What is homeopathy?
Homeopathy is a system of alternative medicine devised in 1796 by Samuel Hahnemann.
It is based on his two fundamental beliefs:
Hahnemann's Law of Similars states that a disease can be treated with substances that produce similar symptoms as the disease itself.
This has a beguiling plausibility. We think of vaccination and immunotherapy, where a disease-causing agent is used to stimulate the body's defence mechanisms. However, where vaccination and immunotherapy operate by a known mechanism, homeopathy does not.
There is no scientific evidence to support the idea of treating a disease with a substance simply because that substance has been observed to cause similar symptoms to the disease itself. For example, that you can treat a common cold with an onion, simply because onion makes the eyes water.
OK, you say, but lack of evidence isn't proof. So let's suspend judgement on that one.
It follows that if you are to treat a disease with a substance that causes the symptoms of that disease, you first need to prove that the substance does indeed cause those symptoms.
In the homeopathic world, this is done through a process called 'proving', though in reality it is nothing of the sort.
In a homeopathic 'proving', a handful of people consume a substance and then record their thoughts, feelings, dreams and other symptoms. That's it. Here's an example.
That's all there is to the vast body of homeopathic 'evidence' that has been collected to demonstrate the effect of all manner of different substances, including (but by no means limited to): crude oil, skimmed milk, the Berlin wall, Hadrian’s wall, badgers, condoms, anti-matter, human placenta (Welsh), clingfilm, meadow grass, organophosphates, slag (blast furnace), lava, gunpowder and light from Venus.
Ignore, if you can, the absurdity of many of the substances that have been 'proven', and focus only on the science, or lack of it. The vast majority of homeopathic 'data' in Materia Medica (the reference homeopaths use to select their treatments), has been collected from statistically insignificant numbers of people, without any attempt to randomise, blind or placebo-control, rendering it subject to the ravages of confirmation bias and selection bias.
Even now, in the 21st century, homeopathic practitioners argue that randomisation, blinding and placebo control, the central pillars of modern clinical trials, are 'not necessary' (European Committee for Homeopathy, Harmonised Proving Guidelines, P8 table May 2014); that somehow homeopathy is exempt from the rigorous standards that we demand of mainstream medicine.
The provings on which homeopathy is based have been thoroughly discredited. There is no proper evidence that homeopathic substances cause the symptoms they are claimed to cause (or by extension, that they can treat the diseases they are claimed to treat).
Once again, we haven't actually proven that Welsh placenta doesn't cause the symptoms it is purported to cause, or the disease it is claimed to treat. So let's consider another central tenet of homeopathy.
Fundamental to homeopathy is the belief that by diluting a homeopathic substance, it becomes more potent.
Again, we think of the tiny doses used in vaccination and immunotherapy, and at first glance there seems a beguiling plausibility to this idea.
But let's stop and examine the dilution process used by homeopathy practitioners a little further.
Homeopathic substances are first diluted by 100 to 1 and 'succussed' (a particular way of shaking the preparation). It is this shaking which homeopathic practitioners claim 'energises' the remedy.
The process is then repeated at least 6 times (6c).
By this stage, if you do the maths, the dilution has reached 1/1,000,000,000,000.
And if that's not enough dilution for you, many homeopathic remedies are diluted to 30c and above. To put that into context, a dilution of 40c would equate to one molecule of the homeopathic agent in the entire observable universe. A popular homeopathic treatment for flu is Oscillococcinum 200c.
Homeopathic practitioners believe that water has a 'memory' and that extreme dilution of a substance increases its potency.
Water does not have a memory. The idea that you can increase the potency of a substance by diluting it till none remains defies the laws of physics and chemistry. Not to mention the thousands of proper, randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled studies in which quite the reverse has been observed.
So to summarise, if you are to believe there is any truth in homeopathy, you have to buy into three things. That you can treat an ailment with something simply because it has been observed to cause the symptoms of that ailment; a cold with an onion; insomnia with coffee. That crude oil, sheep dip and light from the planet Venus, amongst others, have been proven to cause the symptoms they purport to treat. Finally, that by diluting these substances until such time that not one single molecule remains in the remedy, you have increased their potency and efficacy.
Practitioners argue that however irrational it may sound, more recent scientific studies have demonstrated the efficacy of homeopathy. So let's look at some of those studies.
What homeopathy isn't
Some people confuse homeopathy with herbal medicine, because the base ingredients are often derived from plants. However, they are not the same thing. Provings, extreme dilution and succussion make homeopathy very distinctly different to herbal medicine.
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