Confessions of a Quackbuster

This blog deals with healthcare consumer protection, and is therefore about quackery, healthfraud, chiropractic, and other forms of so-Called "Alternative" Medicine (sCAM).

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Homeopathy - Undiluted Tosh!

Daily Mail
12/04/05 - Health section

Homeopathy - Undiluted Tosh!

Witchdoctors have never been more popular. The Queen swears by them and even uses them for her sick horses. And witchcraft is one of the biggest growth industries in the world, worth more than £1billion a year in Britain alone.

We are talking, of course, about alternative medicine - and in particular homeopathy, which this week celebrates the 250th anniversary of the birth of its founder, Dr Samuel Hahnemann, a German physician who rebelled against the orthodox medicine of his day.

It comes at a time when distrust of modern medicine has never been higher.

Mainstream doctoring has been held to be at the root of a host of evils - from the supposed epidemic of autism to the dubious over-prescribing of myriad pills and potions with dangerous side-effects.

So is it any wonder that Dr Hahnemann is a hero to so many?

Hahnemann's theories - that very weak solutions of toxic substances could cure disease completely - changed the way many people thought about their bodies and their illnesses.


Despite an avalanche of scientific scorn in the centuries since his birth, homeopaths have thrived, promoting their tinctures which they claim will relieve symptoms or even cure them.

I am not a doctor, and hold no torch for any particular medical paradigm or practice, but I find this modern British faith in homeopathy extremely depressing.

It seems clear to me that the rise of the homeopath represents nothing less than an assault on the Age of Reason, the modern belief in scientific logic and rational thought which has dominated Western thinking since the days of Newton and Darwin.

This is not a popular view, and I realise that it will not resonate with many of our readers. But I believe the issues here are so important that both sides must be heard.

First, let's be clear about some terminology. There is no such thing as 'alternative medicine'. There is medicine which works, and medicine which does not. 'Medicine' which does not work is simply snake oil and fit only for the bin.

So where does homeopathy fit in and what do its practitioners claim?

In the late 18th Century, 'traditional' medicine was in a mess. After consultation with a 'doctor', patients - in reality victims - would be purged, burned, gassed and flayed in order to effect a cure. No wonder so many died.

Dr Hahnemann thought this was a nonsense and came up with a new theory. The principle of homeopathy is 'like cures like'; he reasoned that since some substances caused symptoms very similar to some common diseases, then maybe the body could be 'trained' to fight the original disease by taking these substances in very dilute form.

Harmless dilutions

To this end, he developed a system based on incredibly weak and harmless dilutions of known toxins. Give someone a dilute solution of deadly nightshade, for instance (which causes fever, headache and death when consumed) and the body would produce a sort of immune response curing a headache or fever.

We understand the mechanism for this, but there is no way such a dilute solution of arsenic can 'prime' the body to do anything.

And yet homeopaths believe that the more dilute the solution, the greater its power! Well, if they are right, just about everything we believe about the natural world must be wrong.

In fact, every single glass of water you drink will probably contain, or has had disolved in it, at least one atom or molecule of every chemical known to man.

So if homeopathy works the way homeopaths say it works then every glass of water should contain a homeopathic 'cure' for every disease under the sun!

No one would have any problem with homeopathy if it worked, but it does not.

A miracle

Of course, there have been thousands of anecdotal cases in which the homeopath has seemingly wrought a miracle. People have had a lifetime of chronic pain ended with the swig of a tincture of belladonna. Millions swear by their Bach Flower Remedies and Arnica.

But that does not mean homeopathy is responsible. It is one of the great truisms of medicine that with any relatively minor illness, doing nothing will usually be 100 per cent effective.

Our bodies possess a pretty formidable machine in the immune system, honed over millions of years of evolution to cope with whatever the world throws at us.

Homeopathy - effectively doing nothing - will of course 'work' most of the time if we have a functioning immune system.

Modern medicine (and a scientific understanding of disease and how our bodies work) is responsible for the fact that life expectancy in the West is now in the high 70s, rather than in the 30s and 40s of 150 years ago.

Modern medicine is the reason why diseases such as malaria, diphtheria, typhoid and plague are now rarities in the developed world.

Modern medicine is the reason surgery is no longer torture, and why parents no longer have to come to terms with the fact that half their children will be dead by the age of five.

Modern medicine

Despite all this, there are still millions of people who refuse to believe in the awesome advantages modern medicine has given us.

They look back to a mythical golden age, before 'chemicals' corrupted our bodies and evil boffins worked their magic upon us for profit and glory.

There have been attempts to 'prove' that homeopathy works. Various scientists have attempted to show that incredibly dilute solutions can have an effect, but the general attitude is one of scorn.

The vast majority of doctors and researchers believe homeopathy is simply wishful thinking.

Nevertheless, alternative medicine marches on. And this is why I believe homeopathy represents such a great step backwards.

Its on-going success tells us that we are uncomfortable with the age of enlightenment and prefer to hark back to a darker era when we believed in witchcraft and superstition.

By all means if you have a headache or feel low, go to the homeopath. The worst thing that will happen is that you will waste money on distilled water.

But if you have something more serious - a broken leg, a heart attack or cancer, go orthodox. After all, it must say something that homeopathic hospitals rarely have a casualty department.

©2005 Associated New Media