Homeopathy: the air guitar of medicine?

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If you strongly believe in crystal energy, remote viewing, dowsing, traditional Chinese medicine, auras, astrology, faith healing, tarot cards, curses and hexes, or anything else that has a greater association to metaphysics than reality, then I would advise that you don’t read this article, because you probably also believe in homeopathy. Which I am about to attack. However, if some of you reading this find yourselves with less concrete views on such matters, or simply wish to understand more about one side of the argument (it becomes obvious later why I won’t give the other side my full attention), then please read on.

I’m not here to reference the countless scientific RCT (randomised controlled trial) papers that have proved homeopathy doesn’t work – if you want a starting point you can contact me through the Wessex Scene website. More, I am writing this to broadcast the ridiculous mathematical and logical fallacies that concern the practice, and the dangers that can arise from believing in such nonsense.

Invented by a German physician in 1796 (incidentally the same year as Edward Jenner developed the theory and practice of vaccination), homeopathy is a form of alternative medicine that works on the basis that ‘like cures like’. Similar, you may say, to the immunisations that we have most likely all received, whether it be for protection against MMR, meningitis or more exotic diseases. That is where the similarity ends, however.

Homeopathy is based on three main principles; the law of similars, the law of infinitesimals, and the law of succussion. The law of similars states that whatever could cause your illness could also cure it. So if you’re feeling a bit run down, get your mate with a cold to sneeze on your face. If you find you can’t get a good night’s sleep, make yourself a strong cup of coffee (my sarcasm is based on an actual homeopathic remedy by the way). The law of infinitesimals states that repeatedly diluting the like-for-like remedy will actually make the treatment far stronger and thus more effective. To do this, a single drop of caffeine would be diluted in 99 drops of water, producing a ‘1-centesimal’ (1C) solution. A single drop of this centesimal is then added to another 99 drops of water, producing a 2C solution. A single drop of this 2C solution is then added to … and you get the idea. Most homeopathic remedies sold are 30C (0.000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 1% caffeine) and usually consist of a drop of this 30C solution dripped onto a small ball of sugar. At 30C you have more chance of winning the lottery five weeks in a row than you do of finding just one molecule of caffeine in your treatment. Some remedies are even sold at a super-strength 100C, where the ratio of caffeine to water is 1 : the-total-number-of-atoms-in-the-universe. Following on from the maths is the law of succussion, where the remedy has to be shaken vigorously in order for the water to retain the vibrations and memory of the original substance in order to ‘potentise’ it. As implausible as all of this may sound, nothing I have said so far is anything else but fact (apart from maybe the face-sneeze bit).

Homeopathy is promoted by its believers as a working, successful alternative to real medicine. This presents a dangerous problem to patients suffering from acute medical problems – they are wasting their time and money in searching for a homeopathic cure when they could be seeking effective medical advice and treatment elsewhere. For more minor afflictions, the danger is much more of a social one, in that if the condition clears up (whether or not due to the homeopathic treatment), the patient will more than likely assume a false correlation and attribute the recovery to the magic smarties. As a result, they are likely to spread damaging anecdotal evidence in support of the practice that some people will choose to believe. These people may then investigate alternative treatments themselves when faced with illness, thereby repeating the cycle all over again. This cycle is still seen by many GPs who advocate the MMR vaccine to parents of young children and find that many parents are still affected by the MMR-autism controversy to hit the public eye last decade, despite countless evidence against ‘that’ paper, and Andrew Wakefield, the original author, being struck off the Medical Register in May this year.

The NHS currently spends between £4m and £10m of taxpayer’s money on homeopathy each year. There are four homeopathic hospitals situated in Liverpool, Bristol, Glasgow and London. The high-street chemist, Boots, currently sells homeopathic remedies despite previously admitting that they don’t believe the treatments work, and are only selling them because ‘customers believe it works’. Surely we should be spending this time and money in continuing to investigate real, effective medicine that makes both an empirical and (more importantly) a scientifically measurable difference?

Some of you may point out that homeopathy works as a placebo, which is an important, if little understood aspect of medicine that can provide positive results with no side effects. I agree that placebos can be a very useful tool for doctors who have patients in a situation where no standard medical treatment will work. However, as I mentioned earlier, homeopathy is often used as a replacement for conventional medicine, rather than a supplement to it. This can have much more serious consequences. In a classic example, The British Medical Journal once reported on a woman who relied on homeopathic malaria tablets whilst on a trip to Togo, West Africa. Unsurprisingly, the woman developed a serious bout of malaria involving multiple organ failure and a two-month stretch in intensive care. One wonders if a placebo would still have been the recommended treatment for her deteriorated state. I think not. It was choosing the placebo over conventional treatment that got her there in the first place.

The biggest issue I have with homeopathy is that it undermines conventional medicine, leaving some people open to exploitation, both financially and medically. Whilst some kinds of quackery can prove to be harmless, this one shouldn’t be given the time of day, and certainly shouldn’t be encouraged by high street pharmacies and government health services, not when some of the remedies involve ingredients such as ‘dolphin song’, ‘thunderstorm’ and ‘the light of Venus’. It makes me and many others angry that our government knowingly provides funding that results in the legitimisation of an unproven treatment. This is dangerous. Surely in a time of reduced government spending, our ministers will finally get some sense and stop state investment in this garbage?!

For those insulted by anything I have said, I remind you that you don’t have the right to not be offended. However, as a peace offering, I present to you a comic created by internet cartoonist Luke Surl:

Right, time for my alchemy class!

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3rd year biologist at the University of Southampton. Likes science, film, and discovering new ways to make one of my housemates lose his deposit.

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