AM practitioners. If it is even possible to do so, how might one go about circumventing such deeply entrenched conspiratorial thinking? Also, one of the main complaints from new agers is that conventional medicine is primarily concerned with treating symptoms after there is already a problem rather than preventing the problem from occurring in the first place (as, presumably, AM does). From this perspective, conventional medicine is seen as a kind of band-aid while AM gets to the source of "true healing." Is there anything to this claim? If not, what is the situation actually like? At any rate, it seems to me that new agers have an unhealthy skepticism (cynicism?) when it comes to conventional medicine and an unhealthy credulity (gullibility?) when it comes to "alternative" medical practices.

I cannot completely disagree with the sentiments about modern medicine. I've certainly been upset with doctors, the medical "industry" and pharmaceutical companies. Though, my disagreement with doctors is generally when they do not seem to be scientific enough, rather than the other way around. One place in which I might agree with your Asheville friends is in thinking that the pharmaceutical companies are run (for the most part) by greedy SOB's without any scruples.

BUT, that's exactly why I don't believe in homeopathic medicine! I mean, if the pharmaceutical companies could sell hospitals pills that are literally 99.999999999999999999999999999999999% filler for $5 per bottle (as the big "AM" companies sell them in stores), you think they wouldn't do it?!?? As soon as they find something that works, they find a way to market it and make a profit. There's no reason the same idea wouldn't work for anything that did work. The only problem is, before they sell it that have to PROVE that it works in scientific trials. That's where the AM stuff stumbles. Some people seem to believe in these things even after the trials show they work no better than a placebo. But, I'll tell you, if they give the $5/bottle "alternative medicine" to 500 people and nothing to the other 500 and the AM group does no better in any conceivable way, I'm not wasting my $5 on the stuff.

mickiemcclain
Sep 7 2005

if eating some amount of a substance (like the leaf of a particular plant) causes a symptom (such as a headache) in a person, then perhaps a smaller amount of it will cause the persons body to fight that same symptom. This is the idea of homeopathy. Give someone a tiny amount of something that would cause pain, and it will help you fight pain. (This is apparent in the etymology of the word itself: "homoeos" is Greek for "the same" and "pathos" is Greek for suffering.) It is also important to mention two selling points of homeopathy, namely that the amounts of the "drug" are so small that they supposedly cause no side effects and that the "drugs" are all derived from natural sources.

Isn't this similar to how doctors are trying to treat people who have peanut allgeries? By introducing small amounts of peanut to people with peanut allergies the patient builds up a tolerance and has less of a reaction?

Alex_Kasman
Sep 8 2005

It depends what you mean by small amounts. The "small amounts of peanut" that you're talking about is still more than millions of molecules of the stuff. If just a single molecule of peanut allergen caused people with allergies to have a reaction, they'd be in a lot more trouble than they are.

In homeopathy, the ratio of the amount of "active ingredient" to supposedly neutral filler in the medicine is so small that there is not even one molecule of the stuff per BOTTLE of pills, let alone one per pill.

This forces defenders to claim not only that extremely tiny amounts of "medicine" can have an effect, but that this effect remains in other substances that touch the "medicine" even after the medicine is gone!

Now, the number of tiny amounts of molecules that touch things that eventually go in your mouth (things that once touched the water or the fork or the apple or....) is so huge as to be mind boggling. According to homeopathy, your body would have large and dramatic responses to the impressions left by all of these tiny things.

In fact, it almost argues against the need to take homeopathic medicine even if the hypothesis WAS true. The idea of homeopathy is that if you have a headache you could take a pill of filler that once touched a molecule of substance that would cause a headache if you took a lot of it, and that would cure you. However, I would guess the odds are that any glass of water you drink was once in touch with a molecule of SOMETHING that would cause a headache in large doses...so why bother buying a pill?

Moreover, there is another interesting point about your example. In the case of allergies, the problem is that your body mistakes some substance as a "foreign invader" and so your immune system attacks it. However, your immune system can learn. Once you've had an infection, your body learns to recognize that invader and is quicker to react to it in the future. And, it can also learn to recognize something as being self ("safe") so that it is no longer a problem in the future. That's what happens when someone gets treated with shots for their allergies. You are treated with the allergen itself, and your body learns to become accustomed to it.

But this same idea does not apply for most of the things that homeopathy claims to treat. Headaches are not an immune response. And although many of the symptoms of a cold ARE the result of an immune response to a cold virus, the analogy to allergy treatments doesn't explain why being given tiny amounts of echinacea (a substance which supposedly was found to cause cold like symptoms in people when taken in larger doses) would help alleviate the symptoms. (The usual argument is that when your body encounters the echinacea -- or its ghostly image imprinted on the filler ingredients -- it turns on its mechanism to "fight" the stuffy nose because it knows that echinacea causes stuffy noses. But, where's the logic in that!?! If your body had a mechanism for fighting a stuffy nose, why didn't it turn it on already due to your stuffy nose!?!?)

But, again, let me remind you that my big problem with homeopathy is not that the ideas don't make sense. If the ideas didn't make sense to me but the stuff worked I would conclude that either I have to change my understanding of how the world works OR I'd have to figure out what really makes the stuff work. The simple fact, however, is that it doesn't.

Here's an article describing a recent study of the effectiveness of echinacea

Alex_Kasman
Sep 9 2005
PS

Here are some more thoughts on the differences between "using a little bit of peanut allergen to cure allergies" and "using an infinitesimally small amount of some herb that causes headaches to cure a headache":

When they use peanut allergen to "desensitize" people with allergies, that is something that must be done while they are NOT having an allergic reaction. I mean, if a child was all swollen and sick because he has a peanut allergy and accidentally ate a Reese's Cup, giving him a tiny bit more wouldn't help in the least! (I've never heard anyone claim that it would.) What difference would a tiny bit more make? No, to desensitize you have to carefully give small amounts over a long period of time so that your body learns to recognize peanut proteins as being safe. (And once you are desensitized you no longer need the shots)

In contrast, the claim of homeopathy claims that WHILE YOU ARE SUFFERING from a cold, taking a tiny amount of some substance that causes cold-like symptoms will cure you. (Why would a little bit MORE trouble help when you already have a cold?) And, you supposedly have to take it every time you have a cold and not just until you are "desensitized" to cold virus. You see the difference?

Moreover, peanuts are really NOT harmful to people EXCEPT for the allergic reaction. That's why it is okay to teach your body to recognize peanuts as being safe. But, cold viruses really do invade your cells and use them to reproduce. You would NOT want to teach your body to recognize them as safe because you really need your immune system to fight the infection and get rid of it.

-ak

mickiemcclain
Sep 9 2005

so homeopathy is more like banging your hand with a hammer so you will forget about the pain in your leg.

Alex_Kasman
Sep 12 2005

No, homeopathy is like putting a hammer in a swimming pool full of water and then drinking a glass of that water so that the essence of the hammer retained in the water will make you forget about the pain in your leg.

-Alex

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