I know a math and chemistry teacher who consulted a homeopath. The teacher naturally asked the homeopath how homeopathy worked. The homeopath, knowing he was speaking to a patient who was well versed in the mathematics of dilution and the chemistry of solutions, said, “I don’t know how it works. It just works.”
Hmmm. I wouldn’t let a mechanic near my car, much less a “healer” near my body, with an attitude like that.
Samuel Hahnemann was a German physician and the founder of homeopathy. He began publishing his hypotheses in 1796 and released major volumes on the subject from 1810 through 1821. Hahnemann and his system of homeopathy greatly improved the medical treatment of patients throughout his lifetime.
Traditional medical practice during Hahnemann’s time involved phlebotomy or bloodletting and the use of purgatives and emetics to induce diarrhea and vomiting so as to “balance” the four humors in the body. Physicians of the time actually gave their patients poisons such as lead, mercury and arsenic to produce effects that were considered improvements.
Homeopathy had a tremendous advantage over the traditional medical practice of the day: It strictly adhered to the Hippocratic Oath of “Do no further harm,” and the ingested remedies had no side effects since they were composed of only water or sugar with alcohol as carriers. Patients felt some slight improvement due to the placebo effect instead of ingesting poisons or being bled and infected. Hahnemann’s “cure rate” soared compared to other doctors, and patients correctly flocked to his safer practice of the new homeopathic medicine.
As traditional medicine improved over the next 190 years and adopted scientific methodology, the cure rates gradually reversed and homeopathy was stuck with the “cure rate” of the placebo effect.
People who use homeopathic remedies often do so because of the anecdotal testimony of friends and other satisfied patients. I speak to many people who use homeopathy, and not one of them could explain to me how homeopathic remedies are produced or the basis on which this system supposedly works. Understanding these processes would give any person pause as to the legitimacy of homeopathic dilutions.
There are four main laws of homeopathy that include these two production processes:
» 1. Serial Dilution — Hahnemann’s “Law of Infinitesimals” said that the less of a substance one used, the better it worked. The Law of Infinitesimals allowed Hahnemann and his followers to believe that using miniscule (actually non-existent) quantities of a substance would release its “immaterial and spiritual powers.”
» 2. Succussion — methodically and vigorously shaking a substance, horizontally, vertically and diagonally, after every stage of dilution, to “dynamize” it and make it stronger.
Shaking can diffuse a substance through a solution, but it doesn’t make the substance any stronger or increase its potency. Dilution, by its definition, makes a substance weaker. The system that Hahnemann proposed violated the laws of physics and chemistry. Finally, the mathematics of serial dilution proves, even to homeopathic practitioners, that their remedies are nothing but water and sugar.
The starting extract of a substance (the “mother tincture”) is commonly diluted to either a 1 in 10 (Roman numeral “X”), a 1 in 100 (Roman numeral “C”) or a 1 in 1000 (Roman numeral “M”) solution. A 30X dilution is one drop of mother tincture in 10 to the 30th exponent drops of water. That’s a lot of water. Picture one drop of the original substance in the Pacific Ocean. (It is estimated that the Pacific contains about 10 to the 27th exponent drops of water.)
Hahnemann commonly used a dilution of 30C for many of his remedies. That’s one drop of mother tincture in 100 to the 30th exponent drops of water. Ever conscious and convinced of the potency of their dilutions, homeopathic practitioners carefully advise that children should only take a half-dose of the adult prescription: that would be only 1/2 drop of “mother tincture” per Pacific Ocean for a 30X dilution.
According to the laws of Chemistry (molarity), when any substance is diluted past Avogadro’s number, that is approximately 10 to the 23 exponent, it is virtually impossible to find a single molecule of the original substance.
One has to admire a multibillion-dollar-per-year industry that sells expensive sugar, water and alcohol as medicine while violating the laws of physics and chemistry and having the mathematics of serial dilution prove that their products contain no active ingredients. Unfortunately, homeopaths make the same mistake that all clinical practitioners are prone to make: They become enamored with their clinical results without realizing that those results are produced by the patient generated placebo effect and not their particular pills, potions and procedures.
Physicians made this same mistake for millennia in thinking that bloodletting was therapeutic. It was only the advent of science-based medicine, which required clinical practice to follow research and experimentation, that caused physicians to stop following the misleading placebo effects in their clinical practice.
Homeopathic practitioners who are knowledgeable about chemistry, physics and mathematics will admit that their dilutions contain only water and carriers such as sugar and alcohol.
However, instead of considering the placebo effect and confirmation bias, the homeopathic practitioners then reason that their potions and pills have a “memory” of the “vibrations” of the original substance, which is why their remedies still work after all that serial dilution. Scientists politely ask why the water would “remember” the homeopathic tincture any more than the thousands of other substances that the water had come in contact with since water molecules first formed on Earth about 4 billion years ago. With no reply forthcoming, the mathematicians, chemists and M.D.s pack up and leave the homeopaths to their belief-based dilutions.
Harriet Hall, M.D., also known as the “Skepdoc,” has an insightful comment on the homeopathic remedy “oscillococcinum” made from duck parts and diluted to a 200C solution (that’s 1 drop in 100 to the 200th exponent drops of water): “Start with duck liver, dilute the duck out of it and hope that the water remembers the duck. In my opinion, all that leaves is a ‘quack.’”
People who believe in homeopathic remedies will always argue that, “It works.” Using this same rationale, bloodletting “worked” for over 3,000 years of misinformed medical practice. Absent any scientific evidence, we know that we can fool ourselves and the best and brightest minds of our civilization by a combination of the desire to get well, the patient’s placebo effect, the association fallacy, confirmation bias and anecdotal testimony. If the subjective, “but it works” is all the practitioners of a “healing” system can claim, then they are trading on their patients’ placebo effect. There is an excellent article on homeopathy available by clicking here.
Hahnemann told his followers to keep true to the principles of homeopathy and that the evidence would eventually legitimize their practice. It’s been close to 200 years, and there is still no evidence that homeopathic dilutions produce any benefit beyond the placebo effect.
Billions of dollars worldwide are spent every year on homeopathic memory/vibrational water and sugar. This money could be better spent on science-based drugs and medical treatments that have evidence of benefits beyond the placebo effect.
— Victor Dominocielo, a California-credentialed teacher for 36 years, is the human biology and health teacher at a local middle school. The opinions expressed are his own.