To Infinity and Beyond

What is a homeopathic remedy?  A sugar pill? ‘Just water’?  Homeopathy was named by one Dr. Samuel Hahnemann.  First-rate scientist, rubbish PR person.  Homeo-pathy?  Awkward man – awkward word: difficult to spell, easy to lampoon.  Even easier to misrepresent.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

My favourite skeptic skit… completely misleading, but – anything for a laugh, eh?

Laughs aside, homeopathy – a remarkably cheap, effective, low-tech health care option, affordable even to the poorest nations – deserves proper research funding.  Key elements of treatment:

  • Symptom similarity  –  determined through tests on the healthy (pathogenic trial, proving)
  • Individualisation – symptom similarity is as individual as people
  • Serial dilution/agitation –  developed to minimise drugs toxicity/side effects

‘Homeopathy’ is not a protected term; mis-use of the word commonly confuses public perception.  Here is someone else who seems confused about homeopathy:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Very likely this man knows quite well that his seaside dropper stunt is misleading nonsense.  Ah – isn’t that… yes, skeptics call homeopathy ‘misleading nonsense’ while spreading misleading nonsense about this widely used and accepted healing modality.

Dilution to the infinitesimal  is not what makes a medicine ‘homeopathic’.  Ultra-high diluting was Hahnemann’s answer to drug-induced pathogenic (‘side’) effects.  He employed serial dilution, a method still commonly used in pharmaceutical labs.  He just took it an inexplicable, observation-based step further.

Confirmed similarity to symptoms of disease makes a substance homeo-pathic – similar to the individual’s suffering.  Fact is, most ordinary medication too works because a given substance can cause in the healthy just those symptoms it is designed to treat –  medicinal substances have naturally both anti- and homeo-pathic effects.  This is most easily seen in the so-called ‘paradoxical effect’ – e.g. analgesics inducing pain.  The use of Zolpidem*, an insomnia treatment, to rouse coma/PVS patients is one example of the homeopathic similarity principle in ‘off label’ drug use.

The simillimum aspect of ordinary medicines is easiest to spot in herbal remedies, for example chamomile (e.g. induces nausea if over-used = soothes stomach in normal use) or arnica (over-use a.o. causes microhaemorrhages = effective treatment for bruising).  Such similarity is a key factor in much primary drug action – which means a large chunk of medicine is in fact crudely homeopathic.

Conversely, if someone dishes out potentized remedies bought from a homeopathic pharmacy, this does not equate to homeopathicity: no similarity, no treatment, no effect.  That’s one reason why the ‘homeopathic suicides’ stunts are so risible: “Look, look I’m not dead – ha ha ha!”  “Yes, we know, dear… isn’t that nice?  We’d hate to see you damaged by your own stupidity.”

this man does not understand homeopathy - skeptic campaigner 'suicide' stunt

The beauty of potentized ultra-high dilutions is just that:  they can induce amazing health changes if properly prescribed  –  yet pass through harmlessly if ‘dissimilar’, that is, not needed or not properly individualised to a patient.

Hahnemann prescribed standard doses of  his newly discovered ‘similars’, successfully, for several years.  In his quest for minimising side effects, why would an ambitious young doctor still building a reputation scupper his chances? Why refine this peculiar dynamization process unless it worked well?  Were both he and his patients the first gullible victims of homeoathy – just like the 500 million worldwide who use it today?  All of us? Just fools?  Really?

Some medics were disparaging homeopathy on the grounds of implausibility decades before the science community accepted Avogadro’s Constant.  What today’s skeptics believe about homeopathy is worn-out old tricorn jazzed up with the high-tech feathers of molecular biochemistry.

Edzard Ernst demonstrates the double blind method

In Europe, much homeopathy (and a related application, ‘homotoxicology’) is practiced using low 1:10 serial dilutions.  Definite material doses are still present in such preparations. In dismissing these as much as high potencies, professional CAM ‘debunker’ Edzard Ernst and friends gloss over the pharmacologically quantifiable content.   I’d agree that the degree of homeopathic dilution really is just a question of … degree.  So, naturally, 1:10 dynamisations, like infinitesimal ultra-high preparations, do work. Being materially small doses, they act less subtly, treatment indications are more limited: a half-way-house between the holistic, individualised applications of the ultra-high level and the single-track biochemical usage of modern medicine.

Ultra-high dilutions are not easy to understand.  There is no known mechanism that shows definitely why they work; there is much new-agey mis-information.  Some people are attracted to homeopathy because it all seems so miraculous.  Others get angry at the inexplicable.

Science has a long history of revolutionary discoveries that overthrow old world orders, from Copernicus to Einstein and beyond. The unknown is unknowable – until it is discovered.   I can see the action – and results – of the infinitesimal in my practice every day.  Whether or not a biochemical, quantum or other explanation for homeopathic medicine will be discovered eventually… it really doesn’t matter to the people who get better.

*Incidentally, Zolpidem is an example of the evidence-mindedness of medical care: although studies have to date failed to confirm the early promise of this application for the drug, many if not most PVS patients are given Zolpidem on an experimental basis.  And why not?  It’s just that if one went strictly by the demands of EBM, doctors would not agree such off-label use until confirmed in large-scale trials.


2 responses to “To Infinity and Beyond

  1. Hi Guy, thanks for commenting and apologies for judicious cuts (see About). No, I have not applied Occam’s razor: I claim that ‘your’ science (‘you’ as a stand-in for the skeptic community) is mis-using the razor.

    Poor old Occam, invoked by so many to suit so many purposes. And he a pious man and all – I’m not at all sure he’d approve of atheists using the ‘razor’ to ‘prove’ the non-existence of a god. I think you know instances in science where lack of fundamental information led to Occam being roped in to deny plausibility: e.g. DNA. Oh, and of course quantum science can’t be accused of being ‘simpler’ than Newtonian mechanics on any level – an example of just why that razor is not a universal tool.

    In other words, it irks me that this intriguing, downright seductive, thinking tool is invoked ever and anon to suit the purposes of particular groups – often treated as if there were a definitive handbook on how to apply the ‘razor’. Who can claim to apply ‘correctly’ analytical thought, to know with utmost certainty just what the ‘simplest’ is? As Einstein (may have) said: “as simple as necessary, but no simpler”. Occam is a lot more complex than invokers of the ‘razor’ like to let on. One can ask: ‘simple’ on what level? Homeopathy is based on a small set of essentially very simple principles… Re-consider?

    Scientific and other arguments for homeoapthy and other CAM modalities are incidental to this blog: the remit is to show readers why sKeptic pronouncements may need to be taken with a sCeptical pinch of salt or two. Although – if the necessary funding were provided, I’d be delighted to get going on relevant trials, and report here accordingly. But: incidentally, remember Ernst/Singh’s ‘challenge’ to CAM practitioners? ‘Provide new scientific evidence for a given therapy within one year from publication and ‘win’ £10.000′ – as repeated ad nauseam while promoting their book? You know as well as they do that even a smallish pilot trial takes years from inception to completion and costs many multiples of ten thousand quid – that particular exercise in CAM baiting depended on their firm expectation that the bulk of their readership would not realise or think this through: i.e. they take their readers for fools (cf ‘Geek’ post).

  2. A true sceptic compares the theory with the null hypothesis. In this case the null hypothesis is placebo effect plus observer bias.

    […] In fact, just about everything we have discovered in the 200 years since Hahnemann invented homeopathy, makes the idea less, not more likely. You allude to the way science makes revolutionary discoveries – in fact, the revolution in science is largely confined to the first three decades of the 20th Century when relativity started the chain reaction whereby quantum theory replaced classical mechanics. Quantum theory is elegant and consistent over a much wider range of effects than classical mechanics. The theory of homeopathy has remained constant, outside of all other fields, and is no more consistent with quantum mechanics than with the science of the previous century.

    You have engaged in some arm-waving, but what you have definitely not done is engage in a properly sceptical analysis, according to the scientific method. Rather, you seem to have worked back from the conclusion, which is the precise opposite of scepticism. You have unquestionably not applied Occam’s razor.