Scott McKellar and Craig McInnes add their tuppence worth to an age-old cliche.
If you’re reading this there is a reasonably good chance that, having an interest in science, you think homeopathy is nonsensical quackery peddled (mostly) by opportunists and charlatans. And you’re right, it is. If the object of an opinion-piece is to win the reader to the writer’s point of view, then we have already succeeded. Hurrah.
Unfortunately, writing critically about homeopathy has become something of a cliché because the very nature of this “alternative medicine” is fundamentally laughable. So why are we bothering? Well firstly, we recently attended a Glasgow Skeptics lecture by Kevin Smith, a senior lecturer at Abertay University and a renowned opponent of pseudo-medicine, in which he galvanised opinion within the room that homeopathy is at best amusing hokum and at worst dangerous, deliberate misinformation. This seemed like a good starting point for us to write a self-righteously angry GIST article with all the raw power of sugar pills and crystal healing. Secondly, it seems that homeopathy is still a thriving business in the UK.1 The NHS continues to fund homeopathic remedies, including four homeopathic hospitals, one of which is in Glasgow. Public figures such as The Prince of Wales, Nicola Sturgeon MSP and Jeremy Hunt MP have all given homeopathic care their approval.2
These people really should know better.
Surprisingly, not many people know what homeopathy really is (not enough people anyway). Sometimes billed as an alternative medicine, we would suggest that it is an alternative in the same way that a crash mat is an alternative to a parachute. You may conjure up images of ‘natural remedies’ and ‘plant extracts’ and remember hearing that there are no side-effects associated with homeopathic medicines. The reason that there are no side effects is because you are lucky if there is any active ingredient whatsoever in the ‘medicine’.
Homeopaths believe that if a substance causes an effect, then a small dose of that substance can cure an ailment with the symptoms that match that effect. For example, Strychnos Ignatia causes people to suffer feelings of grief, so a small dose of the Ignatia tree is apparently a cure for grief. This ‘like cures like’ argument sounds plausible enough when you consider vaccines, where a small amount of a live virus is administered to allow your body to learn how to fight against it. Alas, that is where the similarity to conventional medicine ends.
Homeopathic products are sold in terms of their strength. Your local homeopath will sell Ignatia, for instance, under a name like ‘Ignatia 30C’. The word ‘Ignatia’ implies, unsurprisingly, that this ingredient is in the thing you are buying (a good start) and the ‘30C’ term tells you the strength, or rather the lack thereof. You may think ‘the higher the number, the stronger the dose’, but you would be wrong, worthless human! Take your logic elsewhere. ‘30C’ is a measure of dilution so the higher the number, the more diluted the initial product is. In this case, it means that 1 ml of the Ignatia extract (or ‘active’ compound) has been effectively diluted into 1054 cubic metres of water. That’s a cube of water where each side is 106 light years in length, which is bigger than our solar system. This means that a whole bottle of Ignatia 30C is statistically unlikely to contain even one molecule of Ignatia extract, and the higher the dilution, the less your chances are of – maybe – getting that one molecule that probably wouldn’t treat your illness anyway. For comparison, a 200mg ibuprofen tablet contains around six hundred million trillion molecules of ibuprofen. Homeopathic tablets are also available, but here just one drop of the homeopathic solution is added to a little ball of sugar, diminishing your chances even further of getting any of the active ingredient. There is a good reason why you cannot overdose on homeopathic pills. The worst you are likely to get is a dental cavity.
So, given that homeopathic remedies are a few gazillion molecules short of a medicine, how do homeopaths justify ripping people off? Well, they use a highly scientific process called succussion (invented by Samuel Hahnemann). After each dilution the homeopath hits the mixture with an ‘elastic body’, often a book (fiction/non-fiction, all genres are acceptable), to imprint the ‘memory’ of the homeopathic remedy into the surrounding water. Modern-day homeopaths still cite the theory from 1988 that water has a memory of what has been in it before. Despite being roundly debunked by the journal Nature,3 and despite a grand total of zero studies being able to provide evidence of water’s memory, and despite the fact that the notion is just plain stupid, homeopaths worldwide have kept calm and carried on regardless in The Great Dilution Swindle.
Our problem with homeopathy is not one that can be criticised as being scientific elitism. This is common sense elitism – an elite that, frankly, everyone could easily be a part of. We live on a planet where the environment is governed by the hydrological system. Water evaporates continuously from the oceans, forms clouds, precipitates as rain and makes its way into the water system until it eventually pours out of your tap. If water had a memory, surely it would remember, for example, the fish? Since sufferers of seafood allergies have a horrible reaction to, say, lobster, the homeopathic approach would dictate that we give them a ‘small dose’ of the pesky bugger, or the water that remembers him to be more precise. Yet people with shellfish allergies, who at some stage we assume will drink water, can still have lethal reactions to a plate of lobster bisque.
Of course, this is all well and good – lampooning homeopathy for fun – but why do we at The GIST care? Well, we do and we don’t. Most of the time, homeopathy is amusing nonsense. Since no actual scientific evidence exists (despite innumerable attempts) that proves the efficacy of homeopathic remedies, homeopaths rely heavily on cherry-picked results, anecdotal evidence and testimonials from die-hard homeopathy fans. Familiar sentiments are usually displayed on homeopathy websites: “I tried everything to treat my cold/flu/diminished brain capacity but nothing worked, and then I tried this homeopathic shit and it worked like a boss”. We’re paraphrasing, obviously, but you get the GIST.
This does pose an ethical dilemma: even though homeopathic remedies work by the placebo effect alone, can the fact that some patients feel better justify the use of homeopathy? We don’t believe it can. There is most definitely a point where the amusing nonsense becomes dangerous misinformation. Since most homeopaths have no medical training and do not understand medical diagnoses, there are many examples of homeopaths offering treatment for serious illnesses which a placebo cannot cure: travellers foregoing conventional malaria treatment in favour of homeopathic remedies, for instance, with some horrendous consequences.4 Frighteningly, there are even homeopaths claiming to be able to treat cancer.[lref id=”5″] Believers in homeopathy may be wilfully ignorant or they may be gullible, but as much as there is a line between the two there is a line between inefficacious flu remedy and inefficacious cancer treatment – a line we don’t think should need to be drawn. Homeopathy is the beginning of a slippery slope to abandoning reason and rationality in medicine. The moment we ignore evidence (or plough on despite evidence) is the moment science is lost to medicine, and the moment we as a species take a(nother) step backwards.
Unfortunately, there’s not much that one person can actually do about it. You can refuse to buy these products but the problem is that homeopathy is more a belief system than anything else. Jeremy Hunt’s views were brought to light in his reply to a constituent stating that they’d have to ‘agree to disagree’ on the matter.5 This gets to the very heart of the problem; once people hold a view-point, they rarely abandon it. Challenging an entire belief system is not an easy thing to do. We’re not even sure how one can reasonably go about doing it without becoming a shouty science extremist. The best we can hope for is that science education continues to reach further and wider, that the layman understands the importance of the scientific method and that this stagnation of reason that has manifested itself in the 21st century is only a temporary hiccup in human evolution.
As we mentioned earlier, the recent cabinet re-shuffle brought to our attention that some MPs, not to mention MSPs and certain members of the Royal Family, hold the view that homeopathy is good. Not only do they hold this view privately, but they publicly defend it – and defend it defiantly in the face of reasonable evidence. These people have influence; indeed, Jeremy Hunt essentially now runs the NHS. Furthermore, with the refusal to publish the private letters of Prince Charles to MPs we’re only left guessing how this problem is being dealt with behind-the-scenes. Is homeopathy being slipped in through the back door of the NHS? Or rather, is the door being opened wider? Rt. Hon. Jeremy Hunt MP, the UK Secretary of State for Health, supports homeopathic care. Sleep well.