For a host of reasons which the NZ Skeptic will examine further in a later issue, the so-called “natural health” industry is enjoying a remarkable resurgence. One cannot refute the argument that we should take responsibility for our own health and that we should not expect modern medicine to provide on demand pills to cure all our ills, particularly those which are self-induced or the result of old age. Moderation in all things (including moderation) will generally help any of us to lead a vital and active life.
However, a host of charlatans have now hitched their star to this valid need to take some responsibility for our own health, and are busy peddling nostrums which are useless at best and harmful at worst. These new medical and psycho therapists follow the proven pattern of the Greenshirts by promoting fears and frights and then providing the cure to the fancied ills. Read any natural therapy propaganda and you would think that rather than being the best fed, healthiest and longest lived population that has ever lived, we are all being poisoned and driven to untimely deaths by a combination of conspiracy theories and the fruits of civilisation. It’s a dirty trick but it seems to work.
Just as people who don’t believe in astrology believe in it, so homeopathy in particular seems to have crossed the border from fringe medicine into widespread acceptance. A commitment to homeopathic practice is now presented as evidence that some natural healing clinic is legitimate rather than promoting plain quackery.
The best way to deal with this belief is to set down in print the principles of homeopathy as first espoused by its inventor Dr Hahnemann. Readers can then judge for themselves whether they are can seriously subscribe to such a treatment regime as we near the end of the twentieth century or whether they should laugh it off as voodoo magic in modern dress or drag.
Any medical historian will recognise that Dr Hahnemann got off to a good start. He developed his system towards the end of the eighteenth century at a time when a trip to your doctor was almost certain to make your condition worse and probably kill you. All of Louis XV’s brothers and sisters were killed by their doctors. Louis XV survived only because his nanny hid him whenever the doctors made a palace-call. In such dangerous times any system of treatment which genuinely did no harm was bound to look successful by comparison. If Louis XV’s nurse had been really smart she could have promoted a new medical regime called “underbed-therapy” or similar based on forcing the patient to lie under the bed for an hour at a time. After all, it had saved the life of a future king. The royals of Europe were a tight-knit club. Hahnemann’s success with the royal families of 18th century Europe is evidenced by the house of Windsor’s belief in homeopathy to this day.
If any of us had been alive as commoners in those times, we too would have been well advised to visit Dr Hahnemann rather that suffer exposure to the contemporary regimes of bleeding, emetics, enemas and other horrors. (Curiously, enemas, in the form of colonic irrigation, are making a natural therapy comeback. Learning to water-ski is probably just as effective and more fun.) However, modern medicine has made great strides and most of us expect some systematic diagnosis and intervention from the medical profession rather than a programme of benign neglect.
Here are the cardinal principles of homeopathy according to the man himself:
The Psora (Itch) and Vitalism
The psora is the sole, true and fundamental cause that produces all the other countless forms of disease — the long list which follows includes insanity, rickets, cancer and paralysis. Hahnemann believed that diseases represent a disturbance in the body’s ability to heal itself and that only a small stimulus is needed to begin the healing process. As a man of his time, he believed in the principle of vitalism, which held that life is a spiritual non-material process which can be influenced by dynamic forces such as magnetic influences, the moon and the tides, and so on. [Can they really teach this stuff in a Polytech?]
The Law of Similia
Hahnemann was led to the homeopathic principle after he took a dose of quinine and noticed that the effect of the quinine was similar to that of malaria. He was also drawing on the primitive monism of the time which held that “like is like”, (eating the heart for courage) “like makes like” (idolatry) and “like cures like” (snake-root was used for curing snake-bite). Hahnemann revived Paracelsus’s “Doctrine of Signatures” which declared that herbs would cure conditions associated with the anatomical parts they resembled. [Or this stuff too?] Surely any patient today would run out of the waiting room if a GP suggested such nonsense. But if patients buy into homeopathy they are buying into this whole set of beliefs.
The Law of Infinitesimal Potentising
This law holds that the smaller the dose of a medication, the more powerful its healing effects. Hahnemann taught that substances could be potentised (i.e. “their immaterial and spiritual powers released”) by sequential dilution of remedial agents by “succussion”, in which mixtures would be shaken “at least 40 times”, nine parts dumped and nine parts solvent added and shaken again. Hahnemann held that tapping on a leather pad or the heel of the hand would double the dilution — which is patent nonsense. [How do you present this in the class without bursting out laughing?] The laws of chemistry tell us that there is a limit to which a substance can be diluted without losing the original substance altogether. This limit, called Avogadro’s number, corresponds to “homeopathic potencies of 12C” or 1 part in 1024. At this dilution there is less than a 50% chance that even one molecule of the original active material remains. Hahnemann recognised this apparent anomaly but explained it away in metaphysical terms — i.e. by witchcraft.
So we find that Hahnemann’s texts recommended highly diluted coffee as a cure for “sleeplessness, digestive, urinary, respiratory and heart symptoms” and diluted tincture of tarantula (that’s right, the big hairy spider) to treat “mania, hyper-activity, chorea and septic outbreaks”. One suspects he was shrewd enough not to recommend highly diluted alcohol as the rapid route to drunkenness.
What all this means is that if you visit your pharmacist and buy a liquid homeopathic remedy, you are buying “diluted water”. If it comes in crystal form then the diluted water will have been dropped onto sugar crystals, and you are parting with your hard-earned cash for “evaporated diluted water”. We can see why there is a buck in it and why naturopaths are so keen on homeopathic remedies. Selling diluted water beats the hell out of spending millions of dollars on systematic research to find some effective pharmaceutical and then spending hundreds of millions on clinical trials and registration procedures around the world. Of course, such a “medicine” can do no harm and nine times out of ten the body truly does heal itself just as the naturopaths claim. Again the homeopaths keep well away from broken bones, severe bleeding, brain tumours, or raging infections where the patient demands real and immediate results.
The defenders of homeopathy argue that even though the whole system appears to contradict common sense (i.e. that a diluted scotch will be more intoxicating than a neat shot) there is evidence that the system works and that numerous publications endorse this efficacy. (John Eisen of the AIT Press quotes the famous 96 papers at every opportunity)
The most famous recent study which appeared to demonstrate an operative mechanism was a report by a French scientist working at that country’s prestigious INSRM institute. His paper claimed that high dilutions of substances in water left a “memory” which explained their “efficacy”. Subsequent investigations proved that the research, which was funded by a major manufacturer of homeopathic medicine, was “improperly carried out” and the scientist was subsequently suspended.
A 1991 survey of 107 controlled trials appearing in the 96 published reports (the list quoted by John Eisen) found that “the evidence of clinical trials is positive but not sufficient to draw definite conclusions because most trials are of low methodological quality and because of the unknown role of publication bias.” An earlier study (1984) also concluded “It is obvious from this review that despite much experimental and clinical work there is only little evidence to suggest that homeopathy is effective. This is because of bad design, execution, reporting, analysis and particularly the failure to repeat promising experimental work…”
In the tradition of scientific literature this is “damning with faint praise”. We should take of note of Thomas Paine’s famous question “Is it easier to believe that nature has gone out of her course or that a man would tell a lie?”
The NZ Skeptic is not suggesting that homeopathy be banned. But this short essay should encourage readers to ask themselves whether they should be tempted to buy overpriced dilute water — given that homeopathic theory would suggest that a quick dip in a spa pool should cure every disease known to man — or at least those of those who have dipped before you. And we should also ask if such mumbo jumbo can be taught in a tertiary class-room given that it cannot possibly be the subject of informed and critical debate. It is simply not possible to believe in modern physics and chemistry, or even the principles of mathematics, while believing in homeopathy. If the New Zealand Qualifications Authority decides to endorse the establishment of a School of Witchcraft, then homeopathy will have found a home, for that is where it belongs.