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Apr 12

Homeopathy: Science or Sympathetic Magic?

by Ian | Categories: general chemistry, opinion | (23349 Views)

As a new contributor to Chemistry Blog, I’ve decided to ‘break myself in’ by tackling the somewhat controversial and thought-provoking topic of homeopathy.  As I write, we find ourselves part way through ‘World Homeopathy Awareness Week’, so the subject is enjoying quite a high profile and twitter seems to be alive with discussion on the matter.

 

Before I go further, I feel I should declare myself to be a sceptic.  I’m doubtful as to whether any other point of view on this subject would be published on Chemistry Blog –so that will come as no surprise.  After completing my chemistry studies, I chose a career in the pharmaceutical industry –to make a difference.  I also rely on daily medication to manage my own condition.  I’m therefore very aware of the difference proven chemistry can make to the quality of people’s lives.  The science of drug development is founded on proven facts; a great deal of money, effort, time and hard evidence is required for just one new drug to reach the market –I will return to this subject in a later article.

 

What are the principles of homeopathy?

 

Homeopathy is an alternative medicine, based on the principle of treating like with like.  Patients are treated with highly dilute preparations believed to cause symptoms in a healthy person, similar to those being experienced in the patient.  Commonly used dilutions are 10C and 30C.

 

To achieve a 30C dilution, the ‘active’ ingredient is diluted 1 part in 100 –and then a drop of this solution would be diluted to 1 part in 100 and so on for 30 repetitions.  The resulting final solution would be 1 part active in 1 followed by 60 zeroes.  To put this number in perspective; one molecule of ‘active’ in a volume the size of the entire observable universe would be 40C.  Homeopaths claim a process called ‘succussion’, the act of striking the vessel containing the solution against an elastic surface 10 times at each stage of the dilution process, activates the ‘vital energy’ of the diluted substance and they talk, not in terms of dilution, but in terms of ‘dynamisation’ or ‘potentisation’.

 

As chemists we know there is a limit to any dilution that can be made without losing the original substance entirely.  This limit is related to Avogadro’s number and in homeopathic terms roughly 1 part in 1024 –equivalent to a 12C preparation.  A 30C preparation would require giving 2 billion doses per second to 6 billion people for 4 billion years to deliver a single molecule of the original material to any patient.  It is worth pointing out here that homeopathy dates from a time predating the discovery of atoms and molecules, so it was a widely held belief that a substance could be diluted ‘ad infinitum’.

 

Homeopaths believe the more dilute a preparation is the more effective it is. They believe the diluent used (usually water) has a memory of the active molecule it once contained.  My professional life as an analytical chemist would be a living nightmare if this were the case and carefully prepared diluents were ‘remembering’ the properties of the all the compounds they had contained.  Just imagine what the HPLC chromatograms would look like!  There would simply be no point in trying to keep the equipment free from contamination.  The notion of ‘molecular memory’ is at best implausible; it suggests the shape of a molecule is more important than its chemistry. Putting reason aside for a moment and accepting that water has memory –how would it emulate the chemistry of that molecule?  That very notion would require our current understanding of chemistry to be re-written and that understanding has provided us with thousands of medications which have been proven to be effective.

 

Clearly, if homeopathy achieves a successful clinical outcome, there is something else at work here. There is likely to be a significant ‘placebo effect’ and there is anecdotal evidence to support this idea. Also, the act of consulting the homeopath and the attention and sympathy the practitioner gives the patient –is believed to support the healing process. This, however, can be dangerous when the practitioner advises the patient against engaging with conventional medicine –this can, and has, resulted in tragic consequences.

 

As a complementary therapy, homeopathy appears to benefit some and as such it has its place in modern medicine. It isn’t sensible to use it as the only course of treatment for any condition, especially not a serious disease. The ‘science’ doesn’t stack up -it’s just sympathetic magic.

15 comments

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  1. PL Hayes

    “As a complementary therapy, homeopathy appears to benefit some and as such it has its place in modern medicine.”

    I don’t think it has any place in /ethical/ modern medicine:

    http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/index.php/placebos-as-medicine-the-ethics-of-homeopathy/
    http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/index.php/the-rebranding-of-cam/

    1. Ian

      The point I was making there was with regard to the treatment as a whole -I don’t think I’ve suggested that homeopathic remedies alone are an effective drug anywhere in the article. Some patients will refuse all science based medicine, an attitude often borne out of irrational distrust -but the reassurance they gain from consulting a homeopath seems to benefit them. The empathic consultation and their belief that the treatment will work -seems to benefit them. A kind of talking therapy for physical illness I suppose, but as I’ve stated, this attitude can have dangerous consequences where serious disease is concerned.

      1. PL Hayes

        There was nothing unclear in your justification of your contention that homeopathy “has its place in modern medicine”, and I haven’t disagreed with it and provided those links because I’ve misunderstood it but because I agree with the medics and medical ethicists who have considered all that stuff (and more) and concluded that the ‘disutilities’ outweigh the ‘utilities’.

        1. Ian

          I also agree with medics and medical ethicists and as my final assertion also points out;

          “It isn’t sensible to use it as the only course of treatment for any condition, especially not a serious disease. The ‘science’ doesn’t stack up”

          I made an earlier comment (6.1 below) -which elaborates my thoughts.

  2. MQD

    Ian, you got some guts and I wholeheartedly respect that. I am also in complete agreement with your assessment, and have really nothing else to add, except that I get annoyed when I see people dropping their hard earned dollars for homeopathic remedies without pursuing more modern remedies.

  3. David P

    Tim Minchin said it best:
    “Water has memory!
    And while it’s memory of a long lost drop of onion juice is Infinite
    It somehow forgets all the poo it’s had in it!”

  4. Kenneth Hanson

    Mitchell and Webb’s take on homeopathy:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HMGIbOGu8q0

    1. David P

      That was hilarious!

      Hmm, I can have a homeopathic lager at lunch time and still work safely in the lab!

    2. Ian

      That is brilliant!

  5. Leah

    I loved the article I read on using various NMR techniques to analyze water and homeopathic solutions. Obviously no difference was found, but they did explain what they supposedly would have found if this was true.

  6. Wiktor

    I come upon people that believe homeopathy works and I suppose that it’s a bit like a religion. And it’s hard to disprove religion with science… A whole point of religion is to believe.. right?

    Nevertheless, as scientists – You (we?) should educate people to let them see for what homeopathy really is:)

    A sham that is of course.

    1. Ian

      You’re absolutely right and religion is an accurate parallel. Both ‘systems’ pre-date modern science, but both have their advocates. If the patient knows exactly what they’re getting and they’re still prepared to spend their own money on ‘treatment’ -let them do so.

      As long as their life is not in danger -serious illness needs serious treatment.

      I don’t believe public money should be spent on homeopathy (other than to educate the public as to what it really is!), as there’s precious little of that available for proven treatments anyway.

  7. Wiktor

    Yes, as long as people consciously choose the homeopathy – let them:) Fine with me. Though considering rather debilitating outcome of it and the loss for the economy (days off work, shorter life-span and so on) it shouldn’t be allowed. But I can’t choose for anyone.

    I see this is an American blog but some may be interested that in Poland ‘Naczelina Izba Lekarska’ (The Polish Chamber of Physicians and Dentists) has actually prohibited the use of homeopathy by doctors:) They can’t prescribe it (placebos can’t be prescribed as well as far as I know). That’s a satysfying statement, isn’t it?;)

  8. Chemjobber

    I sat in on a homeopath once when I wanted to be a physician. It was fairly clear to me that the perceived benefit was more about the 15-20 minutes that the homeopath asked detailed questions to the patient and thought quietly about the answers and not about the bottle of placebo that the patient went home with.

  9. Acleron

    There is nothing scientifically controversial, it simply doesn’t work. Double blind random clinical trials of high quality show no difference between placebo and the test tube washings homeopaths sell.

    Homeopaths also have no compunction in dropping the friendly chat that might be of benefit if they can sell the magic water directly.

    Homeopaths also are extremely anatagonistic to medicine. They often advise patients to avoid medicine to their detriment. They are advising Africans AIDS sufferers to avoid ARVs, Haitians to take their pillules rather than mineral replacement when infected with cholera and Cubans to take the magic water rather than Leptospirosis vaccine.

    They are dangerously deluded and certainly don’t want ‘integration’ into the medical system except as a means to an end.

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