Homeopathy: Illusion, Delusion or Solution?

Mini-Science logo Guest columnist Joe Schwarcz, Director of McGill’s Office for Science and Society, puts the sense back into common sense. On April 7, his talk “Science and the Paranormal”  opens the 2010 series of Mini-Science, “Pseudoscience: From Quirks to Quacks.” Space is limited; register now for Mini-Science 2010.

Living in New York City can undoubtedly be stressful.  So it is not too surprising that in many a pharmacy you’ll find “New York Stress Tabs.”  The label describes the product as a “homeopathic lozenge designed to manage daily stresses related to sleep, work, relationships, travel, hangover, over-indulgence and pre-menstrual syndrome.”  The instructions suggest that a lozenge be dissolved in the mouth and that the process be repeated hourly as needed.  New York must indeed be a very stressful place.

What magical ingredients can accomplish these wonderful stress-relieving feats?  The label reveals the presence of aconite and strychnine, two classic poisons!  But not to worry.  This is a homeopathic remedy, which means that the ingredients are present in vanishingly small amounts.  In fact they have been diluted to the extent that in most cases there isn’t even a single molecule of the original substance left, only some “imprint” or “molecular ghost” supposedly remains.

I have a problem with homeopathy.  Acceptance of its principles requires casting aside the understanding of chemistry that I have developed over thirty years.  Therapy accomplished by nonexistent molecules just does not fit the model.  Of course, we cannot conclude that homeopathy does not work just because its proposed mechanism of action is unacceptable in our current scientific view.

After all, it was widely believed that due to the curvature of the earth, radio transmission across the Atlantic would not be possible because radio waves travelled in straight lines.  But then it was unexpectedly discovered that these waves could bounce off the atmosphere.  However, before we begin altering our theories about molecules, we have to investigate whether homeopathy really does work.  First, a bit of history.

The father of homeopathy, Samuel Hahnemann, was trained in traditional medicine and began practicing in Germany in the late 1700s.  He quickly became disillusioned with the treatments he had learned.  Bleeding, leeches, suction cups, purges and arsenic powders seemed to do more harm than good.

Hahnemann began to ignore his training and started to prescribe a regimen which at the time was revolutionary: fresh air, personal hygiene, regular baths, exercise and a nourishing diet.  Since this was not a particularly financially lucrative regimen, he began to supplement his income by making use of his fluency in eight languages to translate medical texts.  During one of these translations he encountered an explanation of why quinine supposedly cured malaria.  The substance fortified the stomach!

Intrigued, Hahnemann took some quinine to see if it really had an effect on the stomach.  It did not.  But pretty soon Hahnemann began to feel the effects of a fever!  His pulse quickened, his extremities became cold, his head throbbed.  These symptoms were exactly like the symptoms of malaria.  Then came his dramatic conclusion: the reason quinine cured malaria was because “fever cures fever.”  In other words, like cures like.  Homeopathy, from the Greek “homoios” meaning “like,” and “pathos” meaning suffering, was born!

Hahnemann went further and began to systematically test the effects of a large variety of natural substances on healthy people.  Such “provings” led him to conclude that belladonna, for example, could be used to treat sore throats, because it caused throat constriction in healthy subjects.  But belladonna is a classic poison.  Was homeopathy therefore dangerous?  Not at all.  Hahnemann had another idea.  He theorized that his medications would work by The Law of Infinitesmals.  The smaller the dose, the more effective the substance would be in stimulating the body’s “vital force” in warding off the disease.

The dilutions were extreme.  “Active preparations” were made by repeated tenfold dilutions of the original extract.  Hahnemann was not bothered by the fact that at these dilutions none of the original substance remained; he claimed that the power of the curative solution did not come from the presence of an active ingredient, but from the fact that the original substance had in some way imprinted itself on the solution.

In other words, the water somehow remembered the original material that had been dissolved.  This imprinting had to be carried out very carefully.  A simple dilution of the solution was not enough.  The vial had to be struck against a special leather pillow a fixed number of times to be “dynamized.”

Traditional medicine did not take kindly to these peculiar rites.  In fact, the American Medical Association was formed in 1846 largely as a reaction to homeopathy with a view towards cleansing the profession of homeopaths.  These efforts were sometimes absurd in the extreme.  One Connecticut doctor lost his membership for consulting a homeopath, who happened to be his wife!

Nevertheless homeopathy did not disappear and now is actually enjoying a rebirth.  People disillusioned with scientific medicine are resorting to homeopathy, gleefully pointing out studies in peer-reviewed scientific journals which apparently show that homeopathy works.  But wait a minute.

A careful review of these studies reveals unimpressive results.  In some minor conditions homeopathy does seem to be slightly more effective than a placebo.  This has no practical implication but does raise some academic interest.  How can there be any positive results at all if there is no active ingredient?  Publication bias is a likely explanation.

This term means that if enough studies are carried out, some will show positive results by chance alone.  Reporting these while maintaining silence on negative findings can create the illusion of effectiveness.

Recently, the largest-ever review of homeopathic studies was published in the leading British medical journal, The Lancet.  The conclusion was that pooling of all studies shows a slight statistical advantage of homeopathy over placebo.  But in the words of the researchers: “We found insufficient evidence that homeopathy is clearly efficacious for any single clinical condition.”  In other words, for all intents and purposes, homeopathy does not work.  And this study was carried out by homeopaths!

Of course no scientific study will derail the advocates of homeopathy.  They will keep selling their “cures” for a host of conditions, buttressed by all kinds of anecdotal evidence.  Most people just do not realize that the majority of ailments are self-limiting and resolve by themselves.

Homeopaths even promise a cure for the common cold, something that has stymied scientific researchers.  It is based on freeze-dried extract of duck liver which is diluted to the extent that a single duck can supply the world demand for a whole year.  There may be no geese that lay golden eggs, but apparently there is a duck with a $20 million liver!

Comments are closed.

Blog authors are solely responsible for the content of the blogs listed in the directory. Neither the content of these blogs, nor the links to other web sites, are screened, approved, reviewed or endorsed by McGill University. The text and other material on these blogs are the opinion of the specific author and are not statements of advice, opinion, or information of McGill.