Most skeptics have a few real push-button issues. The ones whose practice absolutely infuriate us. For me, I have three: homeopathy, the anti-vaccine movement, and the 9/11 “Truthers”. Homeopathy and the anti-vax movement because I can see the body counts from them. The “Truthers” because their assertions degrade the heroism of the people involved and obscure the real lessons from the horrific day. I’ll discuss each of these at length in different blog posts. In this one, I’ll tackle homeopathy.
Many of the prominent science and skeptical blogs have done excellent takedowns of homeopathy. One that I like is Dr. Stephen Barrett’s in his Quackwatch blog. I would highly suggest reading his article. Here’s what I don’t think most people understand when it comes to homeopathy. Borrowing from Dr. Barrett:
Homeopathic products are made from minerals, botanical substances, and several other sources. If the original substance is soluble, one part is diluted with either nine or ninety-nine parts of distilled water and/or alcohol and shaken vigorously (succussed); if insoluble, it is finely ground and pulverized in similar proportions with powdered lactose (milk sugar). One part of the diluted medicine is then further diluted, and the process is repeated until the desired concentration is reached. Dilutions of 1 to 10 are designated by the Roman numeral X (1X = 1/10, 3X = 1/1,000, 6X = 1/1,000,000). Similarly, dilutions of 1 to 100 are designated by the Roman numeral C (1C = 1/100, 3C = 1/1,000,000, and so on). Most remedies today range from 6X to 30X, but products of 30C or more are marketed.
A 30X dilution means that the original substance has been diluted 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 times. Assuming that a cubic centimeter of water contains 15 drops, this number is greater than the number of drops of water that would fill a container more than 50 times the size of the Earth. Imagine placing a drop of red dye into such a container so that it disperses evenly. Homeopathy’s “law of infinitesimals” is the equivalent of saying that any drop of water subsequently removed from that container will possess an essence of redness. Robert L. Park, Ph.D., a prominent physicist who is executive director of The American Physical Society, has noted that since the least amount of a substance in a solution is one molecule, a 30C solution would have to have at least one molecule of the original substance dissolved in a minimum of 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 molecules of water. This would require a container more than 30,000,000,000 times the size of the Earth.
So, if there isn’t any of the original substance left, how is it supposed to provide a medicinal effect? The water or sugar pill will retain the “memory” of the substance. To put it bluntly, this is utter bullshit. Memory is a neurological function of a brain. Water is a chemical (H2O). It does not have a mind. It doesn’t even have a hive mind if lots of water is one place.
So why does this bother me so much? Granted, in most cases, homeopathy will do nothing to a human body – good or bad. A person taking most homeopathic remedies are doing little more than ingesting/applying water or sugar. The problem is that these remedies market themselves as viable alternatives to effective medicine. Consumers use these products instead of using proven medicines. The results can be disastrous and even lethal when people forgo proper medical treatment for these ineffectual “remedies.” What’s The Harm? is an excellent site for seeing the harm people have endured by following pseudoscience. Their homeopathy section gives many news articles of people who have suffered and/or died because they chose to take homeopathy over proven medicine.
Here’s where I break from many in the skeptical world. I don’t want to see these products banned. I hate them. I truly think that the corporations producing these remedies are acting negligently. In the end, it’s up to the individual to decide if they’re going to let themselves be swindled. Banning substances rarely works and rarely takes them off the market. It simply goes underground. The best that skeptics can do is educating the consumers and take all legal measures against the practitioners and manufacturers.