Over the years I have argued with a few people about homeopathy, and my stance that it represents the most perfect state of ignorance that the human race has ever achieved. In other words, it’s bullshit. I live in a country that is facing, in the next few years, the prospect of a monarch who is trying to use his privilege to bully MY health service into providing this medical batshittery to actual sick people in place of medicine. To say that I am not best pleased about this is an understatement. However, it seems to me that a lot of people don’t understand what homeopathy is, or how it (doesn’t) work: this is my attempt to provide enlightenment.
HOMEOPATHY IS NOT THE SAME AS HERBALISM
Herbalism means using plants as medicines. It is an old science, stretching back centuries, and although it contains a lot of rubbish in its mediaeval form, it is in fact the basis of modern medicine. While we no longer think that eating plants shaped like fingers will cure your poorly hand, we do still take extract of willowbark for headaches (aspirin), extract of foxglove for arrhythmia (digitalis) etc. While most of the active ingredients are now synthesised in their pure forms rather than taken from actual vegetation, the natural world still provides an opportunity for huge new advances.
In short, herbalism: not just the grooviest of the collector professions in World of Warcraft. Can actually be science. Of course, there are still plenty of snake oil salesmen who will tell you that anything “herbal” must be good for you, and they are lying liars who lie. Spoiler: Echinacea does not prevent colds, sorry.
SO WHAT IS HOMEOPATHY?
OK, so we know what it isn’t. But what it is? In this section I am going to describe the preparation and principles of homeopathic treatments, with little comments about what science actually thinks about all of this. There may be sarcastic language. Possibly some swearing. I’m not going to go into detail about the history of homeopathy, but basically what you need to know is this: it was made up out of whole cloth in 1796 by a guy called Samuel Hahnemann because he was a very bad doctor. Right, onwards.
If you want to treat an illness, don’t find something that cures the symptoms, find something that causes them in people that don’t already have them. Yes, you did read that right. If the illness causes bleeding from the eyeballs, find something that makes people bleed from the eyeballs. People that were not already bleeding from the eyeballs because they have the illness, that is. Shut up, you know what I mean. Bonus points if it is an extract of some obscure and poorly understood plant that may or may not be deadly to humans.
SCIENCE SAYS: Hahaha, what? How is that supposed to help? Make their eyeballs bleed HARDER?
Dilute the extract to a 1:100 solution. That means for one drop of plant gunk, you have 99 drops of water. This is what’s called by homeopaths a 1C solution, as in 1(Latin for hundred). Then you give your solution 10 sharp taps on a beanbag or something to activate the water molecules. I swear I am not making this up.
SCIENCE SAYS: OK, so the dilution might be what you have to do to get a safe dosage. But what are the taps for? Water molecules do not become something else just because you whack them on a beanbag.
Dilute by a factor of a hundred again, and keep doing it until you have done it 30 times. This is what’s called a 30C solution. Some homeopathic preparations are diluted to 200C, as in diluted by a factor of a hundred, 200 times.
Homeopaths will tell you that the more dilute the solution, the more effective it is. People who live in the real world will point out that for a solution that dilute, it would be verging on mathematical impossibility for even one molecule of the original active ingredient to be present. Indeed, studies have shown that homeopathic preparations do not contain anything at all except water. Homeopaths will reply, ah, but it doesn’t matter you see, because the water REMEMBERS the shape of the original molecules and becomes, like, magically medicine in ways that are undetectable to science. Because of the tapping, you see. That’s what the tapping was for. At this point there is usually a lot of hand-waving and SHUTUPSHUTUPSHUTUP.
SCIENCE SAYS: NO REALLY WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK. Water molecules cannot remember the shape of something that was dissolved in them once, tapping or no tapping. Which is a good thing, because otherwise we would all be drinking medicinal poop.
This is the best bit. People like their medical interventions to be as sciency as possible, right? And taking pills is more sciency than drinking a little bottle of magic water. So they drip a drop of magic water onto a sugar pill, let it dry out and then sell them to idiots at seven quid a pop! And the justification for this, when it’s pointed out that the water has evaporated, is that the water has somehow passed the memory of the active ingredient on to the sugar and made it into magic sugar!
SCIENCE SAYS: … We got nothing.
So in summary, all of the principles of homeopathy, and the techniques in preparing it, are utter and ridiculous crackpottery of the highest order. I think that about covers it.
BUT I KNOW A PERSON WHO SWEARS BY IT FOR THEIR BACK PAIN/HAY FEVER/ARTHRITIS
I used to take homeopathy pills for hay fever when I was a teenager and thought it was the same as herbalism. I can’t honestly say they helped but they made me feel like I was being pro-active and I probably actually did feel better for a few minutes after taking them. That’s because of the placebo effect.
The mind and the body are not actually two separate things. After all, we experience our body through our minds, whether it be pleasure, pain, or that itch lurking juuust under the arch of your foot, you know the one, you can’t scratch it with your other foot, you’ll have to take your boot off in the middle of the office, goddammit I hope no-one sees. Aahaha, you’re welcome. The point is, pain and discomfort are very real but they are also, fundamentally, all in our minds. They can be influenced by our mood and beliefs and by the behaviour of others.
Now obviously, positive thinking is not going to influence whether or not you bleed to death from a severed arm. But it might ease your back pain if you take a little sugar pill that you think is medicine. And actually, the placebo effect is only shown to be effective in chronic conditions, i.e. long-term, lower-grade pain or allergies, rather than in acute conditions where the symptoms are less subjective. And the more sciency the intervention feels, the stronger the effect. That’s why acupuncture is the king of the placebos, because it involves needles and people in white coats and feels like proper science even though it’s not. For a much better description of all of this, and some fascinating examples, I recommend Ben Goldacre’s book Bad Science, which will also help you understand statistics and why the Daily Mail needs to be burned to the ground. Ahem.
WHERE’S THE HARM?
But, you cry, if it makes me feel better even if it is all in my head, where’s the harm? Good question. I have very strong feelings about this, so forgive me if I get a little heated. Here’s the harm:
- Promoting homeopathy as medicine promotes scientific illiteracy. It makes people ignorant and fearful about their own bodies and makes them vulnerable to charlatans.
- It encourages people to take homeopathy instead of, rather than as well as, the genuine medical interventions that they actually need.
- Purveyors of homeopathy are keen to promote their products as safe and natural, in opposition to the evil drug companies who want us all to die of chemo, apparently. There are many good reasons to distrust pharmaceutical companies but this is not one of them. Also, homeopathy is only safe because it is made of MAGIC FUCKING WATER and doesn’t have anything in it. Sorry, just had to reiterate that.
- Sometimes, homeopathy isn’t safe. Because it’s completely unregulated on account of not actually being medicine, occasionally an active ingredient or contaminant makes its way into one of these little pills. People have become very ill as a result of this, including permanently losing their sense of smell. Homeopaths have absolutely zero accountability for any negative results of their “treatments”.
- Homeopaths and other alternative medicine quacks don’t just claim their magic potions can help your back pain. Many of them also claim to be able to treat serious illnesses including cancers, diabetes, and heart conditions. There is not a single shred of evidence that this is possible. Basically these monsters kill vulnerable people for profit and then turn round and tell their grieving relatives that they obviously didn’t follow the regime properly. They are absolute fucking scum and deserve to be eliminated forthwith with a flamethrower.
Believers in alternative medicine, like the religious and anti-vaxxers, generally don’t change their minds when presented with evidence that their beliefs are fairy tales. In fact, they tend to double down, become ever more entrenched in their views until the delusion becomes a core part of their identity. So I don’t expect anyone to change their minds as a result of this screed. I just hope that, for those of you who didn’t really know what homeopathy was before, you now do and see how utterly bonkers it is.