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Raising Awareness

(Originally posted: 14th June 2007)

This week, 14th-21st June 2007, is apparently Homeopathy Awareness Week and so what better time to have a little rant about this particularly ridiculous branch of woo Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM).

Homeopathy was invented two hundred years ago by the German physician Samuel Hahnemann (1755-1843) and is based around two basic principles: like cures like and potentisation through dilution, neither of which seem to have any basis in science.

The first of these suggests that you can cure an illness using a tincture created from a substance that produces similar symptoms. So for example, a symptom of the common cold might be streaming, rheumy eyes – peeling onions also makes your eyes run – ergo, onions might be suitable homeopathic alternative to Lemsip. Hahnemann documented about 300 such remedies in his Materia Medica, still the basis of homepathic treatments today.

On the surface this sounds a little like vaccination, a scientific principle that we all happily accept (media-driven autism scares aside) but there are crucial differences. Vaccination builds immunity through the introduction of a reduced amount of a virus proven to cause illness; homeopathy uses substances that generate similar symptoms, but otherwise have no direct connection (scientific or otherwise) to the malady being treated.

And anyway, Hahnemann’s second principle of making a treatment more effective by diluting it, does away with any ‘active’ ingredient even if it were shown to be beneficial: Homeopathic remedies are generally prepared by taking the prescribed tincture and diluting it one part in a hundred, a specified number of times. Hahnemann himself suggested that a dilution of 30C was appropriate for most treatments; so the original tincture is diluted one part in a hundred, thirty times, ie.:

That’s a pretty weak solution! In fact, chemists would tell you (with reference to Avogadro’s constant) that the chances of even a single molecule of the original tincture being present in the diluted solution are practically zero. Homeopaths claim that the water has a ‘memory’ of the original substance, but quite how this happens (and why the water should favour the homeopathic tincture rather than all the other substances it has come into contact with throughout its lifetime) remains unexplained.

So to recap: homeopathic remedies are based on using substances that have never been shown to be medically effective, which are then diluted so much that (very literally) none of the so-called ‘active ingredient’ remains.

Of course, maybe none of this would matter if the effectiveness of homeopathic remedies had been proven; the truth is that homeopathy has never been shown to perform any better than a placebo when tested in double-blind, clinical trials. Those that claim otherwise are at best misguided; at worst they’re charlatans and con-artists, fleecing an unknowing public who are desperate to find an alternative treatment to cure their ills.

In fact, all that we can really conclude about homeopathy is that two hundred years ago, doing nothing proved a more effective treatment than bloodletting or sticking leeches up your bum…

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