Skepticism is the process of applying critical thinking and reasoning to determine the validity of an idea. It looks for a supported conclusion, rather than justification for a preconceived conclusion.
Skepticism is a process, not a position and it does not imply negativity or blind disbelief in something. For example there can be skeptics who believe in ghosts if they are satisified with the reasoning behind this conclusion.
The scientific method involves the evaluation of evidence about a certain topic. In the scientific method, skepticism plays a central role.
CAM (Complementary and Alternative medicine) is a very broad category of medicine and includes some modalities that have been subject to broad skepticism from the scientific community. Some of these modalities are continuing to sever the line between evidence based medicine and magic.
One of which that many people simply do not understand is homeopathy.
Homeopathy contains a lot of contradiction, and undefined reasoning which leaves it open for criticism surrounding its fundamentals.
This article will investigate homeopathy further.
What is homeopathy?
Homeopathy is a form of medical practice, which uses diluted preparations of various substances to treat a condition.
The underlying principle of homeopathy is “like cures like”. This is the idea that if a substance causes a certain reaction in the body, when this same substance is hyper-diluted, it will instead cause the opposite effect.
For example, coffee, which is a well-known plant that causes wakefulness, will have an opposite effect when hyper-diluted and can instead be used as a sleeping pill
This is an idea that completely contradicts the fundamentals of herbal medicine (both modern and traditional), as well as conventional medicine. This is because these medical systems use substances that exert an effect to counter the disease process taking place.
Another of the main principles of homeopathy is “the rule of infinitesimals”. This is the idea that the more diluted a preparation is, the more potent it is.
Many of these homeopathic preparations are extremely diluted to the point at which there is not even one single molecule (or atom for that matter) left from the original substance.
The preparations are "potentized" by shaking, which is said to make them even stronger. This can be done by tapping the preparation on a leather pad, or via a machine. Some homeopathic manufacturers advertise the extreme potency that can be achieved by using machines to "potentize" the homeopathic remedy.
Overall, homeopathy takes on a like cures like approach, using the "essence" of the original substance. This essence is thought to be "stored" in the memory of the water and delivered to the body via dropper doses, or by dropping the water onto a sugar pill and allowing it to evaporate off. The memory is suggested to be transferred onto the sugar pill from this.
Hyper-dilutions in homeopathy
Dilutions are represented with X or C.
X represents a dilution of 10, and C is 100. 6X would then represent a dilution of the original substance as 1 part substance, 10 parts water. The resulting solution is then diluted the same way, until this has been done 6 times.
This would mean that the final dilution represents a 1: 1 000 000 ratio of substance to water. This means in order to get 1 drop of the original substance, you would need 1 000 000 drops of the homeopathic remedy. This is equal to drinking about 33 L of the homeopathic remedy. Our stomachs only hold about 1 L so it is impossible to consume even a drops worth of the homeopathic source substance at any given time.
When you get into the C dilutions, things get even more interesting. 30C is a common dilution found in homeopathy. At a dilution this large, there would be one molecule of the original molecule for 10^60 molecules of water. This is an incredibly huge number.
There are an estimated 10^80 atoms contained within the entire universe.
It does indeed get worse, with the possibility of a 1M (1000C) dilutions. This dilution is extreme and impossible to imagine.
The argument homeopaths would make to this is that it is a fundamental principle of homeopathy that the more dilute it is, the more potent its action is.
When homeopathy was created, it was in a time before modern chemistry, physics and mathematics understood many of the things that are now common knowledge. These discoveries have direct contradictions to the homeopathic ideology.
Avogadro's limit for example, is the point in a dilution, at which a solution no longer has any molecules of the original substance. After this point it becomes a probability of molecules rather than a quantity. This number is 10^23. Far smaller than the common 30C dilution (10^60).
Samuel Hahnemann would not have been aware of this concept when he came up with the idea of homeopathy, and likely did not know that the solutions he was using actually contained not even a single molecule (or atom for that matter) of the original substance.
How does homeopathy work?
Homeopathy is suggested to work, as mentioned above as “like cures like”. By diluting the substances they are thought to cause a very small reaction in the body, which then causes a response greater than the trigger and results in an opposite effect.
Continuing with our coffee example, the dilute solution of a coffee homeopathic preparation causes a very miniscule "wakefulness-promoting" responses. When the body then responds to this stimulus, the response overpowers the original trigger, and therefore causes an opposite effect to cause sleepiness instead.
There are several major flaws with this theory.
First of all, what homeopathy is trying to suggest is a process called hormesis. This is the concept that a small amount of trigger substances, can coax a response from the body to a certain mechanism.
The problem however with homeopathy, is that in order to elicit this response, a small amount of a real substance is needed in order to exert these actions, which is in itself a provable, and reproducible process. Not only that, but hormesis is not a universal occurrence, and only happens in certain situations.
Homeopathy has had no such success in showing that these hyper dilutions exert in any way shape or form the same subtle coaxing of the bodies response processes.
Homeopathy is often suggested to work in the same way as a vaccine because of this effect. This again is not a valid comparison, because vaccines use real substances and have a measurable and well understood response within the body.
I must state that homeopathy cannot logically (or safely) be compared to vaccination.
Quantum Mechanics and Homeopathy
Homeopathic practitioners such as Rachel Roberts BSc from The School of Homeopathy (As seen in this video), suggests that “there are areas of quantum physics which can explain how a very highly diluted and shaken preparation can retain information from the original substance”.
This is definitely an interesting suggestion. I searched for deeper explanations as to what areas of quantum mechanics might be at play and endured many of the incredibly vague and pseudo-scientific videos and articles presented by individuals such as Dr Charlene Werner. Other videos submitted by individuals like Dr. Alex Tournier suggest mechanisms such as quantum coherence domains as seen here.
Could these suggestions involving quantum coherence domains, quantum entanglement, the memory capacity of water and water "clusters" have real world medical applications?
In order to inquire further, and get a more reliable opinion of what areas of physics might be at play, and what homeopathic supporters might actually be referring to, I consulted physicist Logan Cooke at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada.
Logan pointed out that quantum mechanics offers very little towards biological sciences, which work instead off of classical thermodynamics. Quantum mechanics involves forces that are simply much too small to have any relevance on the level of the organism.
He suggested that perhaps the closest thing homeopathy is trying to suggest is the idea of quantum entanglement.
A homeopath would argue that the water molecules have the ability to “remember” the interaction it had with the original substance.
Quantum entanglement does submit to the idea that water can be altered on a subatomic level by its interaction with anything it comes in contact with. As can anything and everything BY anything and everything. This can be related to the idea that the atoms involved have a "memory" of coming into contact with the other atom by forever being affected by it.
Ultimately this is irrelevant.
It is irrelevant because the changes suggested to occur are nothing special or fundamental to the atom's ability to interact with other atoms. Quantum mechanics deals with a world so small and insignificant, it can't reasonably be applied in the field of biological sciences which work by means of the much larger (but still on an atomic level) classical thermodynamics.
Could this be yet another aggressive oversimplification of physics as an attempt to explain magic?
Throughout researching this article, the misuse of the concepts involved with regards to quantum mechanics became apparent as a way to explain homeopathy.
Orac, from Respectful Insolence points out that "throwing around quantum mechanical terms willy-nilly" (as he calls it) is not a new tactic to remove reason from medical systems left outdated by actual science.
Sam Harris also touches on this in a conversation with Deepak Chopra after suggesting a similar round of "quantum willy nilly" at a debate at Cal Tech. His response is
"because quantum mechanics is spooky and difficult to understand, and because what your saying is spooky and difficult to understand, they must somehow be mutually supportive, which is fundamentally not true, they are arrived at completely different methodologies and ways of thinking and criteria of discursive evidence".
Learn more about Deepak Chopra here.
In my conversation with physicist, Logan Cooke, he also made a similar comment:
"The notion that such insignificant (and impossible) concentrations of chemicals having a measurable effect on the properties of water is extremely lacking in both theoretical and empirical evidence. Furthermore, the use of quantum mechanics as a possible explanation is based solely off of fundamental misunderstandings and misinterpretations of the actual science".
As Richard Dawkins suggests in a documentary film “enemies of reason” from the episode “homeopathy - Con or Cure”, he suggests that if he too was a practitioner of homeopathy and truly believed in the science, he would be expending significant amounts of effort to prove this was true and would then no doubt go on to win a Nobel prize for the fundamental breakthroughs that would need to happen in chemistry and physics for homeopathy to work as advertised.
Is There Any Real Evidence to Back-Up Homeopathy?
James Randi is a long time public skeptic of homeopathy, who is known for consuming what are supposedly fatal doses of homeopathic remedies live on stage to prove their ineffectiveness.
He has offered a 1 million dollar prize through his foundation; The James Randi Educational Foundation for anybody to come forward with high-quality evidence showing the effectiveness of homeopathy or other paranormal or supernatural phenomena using the scientific method.
Only one person has accepted that challenge, Sylvia Brown.
She took that challenge publicly on Larry King live and then never came forward again. That was 6 years ago and has blamed this on not being able to reach Randi.
Why is it that nobody has stepped up to claim the 1 million dollars by submitting their evidence for homeopathic effectiveness? After all, this evidence is constantly suggested to exist by homeopathic advocates.
There are a lot of respondents of homeopathy suggesting the evidence exists, and many cite this evidence in their products or recommendations. The fact is that the evidence these people are referring to mainly consists of very low-quality articles, and is generally not well accepted by anybody with knowledge on what makes a study credible. Again this is not a biased opinion, and is commonplace in the scientific community to refute poor studies and is not an attack on a particular medical system.
Many of the scientific articles involving homeopathy are highly biased, and the study methods are infamously reported to be of low quality and likely aimed at proving the study bias.
A meta-analysis of homeopathic studies and conventional medicine studies was published in the peer-reviewed journal Lancet in 2005. This meta-analysis was designed to identify and remove any biases from the results of the study.
They concluded that "Biases are present in placebo-controlled trials of both homeopathy and conventional medicine. When account was taken for these biases in the analysis, there was weak evidence for a specific effect of homeopathic remedies". They also stated that the findings were compatible with the notion that the effects of homeopathy are strictly placebo.
This problem of biased research results exist in conventional medicine as well as pointed out in the above-mentioned study. A famous case of this involves a series of studies out of Harvard in the 1960's which were skewed in research design to shift the blame of cardiovascular problems from sugar to fat.
These studies were poorly designed, and unscientific and were scrutinized heavily by the scientific community.
This is how scientific research needs to be, and keeps biased studies, and bogus research from reaching the public. This is the purpose of having the journals this research is published in being peer reviewed. It gives other experts in the field a chance to scrutinize any bias or other fundamental study design flaws before the information is spread across the internet. If (and when) they do make it past this point, it is well accepted for other people to critique this research.
Scientific studies surrounding poorly designed homeopathy research is not exempt from this concept.
Many homeopaths will argue that there is plenty of evidence in the fact that many people who come and see homeopathic doctors feel better. This is interesting to note, but cannot be considered evidence. Let's consider the complexities of the therapeutic process...
When a patient receives a treatment and improves, it is easy to link the improvement to the treatment.
In a perfect world this would indeed be the case every time. In real life, however, this is not how things work. Making assumptions such as this has been the bane of medicine for hundreds of years and tends to hold it back when there is no real evidence of benefit.
The disease process could have improved on its own accord, the human contact and attention that comes with meeting with a practitioner with a good attitude could have caused a change, or the patient's idea of a bodily response from the treatment (placebo effect) could have had an influence over health without any contribution from the therapeutic agent.
This is why assuming that the medicine has caused these effects and using this assumption as evidence is not adequate in the scientific community.
In the terms of homeopathy, there is certainly a lot more evidence towards placebo effect than anything else, and the benefits of the patient-practitioner relationship than there is evidence towards the efficacy of homeopathy.
Success stories are useful for developing a hypothesis to the test using the scientific method and are used throughout medicine as such but are not counted on as evidence for efficacy in their own right.
I looked for some of these articles, and one of the most commonly cited articles is this one article entitled "Towards a New Model of the Homeopathic Process Based on Quantum Field Theory".
This article does talk about many of the suggested quantum mechanics theories that are used to provide a mechanism of action for homeopathy but fails to address the fact that the information suggested here, though interesting and highly complex, are not relatable to life on a biological level.
Prometheus lays out the problem with this quite well in a blog post entitled "Quantum Noise".
Quantum entanglement occurs when two particles (usually photons) are emitted from an atom in a singlet (or neutral) state. Because of the conservation laws, the photons (for instance) will have the same polarization [the identical polarizations cancel out because the photons are heading in opposite directions – for a much better explanation, see Victor Stenger’s “The Unconscious Quantum”]. No matter how far they travel, these two photons will have the same polarization – they are considered to be “entangled”.
What entangled photons have to do with “quantum healing” or “remote viewing” or anything of that sort is unclear – and probably imaginary.
Again, none of this is actually relevant to medicine. Theorizing the existence of such a concept is interesting, but not at all relevant medically.
If homeopathy has no evidence, why is it so popular?
Hahnemann, created homeopathy in a time where it was commonplace to use other ineffective, and dangerous medicines such as blood-letting, and mercury. These treatments often caused much more harm than good and Hahnemann, as well as many others did not agree with this approach to medicine. The apparently safe homeopathic medicines were an attractive option.
Although blood letting, mercury poisoning, purging, and other poor attempts at medicine have been long abolished, they were a stimulus to the growth of homeopathy.
Over the course of about 100 years, homeopathic schools popped up all across North America.
As time went on, and science made several significant discoveries such as the development of chemistry, physics, and human biology, homeopathy no longer made much sense.
The practice took a significant hit, and homeopathic schools were either forced to adopt other modalities to stay afloat, or close altogether. The practice of homeopathy appeared to be in decline.
Currently, the practice is still around, and is mildly popular among certain circles. It is regulated by the FDA, and is found throughout pharmacies and other health food or natural health shops around the world.
Another positive attribute of homeopathic remedies is the lack of side effects.
In a world where people have become hyperconscious of the side effects of modern medicine, this has become a huge selling point. This of course is likely to be true since there are not only no indications of benefits, but there would subsequently be no negative actions either.
Throughout this article we have discussed some of the claims surrounding homeopathy and investigated them further. I have pointed out many of the fundamental flaws with the theories involved in this form of medicine.
This article is not intended to be a strike at those using or practicing homeopathy, but rather, an attempt to bring to light the inconsistencies involved with this long outdated and poorly evidenced form of medicine.
If there is something that I have identified incorrectly, or you either agree or disagree, please comment below, or share this article.
- Milgrom, L. R. (2006). Towards a New Model of the Homeopathic Process Based on Quantum Field Theory. Forsch Komplementmed, 13(3), 174-183. doi:10.1159/000093662
- Shang, A., Huwiler-Müntener, K., Nartey, L., Jüni, P., Dörig, S., Sterne, J. A., … Egger, M. (2005). Are the clinical effects of homoeopathy placebo effects? Comparative study of placebo-controlled trials of homoeopathy and allopathy. The Lancet, 366(9487), 726-732. doi:10.1016/s0140-6736(05)67177-2
- Farahmand, Y., Heidarnezhad, Z., Muminov, K., Heydar, F., & Hosseinirad, S. Z. (2014). Presentation Entanglemen States and its Application in Quantum Computation. Oriental Journal of Chemistry, 30(2), 821-826. doi:10.13005/ojc/300257